By Harrison Liao
I didn’t know anything about Chinese food until I found out how much I didn’t know about Chinese food.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s from Hunan, a landlocked province in central China. They had me in 1994 in Ann Arbor, while they were pursuing graduate engineering degrees at the University of Michigan. The first food I ever put in my mouth was sourced with simple, affordable ingredients and recipes passed down to them from my parents’ upbringings. I thought this was Chinese food in its totality.
Early 2000s Michigan was a Chinese food desert, to put it nicely. I remember frequenting all-you-can-eat buffets, stocked with macabre trays of Jell-O, sweet-and-sour soup, deep-fried wontons and orange chicken — fare one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in China. I thought this was Chinese food, too, and that it offered the Americanized underside to what my parents and grandparents cooked. I thought, with these two “cuisines” working parallel to one another, that they made up Chinese food in its totality.
Then, in 2004, I moved to Shanghai, one of China’s most populated metropolises and an international food hub,. It shattered my eating paradigm. It was the first time I experienced the fine-dining Chinese food scene, as well as the eight distinct Chinese regional cuisines, many of which find representation in Shanghai’s restaurant network. And the buffets where I grew up eating were nowhere to be found. I realized, with what I thought I knew scattered in pieces on the kitchen floor, that I knew nothing about Chinese food at all.
He moved to the U.S. from Thailand 12 years ago. He was a computer science student at DePaul University, with no plans to open his own restaurant. But after working in the restaurant industry as a server, Suriyawan decided to give Chicago a taste of khao rad gang — a form of street-style eating ubiquitous in Thailand. This features a spread of fragrant dishes laid out behind a counter for you to pair with a heaping plate of rice or noodles. No crab rangoon or deep-fried spring rolls here.
In that way, Suriyawan’s restaurant hopes to teach people what Thai food really is. Customers are invited to freely sample every item at the counter – Suriyawan calls it his “curry bar” – for free before purchasing. Some dishes are spicy, like the Pad kra prao, while others are pungent, like the Gaeng Tai Pla; Almost all burst with a remarkable depth of flavor, as if Suriyawan is trying to prove, through joyful, culinary shock, just how vast the world of Thai food can be.
Maybe this way, through restaurant’s like Immm, someone growing up in the Midwest won’t have the same misgivings about what food in Thailand really tastes like, like I had with Chinese food.
Suriyawan shares his journey and his restaurant philosphy, with Medill Reports.
What kind of food did you grow up eating as a kid?
Night markets in Thailand, street-food style. That’s the food I remember. I’m 34 now and, you know, 20 years ago I remember there was tons of this kind of food in and around the city.
Now, there’s not as much street food in the city.
Where in Thailand are you from?
Chiang Mai. It’s a big city. So, if you go to more suburban areas, or just to a city that isn’t as busy, you see a lot more of the street food and night markets. In Chiang Mai, you’re starting to find a lot more sit-down, restaurant-style food.
What’s are the challenges with offering authentic Thai street food in the U.S.?
One of the biggest ones is temperature.
So, over there in Thailand, we don’t really care that much about the temperature of food, so you can just leave it out at the markets. It’s still warm, but not that hot.
There are no regulations over there saying you have to maintain the food over 140 degrees Fahrenheit, like there is here.
(The USDA says leaving hot food out of refrigeration for over an hour is unacceptable, and that hot food should be kept at or above 140 degrees F, while cold food should be kept at or below 40 degrees F.)
Everything has to be 140 degrees here, which doesn’t make sense for a lot of Asian food the way it’s traditionally prepared.
Is that challenging for you when you’re trying to design a menu?
Yes. Before, I had stir-fry and a lot of other stuff in my “hot bar,” but I had to eliminate it to make it suitable to fit with the regulations.
So, I ended up changing the “hot bar” to a “curry bar” because, not only did all the new menu items fit with safety rules, with a curry bar, but the meats and vegetables can absorb the juices and flavors. And the longer it stays in that liquid, the better it actually tastes.
(That way, Dew can still keep the khao rad gang style, where you can choose from a precooked food bar, but the flavor doesn’t suffer from the food sitting out, and everything fits within USDA regulations.)
It’s fixed now. First year, the menu changed almost every day. It’s hard, but it was all in good experimentation, we learned a lot from it. Like, for example, with curries, we usually go with beef or pork belly and stay away from chicken breast, because the texture tends to dry out if it sits in a liquid too long. Bone-in chicken is good, though. We use it for some of our curries (like gaeng gai normai, a red curry with sour bamboo and bone-in chicken, and gaeng kiew whan gai, a green curry with thai basil, bamboo and bone-in chicken).
What do customers expect the first time they come here? The food is authentic Thai street style, but it might not be what they’re used to with Thai food they’d typically find in America.
Something like chicken is interesting in that sense. In America, a lot of restaurants cook chicken breast meat but in Asia, bone-in chicken is much more popular. You can find bone-in chicken thigh at so many restaurants.
But as time has gone by, in our second or third year, my customers have learned that, “Hey, this is what Thai street food is,” and they have to expect something a little strange compared to what they’re used to.
So, this is our fourth year, and customers are starting to know what to expect. But the first year, see …
(Dew points to a wall of framed restaurant reviews, one from the Chicago Tribune in 2016 titled “Cheap Eats: Immm Rice is an edible education”)
I got all of this press, because all the food I serve is “weird,” you know? This type of street-Thai restaurant has never happened before in Chicago.
But that doesn’t help the customer much. They might come here because of the news articles, but they still don’t know what to expect.
Did it help business, though?
It helped, but not a lot. They were just interviews.
The good thing is the first year, I saw a lot of white people coming here who can speak Thai, or who come with Thai wives. Or maybe they lived in Thailand for, like, three years. Maybe they used to teach over there, and they miss the food, things like that. So, that means they at least know what Thai food is. They know what they’re getting themselves into.
Have you been able to educate people through your restaurant on what Thai food really is?
Yes. That’s the reason I let customers sample everything in the hot bar for free, which is at least one third of the food here on our menu.
Is that important for you, as someone from Thailand, to show people this is how you really eat Thai food?
Yes. I kind of learned that over time, though, because I’ve been in the U.S. for 12 years now. And for the first few years, people always said, like, some Thai restaurants here were Americanized. And I agreed, sometimes the food was maybe too sweet or too salty compared to food back in Thailand.
But Thai food is all about balance. It’s not supposed to be crazy spicy or really sweet, it’s about a balance of taste. People get a misunderstanding that Thai food has to be spicy, but no, it’s spicy from the combination of herbs and spices and chili peppers that get mixed in there.
Real Thai food like, let’s say, tom yum soup, it’s supposed to have a lot of galangal, (aka “Thai ginger”) although that’s a bit of a misnomer as galangal has a sharper, pinier taste than ginger, and the two are not interchangeable), more lemongrass, more Kaffir-lime leaf flavor in there. The flavors have to boil together for a while with some meat and vegetables before serving to customers.
In some tom yum soup you might find in America, they might do things a little differently, maybe they boil it for less time or leave some of those ingredients out. Thai food is about the balance of all that.
Why does it seem like there’s some of these restaurants in America serving global cuisine that might not do things the way they’re done in the home country?
I mean, it’s not their fault. When you open a restaurant, you know, you need to survive. You need to make a living, so you have to make the taste fit what people are used to.
And it’s getting better in a way with the internet and social media. People can go online and do their own research whenever they want, and it makes them a bit more open-minded to try new things.
The thing is, even here at Immm, I don’t serve purely street food with the menu. I need to survive, too. That’s why I have a lot more food items like pad thai and stir-fry dishes, dishes that are a little more recognizable, although we make sure to make them taste authentic.
My concept will always be to never compromise the food. So, you know, no crab rangoon, no peanut butter in panang curry.
What’s an everyday Thai dish that people in the U.S. might not know about, but should try at least once?
Probably boat noodles (a soup-noodle dish prepared with pork and beef, dark soy sauce, pickled bean curd, various aromatics, and traditionally pig or cow blood mixed with spices to season the soup), which you can find everywhere in Thailand.
Even if you drive, say, two hours into the mountains, you’ll see the food stalls and carts up there selling boat noodles.
What about misconceptions about Thai food? Are there any common mix-ups that people get wrong in the U.S.?
Like the peanut butter in the panang curry?
I’d say pad thai. In Thailand, pad thai has to have chopped chives in it, not green onions or scallions the way it is in some places here. It has to be chives.
That’s just how it is. Green onions are cheaper, and they smell better than chives, I guess, so people use them more here. Some people think chives smell like farts.
I mean, at the end of the day, you can never point to something and say, “This is authentic Thai food,” because even if you go to Thailand, there’s tons of recipes there. There’s a huge variety.
But the fixed ingredients have to be there. You have to have chives in pad thai, I mean, come on. There are some things you can’t change.