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Thai : The Kit and I


It's possible to serve delicious Thai curries and soups, exoticsalads and desserts without knowing anything about the cuisine. The trick is to use packaged, ready-to-serve foods prepared by Thai markets, restaurants and caterers.

When you bring out something like miang kum , a salad of roasted coconut, diced ginger, red onion, lime, dried shrimp and peanuts tossed with a complex sweet sauce, friends will be amazed. For dessert? Maybe sangkaya-- coconut custard steamed inside a kabocha squash. Or foi thong-- delicate golden threads spun from egg yolks and sugar.

Making Thai snacks and sweets is an art--and a cottage industry. Recently, as I lunched at L.A.'s Sukothai, two Thai-Chinese women brought in a load of specialties they sell to Thai restaurants and grocery stores. Some boxes held coconut and palm sugar pudding on top of sweetened sticky rice. Others contained sweet coconut shreds dyed a gaudy orange and combined with shrimp and fragrant lime leaf. That too was a topping for sweet sticky rice. The way Thais mix up sweet and savory flavors, it's sometimes difficult for a Westerner to define exactly what is a dessert.

The Bangkok Market on Melrose Avenue is usually piled high with treats. There might be banana leaf-wrapped banana cakes; golden, flower-like cups made from sweetened egg yolks; dainty emerald-tinted cakes topped with sweet egg shreds (they're called Yoke Singapore) and crisp toast slices impregnated with butter and sugar. Boxes of sweet coconut milk "soup" contain corn kernels and gelatinous tidbits in rainbow colors. Mexican-sounding tako has a pudding base topped with thick, salted coconut cream. In Bangkok, tako comes in handmade leaf cups that hold barely a mouthful; here, the container is an unromantic plastic cup. Mundane packaging doesn't diminish the charm of brightly colored fruits that look like marzipan. Instead of almond paste, the fruits are filled with sweetened mung bean paste. And I thought I detected the delicate flavor of jasmine.

Across the street, Sermmit restaurant shows off its own sweets and some from Thai Town, a nearby eating place. Here you might see golden, oval egg yolk confections and spongy pancakes stuffed with pale-green cream. Like most of these food dispensaries, Sermmit sells the makings for a favorite Thai dessert: mangoes and sticky rice. The box contains a mango, a big wad of sticky rice, a container of sweetened coconut milk to pour over the rice and roasted mung beans for a crunchy, golden topping.

On weekends Thais crowd into the basement of Wat Thai in North Hollywood. Food sellers there dispense noodle soups, curries, sate, beef jerky, papaya salad, Thai-style dim sum and many other dishes. You can eat these at an outdoor picnic area under the trees--or you can take them home for dinner.

Lots of space is devoted to mangoes and sticky rice, and recently you could also get fresh durian and sticky rice. Fresh durian is exceedingly costly, but a couple of thin slices over rice with coconut sauce sold for $2.50 last weekend.

Cooks alternate, so you don't see the same things every time. One Sunday a woman was making khanom beuang , tiny folded pancakes filled with coconut shreds just like vendors sell on the streets of Bangkok. She swirled little circles of batter onto a griddle, added sweet coconut cream and shredded coconut. Thais love to make food decorative, so the coconut came in two shades--yellow and orange. Still warm and crisp, the dainty cakes were irresistible--and only $2 a box.

If you want to cook but are intimidated by Thai recipes, try the kits introduced by Sompun Thai Market and Spices in Studio City. They contain the fixings for curry, noodles or tom yum goong (hot-and-sour shrimp soup). That includes fresh vegetables and seasonings such as Asian eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, bean sprouts, Kaffir lime leaves, mint and jalapeno chiles. Depending on the dish, you also get red or green curry paste, a miniature can of coconut milk and a tiny bottle of fish sauce. The pad Thai kit even includes fresh rice noodles and an egg. All you add is meat or tofu.

The kits make one serving, but a green curry easily served four when I increased the meat and diluted the coconut milk with water. There were more than enough vegetables and seasonings.

Cooking instructions are on the labels. If they're not clear, ask for Sompun Jalanugraha, who packs the kits. She got the idea from her daughter, Toy Jalanugraha, who teaches Thai cooking in Northern California. Toy picked up the idea in Thailand, where busy people pick up similar kits at supermarkets.

Sompun Thai Market, which opened two months ago, is next to Sompun restaurant in Studio City, and the kits recreate the taste of the dishes served there. Restaurant blends for Thai tea and Thai coffee are on sale too, along with the cloth bags that Thais use to brew these beverages.

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