Thursday, April 25, 2013
For as long as she can remember, Su-Mei Yu’s dream was to leave her home in Thailand to come to America. So, when the opportunity arose at the age of 15, she seized it.
Her Chinese parents didn’t think she’d be able to pull off making the journey to a new country on her own. They told her that they would only allow her to move to the United States, if she could find a program that would not cost them any money. And, that’s exactly what she did. With the help of a family friend who’d been a missionary in China, Yu relocated to Kentucky, where she enrolled in a church-affiliated school for girls.
“It was a girls’ school,” Yu explains, “because my mother said I couldn’t go to a coed school. And, she didn’t want me to come by myself because I was so young, so of all the cousins, she selected my cousin, Susie, who didn’t have any choice. We were not asked in the olden days.”
After earning a master's degree in social welfare from San Diego State University, Yu went on to become a renowned San Diego chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur. She opened the small but popular Saffron Thai Grilled Chicken on India Street in 1985, and followed it up in 2002 with a sit-down restaurant next door, Saffron Noodles and Sate. A third restaurant is expected to open late summer at the San Diego International Airport.
Yu didn't arrive in the U.S. knowing how to cook. She learned to cook out of necessity. "Kentucky was so different from our home. It's like being dropped on the moon. The food was awful. I couldn't eat anything that was put on my plate, and kept losing weight. I had to learn how to cook because I couldn't eat the stuff and thought I would die if I had to eat it anymore."
With the help of her cousin, Yu found ways to bring a taste of Thai food to her new home. “Food was always in our blood until I ended up in Kentucky and realized this is not good,” says Yu. “The main street had five stores and one of the stores was a combined grocery and hardware store where, lo and behold, I found some ginger, cabbages, and Uncle Ben’s instant rice, and I’d make stir-fry. That saved my life.”
Of course, whipping up stir-fry in a dorm had its challenges. “In a dormitory you only have limited space,” she explains. “There was a kitchenette for all the girls to use. We’d wait until everyone left to go eat in the cafeteria, to make our stir-fry because it smelled different. We’d open all the windows, boil water and add it to the rice.”
Yu attributes her passion for cooking to her mother, even though she never actually taught either Yu, or her brother and sister, how to cook.
“My mother was an excellent cook,” states Yu. “But she never let any of us cook. She would do all the cooking, especially when she had all these banquets, and it was incredible to watch her. It was like theater.”
Yu’s purpose for cooking Thai food goes beyond taste and presentation. She has great love and respect for the tradition of choosing ingredients that are seasonal and nurturing.
“Thai cooking is based on an old philosophical tradition,” reveals Yu. “That food is medicine. In the olden days, recipes were created by combining the natural taste and flavor in the ingredients in a balanced manner in order for the dish to not only taste good, but also be good for you. And, it is always based on the seasonality of the ingredients.”
“So that if it is summertime, you have lots of cucumber,” she continues, “and when the weather gets cool we have pumpkin. It’s more warming and better for your muscles. And, onions are good for your chest and good for colds. That is the basic philosophy of Thai food. If you adopt the same philosophical values for your lifestyle here, it can also enhance a better and more balanced diet.”
These days, Yu is gearing up for her new cooking series, Savor San Diego, to debut on KPBS Television May 2nd. She hopes that by watching the show, viewers will gain a new appreciation of San Diego’s bounty of food and how it can be used to create delicious and healthful meals at home.
Savor San Diego
Savor San Diego With Su-Mei Yu: The Yin-Yang Of Protein (New Series Premiere)
Airs Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 9:30 p.m. & Saturday, May 4 at 3:30 p.m. on KPBS TV.
“I want viewers to get excited about San Diego and our wonderful treasures here,” Yu says with relish. “I want them to get so excited that they will go find these things, get in the kitchen again and start cooking. Food is such a central part of all of us. We don’t realize it but once you put it in, that’s it. It goes every which way. You feel the way you feel because it nurtures you or destroys you.”
In the six-part series, viewers will meet interesting people who raise, catch or find locally-grown foods. “They are very committed and passionate in their own way of creating, finding and raising all these different foods,” Yu observes.
Yu is all about fresh foods, herbs and spices, and her favorite must-have ingredient in the kitchen is chili pepper, the hot spice which she considers to be “pretty cool.”
“Chili pepper in everything!” she adds with a grin. “It gives a great kick.”
Spend a little time with Yu and you’ll be hard pressed not to get caught up in her enthusiasm for cooking Thai food. And, her advice for getting started is simple.
“Don’t be afraid, just go for it!”
Stay tuned to this blog. Next month, our San Diego Cooks series will feature Yu’s recipe for Tom Yum Soup.