The Thai that binds

How Bee brought the taste of tom yum from Phayao to Lafayette

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Susan France

Fragrant steam permeates the kitchen as Bee Rungtawan Kisich works the wok in her Lafayette home. 

She adds fresh tilapia, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes and builds a broth. As Bee cooks, she cheerfully tastes and adjusts, adding ginger-like galangal, kaffir lime leaf, minced garlic and lemongrass.

Jasmine rice is cooking in a steamer while she throws together a quick taste-bud-tingling rice dressing. Bee’s quick meal is completed with a light shrimp salad on romaine and a stir-fried crispy pork belly with vegetables and tiny Thai chilies. For dessert: Molded, not-too-sweet mango treats.

Watching her cook, it’s easy to imagine making these dishes at home and that’s why the Thai cooking classes she offers in her home and in private kitchens across Boulder County have become so popular. 

“I try to teach an easy way to cook at home, not ‘you must have this.’ You can use vegetables you like. Start with a small amount of spices, you can always add more,” Bee says.

What you are attempting to achieve is that magical, sunny Thai flavor balance of salt, sweet, sour, funk, fire and herbaceous freshness. 

As she serves the meal, Bee smiles and describes the journey that brought her to this unexpected destination and vocation. She grew up in a lake-side town in northern Thailand near the borders of Laos and Myanmar. “We have a beautiful temple in the middle of Phayao Lake. A lot of tilapia are fished from the lake,” Bee says. Produce grown in the inland region include lychee, cantaloupe, eggplant, cucumber, long beans and tomato. 

Susan France

There is a little shop in the open market where Bee’s mom has been selling ready-to-eat food cooked at her home for 20 years. Among the dishes is a crunchy green mango salad with dried shrimp that comes with a roster of brightly hued dressings, including mango, red beet to lime.  

“It’s very popular in the town. The food there is not too spicy,” she says, belying Thai cuisine’s reputation for being fiery.  

Bee says she always helped her mom but spent her early career in accounting and working as a loan officer. She met Kevin Kisich when he visited Thailand, they married, and she and her two daughters, now 10 and 12, moved here a little over a year ago. 

As a part-time cook at Louisville’s Busaba Thai Restaurant, Bee saw which dishes locals crave the most and decided to share what she knew. Her casual classes focus on how to make red and green curries, stir-fries, noodle dishes like pad Thai and pad see ewe (“drunken” noodles), as well as soups (tom kha), salads (larb) and rice paper-wrapped rolls.  

The two-hour hands-on gatherings include a meal so the cooking happens rapidly. She shares where to source hard-to-find herbs, vegetables and other ingredients at local Asian food stores such as Westminster’s Lao Market. Her quick approach relies on flavor-packed Asian ingredients such as oyster sauce, nam pla (fish sauce), soy sauce, and chile and curry pastes. 

The idea of their mom being a cooking instructor clearly amuses her two children, who giggle and talk about K-pop music as she cooks. “At home in Thailand my daughters never saw me cook. I learned from my mother by watching but she didn’t teach me. It was her kitchen so she did all the cooking,” Bee says.

Students go home with easy-to-follow recipes and Bee gets to practice her English. “I’m a new person here and I need to meet more people,” she says, and Bee’s Thai Kitchen (facebook.com/BeesThaiKitchen) gives her that opportunity. 

Chile vs. chile

There has been a lot of noise lately about the relative superiority of chilies grown in Colorado and New Mexico. Here’s the bottom line from Dr. Michael Bartolo, the man who developed the Pueblo chile: “The Pueblo (Colorado) chile and the Hatch (New Mexico) chile are two completely different varieties. The Hatch chile is the milder, long, green Anaheim chile. The Pueblo chile (or Mosco) tends to have thicker walls, which make it more amenable to roasting, and it has a little more heat. It really comes down to personal preference and how you use it.” 

Local Food News 

Chef Matt Collier of Seeds Library Cafe leads an Oct. 10 demo on molecular gastronomy — think faux-caviar and foam — at the Boulder Public Library. boulderlibrary.org … The Fort Restaurant in Morrison hosts an Oct. 18 four-course meal in darkness with a secret menu to test your taste buds. thefort.com … Upcoming class topics at Boulder’s Food Lab include: empanadas (10/6, 11/19), latkes (12/15) and fondue (12/27). foodlabboulder.com … Boulder’s Growing Gardens classes include: pickling and fermentation (10/10), pasta-making 101 (10/17). growinggardens.com. … Got an old apple/crabapple tree in your yard or know of one on public property? Let the Boulder Apple Project know as they gather essential info on heirloom and homestead apple varieties well-suited to local conditions. appletreeproject.org … Coming soon: Shake Shack, 29th Street Mall; Torchy’s Tacos, 2805 Pearl St.

Taste of the Week

One of Colorado’s best food ambassadors is Noosa Yoghurt made northwest of Fort Collins. I’m a fan of this Australian-style whole milk yogurt with its silky creaminess, big flavors and reduced sweetness. Noosa’s new fall flavors include a salted caramel yogurt that would be at home on a pricey restaurant dessert plate and a pie-worthy variation with Granny Smith apples with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. It’s worth a drive to Noosa’s Morning Fresh Dairy in Bellvue for free tours concluding with a sampling of fresh milk products, including yogurt. morningfreshdairy.com

Words to Chew On

“Some find it pleasant dining on pheasant / Those things roll off my knife / Just serve me tomatoes and mashed potatoes / Give me the simple life.” — Ella Fitzgerald    

John Lehndorff and Maeve Conran will co-host a super-sized Radio Nibbles special 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Oct. 10 on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, streaming at kgnu.org). Comments: nibbles@boulderweekly.com