Sweet and Sour and Definitely Hot
Thai Chef Brings the Spirit of Her Homeland to the East Bay
Don’t be fooled by the down-home poetry that infuses Kasma Loha-unchit’s acclaimed cookbooks, or the pixie-ish charm of the diminutive author, teacher and travel guide. Far from the watered-down, mildly spiced curries at so many stateside Thai restaurants and the bland surface pleasantries commonly offered Westerners visiting Thailand’s resorts, hers is a realm where Thai food—and culture—gets real.
The reality this Friday morning for the Piedmont-area chef involves leading a class of advanced students through the markets of Oakland’s Chinatown. The morning begins with a cozy 8 a.m. Asian family-style breakfast beneath the fluorescents of Gum Kuo Restaurant, over shared congee with pork liver, preserved egg and mushroom; youtiao, or fried bread; and roasted pork and duck. Loha-unchit, as with all of her outings, orders for the mostly non-Asian students from throughout the country who chatter about the items they can’t get back home that they’ll be acquiring today: pandan essence without food coloring, fresh turmeric, sausage casings, preserved olives and dried anchovies.
As an old man bows a sonorous, moaning erhu on a nearby corner, we cruise the jammed Old Oakland Farmers Market, jostle elderly Asian ladies clanking metal shopping carts, and peruse head-turning pumpkin flowers and luxuriant branches of Thai chilies. Loha-unchit surveys a near-encyclopedic array of bitter melon, bottle gourds, winter melon and luffa, and she’s just as fast with her opinions and advice as she is about grabbing the choicest produce. “I like bottle gourd,” says the 57-year-old chef in a bright soprano. “And I like them young—they’re more tender and sweeter.”
She fondles the beauties before smiling and pulling a practiced hand away: “I always buy from one stall and see a better one in the next. It’s like, buy it now or later, and everyone’s grabbing, so you just don’t want to miss out.”
Avid foodies and professional chefs haven’t wanted to miss out on the beginning, intermediate and advanced cooking classes led by Loha-unchit in her sunlit house off Piedmont Avenue. Since 1985, the Bangkok native has been teaching intimate clutches of students out of her home and occasionally at cooking schools such as Tante Marie’s, transforming fresh, authentic ingredients into both Thai staples and regional rarities like crisped morning glory salad and fermented Northeastern-style sour pork sausage.
It’s a far cry from what she thought was her life’s work. After moving to the Bay Area in 1972 and receiving an MBA from UC Berkeley, she discovered life in the corporate world as a marketing analyst to be horribly unfulfilling. So she began exploring psychology—studying for a time at John F. Kennedy University—and Oriental medicine. Her friends, the lucky beneficiaries of her Thai feasts, suggested catering, opening a restaurant or teaching.
Teaching ended up being the most fun—so much so that Loha-unchit dropped out of JFK. “I’d rather do this than listen to people’s problems,” she recalls now, chuckling. “And it’s therapeutic. People come here tired from work at the end of the day for evening classes, and they’re—ah!—so happy when they leave.”
Loha-unchit’s lessons, serving pupils from as far away as Brazil and the Netherlands, eventually morphed into cookbooks: It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking (Pomegranate, 1995), which won a Julia Child Cookbook Award; and Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood (Simon & Schuster, 2000). And her in-class stories of Thailand have led to the tours throughout her homeland, where she takes groups of omnivores snorkeling, exploring tiny Hmong villages and downing obscure dishes and outright unmentionables like crispy, deep-fried bamboo worms.
Today, however, mission one is to get a few handsome gray-green bunches of lemongrass. “I usually look for nice, firm stalks—not real small and not real big around,” she says, selecting stalks nestled near bouquets of peppery rice paddy grass. Thick pieces—with the woody parts peeled or cut away and then sliced at a sharp angle in order to release the delicate, citrusy flavors—are ideal for stews and soups; the slender stems ideal for salads.
Loha-unchit and her students then make their way to Khanh Phong Supermarket where they find the ginger-like galanga that’s used in so much Thai cooking. Sparkling fresh, almost fleshy, pink and white gnarls rest near a bevy of betelnut leaves ready to be pounded along with the lemongrass for today’s curries and sauces.
“One of the great things about taking her class is that she’s not very big on technology,” says Mike Stambaugh. Loha-unchit “doesn’t even own a microwave. She teaches the way it’s traditionally been done. The great thing is that she has her mother’s mortar and pestle with a thumb imprint, worn in by decades of use. You just kinda grab a hold of history when you use it.”
After Loha-unchit acquires tilapia from Sam Yick market for the day’s recipe of charcoal-grilled salt-encrusted whole fish stuffed with herbs, we head back to her house to begin the 10 dishes she will be teaching that day. On arriving, we find delectable food: cheesebread-topped heirloom tomatoes, quail eggs that one carefully breaks then douses with homemade, lime-drenched chili sauce, and steamed cassava cakes rolled in coconut. Her lucky crew grazes while simultaneously toiling on dishes in compact teams throughout the day.
And taking a moment to taste and develop a palate for the balance of sweet, sour, hot and bitter flavors in Thai food is an essential part of Loha-unchit’s beginning courses. “It’s about the balance of fish sauce versus tamarind versus palm sugar and getting that salt-sour-sweet balance,” Washington, D.C.–based student Joette James says.
“That’s the trickiest part,” offers Betty Dye who traveled from San Diego to take the class, recalling that Loha-unchit instructs adding lime to lessen the saltiness of a dish. “Now I think I’m getting the hang of that. It’s not intuitive.”
That intricate balancing act applies to more than simply flavors: Loha-unchit is opening up and bringing together entire worlds amid the industrious clink of mortar and pestles. And it’s an act she clearly relishes, as she tells of another market outing with her husband, Michael Babcock, “Michael said, ‘We should pick up a few bitter melon.’ And an Asian woman looked at me and said, ‘He likes bitter melon?’ I said, ‘He loves bitter melon,’ and she said, ‘Oh, you have him well-trained!’ ”
For more information on Kasma Loha-unchit’s Thai cooking classes, tours and writing, and her homeland’s cuisine, go to www.thaifoodandtravel.com.
—By Kimberly Chun
—Photography by Amy Perl
—Photography by Amy Perl