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Ticket to Thailand

June 01, 2008|by laurie winer | Laurie Winer is a contributing editor at the magazine. Contact her at laurie.winer@latimes.com.

Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong came to Los Angeles in 1979 with $200 and a suitcase. Like many immigrants, she also came with a head full of recipes from her village--in this case, Pak Panang in southern Thailand. Among her 12 siblings, she was known for her cooking: "Everything I make, I make delicious," she says. One of her favorite dishes was khao yam--an elaborate rice salad that's a specialty of the region.

Her transition to L.A. life was not easy. At her first job she made $1.50 an hour. She worked at the Biltmore Hotel on weekdays and at various restaurants on the weekend. When her eldest brother Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee came to visit, his 4-year-old daughter Sugar refused to leave L.A. "She was this big," says Sungkamee, pointing to a spot not far above the floor. "She knew what she wanted." Sungkamee ended up moving to L.A., as, eventually, did eight of their siblings.

It was 27 years before Singsanong was able to open her restaurant and serve the dishes of her village the way she wanted to. She (along with other family members) took over Jitlada, a long-established restaurant in Thai Town, in 2006, with Sungkamee working as chef and Singsanong running the front of the house. It wasn't long before the Thai community caught on, and now the restaurant has a cult following among lovers of its searingly spicy, yet wonderfully nuanced, southern Thai cooking.

Khao yam is made a bit differently in almost every village in the south, and Singsanong's version is a standout--a gorgeous confetti of jasmine rice, mango, green beans, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, Thai chiles, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, bean sprouts, coconut and dried shrimp.

Though she often tosses the salad in the restauant kitchen, for diners she thinks might appreciate a show, she brings the ingredients, beautifully arranged as a composed salad, to the table, adds a squeeze of lime, spoons on some sauce, and carefully tosses it in front of them. Her brother makes the sauce, the complexity of which Singsanong says sets it above the rest. Most people, she adds, don't have the patience to get it right. Sungkamee cooks it at least four hours--and sometimes eight--and once for so long that he almost burned down the restaurant.

The sauce is not difficult to make; it just takes practice, Singsanong says, to get the correct balance of salty (the base is budu, fermented anchovy sauce), sour (kaffir lime) and sweet (palm sugar)--as well as the flavor of the herbs (lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal--Thai ginger).

In order to make your salad resemble Singsanong's extraordinary mosaic, you must have a very sharp knife and be able to perform a variety of cuts with patience and some skill.

The cuts go like this: The lemon grass stalk is cut in very thin discs ("otherwise someone could choke!" Singsanong notes). So are the green beans. The carrot is peeled and shredded. The cucumber is decoratively peeled and thinly sliced. The mango is peeled and julienned ("that way, it's not watery," she says). The kaffir lime leaves are cut into a fine chiffonade. The cabbage is shredded. The Thai chiles are thinly sliced.

Toast sweetened shredded coconut to a golden brown, pulverize dried shrimp in a food processor, and you have all the paints in your paint box.

Then, of course, there's the sauce, which pulls the whole dish together. Bring it all to the table, and your guests will have a sense of the colors and smells of southern Thailand, an exceptionally gracious and beautiful part of the globe.

--

Jitlada, 52331/2 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles;

(323) 667-9809.

Khao yam [Thai Rice Salad]

Adapted from Jitlada restaurant

Serves 4Scant 2 cups steamed jasmine rice

2/3 cup seeded and sliced cucumber

(sliced lengthwise into thirds, then

crosswise into 1/8-inch slices)

2/3 cup thinly sliced cabbage

1/2 cup very thinly sliced lemon grass*

(sliced crosswise)

1/2 cup thinly sliced green beans

(sliced crosswise)

2/3 cup bean sprouts

2/3 cup julienned mango

1 cup julienned carrot

1/4 cup coarsely ground dried shrimp*

(ground in a food processor or

spice mill), or more if desired

1/4 cup sweetened shredded coconut

1 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

1 teaspoon fine chiffonade of

kaffir lime leaves* (tightly roll

1 to 2 leaves and slice to make

hair-thin strands)

Thinly sliced Thai chiles*

(optional)

5 tablespoons khao yam sauce,

or more if desired

2 lime wedges, or more if desired

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