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Serving Up Authentic Thai Cuisine


We'll learn about Thai cooking and traditions with San Diego chef and author Su-Mei Yu.

Chef Su-Mei Yu will hold a book signing at Warwick's Book Store in La Jolla on October 27, 2009, 7:30 p.m.

ALAN RAY (Host): You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Now, I like to cook, but one of the really daunting cuisines to me has always seemed to be Thai food. Who better to ask for answers than an award-winning chef and owner of some Thai restaurants? We’re joined on These Days by Su-Mei Yu. Good morning.

SU-MEI YU (Restaurateur): Good morning.

RAY: Chef-owner of Saffron Noodles & Sate, is that correct?

YU: Yes.

RAY: And is that Saffron Thai Grilling Restaurant?

YU: Yes.

RAY: Okay. And the author of an award-winning book, “Cracking the Coconut.” You have a new book out.

YU: Yes.

RAY: “The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living.” Now this is actually – has it been released yet or is it coming out?

YU: No, it’s going to be out in the market by the 19th of October. But…

RAY: Oh, that’s big enough, you can put that on the counter and cook right out of it. That’s – I hate little cookbooks, you know, like pocket cookbooks…

YU: Yeah.

RAY: …something like that.

YU: It kind of flips around.

RAY: Yeah. No, that – that’s just perfect. That’s a real nice size.

YU: Thank you. And it have beautiful pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

RAY: Okay, so what we’d have you do is wipe the peanut sauce off your hands and dial us up, join the conversation on These Days, 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, I got to ask. I’m relatively new to San Diego, relatively, three years. There are a lot of Thai restaurants around here.

YU: Yes, they are.

RAY: Help me pick a good one.

YU: Mine.

RAY: I – Well, I presume that, but, I mean, that’s a given but other than that.

YU: Well, I don’t want to really kind of ruin the party because I don’t eat out at other Thai restaurants because I am a fairly good Thai cook and I’m very careful of how I put together a Thai meal because the ingredients are very important to me. And so subsequently, I rarely eat out at other Thai restaurants.

RAY: Okay.

YU: So I can’t help you on that one.

RAY: How do I find out what’s – or is there a way to know what’s authentic Thai food?

YU: I think you need to have a friend who is Thai to cook for you because most Thai restaurants in America, in general, adapt their various dishes in order to please the customers so that they could be successful. And that sort of mar the authenticity of the way Thai food is cooked. And this is not just a problem here in America, it’s happening back in Thailand, especially in the bigger city like in Bangkok and so subsequently, you know, it changes people’s viewpoint of what Thai food should be. Basically, Thai food, when you order something, I think that people are attracted to the taste, flavor and aroma of Thai cooking. And this is the basic actually that got me started in this new book that I have written, and it took me about five years, because the reason why people are attracted to Thai food is because if you eat like a simple dish like Pad Thai, which everybody knows, which is the noodles that is cooked with dried shrimp, peanuts, sugar, vinegar or tamarind, and then it has very little vegetable, only just for crunchiness, like bean sprouts and Chinese chives and chiles and lime. And you take one bite of this and your mouth is burst with not only flavors but also contrasts of the peanuts and the dried shrimp, and it just boggles your mind. And so why you say, you know, that’s why people love Thai food. Curry, unlike Indian curry, unlike Ceylon curry, it is so rich in the various spices that even before you eat it, it comes up to your nose and just makes you so hungry. And so subsequently people got attracted to the Thai food itself because of all these wonderful philosophy and the basis and the foundation that the old-timers, you know, created this.

RAY: Really? I have to be perfectly honest with you, I love Vietnamese food and if I have – In the past, if I’ve had to make a choice between going to a Vietnamese restaurant and going to a Thai restaurant, I’ve always chosen the Vietnamese because the Thai food I’ve found has more oil than I like, traditionally, and the Vietnamese does not.

YU: Well, that’s because you eat Thai food here. If you eat Thai food at my house, you don’t see any oil.

RAY: Ah, okay. All right. Well, I’ll tell you what, let’s go right to the phones. In Taos, New Mexico, Mike, is that correct? Good morning. You’re on These Days.

MIKE (Caller, Taos): It is correct and I’m an old San Diegan so I’m well aware of her restaurants and my favorite, funny that you just said that, my favorite at her restaurant is the Vietnamese noodles. So I wanted to ask about those noodles and then I also want your opinion because I’m a hunter so I’ve got a bunch of chanterelle mushrooms and grouse, and I was wondering if she could give me a recommendation on some wild game.

RAY: Well, this would be the start for your next book.

YU: Well, it’s wonderful that you asked that question because I had – I just actually went to a book that talked about all these supposedly men in Thailand who cooked and they would go out hunting and in order to tenderize their meat they just kind of threw in a little bit of white lightning and kill off the meat itself so that they could actually tenderize it out in the forest. Answer to your first question’s in regards to Vietnamese noodles, that came about because my daughter used to live in San Francisco and we went to this little hole in the wall that supposedly was a favorite of Julia Child and my daughter Angela ordered this dish, and I said, you know, I could use this in my restaurant. The noodles is very interestingly made because it’s made with rice noodles and rice flour and oil and a little bit of water, and they’re rolled out in a very fine sheet. And sometimes they add chives or dried shrimp and then they rolled up this thing so it gave you the texture more than anything else. And then you add on various ingredients, again with textures. And because it’s Vietnamese, they love their little sweet-sour, light sauce, which is made with vinegar, chiles, sugar. Vietnamese cooking, unfortunately, uses a lot of sugar. And then they kind of doctor the whole thing up with some fresh herbs.

RAY: Hmm.

YU: So that’s the Vietnamese noodles. As far as your, oh, God, chanterelle, I’ll kill for it right now, I think to do a green curry with those two ingredients would be absolutely wonderful or a masaman curry. And I will, if you want – I think that if I were you, I would take the time to pound the spices myself instead of buying ready made store because you have such wonderful ingredients. And add in maybe a little bit of apples to kind of enhance the flavor from the meat and also to have that kind of smooth – after the apples cook is a little bit soft. It will play with the chanterelle mushroom.

RAY: Will that bring the curry down a little bit, too?

YU: It doesn’t bring but it balances it.

RAY: Okay, okay.

YU: Yeah.

RAY: Mike, you also wanted to know about Su-Mei’s noodles, is that correct?

MIKE: Oh, yeah, well, she just described them, and I’m glad to hear that story because that’s one of my favorite dishes. They do chicken really well but I always end up going towards the noodles that she has.

YU: Thank you, Mike.

MIKE: So thank you, and if you feel like coming to Taos, New Mexico, and having some cuisine, you’re more than welcome, so…

YU: Oh, thank you, Mike.

RAY: Is there a good Thai restaurant in Taos?

MIKE: No. Unfortunately, we have to go to Santa Fe. We are hurting bad, and if there was a Thai family that wanted to relocate somewhere, this would be great.

RAY: Well, or maybe you could just buy Su-Mei’s book and open your own restaurant, how’s that?

YU: That’s right.

MIKE: Ah, I got – I got too many other things going.

RAY: All right, hey, thanks, Mike, take care.

MIKE: All right.

RAY: Bye-bye. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. David in Normal Heights, good morning.

DAVID (Caller, Normal Heights): Su-Mei, it’s David.

RAY: Yes, that would be David in Normal Heights. Good morning.

YU: Hi, David.

DAVID: Hi. My children just love the sautés that you make, and how do you get it yellow and how do you make it so good because my kids know if we tried it someplace else.

YU: Ah, the yellow part came from turmeric and the reason why your children love the yellow part is turmeric is known to kind of calm the kids down, you know? It is very good for the vascular system and it takes away headaches and it’s known, really, to be very, very good for the circulatory system. And the reason why our sauté is different is because we marinate it overnight with not only the turmeric part but also with some garlic and some ginger and, believe it or not, almond milk. I switch from coconut milk to almond milk because canned coconut milk is very high in saturated fats and I’m trying to keep my customer healthy. So all these ingredients break down the tissues of the meat so that it keeps the meat moist as you cook it and my sauté is unlike anything that you could find anywhere else because people want to eat these big fat pieces of chicken tenders and so subsequently it looks unlike any other sauté. But I’m so glad that your kids like them and the turmeric, you know, you – I think they sell them now at Whole Food. They look kind of strange, look like some kind of roots but it’s one of the best things that you could cook and eat, especially when the swine flu thing is coming in the winter.

RAY: Now you can buy it already ground. Is that – is it better to buy your own?

YU: The reason I’m not encouraging the ground one is because you don’t know what’s in the bottle. It looks…

RAY: Oh, yeah.

YU: …yellow but you don’t know what they do to make it yellow. It might not be turmeric because turmeric naturally, if you buy it and eat it, it is very floral…

RAY: Umm-hmm.

YU: …and it also has a little kind of a bite to it. And you don’t get that in a bottle.

RAY: And you are right, though, about its medical applications. They’re finding increasingly they’re using it for people with vascular problems and those…

YU: That’s right, exactly.

RAY: You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh. We’re talking with Su-Mei Yu, the chef-owner of Saffron Noodles & Sate and Saffron Thai Grilling restaurants, also the author of an award-winning cookbook “Cracking the Coconut.” And her new book, due out, you say, next month?

YU: Yes.

RAY: Okay. Is “Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living.” Ed in the college area, good morning. You’re on KPBS.

ED (Caller, College Area): Good morning, Su-Mei.

YU: Good morning, Ed.

ED: Hi. A friend of ours, Yvonne Schultz, and myself, we make the rounds to a lot of restaurants here in San Diego and I’m pretty much a pretty good cook but when I go into the Asian store, I don’t know what to buy. I look at these sauces and I try to stay away from some of those prepared sauces that say, you know, Thai food, because of the MSG content, the salt. But who in San Diego do you recommend or what store do you recommend to actually go find what you – what I could make, you know, for Thai food?

YU: You live around the Normal Heights area, I think there is a Vien Dong, I believe, on College and fifty-something street. Most of these places basically sell almost the same kind of ingredients. I think there’s a Ming Hung, too, on El Cajon Boulevard. It’s interesting that you brought up the ready-made sauce. I think, Ed, if you want to make your own sauce, it’s possible and you can create your own. For example, I just make a sauce that I brought in for Ellen this morning because I wanted to put something that is minty in there and it’s the basic dressing that is used for Thai salads are generally made with – is generally made with salt, garlic, chile, fish sauce, if you like, or you could leave it out, lime or lemon juice, and/or vinegar. And you mix all this together and also you need to watch the portions of between the sugar content and the sourness so that if you use like one teaspoon of sugar, you could use two teaspoons of the sour stuff so that will balance it, and then maybe a quarter teaspoon of the salt. And if you do that, then a little bit, a dash of the fish sauce, just for the aroma. From there, you could build all kinds of repertoire. For example, I put in this morning some mint because mint is very, very, very good, again, for the respiratory system and for digestive system and also because it’s going to be hot out there, mint is very, very cooling. If you like it really hot, you could put in two kinds of chile because the Thai believes that not just one kind of chile is just for the spiciness itself, you could use fresh chile plus a dry kind of chile, the kind I give it a smoky taste as well. And then from there, you could just build it on, you know? And if you like peanuts, you could crush some peanuts and put it on top. If you’re allergic to peanuts, put almonds. If you don’t like any nuts at all, you could add other stuff, like cilantro.

RAY: Would cashews work?

YU: Cashews is wonderful. Yes, and I think the cashews, if you roast them a little bit to enhance the oil, and then chop it up, you have wonderful, wonderful dipping sauces that is not very fatty. In fact, if you don’t want to use sugar at all, you could use agave syrup or you could use honey, especially local honey, which is very, very good for your immune system. This is all in my new book about, you know, how to eat locally and in partnership with nature. So I would think instead of buying bottles, Ed, just buy these ingredients and you don’t even have to go to the Asian markets except for the fish sauce and even fish sauce, you could buy them now at major supermarkets, yeah.

RAY: Okay. Let me ask about the whole, really, the concept of medicine. We talked about the turmeric and we talked about the medicinal benefits or possible medicinal benefits of that. But talking about the Thai concept of food as medicine.

YU: Well, food is medicine to the Thai people because according to the Thai people, the philosophy—this is a natural philosophy of health—they believe that we are an imprint of Mother Nature itself and what we eat, we must be in partnership with nature. So that means we should eat things that are seasonal and locally grown and that we – if we match the various flavor and taste and aroma within nature according to that particular season, it will keep us in balance with nature, and that’s the whole basic philosophy of eating well and living well with nature. And that’s my book.

RAY: Okay. The title is “The Elements of Life,” and I suspect that there’s a very specific reason for choosing that word. We’re talking earth, wind, fire and water.

YU: Right. Earth, water, wind and fire. So earth element according to the Thai philosophy of health, people who are earth element should eat things that are sweet, astringent, buttery and – I can’t – oh, and bitter – and salty.

RAY: Is this sort of an Asian version of eating to your blood type then?

YU: No. It’s eating according to who you are.

RAY: Oh.

YU: And you find that out by finding your conception date.

RAY: Oh.

YU: And you – This comes with the book. There’s a wheel that shows you what your conception date is and it points to your home element, and if you know who you are, it is like a compass that kind of help you navigate the various seasonal choices in life.

RAY: Okay. Back to the phones, 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. You’re on These Days. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Arlene in Mission Hills, good morning.

ARLENE (Caller, Mission Hills): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I am gluten intolerant, which means that I can’t have things with wheat, rye or barley. I can eat rice, corn, potatoes, things like that. And we very much enjoy the chicken dinner with the five sauces and the very nice cole slaw that has the rice noodles in it and the peanuts. But I have never really ventured beyond buying that particular item at your restaurant because I don’t know what might have soy sauce in it and soy sauce is fermented with wheat. And I know you have the individual soy sauce packets there so that people can add it but I just wonder if you use soy sauce much at all and how I can find out about the rice – various rice noodle dishes.

YU: Well, we have quite a few customers who are – who have the same cautionary diet like yourself, and we do make things custom made to order for you. So any of our rice noodle dishes, we could make for you without the soy sauce, so that’s the first thing. Any of our stir fried I make without soy sauce so you can eat that. Any of our curry dishes, without soy sauce. So you could order anything at the restaurant, you know, and just tell them that you’re, you know, glutens intolerant and they’ll come up with something for you. So you could venture off and try different things because we are very, very aware, you know, that everybody has kind of a personal restriction and we will be more than glad to kind of help you along with that. We even use a brand new pan so it’s never been touched with something else.

RAY: Now I’m going to guess that Thai was not your native cuisine so then I’m going to ask where did you learn or what got your interest in Thai cuisine and where did you learn?

YU: Well, that’s correct. I’m Chinese by birth but I was born in Thailand and at the age of five I was put in a boarding school that was created actually during the time of “The King & I” story by the royal family. And so I lived in a boarding school for about ten years and all my friends were Thai. I ate Thai food, I think, most of my life and actually cooked Thai food even when I came here at the age of 15 because I couldn’t eat American food. And I began to really learn the art of Thai cooking, after I opened Saffron about 24 years ago, by going back once or twice a year and just hang around old ladies and say, you know, teach me how to cook. And from there, I just develop – and I also collect a lot of cookbooks, funeral books, Thai cookbooks, talk to a lot of people, and just ate a lot in Thailand and just opened my eyes and ears to learning, and I think that the – I’ve turned out to be a pretty good cook.

RAY: So do you incorporate recipes you learned from those…

YU: Oh, yeah.

RAY: …what we call the Thai babushkas? Do you…

YU: Yes.

RAY: …now incorporate those into your…

YU: Yes. Yes.

RAY: …menus?

YU: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, we have seasonal menus. For example, people who want to eat this coconut soup in the summertime and they can’t find it at Saffron. I won’t serve it because it’s too warming and we’re going to be cooking – I mean, we’re going to be presenting some jungle cook – jungle soup and kaeng terre (sp), which is very, very good for your chest in the wintertime, yeah, definitely.

RAY: Do you have enough time left in your day after all these things you do now to actually do any cooking at the restaurant yourself?

YU: Yes, I cook at the restaurant and I cook at home. I don’t cook that much at the restaurant but I watch over the menus and I develop new menus but I cook just about every single night at home.

RAY: One of the problems with doing something the first time like cooking Thai food is I just don’t have the stuff. So if I wanted to learn, let’s say, I bought the – I bought your cookbook. Is there…

YU: Thank you.

RAY: …kind of a basic pantry of Thai recipe items I’d need to have on hand so I could just go to it and make a recipe that’s in the book?

YU: Simple things like salt, fish sauce, garlic, shallots, Thai peppercorn or white peppercorn, those are the beginning. You can have it in your pantries. The fresh herbs, grow them. In San Diego, it’s so easy. Lemon grass grows like wild weeds, cilantro, the roots are now being sold, actually the whole cilantro roots and stems and all are sold at the farmers market in Hillcrest. Those are the basic. And chiles, you can grow them, and the dried ones are, you know, readily available. That’s the beginning. The basic ingredients for Thai cooking is salt, garlic, white peppercorn and cilantro root, and…

RAY: Ah…

YU: …from there, you’ve just built on.

RAY: Cilantro’s an amazing thing.

YU: Yes, it is.

RAY: You know, it’s Chinese parsley, it’s big in…

YU: Yeah.

RAY: …Mexican food, it’s big in South American food.

YU: Yeah.

RAY: It’s big in Thai food.

YU: Yeah, yeah.

RAY: It’s just…

YU: I think that they came from southeast Asia and also from Persia, they think, yeah. Uh-huh.

RAY: You brought some things here. And before…

YU: Yes, I did.

RAY: …we get too far along and I don’t get a chance to have a snack, can you tell me what it is we’re—we’re—sharing here?

YU: Well, I brought you four kinds of salad rolls, which we sell. This is adaptation of Vietnamese things. And each of them represent the earth, water, wind and fire. The earth one has avocado in it. The water one has pineapple because the sour taste is good for water element. And the wind has lots of mint, which is very good for wind element. And the, lastly, the fire one, has jicama, which is very cooling.

RAY: Umm.

YU: And then I make you five different sauces and each of them, again, matched: earth, water, wind and fire. I brought you a curry that is a red curry with lots of bamboo shoots which is very good for the respiratory system and also for the muscles, and also has eggplant. And there is a new fried rice that I’m going to start in October that is made with red organic rice from Thailand and less rice but more vegetables.

RAY: Are you looking for a taster, perhaps, fulltime? I’m…

YU: Well, you can come on Thursday. I’m doing photo shoots and I’m going to do like fall pictures and you can come and help me eat.

RAY: What time?

YU: From 8:30 to eleven o’clock. I’ve already invited lots of my friends. They’re going to show up and the photographer’s going to go crazy.

RAY: Now is this in the morning or the afternoon?

YU: In the morning.

RAY: I’ll be calling in sick on Thursday, I’m sorry. Where do you imagine Thai food goes from here? Does it – I mean, foods evolve.

YU: Yes.

RAY: So I’m guessing that since you learned to eat and cook Thai food, there have been changes.

YU: Oh, definitely. I see this. In Thailand, it’s so – In fact, I just came back from Thailand where I spent about six weeks at my little school that I founded, a traditional Thai cooking school up in Mae Rim, which is in northern Thailand. What is happening is that people are viewing cooking as a chore instead of something that is a part of their lifestyle. And subsequently, people are not cooking as much. They’re eating something else that people are pre-preparing for them, so subsequently what’s happening is that they don’t understand how food is prepared and they eat anything that – for convenience. And this changes not only the concept of food but also the taste of food itself because Thai food, the best kind is made right then and there and you have to eat it then. But if it’s in the refrigerator, in the freezer, you nuke it, it changes the whole thing. The aroma is gone. So that is one of the biggest challenge that we have in Thai food. I want to encourage people, whether or not they want to cook Thai food or not Thai food, to really adapt the philosophy of Thai cooking, which is to join hand in partnership with nature.

RAY: And go to the market every day.

YU: And go to the market and cook simple things. You don’t have to do something elaborate. You could buy a handful of green beans, throw in some garlic with some very good oil, throw in the green beans, and stir fried it with a little salt if you don’t have fish sauce, and you’ve got a wonderful meal right there that is balanced and it’s right there in season. Okra is in season right now. Oh, okra is wonderful. Again, you could slice it up, stir fried with a little bit chile, and if you have mint growing in your backyard, throwing it in, and it’s fabulous. You know, you don’t have to go home and spend three hours if you don’t have it but I wish you would because it is, after all, good for you and healthful for you.

RAY: Time for one more call. Yvonne in the college area, good morning. You’re on These Days.

YVONNE (Caller, College Area): Yeah, hi. I – I guess my name was used in vain, Su-Mei.

YU: Hi, lovey.

YVONNE: Hi, honey. Well, I have to tell you, I been eating your food for, what, 25 years or something and…

YU: Yeah, you’re the first taster.

YVONNE: …and it’s, oh, God, it’s the best. But I want to know where I can buy the cookbook?

YU: Well “The Elements of Life,” you could buy them right now online on Amazon and it’s cheaper. But to buy the hardcopy, to look at it, you have to wait until the 19th because it’s not going to be out in the bookstore until the 19th. But you could buy it…

YVONNE: Sure, I…

YU: …you could order it on Amazon. In fact, you can see my video on Amazon, telling you all about this book.

YVONNE: Oh, good. Okay, is there any bookstore you know that’s going to handle this for those of us that may not watch it or order it?

YU: I think Borders have it, Barnes & Noble has it and also Warwick’s, which where I’m going to be on September – I mean, October the 27th to sign book. If you’re up north, I think Bookworks. I’m going to be there on November the 15th. So I think most bookstore – and, of course, we’re going to carry it at the restaurant, and they’re all going to be signed copies, yeah.

RAY: All right. Thank you, Yvonne. And, Su-Mei, you – thank you very much.

YU: Thank you, Alan.

RAY: It has been a pleasure. Su-Mei Yu is the chef-owner of Saffron Noodles & Sate and Saffron grilled – Saffron Thai Grilling restaurants, the author of an award-winning book already, "Cracking the Coconut." Her latest "The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living" (sic) and don’t forget, Su-Mei Yu will be holding a book signing at Warwick's Bookstore in La Jolla on October 27th. If you want to know more, go to and you’ll get all the information there, too. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Alan Ray in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Thank you for joining us, and eat well.

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