“There are kind of two types of cookbooks out there,” chef Jet Tila, frequent Food Network contestant, host, and judge says. “There is the ‘Yo, slap a bunch of this on this, pow, bang, zoom,’” the succession of onomatopoeias suggesting a set of haphazard, 15-minute recipes. “And then there’s the ‘Whoa, here’s the thousand-year history of Vietnamese food before French people took over’ book.” Tila believes the first one doesn’t teach the cook anything, and the second one can be intimidating to anyone but a scholar. So, Tila says, he “split the difference” for this, his first cookbook, 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die, out now.
“I don’t fancy myself a scholar, but I’ve cooked a lot, I’ve studied a lot, and I’ve cooked my whole life,” Tila says. He’s cooked all over the world, opened restaurants across the country, has his own frozen foods line, and has set three world records: for creating the world’s largest stir fry (4,010 lbs.); the world’s largest seafood stew (6,656 lbs.); and the largest California roll (422 ft.). “I just want people to read this book and be like, ‘Oh, dude, I can do this,’” he says.
Tila’s friend and frequent collaborator Alton Brown wrote the book’s intro — and Tila says, was instrumental in making the book happen. “Alton basically said, ‘Jet, come on, get it together, you have to do this book,’” Tila says. “And who am I to argue with Alton?” A comprehensive guide to the most essential dishes from Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine, 101 Asian Dishes isn’t just a listicle of recipes but an intro course to Asian cooking.
“I call it birth luck,” Tila says. “I was born into the ‘first family’ of Thai food in Los Angeles.” Tila’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1966, and opened the first Thai restaurants and grocery stores inside LA’s Bangkok Market in the early 1970s. In 1978 they opened the famed Royal Thai restaurant, and one of the first dishes they put on the menu was pad Thai. Most Americans don’t realize that pad Thai isn’t actually Thai. It’s a Chinese dish that was adapted and decreed Thailand’s national dish — as part of a grand mission to modernize Thailand and ensure its citizens were eating healthfully — in the early 1940s by the country’s then Prime Minster. About 40 years ago it landed on American shores, thanks to entrepreneurs like the Tilas. Below, find the Tila family recipe for pad Thai.
The Last Pad Thai Recipe You’ll Ever Need
The most famous Thai dish in America! Making a good pad Thai takes time. There’s a delicate dance with the noodles because they cook in three stages. First you soak them in warm water and they begin to absorb water and soften. In the pan, they first get pan-fried with all the ingredients. Be patient in this stage. Allow them to begin to yield and marry with the hot oil and other ingredients. Once they look soft enough to eat right out of the pan but are slightly al dente, add the sauce to finish their cooking.
My family was among the first to introduce this dish to America over 40 years ago, and the American version differs slightly from the native one. The super bright orange was accentuated with paprika instead of the traditional addition of chili paste to give it a slight tint. And we typically finish this dish with garlic chives versus green onions. I always say pad Thai is like pancakes. You’ll burn a few before you get the knack for it.
SERVES 4 TO 6
Pad Thai Sauce
4 tbsp (60 ml) Thai fish sauce
3 tbsp (45 ml) bottled tamarind paste
1 tbsp (15 ml) lime juice
1 tbsp (15 ml) rice vinegar
4 tbsp (50 g) sugar
2 tbsp (30 ml) vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp (30 g) packaged shredded sweetened radish
1 tsp dried shrimp
½ cup (95 g) sliced baked tofu
½ cup (95 g) thin strips of chicken breast or thigh
10 large shrimp, peeled and cleaned
3 cups (750 g) medium rice sticks, soaked
2 tsp (10 g) paprika
3 green onions cut into 3" (8-cm) julienne
¼ cup (50 g) chopped dry-roasted unsalted peanuts, divided
1 cup (240 g) bean sprouts
For the Pad Thai Sauce
To make the sauce, combine the fish sauce, tamarind paste, lime juice, vinegar and sugar in a small bowl. Make sure to stir well until the sugar dissolves, then reserve.
For the Pad Thai
Heat a skillet or wok over high heat for about 1 minute or until the pan gets pretty hot. Add the oil and swirl to coat the pan completely. When the pan just starts to smoke, add garlic and stir about 5 seconds. Add 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 for about 30 seconds or until the eggs begin to set and scrape any bits that are starting to stick. Now stir together to combine all the ingredients in the pan.
Add the shrimp and allow to 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 about 2 to 3 minutes until soft. Add the reserved sauce mixture and paprika and fold together until the paprika evenly colors the noodles and all the liquid is absorbed, about 2 minutes.
Place the green onions in the center of the noodles, and then spoon some noodles over the green onions to cover and let steam for 30 seconds. Stir in 3 tablespoons (38 g) of the peanuts. Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with bean sprouts and the remaining peanuts.
From 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die by Jet Tila, Page Street Publishing Co. 2017.