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The Best Thai Food in America?

Michael Babcock, October 15th, 2011

A Most Satisfying Meal!

To find the absolute best Thai meal in America I recommend the Advanced Thai cooking classes of Kasma Loha-unchit in Oakland, California. Here, you will find authentic flavors and tastes as well as Thai dishes that you’ll be unable to find elsewhere once you leave Thailand. Recently at one of her classes I had a meal that was very nearly a transcendental experience. Here is my blog on that meal.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Plate of Thai Food

A yummy Thai meal

Why is Thai food so popular? I’ve long thought (and read this echoed elsewhere) that Thai food is so good because it contains all of the four major flavor groupings, salty, sour, sweet and spicy hot, sometimes in one dish. (The bitter taste is also found but is less prevalent.) To eat a well-prepared Thai meal is to light up every taste bud on the tongue and palate. The food is also on the light (as opposed to heavy) side so you walk away from the table with a well-gruntled feeling.

We usually have at least one person taking every class because he or she traveled to Thailand, loved the food there and couldn’t find food to match it here in the States: they come to learn how to make those great flavors themselves. Many students tell us that after taking the classes they can no longer eat in Thai restaurants back home: they are disapponted by meals that emphasize the sweet and the rich, with not enough spicy-hot and or sour flavors.

Kasma's Cooking Class

Students preparing Thai food

Kasma’s food from the first Beginning class (and everyone starts with Beginning) is outstanding; the great food is why our Advanced classes are always waiting list only. It’s in the Advanced classes that you get to really explore the variety and depth of Thai food. It’s particularly in the Advanced classes that you get to experience many of the 95% of Thai dishes that Kasma estimates are never found on Stateside Thai restaurant menus. Kasma has 8 Advanced evening series and 4 weeklong Advanced classes. Once you’ve taken all of the classes Kasma offers, you’ll have well over 200 Thai dishes, many seldom found outside of Thailand.

What is my criteria for a great Thai meal? It’s understood that every taste bud will be lit up and dancing. There has to be a variety of dishes: some spicy, some not, different dishes accenting a different flavor or different type of food. Most of all, that I look for is a quality of amazement and regret: amazement comes from taking that first taste of a dish and being delighted at all of the flavors; and regret from the fact that everything is so good, there’s no way to eat as much of it as you’d like.

I’ve had great meals in many resaturants in Thailand, such as Ruen Mai in Krabi or My Choice in Bangkok. The only place I’ve had a great Thai meal in the U.S. has been at home, often at the end of an Advanced cooking class.

The Meal, Weeklong Advanced Set D, Day 2

I could have gladly made a meal of any single dish in the meal. (In the evening classes there are only 4 or 5 dishes.)


Cha-om

Stir-fried Cha-om

Stir-Fried Cha-om with Bean Thread and Eggs  (Cha-om Pad Woon Sen Kai):  This dish was actually served as an appetizer; it can also easily by served as a one-dish meal. This summer Kasma and I have eaten this dish for lunch once or twice a week. Cha-om is part of the acacia family; in this dish the tender leaves are stripped from the stem and then stir-fried with garlic, bean thread noodles and egg and seasoned with fish sauce and white pepper. It has a unique and alluring flavor and with the noodles and egg is a satisfying treat.

To find out more about cha-om, see Kasma’s blog Cha-om – A Delicious and Nutritious Tropical Acacia. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can often find it, especially during the summer months, at Sontepheap Market on International Boulevard in Oakland.


Wilted Green Salad

Wilted Green Salad

Wilted Greens Salad with Coconut-Lime Chilli Sauce, Fried Chinese Sausage, Crisped Garlic and Crisped Shallots (Yam Dtam Leung): Kasma first tasted this salad at the restaurant Bai Fern in Mae Hong Son. As with many of her recipes, she came up with her own version when she returned home. This salad has to be eaten to be believed – there is so much going on in the dish. Although Kasma has tried making it with spinach leaves, to experience it at its best you must have dtam leung greens. In the notes to her recipe for the class, Kasma says: “Dtam leung is a vine that grows readily during the rainy season throughout tropical Southeast Asia. Since its leaves look like ivy and the mature vines bear small gourd-like fruits, its common English name is ‘ivy gourd.'” In this salad, the tender leaves are blanched. We are fortunate to be able to get this vegetable on occasion at Sontepheap Market on International Boulevard in Oakland.

The dish is completed with small pieces of Chinese sausage, which adds a meaty, sweetness to the dish, a small amount of carrots for texture, thin rounds of green onions, shallots and a few peanuts. The sauce, made from fish sauce, lime juice, coconut cream, sugar and chillies, is equally salty and sour with a little background sweetness. It is topped with crisp-fried garlic and crisp-fried shallots.

The dish is a wonder of tastes – at one time you’ll get the sweetness from the sausage, then the sourness takes over with a bit of chilli heat. Different flavors come up: now coconut, now sausage, now the green, now everything’s blended together. It’s a wonder of textures – from the blanched vegetable, to the occasional carrot to the crispy shallots and chillies. I swear, I could have eaten the whole plate by myself! Except, that would have left no room for other equally delicious dishes.


Thai Muslim Goat Curry

Thai Muslim Goat Curry

Thai Muslim Goat Curry (Gkaeng Ped Pae): Goat curry is not your usual Thai dish. Goat, in Thailand, is eaten mainly by the Muslim population to the south. The first time I had goat curry was when we were snorkeling in Krabi province on a long-tail boat. The boat driver’s wife always provided lunch and one year Kasma asked if she could get goat. As it turned out, we had to buy the whole goat but it provided three meals worth of delicious food, including a goat curry.

This recipe makes the curry paste from scratch, pounded in a mortar and pestle, with the many of the usual ingredients: dried red chillies, salt, lemon grass, galanga, krachai (or gkrachai), turmeric, garlic, shallots and kapi (shrimp paste). It uses coconut milk (not all Thai curries do, see Kasma’s blog on Thai Curries – Gkaeng (or Gaeng).) It’s further seasoned with toasted coriander and cumin seeds and in addition to the goat meat includes pea eggplants, providing a bit of the bitter taste.

Kasma uses the goat as they do in Thailand, meat cut with the bone. It makes for a tastier, thicker and healthier curry.

People sometimes complain that goat has a strong taste: in this dish, it is not overpowering and blends in seamlessly with the somewhat spicy curry paste. A delicious dish.


Crispy Fried Catfish

Crispy Fried Catfish

Crispy Fried Catfish Coated with Red Curry Sauce (Pad Ped Bplah Doog Tawd Gkrawp):
This dish actually was in one of the very first advanced classes I took from Kasma back in the early 90’s. Because the evening classes are somewhat different than the weeklong classes, it just worked out that this dish ended up in her 4th advanced weeklong class.

In this dish, the catfish is fried in chunks until it is nice and crispy. Then the curry paste (which has 17 ingredients in it) is fried in a bit of coconut cream (1/2 to 1 cup of cream only for 2 pounds of fish), then thickened, used to just coat the fried catfish pieces and tossed with kaffir lime slivers, some krachai (or gkrachai) and young green peppercorns. There’s really no sauce to speak of – just the coated fish with all of the intense flavors from the curry paste and herbs.

Do click on the picture above to see a larger version.


Stir-Fried Prawns

Stir-Fried Prawns

Stir-Fried Prawns with Hot Garlic-Pepper Sauce (Gkoong Pad Gkratiem Prikthai): A deceptively simple group of ingredients, succulent prawns are mostly cooked, and then finished off in a sauce made from a paste made from garlic and fresh ground white peppercorns, Sriacha chilli sauce, fish sauce, thin soy sauce, vinegar and salt. This dish is made by the combination of flavors, the pungent pepper, the bright garlic and the salty-sour-just-a-bit-sweet sauce. Made right, the combination lights up your entire palate.


Stir-Fried Pork Belly

Stir-Fried Pork Belly

Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Fermented Tofu Sauce and Thai Chillies (Moo Sahm Chan Pad Dtow Hoo Yee): I have saved the best for last. Although we often joke than my list of top 5 Thai dishes has about 20 dishes on it, this is currently at the top of the list.

Probably more of a Chinese dish than Thai, it’s another hard dish to describe unless you’ve tried fermented tofu; in addition, this uses red fermented tofu rather than the more usual plain kind; the red color comes from wine. Fermented tofu is said to be an acquired taste: this was true for me: the first time I was offered fermented tofu I couldn’t eat it. Now, it’s one of my favorite things: it’s great in congee (jook). In this dish it is combined with another of my favorite foods: skin-on pork belly. Pork belly is the part of the pig used to make bacon; Asians often leave the skin on, providing another chewy texture to contrast with the layers of meat and fat.

The dish also contains chopped garlic, garlic cloves in large pieces, Thai chillies and some of the brine from red fermented tofu. The result is delicious, chewy, slightly sour chunks of multi-textured pork belly with the occasional chunk of garlic and Thai chilli as accents. Heavenly.

I first had this dish at our favorite Krabi restaurant, Ruen Mai. They make it slightly different: they deep fry the pork belly first to give it a bit of a crust. I prefer Kasma’s version.


 
Cassava Custard

Cassava Custard

Cassava Custard Topped with Coconut Cream (Dtakoh Man Sambpalang): This is more of a snack than what most people would consider a dessert. It’s an eggless cassava custard with a coconut cream topping. All that’s needed after such a delicious and complete meal is just a square to provide a bit of sweetness along with a bit of coconut to smooth away any residual heat.

You might enjoy my blog on
Thai Sweet Tracks – Kanom Wahn.

The Meal Summed Up

This meal is much more than the sum of it’s parts. I can single out one dish or another but the result was a meal that memory is a movement from one delicious taste, one delicious dish, to another. It’s one of those meals you wish would not end.

If there’s another place in America to get a meal like this, I have not come across it!

We recently blogged on our Weeklong Thai Cooking Classes.


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You can, of course, argue that I’m biased; after all, I’m married to Kasma. On the other hand, this makes me very well qualified on the subject as well, at least for a fahrang (the Thai word for a Caucasian). I’ve traveled to Thailand every year since I got together with Kasma in 1992. I’ve been all over the Kingdom and eaten in great Thai restaurants all over Thailand. I’ve gotten to listen to Kasma talk about her passion, Thai Food, at home, in restaurants in Thailand and sitting on the living room couch.

Menu for Weeklong Intensive D — Day 2

  • Stir-Fried Cha-om with Bean Thread and Eggs  (Cha-om Pad Woon Sen Kai) 
  • Wilted Greens Salad with Coconut-Lime Chilli Sauce, Fried Chinese Sausage, Crisped Garlic and Crisped Shallots (Yam Dtam Leung)
  • Sour Chopped Pork Salad with Slivered Ginger, Pork Skin and Fried Peanuts (Naem Sod)
  • Thai Muslim Goat Curry (Gkaeng Ped Pae)
  • Crispy Fried Catfish Coated with Red Curry Sauce (Pad Ped Bplah Doog Tawd Gkrawp)
  • Stir-Fried Prawns with Hot Garlic-Pepper Sauce (Gkoong Pad Gkratiem Prikthai)
  • Stir-Fried Pork Belly with Fermented Tofu Sauce and Thai Chillies (Moo Sahm Chan Pad Dtow Hoo Yee)
  • Cassava Custard Topped with Coconut Cream (Dtakoh Man Sambpalang) 

Written by Michael Babcock October, 2011

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One Response to “The Best Thai Food in America?”

  1. […] 2 of the Weeklong Advanced Thai Cooking Class 2D: I’ve previously blogged on this class in The Best Thai Food in America?. I really should remove that question mark. Also, three of the dishes are in my blog from October […]

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