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Demystified Thai


On a breezy, cool afternoon, serious students of Thai cookery jammed the patio of Jet Tila's home in Cheviot Hills.

Tila (that's short for Tilakamonkul) had just started monthly Thai cooking classes. It's good for his business--he owns the Bangkok Market in Los Angeles--and it obviously meets a need. More people signed up than the 15 he had anticipated. "The way the classes are filling up, I might do two a month," he said.

The mood was closer to a dinner party than to a classroom. The group spread out among tables set with white cloths, dinner plates and cutlery--no tiny paper cups with meager samples for this crowd. There were even seconds on some dishes, as well as jasmine rice as an accompaniment and beverages. No buffet line either. Tila had plenty of help to serve each table, provide fresh plates as needed and refill drinks.

"Five to 10 years ago, people would be sitting here, saying, 'What is all this stuff?' " Tila said, pointing to Thai ingredients displayed in big baskets. That's no longer true now that essentials like lemon grass and fish sauce have made their way into supermarkets.

Tila lifted a large, gnarled piece of galangal, then lemon grass, kaffir (Thai) lime leaves, a banana blossom, Thai and Chinese eggplants, a young green papaya and other fresh components that have crept from Thai recipes into contemporary fusion cuisine.

Dark and sweet soy sauces, fish sauce, coarsely ground dried red Thai chiles, salted turnip, bottled tamarind paste and chile paste with soybean oil nestled in another basket. "If you are cooking Thai food, try to stay with Thai ingredients," Tila said.

The day's menu included two appetizers and two main courses, with an eating break after the appetizer demonstration. Tila apologized in case his program seemed elementary. But apologies weren't necessary. There was lots to learn, the food was terrific and Tila made easy work of dishes that one would expect to be complicated.

Using the recipes as foundation stones, he explained how to alter them with a change of ingredients or proportions and how to modify them for vegetarians.

He started with hot and sour tom yum soup, based on Thai-style chicken stock seasoned with lemon grass, galangal and kaffir (Thai) lime leaves. What gives the soup its slightly oily, reddened look is chile paste with soybean oil. The paste contains sugar, tamarind, garlic, shallots, dried shrimp and other ingredients but only a small amount of chile, so it is not very hot. Tila finished the soup in no time and exclaimed, "Believe it or not, that's all tom yum is."

Thai stick, which Tila calls "knickknack food," is a secret family recipe, and Tila cautioned his audience not to tell that he had revealed it. Of course, this was all in fun, and the recipe was printed along with the others handed out to the group.

The stick is a bamboo skewer impaled with a single shrimp, which is then wrapped in fresh noodle strands and deep-fried. The noodles become puffed and crisp while the shrimp remains tender. One dips this into a sweet-sour sauce that is crunchy with crushed peanuts and pepped up with ground chiles. Ordinarily, the sticks are an appetizer. For a main dish, Tila would remove the shrimp bundles from the skewers, slice them like sushi rolls and arrange them on a pool of the sauce.

After the eating break, Tila started in on pad Thai: "The most popular Thai noodle dish in the world," he said proudly. He has simplified the procedure to make it exceptionally clear and easy. The recipe is based on dried rice noodles, chicken, shrimp and baked tofu, stirred with a tangy blend of fish sauce, tamarind paste, lime juice, vinegar and sugar. Tila adds paprika for cheerful color. And he garnishes the plate with red chile and green onion flowers, bean sprouts and peanuts. "Demystified pad Thai--right there," he said, holding the noodles aloft.

Moving on to pad krapow, a stir-fry of chicken and basil, Tila pondered how much hot chile to add. "Are you guys brush fire or four-alarm fire?" he asked, then put in enough chiles to start some people coughing.

After completing the dish, he turned the wok over to students and guided them through the steps. "I really like people to get a hands-on approach," he said. "It makes them more comfortable learning to cook Thai." Their efforts turned out so well that Tila could take pride in his teaching ability. "I have a lot of fun doing it," he said. "My goal is to simplify Thai food."

Tila has a cooking class hotline at (310) 355-8866. His e-mail address is

Pad Krapow

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

Instead of ground chicken, you can use diced chicken, diced pork, shrimp or even tofu.

2 to 3 tablespoons oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 to 4 large serrano chiles, thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups ground chicken

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce

3 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon chile paste in soybean oil

1 1/2 cups sliced white onions

1/2 cup sliced green bell pepper

1 cup Thai basil leaves

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