Culinary trend forecasting site Trends on Trends had a chance to sit down with Braden and Yasmin Wages who recently brought their Dallas restaurant Malai Kitchen to NYC for a truly memorable dinner.
Braden (executive chef) was cooking in a kitchen that could probably be packed up into a portable camping kit and still managed to change my entire conception of Thai and Vietnamese Cuisine. It's not all about the pad thai, people -- even though they have that too. His lovely (and super gorgeous) wife and business partner was dining with us exuding her passion for Southeast Asian cuisine. Needless to say this is one of the most endearing couples in the biz. They took quite a risk opening up a traditional Southeast Asian restaurant in Dallas, Texas (home of massive steaks and BBQ meats), but Malai Kitchen is now one of the cities local gems. Below Braden and Yasmin reveal their secrets for cooking Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Oh, and their literally life-changing green curry recipe.
What are the three most important ingredients in your kitchen?
Kaffir lime leaves, coconuts, and palm sugar.
Fresh Kaffir lime leaves make a huge difference in our soups, curries, cocktails, and house-brewed beer. They're relatively easy to find frozen or pickled. But fresh, quality leaves are much harder to come by. We make the extra effort because we feel our guests can really taste the difference.
Coconuts are used in Thai cooking in a variety of ways. We buy ours whole and utilize as many parts as possible. We've even started producing our own coconut milk in-house.
Although seemingly unimportant, palm sugar is used in some capacity in almost all of our dishes to balance spice and salt. It's the healthiest, natural sweetener and it gives our food a complexity and richness that can't be achieved with artificial substitutes.
When we had dinner you told an adventure story about finding a very specific coconut machine in Vietnam. What are some of the other obstacles you've come across sourcing for this authentic type of cuisine?
Half the challenge of working with Southeast Asian cuisine is sourcing authentic ingredients. Dallas has a large Asian population, so we're fortunate to have a plethora of great markets that are passionate about offering a variety of fresh, quality produce and products. When we first opened, we searched high and low for Kaffir lime leaves, to the extent of trying to grow them ourselves. Luckily, we've have since found someone to grow Kaffir for us locally.
Our most recent challenge has been recreating Bia Hoi, a Vietnamese rice lager that's popular in Hanoi. We first tried to find someone to brew it for us, but failed. So, we decided to give it a try ourselves. We now sell it in our restaurant and are so excited about bringing this Vietnamese staple to Dallas.
What traditional dish are you most surprised that people love?
Mieng Kam, a classic Thai street dish. A mixture of dried shrimp, peanuts, toasted coconut, fresh ginger, lime, Thai chilies, and sweet palm sugar sauce is served on betel leaves. You pop it in your mouth all at once. You would think that the betel leaves and dried shrimp would deter some people, but that's not the case at all.
Taking your passion for Vietnamese and Thai cuisine to then open a restaurant in Dallas is a big step. What was the deciding moment to peruse your love for this cuisine into a full business?
There was never really an "aha" moment with the concept. The idea stemmed from our growing passion and understanding of the cuisine from our travels. We had been working toward opening a restaurant for five years. The concept evolved over time -- we started with global fusion and ended up with modern Thai and Vietnamese.
I know you worked very closely with Jason Kosmas to create a very unique cocktail menu. How does the beverage program reflect the unique flavors profiles of the cuisine?
Jason was excited to consult on our cocktail menu because it's such a unique cuisine and flavor profile to work with. He did an outstanding job incorporating ingredients and flavors from our kitchen. He worked alongside us in the test kitchen before we opened, fine tuning recipes to make sure they complemented the cuisine. The best examples are the Kaffir Collins made with house-infused Hayman's Old Tom gin, lemon, and soda; the Cha-Yen, a Thai iced tea with Aylesbury Duck vodka, orange flower water, and Amarula; and the Vang, our version of the dark and stormy with muddled green papaya, lime, triplum, ginger beer, and Mekong spiced Thai rum.
You have house-made Sriracha and it is amazing! What are a few other from-scratch items that are you most proud of?
We prepare as much as possible from scratch, mostly because of our passion for providing a truer experience. A few unique things we are particularly proud of are our curry paste, coconut milk, and beer. People thought we were crazy for making our curry paste from scratch. But we knew the difference in flavor would change people's perception of curry. Same goes for the coconut milk -- the difference in flavor is totally worth the extra effort. We break down dozens of whole coconuts every day and grind the meat out to make milk. It's an intensive process. Since we put so much effort into scratch preparation in the kitchen, we thought we'd extend the same principles to our beer program.
While traveling in Vietnam what are three suggestions you have to get the best food experience?
1. Any Bia Hoi spot in Hanoi. Locals flock to these spots every day and it's a great way to appreciate the camaraderie and experience the culture like a local.
2. Secret Garden in Ho Chi Minh. It's a great window into real Vietnamese cuisine. The restaurant is on the rooftop of an apartment complex. Everything is so well done and classically Vietnamese. It's truly inspiring.
3. Quan Com Hue Ngon in Danag City. It's a tableside barbecue place with great service and food -- and usually a line out the door. You will feel like a local and eat like a king.
If you had to pick only two places to eat in Thailand where would they be and why?
1. Bo Lan in Bangkok. A true culinary experience that will open your eyes to the broader nature of Thai cuisine. Everything is expertly prepared and delivered. It's hands down one of our favorite restaurants.
2. Lanta Seafood on the island of Koh Lanta, off the coast of Krabi. It's the perfect combination of a vibrant fishing village, southern Thai cuisine, and minimal tourist influence.
Green Curry Paste:
1 teaspoon Roasted Coriander Seeds
1/2 teaspoon Roasted Cumin Seeds
1/2 teaspoon Ground White Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Roasted Cumin Seeds
1/2 teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1 ea Bay Leaf
2 tablespoon Galangal Root, chopped
2 tablespoon Lemongrass, chopped
2 tablespoons Shallots, chopped
2 tablespoons Garlic
2 each Jalapenos
6 each Kaffir Lime leaves
1/4 cup Cilantro (with stems)
1/4 cup Spinach
Beginning with the hardest ingredient, blend using a mortar and pestle (or strong food
processor). Add remaining ingredients one at a time to form a smooth paste. (20-30 min)
Green Curry Dish:
1 tablespoon Green Curry Paste
1/2 cup Coconut Milk
1 tablespoons Fish Sauce
1/2 teaspoon Shrimp Paste
1 Tbl Palm Sugar
1/2 cup Chicken Broth
6 oz Chicken Breast, diced
1/2 each Carrots, sliced
1 each Bell Peppers, sliced
1 each Thai Apple Eggplant, cut ¼
1/2 Cup Yellow Onions, Sliced
12 ea Thai Basil
2 Tbl Kaffir Lime leaves Julienned
Fry paste in vegetable oil until fragrant. Add coconut milk and broth. Once heated, add chicken
and vegetables and simmer until cooked through, about 15 minutes.
Serve with Jasmine Rice and garnish with fried crispy carrots.
Follow Emily Elyse Miller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@emilyelyse