Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chef Cece de Castro's Mini Cooking Demo at Island Pacific Supermarket

The other week, I received a call from FilAm Chef Cecilia de Castro. "I will be doing a mini cooking demonstration at Island Pacific Supermarket on Saturday," she said. "Would you like to join me?" she inquired. Of course I did in a heartbeat. The last time we talked in person was on December 13, 2008, when the Pampanga Day Commission bestowed her with an "Outstanding Kapampangan" award at the San Gabriel Hilton. On that evening we talked about projects that we could collaborate on. She as a trail-blazing FilAm chef, and I as amateur cook. One of the things that we had agreed on prior to December 13 was to make myself available for a cooking demonstration at her culinary school in Northridge. When I told her that I have a food and cooking blog ( it started the ball rolling.

Saturday's mini cooking demo was held at the activity center of the Island Pacific Supermarket in Panorama City, the same venue where "Ploning", the movie was screened free to the public in December. When I got there, a large pot of beef sinigang was stewing, and Chef Cecilia, assisted by a gaggle of culinary students who are attending her culinary school in Northridge, California, was extolling the benefits of an array of sauces and mixes made by the popular Mama Sita brand. The audience was made up of homemakers -- men and women -- a Disneyland pastry chef who is a friend of Chef Cece's, and some female students from Chef Cece's culinary school. (Chef Cece's next big cooking gig will be in February when she will assist celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck cook at the after-Oscar Awards "Governor's Ball" in Hollywood).

The cooking demo, according to Chef Cece, was organized in about two weeks by her and "Kababayan L.A." host/producer Jannelle So. It was videotaped by Joey Gonzalez of DEMO (Diversified Entertainment and Media Organization) for future airing at KCSI Channel 18. It was a one-and-a-half hour cooking demonstration in which some of Mama Sita's mixes and sauces were featured, including the tamarind "sinigang" mix, the Pang Gisa mix, and the oyster sauce. Other pre-packaged processed foods like tocino were also used, for instance, in a green salad, prepared by Chef Cece. When my turn came, I prepared a simple, easy-to-cook veggie stir-fry consisting of American broccoli, green pea-pods (sitsaro) and mushrooms. I used the Mama Sita Pang Gisa mix, tossing the contents of a small envelope and adding 1/2 cup of water. No mixing, no slicing of onions and smashing garlic. No sweat.

The audience participated, often asking questions on how the entrees achieved this and that consistency, color and taste. Chef Cece and myself quizzed the audience with simple questions pertaining to the entrees the demo participants had prepared, and prizes -- Mama Sita products -- were given away to everyone with correct answers.

Cooking from scratch, using the freshest and homegrown ingredients, is the best way to go. But, let's face it, there are fresh ingredients like tamarind and kamias that are not readily available in the States, unless you are fortunate enough to have a tamarind or a kamias tree in your backyard. This is where companies, like Mama Sita, Pamana, Tropical, Pampanga Brand, UFC, McCormick and many others, come in. They process these ingredients into ready-to-use mixes and sauces freeing us cooks and homemakers from the task of finding and processing these indigenous produce so that we could cook an authentic sinigang, caldereta or adobo. They are time-savers, and yet, they retain their authentic essence and flavor. The tamarind sinigang mix is really piquant, the adobo mix is savory, and the lechon sauce is just right.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fine Dining is Alive in Cerritos' Issan Thai Restaurant

Thai cuisine, which is so popular in Southern California, has assumed a level of familiarity here that rivals that of Chinese cuisine. As a consequence, a few of the so-called "original" Thai restaurants in the Los Angeles area have lost some authenticity and novelty. I used to believe that Thai cuisine was engendered by a number of cookie-cutter Thai establishments that served pad thai, chicken barbecue and thom yum koong. These restaurants are a dime-a-dozen here in Southern California, and despite the establishment of more non-franchised Thai eateries, these California icons have dominated the dining scene for so long as to dictate the Angelenos' culinary preference.

In summer 2008, I was proven wrong when I was assigned to write a review of a newly-opened restaurant in the city of Cerritos. That restaurant is Issan Thai. After my first lunch there, I realized that fine Thai dining is alive and well and can be had in some restaurants in Southern California. Thai Issan's owner, a likable dyed-in-the-wool Southern Californian named Thomas Mulvihill, gave me a history lesson on the origin of his restaurant's name. Issan is Thailand's northeast region-- Mulvihill tells me -- where the culinary style is slanted toward spicy and hot. But his most welcome revelation was that Issan-style cuisine was his restaurant's specialty. The cooks, a Thai couple, are his mother- and father-in-law, Linda and Tony -- their Americanized names -- both fine, accomplished cooks in the Thai tradition.

Linda, who had lived in Issan, is a stickler for that region's cooking practices, and Tony, who grew up in Bangkok, is more laid-back. He cooks the straight-up Thai dishes. Of the two, Linda is the outspoken and gregarious type. She tells us she is very proud of Issan Thai because of its adherence to the culinary legacy of Thailand's northeast region. "You go to Phuket (a northern Thailand resort city), and some of the cooks in the restaurants are not even Thais," she rails. What she is trying to say is that authenticity is her claim to Thai culinary nirvana.

We ordered the shrimp rolls to whet our appetite (in photo), and it caught my attention because of the way the shrimp were wrapped, like seashells. We followed that up with the piquant thom yum koong soup, as a foil against the winter chill, then for a main entree, the garlic chicken, and a fried rice. The garlic chicken came nestled on a bed of shredded Napa cabbage. The fried rice had a hint of curry, but the amount was not overpowering as to dull the taste buds. Probably a concession to us East Asians who are not used to too much heat in our food.

Issan had recently raised its prices by about a dollar each for all their main entrees since they opened in Cerritos in 2008. But their portions are proportionately abundant, and I feel that avid Thai foodies like ourselves should pay a fair price for high quality and authenticity; these attributes are evident in their offerings and in the restaurant's ambiance.

If there such a thing as fine Thai dining in the Los Angeles basin, it can be found in a few restaurants like Issan Thai. It is located at a strip mall called Fountain Plaza on South Street, a half-mile east of the 605 Freeway. Don't expect to find a fountain -- a lawn sprinkler is more like it. But there is ample free parking, and the establishment is open every day except Tuesdays.

Linda and Tony have lived in California for many years and had cooked Thai foods almost all their lives, and a few years ago, in their original Thai establishment in nearby city of Norwalk. That restaurant had built a strong and devoted following among Latinos, Anglos, Asians, including a lot of Pinoys, before Tom decided to move a few miles west to Cerritos, right in the midst of restaurant row on South Street. Tom told me that some of these former customers had followed them to Cerritos. He even had some discerning words about the Pinoy's proclivity for Thai cooking. He said that the Filipinos' taste for food is more adventurous and he theorized he was not surprised that Pinoys loved Thai cuisine.

Having been piqued by Tom's choice of Issan as a restaurant namesake, I did a little research and I discovered in "Thailand, The Beautiful Cookbook," written by Panurat Poladitmontri and Judy Lew, and photographed by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni and John Hay that, indeed, Issan (called Essan in the book) had figured prominently in Thailand's history, and not just in it its culinary legacy. "Indeed, more and more frequently, one hears connoisseurs of Thai cuisine proclaiming that northeastern fare is the best in all that country," the authors declared. "Typical Essan dishes can now be found on the menus of the smartest Thai restaurants in Bangkok, and many of those humble side-street food shops are crowded with well-dressed diners as well as taxi drivers," the food writers noted in the book.

As in neighboring Laos, where Linda was born, and in northern Thailand, the food writers noted that glutinous rice is the staple, eaten either as a base for other dishes or as a sweet when steamed in a hollow piece of bamboo with coconut milk and black beans. Typical Laotian herbs such as dill or cilantro (coriander) also turn up as seasonings. "Perhaps in a sort of culinary reaction to their difficult lives, or perhaps merely because some of the traditional ingredients needed strong seasoning to make them more palatable, Northeasterners like their food not just spicy but very hot, and chili peppers are used with greater abandon than almost anywhere else," the authors noted.