In Thai, Kin Khao translated means ‘Eat Rice’. It was also a trendy Thai restaurant in Soho, I frequented in my Manhattan days. Thai food has come a long way since my parents’ restaurant in Chicago. Yes, my parents were pioneers of the Thai restaurant trend when I was in high school. Back then there was one Thai restaurant–it was called, ‘Thai Restaurant’. Then my parents opened ‘Thai Room Restaurant’, with the goal of having as many Farang (American) customers as Thai.
Thai Green Curry Paste:
Thai ‘Green’ Curry
- 1 medium onion, cut in about 8 cubes
- 2 small eggplants cut in 1" circular rings and cut in half (about 2 cups), or use 1 thinly sliced chicken breast
- 8 Asparagus spears chopped in 2 inch pieces
- 1 pepper (green or red), chopped in 2-inch squares
- 3 Tablespoons of Thai green curry paste (recipe above)
- 1 stalk lemongrass, cut in 3 inch pieces, smashed with tenderizer
- 1 Tablespoon Fish Sauce
- Juice of 1/2 lime
- 8 oz of Coconut milk (from a can or fresh frozen)
- 1 Tablespoon liquid palm sugar or agave
Add 2 Tablespoons of grape seed or olive oil to a pan and saute the lemon grass, onion, eggplant, and pepper for about 3 minutes.
Add curry paste to the skillet and stir fry together for 5 minutes. Pour in the coconut milk add fish sauce. Let simmer for 15 minutes. Remove lemon grass and add lime juice and palm sugar.
Sweet Rice w/ Mango (or Sweet Summer Peaches)
- 1 cup of Thai sweet rice (short grain ‘sticky rice’)
- Soak rice in about 2 cups of water over night.
Place cheesecloth at the bottom of a steamer, drain the rice and steam for 1 hour, turning every 20 minutes.
- 4 oz of Coconut milk (canned or fresh frozen)
- 1 Tablespoons of liquid palm sugar (or agave)
- 1 Teaspoon salt
Heat in saucepan until the mixture comes to a boil. Mix with cooked rice.
- 2 oz coconut milk
- 1 Teaspoon salt
Heat in saucepan until the mixture comes to a boil.
Peel and cut a fresh, ripe mango or 2 ripe, but still firm peaches.
Plate the rice + fruit. Drizzle coconut milk/salt mixture over the rice.
My parents still worked their day jobs, which were professional occupations and utilized the advanced degrees they earned when they immigrated to the States. But this was the pursuit of the American dream—to own a home and for their children to ‘have everything they did not’. So a former Century 21 real estate office was converted into a dining establishment with the hours of operation of 6pm – 10pm, Monday – Friday and Noon – 11pm on the weekends. My parents were the managers, cooks, and dishwashers; I was the waitress, dishwasher and accountant and my younger brother and sister the busboy and entertainment.
It didn’t occur to me that cooking was a skill unto itself. That there was a lot of experimentation and talent involved in creating foods that would be appealing in presentation as well as to the palate. Growing up in the 70’s; there were few Asians in my neighborhood; I was one of 3 in my class for the first 4 years of elementary school. My parents were oblivious to the task they had before them of introducing this new cuisine to Chicago. Up to this point, Sushi in Chicago was still unheard of. Oriental food choices consisted of Chinatown restaurants and the Cantonese noodle and egg roll take-out/delivery storefronts. So my dad, being an unwittingly savvy marketer, learned how to cook Chinese cuisine. But not the Chinese take-out most people were accustomed to (though egg rolls and fried rice were on the menu that boasted over 64 dishes), but Hunan and Szechuan Chinese; with spices that served as a bridge between the Cantonese and the Thai. People were familiar with ‘Chinese’ food, but the Chinese at Thai Room would be the gateway to the spicy dishes of Thai cuisine.
I had taken for granted that my mom was a fantastic chef. Her training was that of a dentist in Thailand and a nurse in America. I doubt she ever cooked a meal growing up in a privileged upper class family with Khon Chai (people who work for us) to do everything from driving to cleaning and cooking. I am not sure how she discovered that she had such a talent for re-creating the amazing dishes she enjoyed as a child in her country.
For months, the restaurant would have a manageable flow of customers; about 8-10 tables each evening. I was able to get my homework done, sitting at a table in the corner with my Trigonometry book (so Asian) and fulfilling my duty as the editor of my high school newspaper; describing the details of football games I was unable to attend but which were based on conversations I had with friends at school. My brother and sister would earn extra tip money by playing the guitar and singing John Denver tunes and songs from ‘Annie’.
It all changed one Friday evening after Christmas, when at 6pm promptly, all at once, every one of the restaurant’s 16 tables were filled and a line had formed out the door on a frigid Chicago evening. Nearly every table ordered a combination of same dishes: Satay (grilled skewers of pork, chicken or beef) with peanut sauce, my dad’s spareribs, fried Red Snapper w/ Chili Sauce, Tom Yum (hot and sour soup) and green curry. Could this all be a coincidence, because if it wasn’t, we did not get the memo.
Some customers wound up waiting over an hour for their food and had to forego the Phil and Anna entertainment experience, but no one left disappointed. Whether we realized it or not, that evening, was the tipping point of the realization of my family’s American dream. The Chicago Tribune had named their Top 10 Restaurants of the Year. Thai Room was #10, alongside gastronomic landmarks such as Charlie Trotter and Le Francais. It was also the only restaurant listed where the average price of a dish was under $15.
After a few months of managing this new booming business, my dad (once again the savvy marketer) sold the restaurant at a premium to another Thai family hoping to live the dream. Today, my parents still own the house that our family’s collective blood, sweat and tears of Thai Room paid for.
By way of an incredibly circuitous route (which includes a Division 1 college athletic scholarship in tennis and a stint at the William Morris Agency), my sister is re-inventing the magic of Thai Room with her healthful cooking. She sells ready made Asian-inspired cuisine at the Chicago Farmer’s Market. One of the rules of selling at the market is that a majority percentage of ingredients must be locally sourced from the farmer’s market. That seems almost as Herculean a feat as introducing Thai food to Chicago in the 80’s. But Anna’s Rock n’ Roll Noodle Company is bringing Thai cuisine with a healthy attitude to a new generation of Chicagoans.
I’ve tried to re-create some of her most popular dishes, but a note about the ‘Green Curry’: There are substantially more ingredients and time involved in making the curry paste from scratch. You can find curry paste in Asian markets, but by making it yourself, you can insure that there are no preservatives, and freeze the paste for later use.