It was in the small border towns of Thailand that I learned about the various ingredients, practices and techniques of Thai cuisine. No amount of research or studying could have taught me the skills I learned while traveling. Throughout my journey, I was able to clear up a lot of preconceived notions about Thai food. It truly takes feet on the ground to get immersed in the culture. The typical Thai cuisine served in the U.S. has been so severely altered to appeal to the Western palate that some dishes are merely shadows of their true selves. Discovering this only made me want to share my love for true Thai cuisine and culture more.
In cooking, I always believe that the extra, often dreaded steps are what separate the ordinary from the great. Often these extra steps save time in the long run and always produce a better result. At Aep, we use a mortar and pestle to grind ingredients, cook only with charcoal on a Thai-style grill, and have several specialty tools and techniques that aren’t always simple but yield the best result. If we don’t have the right tool for the job, we don’t offer the dish. There are several things I’d love to make that just couldn’t be re-created in an appropriate way here in the States. Yet!
At home, I am lucky to have my daughter, Ava, to ensure that the simple, but necessary, extra steps are always taken. She has a great palate and will often catch some seasoning adjustments while I am cooking—“This needs salt” or “That needs sugar.” Ava is always willing to try new dishes, which is helpful when I’m testing new recipes. A few bites and the dish will either get a thumbs up or a “It’s not really my thing.”
My inspiration for dishes inside and outside of the restaurant varies. I don’t allow myself to be pigeonholed into strictly Thai native dishes because neither does Thailand cuisine. Some dishes are inspired by street snacks, some from third-generation institutions specializing in one—and only one—dish. Here are a few of my favorite recipes that were inspired by my recent travels to Thailand and Myanmar.
At the age of 17, Jakob Polaco, owner of Aep, was working at a Thai restaurant in Joplin, Missouri, with plans to go to art school. After moving to Oregon for a scholarship at the Art Institute in Portland, he realized that he missed the kitchen. He quickly transitioned to the Oregon Culinary Institute, thriving in the fast-paced environment. It was while he was in culinary school that his passion and interest in Thai cuisine grew. After graduating, moving to Kansas City and working in some of our town’s most prestigious restaurants, including the American, The Rieger and Port Fonda, he realized it was time to pursue his goal of opening an authentic Thai restaurant, which inspired his culinary travels through Southeast Asia. It’s Aep’s mission to faithfully adapt and represent regional Thai cuisine. Aep is located at 1815 W. 39th St.
I always enjoy finding dishes in Southeast Asia that are reminiscent of American mainstays. So when I first had banh kep la dua, or pandan waffles, in Vietnam, and later having gai tod had yai, or Southern Thai fried chicken, I felt like I had struck gold. Betel nuts, with a similar flavor profile to sarsaparilla, seemed a perfect syrup choice. Unusual ingredients, such as the dried betel nuts or pandan leaves, can be found at several local ethnic grocery stores, including Pan Asia, Chinatown Food Market or 888.
2 pandan leaves
11/4 cups coconut milk
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon green food coloring
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup coconut flakes (unsweetened)
1 cup all-purpose flour
In small saucepan place the pandan leaves, coconut milk and sugar to simmer on low for ten minutes. Remove the leaves and cool. In a small bowl, combine the egg and green food coloring with the coconut milk mixture. In a separate bowl sift together salt, cornstarch, coconut flakes and flour. Gently fold wet into dry just to combine. Working in batches cook waffles in oiled waffle maker.
5 garlic cloves
1-2 cilantro roots (or substitute stems)
1½ tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons Thai black soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
1½ pounds chicken wings, thighs or legs
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup rice flour
½ cup shallots, thinly sliced and fried
Vegetable oil for deep fryer
Combine garlic, cilantro, sugar, soy, both peppers and salt in a mortar and pestle and grind until it’s a smooth paste. Alternatively, a blender can be used. Place chicken in a large zip-lock bag and add paste. Rub paste on chicken, and then add water. Marinate for 3 hours. Add rice flour to the bag and work to combine. In a deep fryer set to 325 degrees, fry chicken until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Transfer to a rack and let rest until ready to serve. Garnish with fried shallots.
BETEL NUT SYRUP
½ cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dried betel nut, lightly crushed
In a saucepan, place all ingredients over medium-low heat whisking often until sauce coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 15 minutes. Strain and reserve.
1/8 cup key lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon palm sugar (pounded until smooth)
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 cantaloupe (grilled and diced)
1/4 cup mint leaves, chopped
1 shallot, thinly sliced
½ cup roasted unsalted peanuts
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Whisk together lime juice, salt, pepper, palm sugar and chili flakes. Add remaining ingredients and toss together. Serve.
16 ounces ginger ale (I always use Maine Root ginger ale)
4 cups carrots, diced
16 ounces coconut water (preferably with pulp)
Salt to taste
Simmer all ingredients together until carrots are fall-apart tender. In a blender, puree until smooth and add salt to taste. Serve.
Durian Creme Brûlée
The durian gets a bad rap. Ask someone else if you’re looking to hear anything negative about this lovely and very complex fruit. It is naturally custardy and rich so the thought of putting it in a crème brûlée seemed obvious.
¾ pound palm sugar, softened with 2 tablespoons of hot water
1 teaspoon tapioca starch
2 ounces durian pulp (found frozen at most Asian markets)
½ teaspoon salt
Sugar to brown on top
Combine all ingredients thoroughly in a blender, then transfer to four crème brûlée ramekins. Place on a deep oven-safe tray and fill the tray halfway up with water. Place in a 325-degree oven and check every 5 minutes until custard is set. Shake sugar over the top and using a torch, brown the top until golden brown and crisp.