She's turned the ground meat dish into a chicken salad crunchy with waterchestnuts, spiked with ginger-lime sauce and served in a lettuce leaf (at top). Wouldn't that be cool for a poolside lunch, or anywhere when the temperature soars?
The recipe, Chiang Mai Chicken in Lettuce Cups, is in her book, "Everyday Thai Cooking" (Tuttle: $24.95). And it's easy, as she showed the other day in a cooking demo at Melissa's/World Variety Produce (above). The demo took place there, because Melissa's distributes the ingredients needed for Thai recipes, including lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric, Thai basil and Thai chiles.
Chin's Chinese heritage made her a natural for cooking Thai, which is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine. As a caterer, she specialized in Asian dishes, which you'll also find on her blog, The Sweet and Sour Chronicles.
"Everyday Thai" (above) is not another basic Thai cookbook, but a lively and personal account of the way Chin cooks. Her recipes are oriented toward quick and easy food for all tastes including kids, and she won't scold if you subtitute brown sugar for palm sugar and a skillet for a wok.
Here is how she makes the chicken. Beneath it in the top photo is a glimpse of her Thai steak salad, another recipe to rely on in hot weather.
CHIANG MAI CHICKEN IN LETTUCE CUPS
From "Everyday Thai Cooking"
2 tablespoons oil
2 teaspoons minced galangal or gingerroot
1 clove garlic, minced
1 fresh red or green chile, preferably Thai, finely sliced
1/2 pound ground chicken
1/2 cup chopped canned water chestnuts, rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon finely chopped green onion, white and green parts
1 tablespoon minced lemongrass
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
8 large butter lettuce leaves
Ginger Lime Dipping Sauce, see below
Heat oil in a wok or skillet on moderately high heat. Add galangal, garlic and chile and stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground chicken and stir-fry for 4 minutes. Add water chestnuts and stir-fry for 2 minutes.
Add cilantro, green onion, lemongrass, fish sauce and red pepper and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving bowl. Serve with lettuce leaves and Ginger Lime Dipping Sauce, allowing guests to form their own wraps.
Makes 4 appetizer servings.
GINGER LIME DIPPING SAUCE
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon peeled and minced gingerroot
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon rice vinegar or white vinegar
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 fresh hot red or green pepper, preferably Thai, deseeded and finely sliced
Bring sugar and water to a boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cool slightly. Mix 1/4 cup of the syrup with the ginger, lime juice, vinegar, fish sauce and chile in a small bowl. Transfer to a small serving bowl. Discard the remaining syrup.
Makes about 2/3 cup.
Don't worry, this won't affect bargain Thai lunches. It's a push toward high-end Thai dining that will incorporate what the Thais are renowned for--brilliant flavors, fresh, aromatic ingredients and artistic presentation that goes beyond a carved carrot or frilly green onion.
Here's an example--the seafood mixture called hor mok, tucked into a deep-fried basket crafted from a sheer rice wrapper and accompanied by a little pot of fresh pineapple and red pepper sauce. The hor mok includes steamed fresh crab meat along with minced prawns and chicken.
Here, an upscale diner's favorite, rare duck breast, has been tossed with cherry tomatoes, Thai chiles, onions and lychees in a sauce that includes orange and tamarind juices and palm sugar. That's a smear of raspberry puree on the plate.
These were a few of the Thai dishes covered in a series of classes arranged last week by the Royal Thai Consulate General in partnership with Le Cordon Bleu Culinary College in Pasadena.
The hands-on sessions drew chefs, restaurant owners, culinary instructors and students--people who will influence what we eat in the future. The classes were open to the public, too. If you missed out, keep posted for next year's series.
The teachers were Nooror Somany-Steppe (at the top), who is founding partner and director of the Blue Elephant restaurants, an international chain headquartered in Bangkok, and her daughter Sandra Steppe.
They brought more than 300 pounds of ingredients and equipment from Thailand, including some of those above, in order to present the food as accurately as possible. "We are here to make Americans feel that Thai food is the best food in the world," said Steppe, who spoke as her mother concentrated on cooking.
If they have any criticism, it is that Thai food in America is too sweet. To make sure flavors were properly balanced, they tasted repeatedly as each dish was prepared, adjusting with pinches of this or that. They showed that Thai cooking is a lively process, not a standardized procedure.
Never substitute gingerroot for galingal, which has a different aroma and flavor (galingal is the knobby tuber at the left in the basket above). Don't use turmeric powder instead of fresh turmeric (at right in the basket). And you won't necessarily get a perfect result if you add the amount of coconut milk specified in a recipe. It could be too strong, and you would then have to dilute it.
If using canned curry paste, work in fresh ingredients such as onion and garlic. And be aware that an ingredient is not always the same. The fresh pineapple that Somany-Steppe used for the hor mok sauce was so sweet it had to be balanced with extra vinegar.
On view at the classes were the Blue Elephant line of sauces and curry pastes made according to Somany-Steppe's standards. They're pricey because she puts in choice ingredients such as Thai-grown garlic, which is finer and stronger than cheaper Chinese garlic, she said. You can check them out online at Amazon.
Students learned how to pound their own green curry paste for dishes such as green curry with prawns (above). At the Blue Elephant, the curry is served with roti. You could also serve it with pasta, Somany-Steppe said, turning it into a Thai noodle dish.
GREEN CURRY WITH PRAWNS
From Chef Nooror Somany Steppe and the Blue Elephant restaurants
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons green curry paste
1/4 teaspoon ground roasted coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds
1 cup coconut milk
About 1/3 cup peeled, deveined prawns (shrimp)
2 round Thai eggplants, quartered
10 pea-sized Thai eggplants
1 1/2 teaspoons palm sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 fresh mild red chile, seeded and sliced
1 kaffir lime leaf, torn into small pieces
10 leaves sweet basil
Red chile slices for garnish
Coconut cream for garnish
Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the green curry paste, coriander and cumin seeds and stir-fry until aromatic.
Add a spoonful of coconut milk and simmer until the oil is extracted. Add two more scoops of cocomut milk and simmer for a few minutes.
Add the prawns and remaining coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add the eggplants and simmer until cooked through. Season with palm sugar and fish sauce. Add the red chile, kaffir lime leaf and basil and stir gently.
Remove from heat and transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with a strip of coconut cream across the top and red chile slices.
Makes about 2 servings.
But why tamper with Thai food, which is perfect as is? What makes a difference in this case is that the innovator is thoroughly Thai, born into the royal family and a celebrity chef. In other words, he knows his stuff from the ground up.
He's Chef McDang (that's a nom de cuisine. His real name is ML Sirichalerm Svasti). And traditional Thai food is what he lectures on when Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs sends him on an annual tour of Le Cordon Bleu culinary schools in the United States.
This year, Chef McDang gave public lectures for the first time. Anyone who really listened to what he said at Thailand Plaza Restaurant in Hollywood should now be able to cook Thai without a recipe. That's how organized and complete his presentation was.
But the dishes he demonstrated showed his new idea, which is to present Thai food in courses--"like French food," he said, not in communal plates and without rice.
This breaks with Thai custom, which is to eat together, sharing dishes that are served all at once. And rice is so fundamental that to find out if someone has eaten, you ask, "have you eaten rice?"
In traditional Thai cookery, only flavorless oil is used, never "smelly" oils, he had said. He topped the timbale with coconut cream and flying fish roe and scattered over the plate finely diced red, green and yellow sweet peppers.
Even more olive oil went over tuna carpaccio with larb dressing (at top), and micro greens joined typical larb additions such as green onions, shallots, sawtooth herb and mint leaves.
What all this is leading up to is a book, "Modern Thai Cuisine," due out when Chef McDang has time to finish it.
His prior book, "The Principles of Thai Cookery," is based on his Cordon Bleu lectures. The chef published that book himself, because he's so dedicated to helping people get it right.
200 grams (about 1/2 pound) ripe mango meat, peeled and diced small
100 grams (about 1/4 pound) tomato, peeled, seeded and diced small
100 grams (about 1/4 pound) onion, peeled and diced small
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon chopped fresh Thai chiles
Granulated or brown sugar to taste
Mix the mango, tomato, onion, cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce and chiles in a bowl. Taste and add sugar so that the salsa is equally balanced between sweet, sour and saltiness.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
I came across it years ago in Chiang Mai and was enchanted by its sweet spiciness and flavors that seemed more Indian than Thai, although it is said to come from Burma.
A Chiang Mai cookbook had the recipe, but I couldn't get the hung lay curry paste and powder that it called for at home in Los Angeles. A couple of restaurants here serve hung lay, but I wanted to turn it into my own signature dish.
Flash forward 15 years, and I return to Chiang Mai and load up on hung lay seasonings at the Warorot Market, a huge place where you can find anything from prepackaged food offerings for monks to spicy northern sausages, dried longans, typical sweets and so much more that it would take hours to explore its many stalls.
Home again, I tried out the spices, using a recipe from what I thought was an authoritative source, a Chiang Mai cooking school. The curry did not turn out well. A Thai friend said she had never tasted hung lay like mine, and that was not a compliment.
A few months later, I went back to the north, this time to Chiang Rai. And there, at last, I learned to make delicious hung lay curry, just like the locals.
This happened at Suanthip Vana Resort, where a Thai friend suggested that I stay.
Located about 45 minutes from Chiang Rai city, Suanthip (right) is gorgeous, with acres of gardens, sweeping views of rice fields and Karen style cottages on stilts that are stunningly luxurious. There's nothing like soaking outdoors in a handmade teak tub in your own bathroom/garden.
The Karens live mostly in Myanmar (Burma) but have a few villages in northwestern Thailand. Judging by my room, the walls of their houses are made of rice straw mixed with clay, sand and mud, but I doubt that they have Suanthip's beautifully polished teak floors. It felt good to walk barefoot on the smooth, warm, resilient surface.
Natural breezes kept the room so cool that I didn't need air conditioning or a fan, but I did have to pull up a quilt at night.
In the morning, either a Thai or European breakast would be waiting in my private outdoor pavilion (right), where I could look out over the quiet landscape to distant mountains as I ate.
Like the pavilion, much of the resort is constructed of teak saved from old houses, not from freshly logged lumber. Produce for the kitchen is raised organically on the premises.
Nongyao can make anything from croissants to spicy northern sausages, kao soi better than any I’ve tasted, noodles with pork, tomato, pork blood and enough hot chile to make me cry. And, of course, gaeng hung lay, which she is holding in the photo.
Her hung lay is sweet with coconut palm sugar and scented with the sweet spices that are incorporated into hung lay powder and paste.
Adding to the glorious flavor are ginger, pickled garlic, tamarind and thick black soy sauce that is sweet, with a hint of molasses. The meat is pork, both lean and fatty. Peanuts make the curry even richer.
The sweetness is apparently typical of Chiang Rai. Hung lay at a restaurant in town tasted the same. While in town, I bought more hung lay spice packets at the municipal market. They were so cheap--three packets for five baht, which is about 16 cents.
Except for the seasonings, I can get everything I need in Los Angeles, including coconut sugar, which is molded into small cakes that are soft when fresh but become very hard as they stand. They soften easily, though, if sprinkled with a little water and microwaved briefly.
Now my hung lay has true Chiang Rai taste. However, one day my seasonings will run out, so I’ll have to experiment with duplicating them, or else go back to northern Thailand to buy more. I think I’d rather do that.
SUANTHIP VANA'S GAENG HUNG LAY
From Chef Nongyao Kunanuan
1/2 pound pork butt
1/2 pound pork leg meat
1 tablespoon hung lay curry powder
2 teaspoons hung lay curry paste
2 teaspoons thick sweet black soy sauce
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
1 3/4 cups pork stock
1 tablespoon oil
4 shallots, chopped
4 small cloves fresh garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons slivered pickled garlic
1/3 cup slivered ginger root
1/3 cup fried or roasted unsalted peanuts
4 tablespoons coconut sugar
2 tablespoons thick tamarind liquid
Cut the pork butt and leg meat into 1 1/2-inch chunks. Place in a bowl. Add the hung lay curry powder and curry paste, the black and regular soy sauces and 1/4 cup pork stock. Stir and massage with one hand until the liquids and seasonings are absorbed. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour or longer.
When ready to cook, heat the oil in a Dutch oven. Add the marinated pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes.
Add 1 1/2 cups pork stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer over medium heat 1 hour.
Uncover and raise the heat. Add the shallots, fresh and pickled garlic and cook and stir for 5 minutes. Add the ginger, peanuts, coconut sugar and tamarind liquid and cook and stir for 5 minutes longer. There should be some liquid, but the curry should not be thin and soupy. If too dry, add more pork stock or water. Taste and add salt if needed.
Makes 4 servings.
On Night 1, the problem wasn't apparent until a carton of chocolate ice cream (for the kids in the group) emerged from the freezer as a super soft serve.
On Day 2, the cause was determined to be dust (and cat hair) clogging the coils. The ancient vacuum cleaner on hand had no hose or suction tool. This meant I had to get a new one immediately to save that night's main dish. I had made a rare Thai curry in advance and put in the refrigerator to mellow. Rather than mellowing, it was slowly heating up.
An engineer guest pulled out the fridge and vacuumed fore and aft with the new tool. But this didn't help. Dinner that night relied on side dishes that didn't require refrigeration. The wine that had been chilling was off-warm. Cookies replaced the liquid ice cream.
On Day 3, a refrigerator repairman said the 10-year-old fridge wasn't worth saving. Get a new one, he advised.
But the stores I called had no models that would fit the space. They were too tall. The cupboard above would have to be cut away, and there wasn't time for that.
Instead, I rushed to the market for bags of ice to stuff into the freezer and fridge. These couldn't stop the meltdown. But one last despairing call did.
Richard, a can-do appliance man, dashed into the kitchen, cheerily assuring me that the refrigerator would be fine. And he was right.
The problem was a dead starter relay, a tiny box of a thing so hot that it almost burned my fingers. The freezer would be back in order that night, he said, the refrigerator by the next morning.
Now all I had to do was clean up a horrific mess and dash to the store for more food.
Night 3's dinner featured newly purchased chicken that I marinated and placed on an ice bag until it went into the oven.
Meanwhile, chicken that had been thawing in the freezer bobbed in a furiously boiling pot. Richard had said that it was okay to cook thawed meet and refreeze it, and I trusted him. But I tossed out bag after bag of beef, shrimp, sausages and other oldies.
Now I am loaded with frozen cooked chicken. And broth. This means an endless parade of creamed chicken, chicken rice soup, pasta with chicken, curries, enchiladas, arroz con pollo--anything that disguises re-heated meat.
Combining sweet, sour and spicy larb seasonings with spaghetti was an inspired idea. I can't claim it though. The recipe came from a book that I had bought in Bangkok, "At the Table of Jim Thompson" (Archipelago Press).
Instead of cooking raw meat I put in the frozen chicken, tweaked a couple of things and left off the fried chiles suggested as a garnish.
I can't say the fridge disaster was a good thing, but at least it had one decent result.
SPAGHETTI WITH SPICY CHICKEN SALAD
(Spaghetti Larb Gai)
Adapted from "At the Table of Jim Thompson")
3 1/2 ounces spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped cooked chicken
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon ground roasted rice
2 1/4 teaspoons sugar
Hot chili powder to taste
1/3 cup thinly sliced shallots
2 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped
Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente, following the manufacturer's instructions. Drain and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the chicken and stir until heated through, about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock and cook until reduced by half. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, ground roasted rice, sugar and chili powder. Mix well.
Add the shallots, green onions and cilantro and mix. Add the cooked spaghetti and toss to combine thoroughly. Turn out onto serving plates and garnish with the mint leaves. Serve warm.
Makes 2 servings.
Cooking schools are a dime a dozen in Thailand, but there's a really good one at the Blue Elephant in Bangkok, judging by the one lesson I had.
How could you find a better teacher than Nooror Somany Steppe, founder, director and creative chef of the Blue Elephant restaurant group, which has grown to 12 branches extending from Europe through the Middle East to Asia?
More than a century old, it opened as the Bombay Department Store, became the Japanese army command center during World War II and has now been totally restored.
Classes take place there daily. Students go to the market to learn about ingredients, watch how the dishes are prepared, then cook the day's menu themselves and sit down to eat it.
We started with blue mai tais from the Blue Bar (above). Yes, there's lots of blue at the Blue Elephant. It's the royal Thai color.
Then we watched Steppe make tom som pla salmon, a sweet, sour, slightly spicy salmon soup. It looked easy, and I had no trouble reproducing it at home.
Some dishes were classic Thai. Others were updated, like Steppe's creamy tom yum goong (hot and sour shrimp soup), which she modeled on a French bisque and served in a shot glass.
Beside it, another shot glass held a single betel leaf wrapped around a mixture of white and pink pomelo, dry shrimp, green mango and pickled lettuce, topped with coconut sauce.
Main dishes included prawns in sweet tamarind sauce and Northeastern style grilled beef with a sauce of dried chiles, accompanied by sticky rice. The rice had been formed into slender rolls and fried. Golden brown, chewy and crisp, they were irresistible.
A snow fish souffle was lightly seasoned with basil and kaffir lime leaves. Rather than a western style souffle in a little casserole, the delicate Thai souffle had been spooned into a length of bamboo and topped with coconut cream and red chile strands.
Thai wines aren't yet up to western standards, but those we drank at the Blue Elephant were quite good. They are made for the restaurant at Siam Winery in the Chao Phraya delta, near the Gulf of Siam.
I wish I had had one of those wines to drink with the tom som pla salmon (photo at right) that I made at home.
The Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant, 233 S. Sathorn Road, Yannawa, Bangkok, Thailand 10120. Tel: (66-2) 673-9353.
1 cup salmon in 2/3-inch chunks
1/4 teaspoon Thai shrimp paste (kapi)
1 teaspoon cilantro stems, including any roots that may be attached
4 small shallots
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups fish or chicken stock
1 tablespoon finely slivered gingerroot
2 tablespoons fish sauce
5 teaspoons tamarind liquid (tamarind paste diluted with water)
2 teaspoons Thai palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
1 green onion, cut into 1-inch lengths, including some of the green top
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
Prepare the salmon and set it aside.
Wrap the shrimp paste in a small piece of foil, place in a small skillet and roast over high heat just until fragrant (this will reduce the strong aroma). If you cannot obtain shrimp paste, leave it out, but it does add an interesting nuance.
Place the cilantro stems in a heavy mortar and pound until crushed. Add 2 small shallots and pound until pulverized. Add the peppercorns and shrimp paste and pound to a paste. Scrape out of the mortar and set aside. There will be about 1 tablespoon paste.
Place the stock in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Crush the remaining 2 shallots and add to the stock along with the pounded paste, gingerroot, fish sauce, tamarind liquid and palm sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer 1 minute.
Add the salmon and bring to a boil. Do not stir after the salmon is added. Simmer 1 minute, until fully cooked. Add the green onion and remove from heat.
Pour the soup into a heated bowl and garnish with cilantro leaves.
Makes 1 large serving or 2 first-course servings.
Now that all the glorious holiday food is gone, it's time to cut back and eat tuna salad.
This is not punishment but a good thing, because you'll really want to eat the one you see in the photo. It's a Thai salad, seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce and cilantro.
The recipe is from "Thai Cooking in a Sufi's Kitchen" by Alima Ravadi Quinn of the Emerald of Siam Thai restaurant in Richland, Washington.
Alima gave me a copy when we were touring Thailand together last fall. She's put in plenty of easy, practical recipes, photographs of each dish and bits of inspiration from her Sufi philosophy.
Printed in Thailand and available at shops such as Asia Books in Bangkok, her book can be ordered online. People without much experience in Asian cooking will find it easy to work with. Most of the recipes don't require anything more obscure than basic curry pastes, fish sauce, coconut milk and lemon grass. And some require no special ingredients.
The book is $17.95 plus $4.50 for shipping and handling. For information on how to order, go to http://www.sufichef.com.
THAI TUNA SALAD
From "Thai Cooking in a Sufi's Kitchen"
2 (6.5-ounce) cans solid white tuna, packed in water, or 1 (12-ounce) can
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 small onion, sliced
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped, optional
1/2 teaspoon ground hot chile
1/4 teaspon black pepper
Drain the tuna well. Place it in a bowl and separate it into flakes. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, onion, green onion, cilantro, ground chile and black pepper and mix well.
Serve on lettuce or with hot steamed rice or rice crackers.
Makes 4 servings.
There is actually a tiny 4 after the P, so I suppose the correct name is P.4 Kitchen, but I never heard anybody call it that.
P.8 might be a better name, because that is how many cats I have counted while eating there. The cats are not in the restaurant, which is open-air (I felt a few sprinkles of rain one night), but next door.
A fence comes right up to the tables, and this is where they assemble. As you eat, they stare at you, and a cat who wants food knows how to exude devasating appeal. If you're heartless, you'll ignore them. If not, you'll toss a few bites over the fence.
The reason they are so determined is that the food at P Kitchen is very good. A small, family-run place, it turns out dishes that would cost a lot more, and perhaps not be as well prepared, at more pretentious places.
Western tourists eat there because they stay in the neighbohood, as I did, but the food has not been altered to please them.
Pak boong and morning glory are names for a long-stemmed green that crosses cultures in Asia. In this dish, it is lightly coated with lacy batter, like tempura, and fried until the batter becomes crisp. And it stays crisp, no matter how long it takes you to eat.
The minced pork and a few whole shrimp are in a bowl of spicy sweet sauce for dipping.
With this, I drank the fresh juice from a young coconut, then scraped out the tender flesh for dessert. The price for both was a little over $3.
Another time I had asparagus stir-fried with shrimp. Cut into short lengths, this Thai asparagus was slim and crunchy, nothing like the fatter spears in California markets. I also ordered crispy catfish salad.
Can you imagine such a fresh and interesting seafood dinner for $7? And this included fresh limeade (nam manao) and rice.
The pork was served like a salad over raw cabbage with lettuce underneath. Thais usually add a dash of sugar to such dishes, but this was not sweet, just fragrant with fresh lime juice balanced with fish sauce.
I stir-fried the pork, but I suspect the P Kitchen cook might have boiled it and then added the seasonings. That's what I'll try next time.
P.4 Kitchen, 11/3 Sukhumvit Soi 18, Bangkok, Thailand 10110. Tel: 02-6634950. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
PORK WITH LIME, GARLIC AND CHILE
Adapted from P.4 Kitchen, Bangkok
1 pound lean pork
1/2 small head cabbage
2 leaves lettuce
5 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon thinly slivered fresh red chile or 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced
Cut the pork in very thin strips (less than 1/8-inch-thick) that are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. This is easy to do if the pork is partially frozen. Set aside.
Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise and remove the core. Now cut crosswise in 1/2-inch slices. Separate the cabbage layers. Line a serving plate with the lettuce leaves, then top with the cabbage.
Combine the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar.
Heat a wok over high heat. Add the oil and heat until very hot. Add the garlic, then immediately add the pork and stir-fry until cooked through and no pink color remains, about 5 minutes depending upon the heat and thickness of the meat.
Stir in the red chile, then add the lime juice mixture. Cook and stir about 1 minute, until the meat absorbs the flavors. Taste, check the seasoning and add more lime juice and/or fish sauce if needed. The taste should be bright with lime and not overly salty.
Sprinkle lightly with white pepper and turn out onto the cabbage. Garnish with mint sprigs.
Makes 4 servings.
Only one person got it right (congratulations, Anjali). It was rad na. Here, that means soft wide rice noodles topped with Chinese broccoli and a thick, Chinese style gravy.
At Patara, the ingredients are the same, but the preparation is radically different. There, sheets of fresh rice noodles are cut into squares, deep-fried and stacked, looking like crisp layers of filo pastry. Thin strips of beef and chunks of gai lan in a delicate sauce are spooned over the top.
The building is a refurbished Thai house. Inside, the look is contemporary but accented with antiques and Thai touches such as the Thai style day bed in the bar.
That bar produced the best cocktail that I had in Bangkok, the Lychee Pirinha, a blend of lychees, lime juice and rum. The long list of bar specialties includes a green mango margarita and a Bangkok martini infused with lemon grass and kaffir lime.
The Lychee Pirinha came from London, as did skewered lamb with panang curry sauce. That dish was introduced to Bangkok with trepidation, because lamb isn't favored in Thailand. It turned out to be a hit, nonetheless. The taste brings to mind India, but the curry sauce is Thai.
Stir-fried lettuce, new on the menu when I was there, was as simple and distinctive as the rad na. Placing a cover on the intensely hot wok held in smoke that gave an edgy taste to the lettuce.
Big river prawns that looked more like small lobsters were speckled with green peppercorns and fried garlic, a different interpretation of garlic pepper shrimp from others I saw in Bangkok, and very different from anything I've had at home.
And I had a rare chance to taste Thai primrose blossoms in a sweet and spicy salad. This dish is seasonal, and very few restaurants serve it, said Vitoon Sila-On of S&P, the restaurant group that includes Patara.
S&P food is more traditional than Patara's. In an S&P branch that looks out on the Chao Phrya river, I had very good green curry with beef, fried fish in sweet and sour mango sauce, garlic pepper spareribs, Chinese broccoli with salted fish and sticky rice with durian.
Patara is more upscale and innovative, as in dessert the night that I was there--young coconut ice cream with such typical Thai toppings as millet, lychees, jelly cubes and beans. In the midst of these sat a chocolate square with the restaurant name.
Only a small lighted sign on Sukhumvit 55 indicates the lane that leads to Patara. My cab driver made several turns before he found it. To solve this problem, you can take the sky train to the Thong Lor exit, and the restaurant will send a tuk-tuk to pick you up.
Patara Fine Thai Cuisine, 375 Soi Thong Lor 19, off Sukhumvit 55, Bangkok, Thailand. Tel: 0-2185-2960-1. Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Both S&P and Patara have published cookbooks. Patara's "In the Mood for Thai" explains how to make such dishes as the lamb with panang curry and the primrose salad and has an excellent section on Thai ingredients.
One of the simpler recipes, easy for western cooks, is salmon steamed with black bean topping.
PLA SALMON NUNG TAO SEE
Salmon in Black Bean and Fresh Ginger Crust
From Patara restaurant's cookbook, "In the Mood for Thai"
1 tablespoon Chinese black beans
1/2 cup warm water
3 tablespoons oil
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped small hot chiles, or to taste
3 tablepoons vegetable or chicken stock
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 pound salmon steaks, lightly dusted with flour
Parsley sprigs and fine strips of red chile for garnish
Soak the beans in 1/2 cup warm water for 10 minutes. Squeeze out and reserve the water, then chop the beans.
Heat the oil in a wok. Add the ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the chopped beans, chiles and the stock. Continue to stir-fry.
Stir in the sugar, pepper and 2 tablespoons of the bean soaking liquid. Cook until reduced and thick.
Place the salmon on a heatproof plate lightly coated with oil. Spoon the black bean sauce over the salmon and coat thoroughly.
Place on a rack in a steamer over boiling water. Cover and cook 7 minutes, or until the salmon is cooked through.
Remove the salmon from the steamer. Divide into 2 portions and place each on a heated plate. Garnish each with a parsley sprig and red chile strips.
Makes 2 servings.