Demystified Thai

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a breezy, cool afternoon, serious students of Thai cookery jammed the patio of Jet Tila's home in Cheviot Hills.

Tila (that's short for Tilakamonkul) had just started monthly Thai cooking classes. It's good for his business--he owns the Bangkok Market in Los Angeles--and it obviously meets a need. More people signed up than the 15 he had anticipated. "The way the classes are filling up, I might do two a month," he said.

The mood was closer to a dinner party than to a classroom. The group spread out among tables set with white cloths, dinner plates and cutlery--no tiny paper cups with meager samples for this crowd. There were even seconds on some dishes, as well as jasmine rice as an accompaniment and beverages. No buffet line either. Tila had plenty of help to serve each table, provide fresh plates as needed and refill drinks.

"Five to 10 years ago, people would be sitting here, saying, 'What is all this stuff?' " Tila said, pointing to Thai ingredients displayed in big baskets. That's no longer true now that essentials like lemon grass and fish sauce have made their way into supermarkets.

Tila lifted a large, gnarled piece of galangal, then lemon grass, kaffir (Thai) lime leaves, a banana blossom, Thai and Chinese eggplants, a young green papaya and other fresh components that have crept from Thai recipes into contemporary fusion cuisine.

Dark and sweet soy sauces, fish sauce, coarsely ground dried red Thai chiles, salted turnip, bottled tamarind paste and chile paste with soybean oil nestled in another basket. "If you are cooking Thai food, try to stay with Thai ingredients," Tila said.

The day's menu included two appetizers and two main courses, with an eating break after the appetizer demonstration. Tila apologized in case his program seemed elementary. But apologies weren't necessary. There was lots to learn, the food was terrific and Tila made easy work of dishes that one would expect to be complicated.

Using the recipes as foundation stones, he explained how to alter them with a change of ingredients or proportions and how to modify them for vegetarians.

He started with hot and sour tom yum soup, based on Thai-style chicken stock seasoned with lemon grass, galangal and kaffir (Thai) lime leaves. What gives the soup its slightly oily, reddened look is chile paste with soybean oil. The paste contains sugar, tamarind, garlic, shallots, dried shrimp and other ingredients but only a small amount of chile, so it is not very hot. Tila finished the soup in no time and exclaimed, "Believe it or not, that's all tom yum is."

Thai stick, which Tila calls "knickknack food," is a secret family recipe, and Tila cautioned his audience not to tell that he had revealed it. Of course, this was all in fun, and the recipe was printed along with the others handed out to the group.

The stick is a bamboo skewer impaled with a single shrimp, which is then wrapped in fresh noodle strands and deep-fried. The noodles become puffed and crisp while the shrimp remains tender. One dips this into a sweet-sour sauce that is crunchy with crushed peanuts and pepped up with ground chiles. Ordinarily, the sticks are an appetizer. For a main dish, Tila would remove the shrimp bundles from the skewers, slice them like sushi rolls and arrange them on a pool of the sauce.

After the eating break, Tila started in on pad Thai: "The most popular Thai noodle dish in the world," he said proudly. He has simplified the procedure to make it exceptionally clear and easy. The recipe is based on dried rice noodles, chicken, shrimp and baked tofu, stirred with a tangy blend of fish sauce, tamarind paste, lime juice, vinegar and sugar. Tila adds paprika for cheerful color. And he garnishes the plate with red chile and green onion flowers, bean sprouts and peanuts. "Demystified pad Thai--right there," he said, holding the noodles aloft.

Moving on to pad krapow, a stir-fry of chicken and basil, Tila pondered how much hot chile to add. "Are you guys brush fire or four-alarm fire?" he asked, then put in enough chiles to start some people coughing.

After completing the dish, he turned the wok over to students and guided them through the steps. "I really like people to get a hands-on approach," he said. "It makes them more comfortable learning to cook Thai." Their efforts turned out so well that Tila could take pride in his teaching ability. "I have a lot of fun doing it," he said. "My goal is to simplify Thai food."

Tila has a cooking class hotline at (310) 355-8866. His e-mail address is thai1@aol.com.

Pad Krapow

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

Instead of ground chicken, you can use diced chicken, diced pork, shrimp or even tofu.

2 to 3 tablespoons oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 to 4 large serrano chiles, thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups ground chicken

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce

3 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon chile paste in soybean oil

1 1/2 cups sliced white onions

1/2 cup sliced green bell pepper

1 cup Thai basil leaves

1 teaspoon white pepper

* Heat wok over high heat. Add oil, garlic and chiles and cook until garlic begins to brown, about 30 seconds. Add chicken and cook, stirring, until chicken begins to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add dark and sweet soy sauces and fish sauce and stir-fry until liquid is reduced by 1/2, about 3 minutes. Stir in chile paste. Add onions and bell pepper and cook until chicken is cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in basil leaves, then add pepper and stir until combined. Serve with rice.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings without rice: 107 calories; 892 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.37 gram fiber.

Thai Chicken Broth

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

1 chicken carcass

8 to 10 cups water

3/4 to 1 cup thinly sliced galangal

6 stalks lemon grass, lower thick portion only, pounded

10 kaffir (Thai) lime leaves

* Place chicken carcass in Dutch oven. Add water, galangal and lemon grass. Roll lime leaves and crush lightly by hand, then add to pan. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30 to 45 minutes. Strain.

6 cups. Each cup: 20 calories; 580 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Pad Thai

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

To make the dish spicy, add a dash of crushed dried chiles.

1 (14-ounce) package medium dried rice noodles

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons bottled tamarind paste

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons oil

3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 1/2 tablespoons packaged salted turnip

1/4 cup dried shrimp

1/2 cup sliced baked tofu

1/2 cup (1-inch lengths) chicken

2 eggs

8 shrimp, peeled and cleaned

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 cup green onions, cut into 2-inch strips, or garlic chives

1/4 cup chopped dry-roasted unsalted peanuts

1 cup bean sprouts

* Soak noodles in water to cover 1 hour. Drain well before using.

* Stir together fish sauce, tamarind paste, lime juice, vinegar and sugar. Set aside.

* Heat wok over high heat. Add oil and coat pan completely. When pan starts to smoke, add garlic and stir 5 seconds. Add turnip, dried shrimp and tofu and stir-fry until they begin to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Add chicken pieces and stir-fry until no longer pink, 1 to 2 minutes.

* Push ingredients in wok to side and let oil settle in center of pan. Crack eggs into pan, making sure to break yolks. Lightly scramble until half-cooked, about 30 seconds. Combine with remaining cooked ingredients in pan.

* Add shrimp and cook until chicken and shrimp are medium done, about 1 minute. Add 3 cups drained noodles and cook 15 seconds. Add reserved sauce mixture and paprika and fold together until paprika evenly colors noodles and all liquid is absorbed, about 2 minutes.

* Place green onions in center of noodles, then spoon some noodles over green onions to cover and let steam 30 seconds. Stir in 3 tablespoons peanuts. Transfer to serving plate and garnish with bean sprouts and remaining peanuts.

4 servings. Each serving: 612 calories; 458 mg sodium; 171 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 93 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 0.94 gram fiber..

Thai Stick

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 30 minutes

A bottled sweet Thai chile sauce can also be used for dipping the sticks. Tila recommends the Kim Tar brand of fresh egg noodles. The Thai ground chiles are more coarsely ground than regular chili powder and are available at Bangkok Market in Los Angeles.

DIPPING SAUCE

1/2 cup vinegar

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup crushed dry-roasted unsalted peanuts

1 tablespoon Thai ground dried red chiles

Salt

* Heat vinegar over medium heat until it almost comes to boil. Add sugar and boil until mixture thickens, 3 to 4 minutes. Add peanuts, ground chiles and salt to taste. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Makes about 1 cup.

SHRIMP

1/4 pound shrimp

2 egg whites

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon rice flour

Salt

White pepper

6 to 8 bamboo skewers

1 (16-ounce) package fresh egg noodles

Oil

* Peel and clean shrimp, leaving on tail, then butterfly.

* Combine egg whites, sesame oil, rice flour and salt and white pepper to taste. Add to shrimp, tossing to coat, and marinate at least 30 minutes.

* Thread each shrimp on 8-inch bamboo skewer, starting from tail end. Loosely wrap each shrimp with 6 to 8 noodles. Deep fry over medium heat until golden brown, about 2 minutes, turning to help noodles expand. Serve with Dipping Sauce.

6 to 8 servings. Each of 8 servings with 1 tablespoon Dipping Sauce: 388 calories; 111 mg sodium; 75 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 56 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.51 gram fiber.

Tom Yum Soup

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 15 minutes * Low-Fat

Tila suggests varying the soup by adding other seafood or vegetables such as bamboo shoots and baby corn. For a main dish, he adds ramen or other noodles.

4 cups Thai Chicken Broth

1/2 cup peeled shrimp

1 (15-ounce) can straw mushrooms, drained and rinsed

6 to 8 roasted dried Thai chiles

3 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoons chile paste in soybean oil

2 to 4 kaffir (Thai) lime leaves

Cilantro sprigs

* Bring Thai Chicken Broth to simmer over medium-high heat in large pot. Add shrimp, mushrooms and chiles and cook until shrimp turn pink, about 1 minute. Stir in fish sauce, lime juice and chile paste. Garnish with lime leaves and cilantro.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings: 76 calories; 1,089 mg sodium; 22 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.59 gram fiber.

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