Three Asian chefs make our belly ache for more
Said “doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take?”
I said “Doctor, to relieve this belly ache,”
I said “Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take?”
I said “Doctor, to relieve this belly ache.”
Now lemme get this straight,
You put de lime in de coconut, you drank ‘em bot’ up,
You put de lime in de coconut, you drank ‘em bot’ up,
You put de lime in de coconut, you drank ‘em bot’up,
You put de lime in de coconut, you call your doctor, woke ‘im up,
from Nilsson Schmilsson
by Harry Nilsson
Aside from izakayas (April 2008), I’ve yet to bring Asian restaurants into the Dish-Off challenge. So when Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” came up as a possible song title for the challenge, I knew this was an opportunity. And when chefs from Indonesian, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants rushed to participate, exotic dishes like opor ayam, yum hua plee, and bo tai chanh weren’t far behind.
At a homey Ravenna bungalow called Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen, Chef Julia Suparman serves up sticky-rice filled with lemongrass chicken that’s bathed in coconut gravy (lemper), and a limey, chicken turmeric soup with bean thread noodles (soto ayam) to start my meal. But it’s the wonderfully coarse, lime-spiked peanut sauce on the gado-gado salad that makes me realize why UW students flock here for home-cooking.
I’m sold when I get tumpeng: a cone of coconut-lime rice flanked by a pair of curries. Rudy Tanumihardja, Julia’s husband, tells me the conical shape is ceremonial. The guest of honor traditionally cuts the “mountain peak” to start service. The chicken curry (opor ayam, from Java) is subtle; the coconut overshadows the citrus flavor of the kaffir lime leaves. I prefer the beef slow-cooked in red curry (rendang, from Sumatra) for its better balance of lime and coconut, as well as herbal elements like cinnamon, basil, and ground chili. Watching me add hearty amounts of homemade chili sauce, Rudy summons Julia to break out a Thai bird pepper concoction laced with garlic. They admire how well I can handle the additional heat, playfully proposing that I must be Sumatran, people who are known for being hot-headed, and not Javanese, people who are more mellow. We laugh, and I feel at home in this family-run restaurant.
Downtown at the fancy food corner of 1st and Union is Thoa’s, where Chef Thoa Nguyen sends out a martini glass, but instead of liquid refreshment there’s a dose of poisson cru. It’s like ceviche, but the ahi marinates in lime just long enough to turn the outside opaque, then the coconut coats the fish to smooth out the flavor; it’s a good showcase of the theme ingredients. In another fish course, I’m impressed how well coconut milk caramelizes (bringing together chili paste, shallots, lemongrass, cilantro and lime juice) in the herbed lime-coconut swordfish; the cold rice noodles are a nice offset to the warm fish.
The highlight of the meal is bo tai chanh: Vietnamese “carpaccio” tossed in lime juice. The beef’s got great zing, with garlic oil packing additional punch (as does culantro, rice paddy herb, and Bird’s eye chili). Roasted peanuts, roasted shallots, and fried garlic also play their parts. Thoa explains that this is a tough dish to prepare, as it’s completely made-to-order; chefs must slice the tenderloin very, very thin and find the right balance of all the flavors, including fresh herbs. I don’t usually think of beef as refreshing, but this is light and satisfying. Thoa tells me she loves cooking with meat, and those who’ve had her Vietnamese version of steak frites testify to her skills.
May looks like a Thai temple (of food) dropped down on the main drag of Wallingford. Chef May Chaleoy brought teak walls and furnishings from Thailand for an authentic feel. Courses like tom ka (like the better-known tom yum soup featuring chicken and galangal root, but with coconut milk to take out some of the sourness) and how mouk talay (seafood red curry cooked in a fresh young coconut shell) are beautifully presented with ornamental dishes, pots, and utensils. Both dishes, by the way, are delicious.
May is the one restaurant to put lime and coconut in every dish, as well as in a welcoming young coconut lime drink (nam pa plow). Standouts include my starter of deep fried Siamese watercress (yum pak boong smeared with coconut cream). I crave crispy vegetables, and the accompanying lime-coconut dressing compels me to lick the bowl. Another dish I don’t see in any of Seattle’s six million Thai restaurants is banana blossom salad (yum hua plee). The interior flower pieces are steamed in coconut milk, tossed with finely chopped shrimp and pork, and served back in the exterior flower. A palm sugar-lime dressing adds a balanced, sweet and sour finish. These two dishes make me re-think the meaning of the Thai word “yum.” (It actually means “salad.”) As I look around the dining room, I see that the banana blossoms are part of what makes diners marvel at May’s tableside-prepared pad Thai.
All three restaurants serve up desserts that suit the theme. Julia’s coconut-lime sponge cake (bika ambon) is squishy and soft in spots, reminiscent of a canele, while Thoa’s cassava cake (made with grated cassava and coconut milk) is a dense delight topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and mango syrup. But my favorite is May’s crème brulee served with toasted coconut flakes and three spoons of kaffir lime leaf-flavored pineapple confit—all on a gorgeous, elongated wooden tray.
In choosing this month’s (Put the Lime in the) “Coconut” participants, I realize I didn’t just choose three Southeast Asian restaurants, but I got three female immigrants (Julia from Jakarta, Thoa from Hanoi, and May from Bangkok) who have come to America and proudly stamped their names on these restaurants. These culinary artists, largely self-taught, invite us to experience their native countries through their countries’ cuisines. You can find them in their kitchen chopping vegetables, slicing meats, grinding spices, and mashing up pastes to please their customers and make their businesses succeed. I admire and respect these women for their courage and their cooking. All three chefs are winners, so I declare this “Coconut” Dish-Off a tie. In that spirit, starting next month, Dish-Off will compare and contrast two participants’ efforts in non-competitive fashion—though watch for a year-end playoff to determine the overall “top chef.”
Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen
- Lemper (sticky rice filled with lemongrass chicken)
- Soto ayam (chicken in turmeric soup served with bean thread noodles and cut, boiled eggs)
- Gado-gado (green leaves, cabbage, fried tofu, potatoes, and eggs simmered in peanut sauce dressing)
- Rendang (slow-cooked beef in red curry) and opor ayam (chicken in white coconut curry) with rice
- Bika ambon (Indonesian coconut-lime sponge cake)
- Poisson cru (raw fish cooked with lime juice and mixed with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, peppers and coconut milk)
- Bo tai chanh (“Vietnamese carpaccio” tossed in lime juice and garlic oil – served over tomato, cucumber, culantro, rice paddy herbs and birds-eye chile)
- Herbed lime-coconut swordfish with rice noodles and nuoc mam
- Cassava cake
- Yum pak boong (crispy Siamese watercress with spicy lime-coconut dressing)
- Tom ka (lemongrass, kaffir leaf and galangal root in spicy lime soup with coconut milk, fresh oyster mushrooms, cilantro and chicken)
- Yum hua plee (flower of banana leaf steamed in coconut milk and tossed with finely chopped shrimp and pork – served with palm sugar dressing)
- Haw mouk talay (red curry with seafood cooked in a fresh young coconut shell)
- May’s creme brulee (with toasted coconut and kaffir lime leaf-flavored pineapple confit)
All photos in the post by Rina Jordan. (Click to enlarge them.)
Here are photos of the other dishes from this Dish-Off.
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.