Notes from the Test Kitchen: Jitlada's khao yam
Check out the current issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and you'll find Laurie Winer's story on Sarintip Singsanong (friends call her "Jazz"), owner of Jitlada restaurant in Hollywood. Jitlada specializes in Southern regional Thai food, and the magazine was able to procure the recipe for its famous rice salad (khao yam).
As with the Food section, all recipes for the Times Magazine are thoroughly tested before publication. We received the recipe to test, not realizing that parts of it would be so difficult to crack. The salad itself was simple: a colorful display of finely shredded vegetables around a garnished mound of steamed rice. It was the dressing that got us...
Like many restaurant dishes we test, the dressing had no formal recipe. Jazz's brother Tui (the chef) makes gallons of the sweet, herbal, fish sauce-based dressing at a time -- each batch is enough for 400 to 500 salads. He throws in a little of this, and maybe a little of that, constantly adjusting and simmering each batch for about 8 hours so the flavors merge and harmonize.
The Test Kitchen was charged with adapting the dressing, adjusting the volume (honestly, who's going to want dressing for 500 salads in their fridge?) and total time (nix the 8 hours). Our original tests, based on notes between Jazz, Tui and Laurie, yielded about a quart of dressing and took only 4 hours to make, but it tasted nothing like the balanced sauce at the restaurant. Ours tasted like salty, burnt caramel and charred herbs.
After a couple more tests, I decided to visit Jazz and Tui at the restaurant, hang out in the kitchen and watch them prepare the dressing and salad. I've included some cellphone pictures from my restaurant visit, including exactly how the lemongrass -- just one component -- is crushed and chopped before it's infused in the sauce, as well as how the sauce should look in the pan (we needed to determine the total liquid volume, as well as the ratio of solids to liquids).
We still had trouble figuring out the dressing. The flavor and texture were almost there after a few more tests, but we still weren't getting the rounded fish flavor of the restaurant's version. Our recipe instructions called for a budu (a Thai anchovy-based fish sauce) base, but the fish flavor was one-note. We felt something was missing. Finally, on a whim, we threw in some ground shrimp and allowed the sauce to steep an additional 10 minutes. It worked -- the flavors were rounded, and the sauce tasted true to the original.
-- Noelle Carter
Photos by Coral Von Zumwalt and Noelle Carter