Cracking the Coconut

Thais are losing their taste for Thai food.

Su-Mei Yu uses the little Thai house for entertaining close friends and visiting culinary bigwigs like Julia Child and Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten.
  • Su-Mei Yu uses the little Thai house for entertaining close friends and visiting culinary bigwigs like Julia Child and Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

“When I came to San Diego in 1965 to get my graduate degree there was, as far as I know, only one Thai restaurant in the city. I just happened to stumble upon it in the College Area on University Avenue. I don’t remember what its name was. I don’t even remember what I ate. I remember that I was the only one in the place and that I was served by a very sad-look- ing young Thai man — sad-looking, I imagine, because I was his only customer. A week or so later I went back and the restaurant had gone out of business. That was my first adventure eating Thai food in San Diego.”

 Su-Mei Yu's new book. "In 1981 a restaurant called Trieu Chau opened at 4653 University Avenue, near the intersection with Menlo Street. It was incredible."

Su-Mei Yu's new book. "In 1981 a restaurant called Trieu Chau opened at 4653 University Avenue, near the intersection with Menlo Street. It was incredible."

Su-Mei Yu, Bangkok born and raised, sits in the courtyard of a little Thai-style house on the hillside behind her two Thai restaurants on India Street. An occasional whiff of grilled chicken drifts up the hill from Saffron, Yu’s chicken restaurant, or an eddy of curry-scented air winds its way up from Yu’s noodle place. Under this constant assault, Yu would have every reason to be chubby, but she is runway- model thin. Her thick black hair is bluntly cut. She wears a long, close-fitting black dress with a thin swath of dark gray fabric tied about her narrow waist, “I don’t eat a lot, but I like what I do eat to be very, very good.”

The little house’s lacquered pine floors shine. Its kitchen is small, functional. Keffir lime, lemon grass, Thai basil, parsley, cilantro, garlic, ginger, and galanga grow in neat rows in the courtyard garden. Off to one side sits a tidy arrangement of earthenware cooking pots Yu has over the years lugged back from Thailand. Next to the pots stand Yu’s gas and charcoal grills. “I love to cook outside. There’s no better place to cook than outside, like we do in Thailand.”

Yu uses the little Thai house for entertaining close friends and visiting culinary bigwigs like Julia Child and Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. The house is Yu’s carefully maintained refuge of Thai authenticity. “When I first opened the noodle restaurant, I tried serving padd thai made the traditional way, the real way. Traditional padd thai is a very subtle dish. It’s only vaguely sweet; it has no meat or fish. It’s just noodles and sauce. My customers hated it. I had to go back to making a version closer to what they were familiar with.

“The sad thing is that now many Thais are losing their taste for authentic Thai food. They eat what I call ‘shopping-mall food,’ Thai food made in these huge, air-conditioned, antiseptic shopping malls. The environment is so sterile — the employees wear these little hats and surgical gloves as if they were going to perform a heart transplant. And the food they make is so bad. It’s very sweet and it’s spiced in very clumsy ways. Unfortunately, it’s often the same class of people who eat ‘shopping-mall food’ who come to America and open Thai restaurants. Usually, Americans learn about Thai food from them. So you now have Thais and Americans who don’t know how authentic Thai food tastes.

“The situation is somewhat better here in San Diego than in other parts of the States because here we have all these wonderful Asian markets where you can get fresh ingredients and, if you learn how to use them, you can get a good idea of how Thai food should taste. Back in the late 1960s, there was only one Thai market I was aware of, Bangkok Market on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. It opened in 1968 and it carried mostly canned goods, no vegetables, no spices. Around the same time on Hollywood Boulevard, a woman from southern Thailand opened a restaurant called Jitrada, which was fabulous. Almost all the customers were Thai or were American GIs who’d staggered back from the Vietnam War. The owner lived a few blocks away and grew many of her own vegetables and herbs. Her front yard was entirely filled with lemon grass. It was an amazing sight. Mention Jitrada to any Thai who’s lived in Southern California for the past 30 years and he’ll swoon.

“Not long after Jitrada opened— it must have been in 1970 — two Thai restaurants opened in San Francisco. There was Kuntuk, which was very fancy and had a fancy menu. You had to sit on the floor. The food was mediocre. And then there was Thai Princess, another fancy restaurant, with napkins folded into peacocks, that sort of thing. Thai Princess was big on carved vegetables. Carrots carved into roses. Radishes carved into chrysanthemums. Your plate was this enormous floral arrangement. You couldn’t tell what the hell you were eating.

“When I returned to San Diego in 1978, even Chinese food here was nothing special. The big change came, of course, around 1979 when thousands of southeast Asian immigrants flooded into San Diego. Suddenly we had all these Asian markets where you could get good, fresh, home-grown vegetables and herbs and fish sauce and spices. Then in 1981 a restaurant called Trieu Chau opened at 4653 University Avenue, near the intersection with Menlo Street. It was incredible. There’d never been anything like it Trieu Chau’s still there, owned by Cambodians, and it makes the best noodles in town, exactly like the ones we used to eat on the streets of Bangkok. Thais from all over the city went there and still go there. In 1985 I opened Saffron on India Street, and since then there’s been a boom in Thai restaurants, especially since the economy collapsed in Thailand. A lot of Thais think opening a restaurant in California is a good way to make money.

“The problem with most Thai restaurants in Southern California is that they don’t have Thai cooks. Thais are very independent people and don’t like working for anyone else, and cooking in a restaurant is very hard work. Thais think, ‘Why should I cook when I could make more money opening a restaurant for myself?’ So when a Thai restaurant owner finds or brings over a Thai cook, he usually doesn’t stay for long. Thai restaurants also change hands often. One that I know of in the beach area, which was started by Thai college students, has changed hands four times. Most of the Thai food you eat in Thai restaurants is cooked by Lao or Vietnamese, who can be very fine cooks and can learn to cook Thai food well, but they don’t have the same palate as the Thais.

“Even if you do have a Thai cook, it’s very difficult here, in a restaurant setting, to duplicate authentic Thai food. Health-department regulations make it impossible. Take a simple thing like marinating meat, for example. Thais let meat marinate at room temperature, which allows the meat to really absorb flavor. An American health inspector would have a heart attack if he saw that. Also, most Thai food is served at room temperature, and health regulations would never allow that. So, to stay in business, you have to sacrifice a lot of traditional tastes.

“The reason I wrote my cookbook, Cracking the Coconut, was so that Americans could—in their homes, where they wouldn’t have to make as many sacrifices — prepare something very close to genuine Thai cuisine. Central to authentic Thai flavor is fresh coconut cream. Just as the regional cuisines of France are characterised by their use of specific fats — butter, olive oil, goose fat— real Thai cuisine is grounded in the flavor of fresh coconut. It’s nothing like the stuff you buy in can's, which is very sweet, is thickened with flour, and is gloppy. When you use canned coconut cream in a curry, it globs onto the plate. Fresh coconut cream is lighter, it makes a curry that clings to the curry’s ingredients and to rice. Some of the cans say that they hold the equivalent of eight coconuts. You can imagine how overly rich that would be. And it has none of the natural perfume of fresh coconut. The difference between fresh and canned coconut cream is the difference between walking into a garden on a summer morning and walking past the perfume section in a department store.

“Fresh coconut is so important to Thai cuisine that in my book I devote an entire chapter to it. I explain how it’s used. I explain how to crack, grate, and milk it The process isn’t really that time- consuming, and the effort is worth it. It’s just like learning how to pound your curry paste with a mortar and pestle, which I also teach in my book. Of course, you can use a blender or a food processor, but the results aren’t the same. Blenders and food processors mince things very finely. They don’t actually crush the ingredients for a good Thai curry paste. The difference is that when you crush things with a mortar and pestle, you’re breaking them down so they release their oils. And it’s these oils that carry the flavor, the aroma.

A Thai curry made with fresh coconut cream and truly pounded curry paste is one of the most aromatic, most sensual things you could ever eat.

“The idea is that in order to eat authentic Thai food, you have to make some effort You have to participate in a certain way of thinking about food and living. I’m not expecting Americans to make all of this part of their everyday lives. But I do want them to understand that it’s relatively easy for them to get a very good idea of what it’s like to be in Thailand and to taste what you would be served if you were invited as honored guest into a Thai person’s home. And in Thailand, it’s in private homes, not in restaurants, where the very best Thai food is served.”

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