In Thailand, celebration is a way of life.
"We Thai people celebrate basically every holiday we can get our hands on," says Pim Techamuanvivit, San Francisco's most celebrated Thai chef.
The chef/owner of Michelin-starred Kin Khao, Nari, Kamin Thai Fried Chicken at SFO, and executive chef at Bangkok's Michelin-starred Nahm, was raised with Buddhist traditions in her Bangkok home and immersed in Christian ones at the Catholic school she attended—that meant everything from Christmas to the Thai New Year in April was an opportunity for a party. "If we'd known about Hanukkah, we totally would have gone hard on that, too," she laughs.
One of the biggest celebrations on the annual holiday roster falls at midnight on December 31st. Like in much of the rest of the world, New Year's Eve in Bangkok is always a good time. But, while the rest of the world nurses their hangover on January 1st, the Thai greet the new year with kindness and charity.
"Basically, what you do on New Year's Day is supposed to be setting the tone for the rest of the year," explains Techamuanvivit. "You wear new clothes and you start your day by doing something nice. We always get up very early to go to a Thai temple to give alms to the Buddhist monks."
Later in the day, extended family gathers for a meal in which gold-colored foods, symbolizing good fortune, play a starring role. "Like in phai thong, which means golden thread, you basically take egg yolks and almost confit it in syrup and make it into these threads so it looks like threads of gold," she says. "Those are lucky desserts and you make sure they're around on New Year's Day."
Since she moved to the U.S. to attend graduate school at the age of 19, Techamuanvivit, true to her celebration-loving Thai roots, has expanded her holiday repertoire to include the best American traditions, too. Thanksgiving is among her favorites. "I'm not a huge turkey fan, but I get kind of mad if I have Thanksgiving and don't have turkey because I love the ritual around the cooking of it," she explains.
And then there's the local holiday harbinger, Dungeness crab season. "At Kin Khao, we do a crab curry that's only during Dungeness crab season, so that's definitely the dish I look forward to just after Thanksgiving," she says.
Sadly there will be no Dungeness crab in time for Thanksgiving this year (2020 strikes again), but there will be bit of luck on Techamuanvivit's Thanksgiving table in the form of the gold-toned khao yum, a turmeric rice salad from Southern Thailand. While it may sound like a side, "it's actually quite festive as a starter," explains the chef, who makes her khao yum with citrus, tamarind, green herbs, toasted coconut, and puffed rice. Cooked with turmeric to turn the rice a brilliant shade of lucky gold, this vegan and gluten-free dish delicately balances sweet and sour and is full of brightness and texture.
"It's a tough year," she acknowledges. But with a little good fortune, "next year's going to be different."
// Kin Khao's Dogpatch location (690 Indiana St.) is open for outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery daily from noon to 8pm, kinkhao.com. Nari (1625 Post St., Japantown) is open for outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery Wednesday through Sunday from 5pm to 8pm, narisf.com; both restaurants will be closed on Thanksgiving Day.
Recipe: Pim Techamuanvivit's Khao Yum (Turmeric Rice Salad)
Pim Techamuanvivit makes her khao yum with citrus, tamarind, green herbs, toasted coconut, and puffed rice. Cooked with turmeric to turn the rice a brilliant shade of lucky gold, this vegan and gluten-free dish delicately balances sweet and sour and is full of brightness and texture.
(Photography by Aubrie Pick)
For the rice:
1 cup jasmine rice
1 1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder (The Spice Hunter)
a pinch of salt
For the vegan khao yum sauce:
1/2 cup tamarind pulp (You can buy packaged tamarind pulp in Asian grocery stores.)
1 cup hot water
1 tablespoon light soy sauce (or gluten free soy)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon toasted black sesame seeds
For the garnish:
2 tablespoons puffed rice (You can buy rice crackers and crumble them up for this, or leave some leftover rice to dry completely and then fry to puff; but for such a small amount, buying will be easier.)
2 tablespoons toasted coconut flakes
2 tablespoons fried shallots (Slice fresh shallots and let dry a few minutes, fry in plain oil—like rice bran oil—until crisp.)
Mix all of these together and set aside.
The mix of fruits and vegetables for the khao yum can be entirely adaptable. But I always start with:
1 tablespoon of very thinly sliced lemongrass (Use only the tender heart of the stalk.)
1 tablespoon of very thinly sliced makrut lime leaves
About 1/4 cup of shredded green mango or green apples or another lightly sour, crunchy fruit
About 1/4 cup of crunchy beans—long beans, wing beans, or simple sugarsnap peas will work for this; cut them into thin slices.
Some not-too-sweet citrus, like finger limes or grapefruits (cut into small segments)
A handful of bitter greens, watercress, mizuna, or other tender, herbaceous greens
The goal for the mix is to have something sweet, something bright, something bitter, and something crunchy so each bite is an orchestra of flavors and textures. Use your imagination!
Put rice in a fine sieve and place under running water until the water runs almost clear. Let drain completely. Add the rice to a small saucepan. Add water, turmeric powder, and salt, then stir and let stand for 10 minutes.
Bring the pot to a boil over medium heat. Then, reduce the heat as low as possible, close the lid, and continue to cook over gentle heat for 12 minutes.
Turn the heat off, and let the pot stand, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Then open the lid and fluff up the rice with a fork. The rice is now ready to serve. You'll only need about two cups of cooked rice for the recipe. Reserve the rest for another use.
In a mixing bowl, break up the tamarind pulp into small pieces and pour hot water over it. Using a wooden spoon, break up the tamarind even more into the water. Let stand until the mixture is cool enough to touch. With your hands, squeeze and squish to mix the tamarind paste and water until it becomes thick and muddy. Strain the tamarind mix and discard the pulp. Use about 1/2 cup of this for the sauce. The rest can be kept in the fridge for up to a week.
Add the tamarind, soy, and sugar and bring to a simmer. Because the acidity of the tamarind and salinity of the soy sauce vary so much depending on the brand you use, it is very important to only use the measurement as a guide. Taste your sauce and add more tamarind, soy, or sugar as needed. The sauce should taste sour, salty, and sweet, in that order. Add the toasted sesame seeds when you are done seasoning it.
To serve, place about 2 cups of cooked rice in a mound in the middle of a serving plate, arrange all the mix-ins around the plate. Serve the sauce on the side to be mixed in at the table. When ready to serve, pour about 1/2 cup of the sauce over everything and mix well. Add more sauce if you'd like.
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