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Thai woman passionate about sharing native cuisine with world

By Betty Gordon

bgordon@ajc.com

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Siripen Sriyabhaya, known to most as Yui, has a nonviolent plan for world domination (her phrase), though she does wield a mean cleaver.

Fortunately, what the petite Thai woman has in mind is far more appetizing: to share her passion for her native cuisine, one delicious recipe at a time. And her diabolical strategy starts in the shaded carport of her northern Thailand home.

In mid-November, I took a cooking class taught by Yui, along with eight other students from around the globe. Our group included an Asian-American couple from the San Francisco area, a Swedish duo (though she was Icelandic by birth), a pair from Edinburgh, Scotland, a woman from Paris and my traveling companion who hails from Sarasota, Fla.

We had all signed up for the full-day class, reasonably priced at about $43. Many of us were picked up (included in the cost) at our hotels by Kwan, Yui’s husband, driving a vintage blue VW bus. (Half-day classes are also available.)

The session included individual preparation of six relatively easy dishes, communal dining, a midday trip to a stimulating local market and a full-color cookbook with all the recipes we prepared and more, tips and a section about Thai ingredients. Everyone was friendly and eager to learn, and no one left hungry.

Yui, a graduate of Chiang Mai University with a degree in public administration, has been teaching cooking classes since 1999. In 2001, with her husband, she started A Lot of Thai cooking school (www.alotofthai.com).

She is a fanatic for fresh, healthful food, and her enthusiasm is catching. A real plus: For class, she will gladly accommodate any dietary restrictions, which in my case included making a special batch of green curry paste that omitted the shrimp paste. Vegetarians will feel equally at home.

After introductions all around, Yui explained some of the less-familiar ingredients we’d be cooking with, such as nutrient-rich galangal, a relative of ginger that shares the knobby look and light tan skin of that root.

Then we began what would be the structure for the day: Yui demonstrating the recipe, complete with technique tips, then us attempting to duplicate it. We scattered to our individual stations set up with a wok, a range of utensils and the ingredients mostly prepped by her assistant. In the spotlessly clean space, all food was protected underneath a domed plastic basket until we were ready to cook. While we were busy slicing and stir-frying, Yui circulated, energetically calling out timely reminders (“sauce goes in now”) as we executed what she had just taught us.

Our six dishes, in order: stir-fried noodles, Thai-style; hot and sour soup (prawns optional); green curry with chicken over rice; stir-fried chicken with cashews; spring rolls; and sweet sticky rice topped with mango.

With that much food, we’d clearly need to pace ourselves. But Yui wisely had thought of everything. Clear plastic rectangular containers were in ample supply to store whatever we couldn’t or wouldn’t finish eating. The containers were then placed in a refrigerator until the end of class.

After plating each recipe, many of us took pictures of our creations, and then arranged ourselves at two snug tables to eat. Part of the fun here, other than seeing how successful we’d been at replicating Yui’s expert preparation, was sharing our travel adventures — where we’d been and where we were going in Thailand and beyond.

After the fourth dish, we all hopped into the VW, again driven by Kwan (he’s a graphic designer), for a brief drive to the market. This was no boring tourist trap, but a bustling enterprise where neighborhood residents go to shop.

We followed Yui around the stalls and tables heaped with brightly hued bell peppers, tamarind, onions, mushrooms, cabbages, lemon grass, Chinese celery, kale, long beans and other vegetables in many shades of green.

In another section, big tubs of mounded raw rice running the spectrum from white to light brown to red to purple to black nestled side by side. Nearby were plastic bags stuffed with balls of tan-yellow palm sugar. Every so often, Yui stopped to hold something up and expound on its history and use in cooking.

Back at her house, we finished our last two dishes and took a group picture. We piled back into the van, this time with Yui and her daughter, who was celebrating her fifth birthday, in tow.

After a day of cooking, Yui pronounced the cake would be store-bought.

As for world domination, no less than the cantankerous Gordon Ramsay has been won over, as evidenced by Yui’s appearance in “Gordon’s Great Escapes,” a series that aired in 2010 on a BBC channel.

Let the revolution continue.

Nongreasy Spring Rolls

Hands on: 40 minutes Total time: 40 minutes, excluding soaking time for noodles Makes: 8 rolls

Soak glass noodles in water for 15 minutes. Rinse, drain and cut into 6-inch strips. Set aside until ready to stir-fry. Omit pork to make these rolls vegetarian.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

2 ounces minced pork, optional

1/2 cup cabbage, shredded

1/2 cup carrot, shredded

1/2 cup bean sprouts

11/2 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 cup water

4 ounces glass noodles (bean vermicelli)

8 spring roll wrappers

1 beaten egg (for sealing edges)

1 to 2 cups cooking oil for frying

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in wok or large, deep skillet over low heat. Add garlic and cook until it turns light brown. Add pork and cook until meat turns white. Add cabbage, carrot and sprouts and stir-fry about 2 minutes.

Add soy sauce, pepper, sugar and water and stir to combine. Add noodles and stir-fry about 1 minute or until noodles look translucent. Turn off heat.

Separate mixture into 8 portions. On a flat surface, place 1 spring roll sheet (if square) with point facing you. Put stir-fried mixture 1 to 2 inches from the point. Fold pointed end over the mixture and roll tightly to enclose. Fold in both sides toward the middle and continue rolling to more than halfway. Brush unfolded edge with beaten egg. Finish rolling, then set aside spring roll, seam side down, until ready to fry. Repeat with other 7 wrappers.

Heat 1 to 2 cups oil until a thermometer reads 325 degrees. Carefully slide 1 spring roll into the oil. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, turning constantly with tongs, until just light golden. Remove roll and immediately stand vertically on one end. This lets the excess oil drain and keeps the wrapper crisp. Repeat with remaining rolls. Slice into pieces with a serrated knife (optional). Serve with your favorite dipping sauce.

Adapted from a recipe in “A Lot of Thai Cookbook” by Yui Sriyabhaya

Per spring roll: 310 calories (percent of calories from fat, 57), 6 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 20 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 34 milligrams cholesterol, 313 milligrams sodium.

Stir-fried Noodles, Thai-style (Pad Thai)

Hands on: 25 minutes Total time: 25 minutes, excluding soaking time for noodle Serves: 2

If using dried noodles, soak them at least 20 minutes first. They can be extremely sticky. Rinse, drain well, and set aside until ready to stir-fry. If you have dietary restrictions, omit the pork and shrimp. Tamarind puree can be found at Asian markets.

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1/4 cup firm tofu, cut in 2-inch sticks

1 tablespoon shallot, chopped

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

2 ounces minced pork, optional

1 tablespoon dried shrimp, optional

1 tablespoon sweet turnip, chopped, optional

4 ounces fresh narrow rice noodles (or 2 ounces dried)

4 to 6 tablespoons water or chicken stock

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 tablespoons tamarind puree

11/2 tablespoons brown sugar

3 ounces bean sprouts

1/2 cup Chinese chives cut into 2-inch pieces

2 eggs

2 tablespoons ground peanuts

Chili powder, lime wedges, cabbage, bean sprouts for garnish

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add tofu and shallot and stir-fry until light brown. Add garlic, pork, shrimp and turnip, if using. Cook about 1 minute.

Add noodles and water. Stir-fry until noodles are soft, about 3 minutes. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind puree and sugar and cook for about 1 minute.

Add sprouts and Chinese chives and cook just until the chives are bright green. Move mixture from center of the wok. Add remaining tablespoon oil to side of wok. Crack eggs into wok and scramble until nearly done. Bring noodle mixture from off center and mix eggs into noodles. Remove from heat. Sprinkle roasted peanuts on top.

Sprinkle with chili powder, lime juice, cabbage or extra sprouts, if desired.

Adapted from a recipe in “A Lot of Thai Cookbook” by Yui Sriyabhaya

Per serving (without optional ingredients): 603 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 12 grams protein, 70 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 32 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 213 milligrams cholesterol, 602 milligrams sodium.

Per serving (with optional ingredients): 687 calories (percent of calories from fat, 490, 18 grams protein, 71 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 38 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 245 milligrams cholesterol, 633 milligrams sodium.

Stir-fried Chicken With Cashews

Hands on: 25 minutes Total time: 25 minutes Serves: 2

A 1/2 cup of diced red bell peppers or julienned carrots will add extra color and crunch to this recipe. Add at the same time the chicken goes in.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped

7 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced or cut in 2-inch pieces

2/3 cup sweet onions, such as Vidalia, sliced

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce or mushroom sauce

11/2 teaspoons brown sugar

1/4 cup water or chicken stock

1/2 to 1 large red chile or dried chile, cut in bite-size pieces

4 green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1/2 cup cashews, roasted or fried

Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over low heat. Add garlic and cook until light brown.

Add chicken and cook for 1 minute. Add onion and cook until it looks shiny, about 2 minutes. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce and brown sugar and stir until well-mixed.

Add stock and raise heat to medium-high. Bring mixture to a boil. When boiling, add chile and green onions. Cook just until the onions are bright green. Stir in cashews and remove from heat. Serve with rice.

Adapted from a recipe in “A Lot of Thai Cookbook” by Yui Sriyabhaya

Per serving: 491 calories (percent of calories from fat, 57), 30 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 32 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 59 milligrams cholesterol, 489 milligrams sodium.