Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thai-fun with Su-Mei Yu

Saffron's Su-Mei Yu teaches at lots of different venues, but she'd never actually taught a hands-on cooking class at her restaurant Saffron. So, when she announced she was going to do two classes that would include both a tour of Thuan Phat Market in Linda Vista and then a trip over to Saffron to learn to make a variety of traditional Thai dishes--well, that was simply irresistible.

Thuan Phat used to be Vien Dong and the new owners have done a wonderful job cleaning up the place and creating an inviting market that specializes in fresh seafood and traditional Asian produce. Su-Mei took students up and down aisles to show us everything from fish sauce to noodles. The trip to the produce section was eye opening as we examined beetle leaves (not for chewing, but to wrap food for cooking), Thai eggplant, pandan leaves (used in Southeast Asia like we use vanilla), chrysanthemum leaves (wonderful in a stir fry or omelet), and a host of other items mysterious to most of us.

Su-Mei Yu showing us whole jackfruit
And here's a pomelo (think oversized grapefruit)
Pretty little Thai eggplant
We then picked several vegetables to take back with us to the class to stir fry. Baby bok choy, water spinach, and Chinese broccoli were our selections.

Back at Saffron, we went upstairs to the garden, where we encountered this strange grouping.

Beyond were the outdoor work stations Su-Mei had created for all of us.

Our first lesson was Coconuts 101. Su-Mei gathered us around to show us how to select and then prep the coconuts so they could be broken down. Basically you check the eyes at the bottom of the coconut to make sure they're clean, that the coconut is heavy for its weight, and by shaking it, make sure there's lots of liquid sloshing around inside. Once home, use a Phillips screw driver and a mallet to poke holes into the eyes and drain out the liquid (preferably on your plants, which will love it). Then put the coconut in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. The heat should help separate the shell from the meat once you whack it open. Don't toss the shells; save them for the next time you use your grill. Can't use the coconut meat immediately? Place it in a plastic bag with a serrano or Thai chili on the meat and keep it in the fridge.

Then we shuffled over to the curious little stools. Turns out they are Thai coconut shredders. Here's how you use them (and we all took a turn at it):

No shredder? No problem. Pull the meat away from the shell and use a peeler to get rid of any excess brown peel hanging on. Cut the meat into one-inch pieces and put in the food processor and chop until you have tiny shreds.

At this point, we're caught up with those on the little stools. For directions on how to make coconut milk, you can see my recent Local Bounty post.

Su-Mei continued with teaching us a variety of techniques as we worked--how to use a mortar and pestle, how to stir fry, how to squeeze limes and section oranges--within the context of the recipes we all made. One of the best, if simplest, recipes is her Savory Thai Salad Dressing. Take a look at how she demonstrated this to us, starting with pounding the garlic, as we followed along at our stations.

The afternoon concluded with lunch--made by all of us--eaten on the floor, Thai style.

And that salad? Gorgeous and tangy with fresh greens, finely sliced endive, sections of orange, toasted peanuts, shrimp coated with The Big Four Paste and grilled, and topped with toasted shredded coconut. It was surely one of the best salads I've ever had and one I'll certainly try to duplicate at home. Isn't that the point, after all?

Su-Mei Yu's Savory Thai Salad Dressing
Makes about 1/2 cup

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 to 3 Thai chiles, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (can substitute with agave syrup)
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional for vegetarians; if you leave out, increase the amount of salt)

Put the garlic, salt, and chiles in a mortar and pound with a pestle until the garlic is pureed and the chiles turn pulpy. Add the sugar and blend. Add the lime juice, orange juice, and fish sauce. Mix well. Taste for balance. Transfer to a bowl.

Saffron is at 3731-B India St.
Thuan Phat Market is at 6935 Linda Vista Rd.

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  1. Excellent article! I wish I would have signed up!

  2. She'll be doing it again the summer, I believe. Check Saffron's website and ask to be put on the email list.