Keo’s Thai Cuisine by Keo Sananikone
If you know Honolulu, you will probably know the name Keo Sananikone, king of Thai cuisine in Hawaii. Keo, who holds a degree in architecture from the University of Washington, opened his first Honolulu restaurant in 1977, “Mekong,” which was so successful he soon opened “Mekong II,” and finally the famous “Keo’s Thai Cuisine” on Kapahulu Avenue, a strikingly attractive restaurant filled with a jungle of plants and colored umbrellas, a feast for the eye as well as the palate.
When my wife and I lived on Oahu in the mid-1980s, we used to go to Keo’s for every special occasion we could dream up, making the drive over the Pali Highway from where we were living on the windward side of the island. The first thing we’d do, while browsing the list of appetizers, was order a round of mango daiquiris – it’s thirsty work trying to decide between Bangkok Stuffed Wings and Crisp Fried Crab Claws. Frankly, a mango daiquiri is to die for. Here’s how it’s made, courtesy of Keo’s Thai Cuisine, the book rather than the restaurant, first published in 1985, revised and republished in 1999.
For two drinks, combine in a blender 2 ounces of light rum, 1 large mango (peeled and seeded), 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, and a teaspoon of sugar. Blend at a high speed for 30 seconds, gradually adding a scoop of cracked ice. Drink without further delay.
You are now ready for Thai cooking, de-mystified and often remarkably quick and easy. Keo begins his wonderful cookbook with a glossary of commonly used ingredients in Thai cuisine, and how to use them. We learn, for instance, that kaffir lime leaves take eight to ten years to mature on a plant and that you can substitute bay leaves if your local Asian market doesn’t carry them. Or there’s lemon grass, also called citronella, an herb that provides a distinctive lemony flavor; to prepare fresh, crush the lower part of the stalk, then chop them finely . . . or substitute the zest of half a lemon.
Sadly, I live far from Hawaii today, and far from Asian grocery markets, so I’m grateful for this mention of substitute possibilities. Kaffir lime leaves may stump eager gourmets like me who live in remote places, but most of the other ingredients you will need – curry paste, fish oil, coconut milk, etc. – can be found today in the Oriental section of any large supermarket. The rest is easy: Sa-Teh On Skewers, Son-in-Law Eggs, Calamari Salad with Fresh Lemon Grass, Lobster with Pineapple, Thai Roast Duck, Cashew Chicken, Beef With Fresh Sweet Basil . . . Keo makes all these dishes and more possible to the home chef. And when you’re really good, you can try “Evil Jungle Prince with Mixed Vegetables,” or even make your own green curry paste from scratch.
Good cookbooks do more than provide specific recipes, they give you the general idea of a cuisine with room to improvise. My own personal favorite of Keo’s Thai Cuisine is the curry section. With a few tablespoons of curry paste (red or green) and coconut milk, a whole world of possibilities soon opens up – add mushrooms, shrimp, chicken, tofu, snow peas, cashews, a red pepper, zucchini, anything at all, a Thai stirfry extravaganza depending on your mood.
Keo’s cookbook is perfect for anyone, like me, who wants to get started on Thai cooking and learn the basics of one of our planet’s most deliciously intriguing cuisines. And don’t forget those mango daiquiris to inspire a Bangkok frame of mind!
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