L.A. native and celebrated chef Jet Tila (chefjet.com) discusses his cultural influences, favorite dishes and latest cookbook, 101 Thai Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die.
Chef Jet Tila’s new cookbook features popular recipes, like his classic pad Thai. REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM 101 THAI DISHES YOU NEED TO COOK BEFORE YOU DIE BY JET TILA AND TAD WEYLAND FUKUMOTO, PAGE STREET PUBLISHING, CO. 2022. PHOTO BY KEN GOODMAN
What inspired you to write this book, and why now? I’ve been known for being from the first family of Thai food but never wrote a Thai cookbook. I wanted to write a book that everyone could use, from novice to expert.
How do these recipes draw from your cultural background? My family has had restaurants for three generations. We’ve been cooking and serving food for over 80 years. My grandparents are all from China, then moved to Thailand, and our food represents that. Then, my parents moved to the States in ’66, and I saw Thai food proliferate in America. This book is a diary of recipes and food moments in that journey.
What’s something people might not know or understand about Thai cuisine? I think most people love how palate-friendly and delicious Thai food is, but [they may] not [know] the why. Thai food has been this very natural mixing of cultures and food over time. Thai food is between Chinese and Indian cultures and [reflects] the biodiversity in ingredients.
How has the cuisine evolved over the years since your family operated a Thai grocery store and restaurant? Thai food was pretty sweet back in the day, but it was that sweetness that got a lot of people into the cuisine. The classic Thai American dishes like pad Thai, satay, [and] curry and beef salad will always be popular, but coastal cities now are into regional Thai food.
Chef Jet Tila's cashew chicken PHOTO BY KEN GOODMAN
How have you tried to make Thai cuisine accessible through your recipes and ingredients? I just try to explain things and keep them simple—give people context and show them that any cook can make Thai food. My job is to explain the pantry [and] some history, and show techniques that will get anyone to cook Thai.
What are a few of your favorite recipes from the book? Some of my favorite dishes are street-style spicy basil, roast duck red curry and pad see ew. I learned that style of Thai basil pork from eating off the streets in Bangkok, watching and asking lots of questions.
Tell us about the range of the recipes, from classics to street food to plant-based dishes, and how you selected them. I wanted this book to be used [and] cooked through, and [to] inspire. My hope is that this collection reflects how most people eat Thai. A majority are the classics, then my family favorites that tell my story. I wanted to add a plant-based section because I’m plant-based a few times a month.
What L.A. projects are you currently involved in? I’ll be on a few Food Network shows this year. I am a partner in Pei Wei and Dragon Tiger restaurants. I also work in the corporate food world with Compass Group, NBC Universal and others.
MY CLASSIC PAD THAI
Makes: 2 servings
3-4 cups (360-480 g) soaked medium rice stick noodles, or fresh
PAD THAI SAUCE
4 Tbsp. (60 ml) fish sauce
3 Tbsp. (45 ml) tamarind concentrate
1 Tbsp. (15 ml) fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp. (15 ml) unseasoned rice vinegar
4 Tbsp. (60 g) white sugar
2 Tbsp. (30 ml) canola or other high-temperature cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. (15 g) packaged shredded sweetened radish
1 tsp. dried shrimp
½ cup (125 g) savory baked tofu, cut into slices
½ cup (70 g) thin strips of chicken breast or thigh
10 large-medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 Tbsp. (7 g) paprika, for color
3 scallions, cut into 3-inch (8-cm) julienne
¼ cup (30 g) chopped dry-roasted unsalted peanuts, divided
1 cup (125 g) bean sprouts, garnish
If you’re using dry noodles, soak them in a large bowl of warm water for about an hour. The water should be about 90 F (32 C). The noodles will start to absorb water and loosen up. Drain them well, reserving some of the soaking water to adjust the texture later if needed, and set aside. If you’re using fresh noodles, you can just open the package and add them to the pan at the appropriate time.
To make the sauce, combine the fish sauce, tamarind concentrate, lime juice, vinegar and sugar in a small bowl. Make sure to stir well until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat for about 1 minute, until hot. Add the oil and swirl it to coat the pan completely. When you see wisps of white smoke, add the garlic and stir-fry for about 5 seconds. Add the radish, dried shrimp and tofu and stir-fry until they begin to get fragrant, about 1 minute.
Push the ingredients in the wok to one side and let the oil settle in the center of the pan. Crack the eggs into the pan and add the chicken. As the eggs start to fry, just pierce the yolks to let them ooze. Fold the chicken and eggs over, scrape any bits that are starting to stick and cook for about 30 seconds or until the eggs begin to set. Now stir everything together to combine it all in the wok.
Add the fresh shrimp and cook for about 30 seconds, until they just start to turn color and become opaque. Add the soaked (and drained) rice noodles and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the noodles become soft. Add the reserved sauce mixture and the paprika and fold together until the paprika evenly colors the noodles and all the liquid is absorbed, about 2 minutes.
Place the scallions in the center of the noodles, and then spoon some of the noodles over the scallions to cover and let steam for 30 seconds. Stir in 3 Tbsp. (24 g) of the peanuts. Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with the bean sprouts and remaining peanuts.