Fit to be Thai’d
Cover girl Su-Mei Yu dishes on Food & Wine
Uptown Food & Wine
By Ron JamesSan Diego chefs rarely get showcased in national food magazines. But the times, they are a-changing. The March cover of Food & Wine magazine features a dish by of one of the city’s culinary treasures: Su-Mei Yu, the owner of two popular local dining spots and an award-winning cookbook author.
The Food & Wine feature was about stealth health food, and the magazine’s editor-in-chief was challenged with finding chefs to create healthy recipes that “even a sausage fetishist would lust after,” she said.
In her article about Su-Mei, Emily Kaiser called her “a Thai genius.”
“In the search for balance, some people practice yoga, others time management, but Su-Mei Yu checks the weather, then heads to the kitchen,” Kaiser wrote. “Yu was raised according to Thai traditions; influenced by Buddhism, these hold that the key to balance, and physical health, lies in cooking and eating the right ingredients for the weather.”
When I asked Su-Mei about how her warm soba with grilled shrimp dish made it on the cover, she broke out in a laugh.
“That was a crazy, hair-raising experience,” she said. “I was getting ready to go to Rancho La Puerta near Tecate for a week to teach a class and I get this call from Food & Wine. They told me that if I wanted to be included in the story that I would have to come up with nine recipes.”
Su-Mei didn’t want to miss her classes, but she also didn’t want to miss out on a rare opportunity to be featured in one of America’s most popular culinary magazines.
“I only had one day until I had to leave for Mexico. It was either I do it or they find someone else,” she recalled. “So in one day I came up with nine recipes, shopped for the ingredients, tested them out and sent them to the editors.
“At Rancho La Puerta I got a call from the editor saying they loved the recipes. They actually published seven out of the nine I sent. It was amazing; they tested each one and they changed a little of this and that and asked if one could be a beef dish. I don’t cook beef so I said go ahead and make one of them beef.”
When I asked how they selected her dish for the cover, Su-Mei told me, “They put the photos of all the recipes for the March issue on the Food & Wine Web site. They asked visitors to pick their favorite for the cover photo, and they picked mine.”
Su-Mei Yu was born in 1945 to Chinese parents and raised in a modest “shop house” above her father’s antique store in a teeming Bangkok neighborhood. Her parents had moved to Bangkok to escape the World War II Japanese invasion and famine in their Shan Tung province.
Her journey and her passion for food began with her mother, Kwei Chai Yu.
“Although my mother was an exceptional cook who entertained dignitaries and friends alike in our humble home,” Su-Mei recalls in her cookbook “Cracking the Coconut,” “she never allowed us to help her in the kitchen. Instead she took us to the markets, allowed us to watch her as she cooked and told us endless stories about the food. This was how her children grew infatuated with food. Through her example, we are all lovers of food and dedicated cooks.”
At the age of 5, Su-Mei was enrolled in an exclusive all-girls Presbyterian boarding school founded by the Royal Court of Thailand. While there she met and admired the American missionaries and their families. When she was 15 one of the missionaries brought her and her cousin to an American mission boarding school in Midway, Ky.
Su-Mei didn’t take to the local grits and corn bread cuisine of the South. Fortunately for her, the dorms had a small kitchen where Su-Mei remembered her mother’s lessons and began cooking her beloved Thai food for herself. In her five years in Midway she developed culinary skills that would one day shape her life.
After high school graduation, Su-Mei moved to Southern California, ultimately earning a master’s degree in social welfare in 1969 from San Diego State University. After working 12 years as a social worker, she joined the SDSU faculty as an assistant professor in the social work graduate school.
“Today I’m doing social work at the restaurant,” Su-Mei told me, laughing. “I provide therapy through good healthy food.”
In 1985, to the surprise of her friends, Su-Mei decided to open Saffron Thai Chicken, one of the first Thai restaurants in San Diego, on India Street.
“I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business and Thai food was pretty unknown in San Diego,” Su-Mei recalled. “George Munger said I was crazy to get into the food business.”
The late George Munger was a San Diego restaurateur legend who had several high-profile eating establishments around town, including two in Uptown: Perfect Pan in Mission Hills and Cane’s in Hillcrest.
Despite Munger’s misgivings, he helped Su-Mei start her restaurant business.
“George taught me a lot,” she said. “He introduced me to the man with a chicken cooking machine. He said American people like bread with their meals, and I said no bread, this is Thai food. He told me they also like salad, and I said OK and we will have a salad. He said that diners like variety so I came up with five sauces for the chicken. He also gave me my start as a cooking teacher. He was really great to me.”
Soon that tiny take-out spot was cooking half a ton of chicken a day for San Diegans and visitors from all over the world. In 2002 she opened her second location right next to Saffron, Noodles and Saté, modeling it after small restaurants in Thailand.
“I opened that place because people wanted to sit,” she laughed. “And now we make all kinds of noodles. Beginning on Feb. 27 we are going to simulate the streets of Thailand every weekend on our patio. For four hours each day we will sell typical Thai street-food. It’s going to be very interesting to see how it goes.”
In addition to long hours at the restaurant, Su-Mei finds time to serve on several community boards, teach Thai cooking and author several cookbooks, including “Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking,” which won the Julia Child Award, and “Asian Grilling.” Her latest book, “The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living,” was published by John Wiley & Sons last year.
VIETNAMESE-STYLE GRILLED BEEF IN LETTUCE
In a recent interview in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Su-Mei described her approach to cooking as “like learning how to dance. You have to learn step by step. But most importantly, you have to listen to the music. It’s not just about chopping and pounding and stirring; it’s about understanding the essence, of knowing what a cuisine is all about, of seeing the transformation when ingredients combine and change flavors and textures.”
The dance steps to Su-Mei’s Vietnamese-Style Grilled Beef In Lettuce from her second cookbook, “Asian Grilling” (William Morrow; $25), are simple and reflect the wonderfully delicate Asian contrasts of sweet and savory, soft and crunchy, cool and warm. The beef is marinated overnight so it becomes juicy and tender with the rich flavors of the spices. After it is grilled, it is wrapped in rice paper along with fresh vegetables and herbs, and served with Vietnamese Sweet-and-Sour Sauce.
The recipe calls for nam pla (nahm PLAH), a popular Thai sauce made from fermented fish. It is quite salty and pungent, so use it with restraint. Su-Mei suggests purchasing it in glass, not plastic, containers. She also warns that if you can’t see through the sauce when you hold the container up to the light, don’t buy it. Nam pla is available at most specialty stores and some supermarkets. It also can be ordered from several online vendors including Amazon.com.
Purchasing the Vietnamese rice paper (banh tranh) used to wrap the meat and vegetables also requires some advance knowledge. Today, most “rice” paper is made from tapioca because it is less fragile and has a longer shelf life than rice. Unfortunately, this rice paper is tougher to manipulate and has less flavor, according to experts. If the label says flour (banh trang deo), it most likely means tapioca flour or starch is the main ingredient. Soak the tapioca variety in warm water to make it pliable, but avoid hot water, which will cause it to shrivel up.
5 garlic cloves, minced (2 1/2 tablespoons)
1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer layers and green parts removed, minced
3 shallots, minced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, roasted
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 pounds flank steak or tri-tip
Vegetable oil spray
16 (9-inch) round rice papers
1 head red or green leaf lettuce leaves separated, rinsed and thoroughly dried
12 to 16 mint leaves
12 to 16 cilantro sprigs
1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced lengthwise
Yields 6 to 8 servings.
Combine garlic, lemongrass, shallots, sugar, red pepper, salt, pepper, sesame seeds, fish sauce and sesame oil in large zippered plastic bag. Seal and toss bag back and forth to combine.
Score surface of beef. Add beef to plastic bag, seal and toss back and forth to coat. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or, for best results, overnight.
Heat grill. While waiting for grill to get hot, remove beef from refrigerator. Generously spray beef with vegetable oil and put on grill over medium heat. Grill, turning frequently to prevent burning, until outer layer is brown. Spray with vegetable oil to keep meat moist. Cover and grill until beef is medium-rare, about 25 minutes. Be sure to open air vents on top of grill cover. Transfer to serving platter. Let sit for 5 minutes before slicing into long, thin strips.
To serve, invite guests to bathe the rice paper, 1 sheet at a time, in a large bowl of very warm water. Shake off the excess water and lay the rice paper flat on the plate. When it is soft and pliable, line the center of the paper with a lettuce leaf. Top with 2 or 3 slices of beef, a few mint leaves, cilantro sprigs and some sliced cucumber. Roll into a cylinder and dip in the Vietnamese Sweet-and-Sour Sauce.
VIETNAMESE SWEET-AND-SOUR SAUCE
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons sugar
5 fresh bird chiles or 2 red serrano chiles, minced
3 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Yields 1/4 cup.
Pound garlic and sugar in mortar with a pestle into a paste. Add chiles and pound to crush them. Transfer to small bowl and add fish sauce and lime juice. Mix well and taste. If sauce is too pungent, add 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Serve, or store in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Add more lime juice if needed.
- From “Asian Grilling” by Su-Mei Yu