Simbal's Shawn Pham Decodes Chinatown's Incredible Southeast Asian Supermarkets
Navigating an unfamiliar grocery store can generally be a daunting experience (“Where do I park this large automobile in this tiny Trader Joe’s lot? Where does that produce aisle go to? This is not my beautiful Ralphs!”). But when you throw in the added challenges of an ethnic shop with unfamiliar products lining the shelves labelled in a language you don’t speak, even adventurous home cooks may feel intimidated enough to play it safe. In a town rife with incredible ethnic supermarkets, however, it would be a shame to miss out on all of those delicious eats from around the globe. That’s why we recruited Chef Shawn Pham of Simbal, Little Tokyo’s excellent Southeast Asian spot, to help us explore some of Chinatown’s supermarkets and take our kitchen skills (and pantry) to the next level.
Pham, who has worked everywhere from The Bazaar and Michelin-starred restaurants to tiny spots in Ho Chi Minh City, is no stranger to sifting through grocery aisles to find the best ingredients for his cooking. But he hasn’t always been the biggest fan of the grocery store. "When I was young, I didn't enjoy shopping at all, I didn't think it was interesting,” he explains. “There was a cultural barrier or gap as well, because growing up I thought that European food was superior -- French, Italian, etc. -- just because the restaurants were fancier and cost more money. So perception-wise, you just think it's higher value. But it wasn't until I realized that it's all equal that I had this interest in the food that I grew up with."
For Pham, it took years of cooking and traveling to come full circle and develop a deep appreciation for the Vietnamese flavors of his childhood. "The a-ha moment was after I ate at all the best restaurants around the world, the El Bulli's, the Michelin 3-star restaurants, all the great places in New York and San Francisco, and I realized that the food I grew up with is just as good,” Pham admits. “Let's say I paid $300 for a meal, was it 30x better than the $10 meal? No."
To help show us how to make our home-cooked $10 meal taste more like a $300 meal (or at least better than frozen pizza), Pham took us to two of the Chinatown markets that cater to LA’s Southeast Asian culinary needs. These are spots he frequents sometimes several times a week for ingredients that can be difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere in town. The first stop is LAX-C, also known as Thai Costco, inside of a sprawling wholesale market on the outskirts of the neighborhood that’s open to the public. Pham explains that most Thai markets across LA stock up here, some even driving from over an hour away.
First item on the list is rice, that old reliable foundation. "I think rice is a great thing because it's very neutral, so you can try different grains and adapt it to different cuisines,” Pham extols. “It doesn't have to be Asian, it can be Middle Eastern, African, or really anything." He recommends trying out some of the rice blends that mix brown and red rice, offering a complex and nutty flavor. And you can probably skip the 50lb bags on the shelves intended for restaurant kitchens, and opt for the smaller versions instead. In this area, you’ll also find a huge variety of noodles and flours, particularly rice-based ones, which are great for those steering clear of gluten. Pham also recommends glass noodles, which can be made from mung beans or other starches like potato or tapioca. “They’re very easy to cook, and can be eaten hot or cold.”
Things take a turn for the funky when we round the corner to the fermented aisle, which is lined with things like shrimp paste, fish sauce, and other umami-packed ingredients that are foundational to Southeast Asian cooking. For the uninitiated, these powerfully pungent jars and bottles can be a turnoff, but Pham encourages aspiring cooks to explore this new territory, especially for the rewarding depth of flavor. And once you develop a palate for it, the flavor can be very addictive, he warns.
"The whole idea behind Southeast Asian cooking is that these funky things have tons of flavor, but you have to balance it out,” Pham explains. “So everything has a purpose. For instance, if you're going to use something like shrimp paste, you then use garlic that has a bite, you use chili, you use shallots, lemongrass, spices -- all these things to tone down the funk and make it more palatable and enhance the dish, so that it's not one-dimensional. That's why Thai food -- when it's done well -- is super complex." He also points out that many of these seafood-based sauces and pastes also have a vegetarian version due to the large Buddhist population of Southeast Asia.
"I use this brand of fish sauce because it's easy to find, not too expensive and pretty versatile,” Pham says. “But you can very easily get tricked because there are other labels that are very similar to it. This one is very popular and other companies will knock off the look to get people to buy it. And I've been tricked before."
Pham notes that some of these complex flavors can be a challenge to tackle, even for experienced, big name chefs. "If you cook with in Western European cooking styles, you can go from French to Italian to Spanish, it's not that big of a leap. But a lot of those chefs are unable to make the leap to Southeast Asian cooking because the mindset and approach is totally different, it's out of their realm. Over time, with technology and transportation, refrigeration and storage, people have become less attracted to the funky stuff. You can even see it with European foods as people are less attracted to funky cheeses.”
"The difference between a Thai curry and an Indian one is that Indian ones are spice based, and Thai curries are aromatic based. For Thai ones, depending on the color, you'll find chili, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, galangal, shallots and those type of ingredients. While with Indian blends, you'll find more cumin, etc. Spices can be used in Thai curries, but they're not built around that the way that Indian ones are."
Then we head over to the wing of LAX-C devoted to kitchen equipment, serving dishes, restaurant decor, holiday and religious decorations, and more. Imagine Surfas on steroids and with all the flourishes you’d need to start your own Thai restaurant. Thankfully for us home cooks, you can also find plenty of equipment, plates, and more, which are scaled to our smaller kitchen sizes and come at the fraction of the cost you would find elsewhere. Pham walks us through the essentials:
"A rice cooker is the number one thing you'll want -- everyone uses one -- if you have that and cook rice, then you're more likely to cook things to go with the rice. It's very convenient," Pham endorses.
"A mortar and pestle are also very useful. The clay ones are used primarily to make papaya salad because you're not looking to pulverize it you're looking to lightly bruise it. You want to pull the flavor out of the papaya and put some of the marinade or dressing into it. The stone ones are for pulverizing, so if you need to grind spices or make a curry paste, you would use this. And you can see how deep it is, which is very good for making a paste so that things don't spill out all over the place."
Pham also recommends picking up a wok while you’re here. Adding, "If you use a wok, you need a wok spoon too. You’ll notice the Thai one has a shape that is a little different from Chinese ones, which are smaller and less deep. Even within kitchen tools, different cultures have different shapes and sizes, which evolved from the different dishes they produce."
And before you leave, you’ll likely want to stop by LAX-C BBQ Express, a small indoor food stall with a huge variety of prepared Thai dishes in steam trays. It may not be the hot dogs at Costco, but can be delicious and almost as cheap. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, you could pick out a live fish from the numerous tanks nearby and they’ll filet it and even cook it up for you. "All Asian markets will have a kitchen where they'll clean, gut and fry up fish for you,” Pham explains. “It's the easiest way to cook a fish other than steaming, you just get the whole thing in one shot. And you don't even have to filet it, you just pick the meat off.”
As we head over to Ai Hoa Market on Hill St, Pham opens up about the different perceptions that diners can have between Asian and Western restaurants, which he’s observed throughout his years of cooking. "I went through certain experiences to understand what I wanted to do,” he explains of his decision to return to more Southeast Asian-style cooking from more Euro-centric type eateries. “But there's still a bias now, that may always be there. For example, with Simbal, some people don't want to pay certain prices just because we're under the umbrella of Southeast Asian food. Our crudo dish is $13, but if I had an Italian restaurant serving the exact same thing, I can charge $16 or $18 and people won't bat an eye. It’s the same product. That's how those restaurants make a lot of money, too, there's a lot of built in perceptions."
"The only Asian country that can get away with higher prices tends to be Japanese cuisine, just because of the presentation and the environment that it's usually presented in,” he adds. “It looks more composed, like sushi for instance, which looks almost jewel-like and there's a ritual to it. So, people are willing to pay for that. You'll also notice that with Japanese food, much of it is usually presented individually, you don't eat as many things communally as you do with other Asian cultures, and I think that's also why they're able to have a different price point."
Pham goes on to explain some of the other perceived barriers, which he sees as obstacles for some Southeast Asian restaurants to be considered approachable fine-dining options for many people. "I think there's a barrier of comfort, because generally with Vietnamese or Thai restaurants, people have this impression of them because they started out as restaurants for immigrants and they're very small mom-and-pop restaurants, so they're not necessarily well-versed in service,” he explains. “So with the menu, sometimes you can't understand it or you might not be familiar with the words, so you don't know what things are. It may just not be what Western people are accustomed to. That's why the menu at Simbal has no unfamiliar words, we don't use any fancy words. I took all of that out because I didn't want people to ask the servers, and the servers have to explain to them and [diners] might feel awkward or uncomfortable." It’s also why he wanted the restaurant to have an open kitchen, so that guests could see the entire process as their meals are prepared.
Once we arrive at Ai Hoa Market, we’re greeted by these beasts:
Jackfruit is largest tree fruit in the world -- it can weigh upwards of 100lbs -- which is native to South and Southeast Asia. Eaten fresh it tastes sweet with hints of pineapple, banana, and papaya, and it’s packed with protein, potassium, and vitamin B, but it can be prepared in dozens of ways. Chances are you’ve probably seen it around town prepared as a vegetarian substitute that remarkably resembles pulled pork. It’s also some serious work to prepare: “It's pretty labor intensive and very messy because inside the jackfruit is a sap and it sticks to everything,” Pham explains. “It won't even wash off with soap. The trick is that you have to put oil on your hands. Even when you cut it with a knife, it will just stick to the knife. My mom taught me that trick. It's really good, it's very aromatic and tropical. Sometimes they sell it already prepared." Yeah, we might start with that.
"I'm here for a particular herb, this is called Rau Răm, it's like Vietnamese mint,” Pham informs us.
As we make our way further down the produce aisle, Pham points out some other greens you won’t find in most supermarkets around LA. For instance, this one known as Rice Paddy Herb or Ngo Om. "It's kind of floral and citrusy, we'll use this on a salmon dish. Not a lot of people are going to be familiar with this and I doubt other non-Asian restaurants are using this. I really like this one. It's really good in soups, like there's a Vietnamese sour tamarind soup and you can't make the soup without this, it's considered an essential ingredient. But you won't see this many places."
And then there’s this charming fellow known as Elephant Ear: “You peel it, cut it, and put it into to soup and it's fun because it absorbs all of it. The flavor is pretty neutral -- it tastes like nothing -- but when you eat it, it's like you're biting on a sponge that's edible.”
Pham also recommends picking up fresh tamarind root here, preferring it to the dried version you might find elsewhere. “The dried tamarind is in powder form, and the fresh is essential if you're making a curry,” he explains. “So for curry, you have to make a paste and you can't pound a powder, so this goes in the mortar and pestle along with lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, garlic and shallots.”
Oh, and were you looking for tofu? Because you’ll find all manner of it here. "It's all in the application, some of them are softer, firmer, some of them are intended for dry dishes and some for wet dishes,” Pham says. “The ones for wet dishes are basically like a sponge to absorb whatever liquid you're going to put it into."
“A lot of people don't know, but they use dried radish in pad Thai a lot, that's where the sourness and sweetness comes from. If you're ever eating pad Thai and you see small crunchy strips, that's dried sweet radish.”
He also points out the fiery staple of Thai chili peppers, amongst the variety of herbs. “If you're making a green curry, you're going to use these. And yes, they are super spicy, but that's the whole point. Imagine if you're eating shrimp paste, the heat and everything distracts your mind from the pungent flavors."
And you can forget about your boring old chicken eggs because we are here for the duck eggs. More specifically, the salted duck eggs. "You can use the yolk or the white and make a sauce with it. So at Simbal we use the salted duck egg yolk for our seasoned rice. We'll take the yolk and whip it up with some oil and then we'll fold it into the rice as we're stir frying. It adds a richness and a slight funk. They bury the whole egg in salt. And the most simple or straightforward way to eat this is with porridge or congee."
And now we get to the good stuff: offal. All of those off cuts and organs, including heart, liver, intestines, stomach, trotters and tails, snouts and ears. While they may not look especially enticing in the butcher’s case here -- unless you’re already a seasoned offal eater -- when they’re prepared right, they can be ridiculously delicious. “There's a Vietnamese porridge dish and it uses all of these cuts and it's a peasant dish, but people started to enjoy it and everyone eats it now. Most people in America don't eat offal because they never had to, they'd just say, 'Oh, I'll eat this other cut,'" Pham says, adding that it can often be the presentation and setting that helps to sell a dish, “At Night + Market they'll fry up the pork tails and people will say, ‘This is sooo good!'"
"Meats are broken down in a certain way here, and you'll notice the difference between Asian markets and American ones because the pieces here are bigger,” Pham says of the rest of the butcher counter. “They're not broken down small, which gives you more options for what you can do with it -- you can braise it, etc. Americans are a little more limited in the ways they prepare meat, 'Oh, I'll grill it or roast it or sear it, and that's it."
As a palate cleanser, Pham suggests picking up a bag (or several) of these delicious, multi-purpose Vietnamese rice crackers. “You can use them as you would any kind of chip and dip it in any kind of dip you would want, guacamole, anything really,” he extolls. “Vietnamese people would use this as a garnish for a salad, like if you had papaya salad, you could just scoop it up and take a bite or anything really. It's super versatile. They'll also just eat it as a snack while they're drinking beer. I think this is a great thing. It's like four buck and then you can just snack on it. And it's gluten free. This one has scallions and the tapioca is what helps it puff up.”
“If you want to make a Vietnamese bánh mì, this is what you would want: this is head cheese, the cured pork sausage, and this is the liver pâté. So, if you wanted to make your own, smear the pâté on your bread, cut these up, get some pickled carrots and daikon, and some mayo, and you're ready to go,” Pham says of the starter set.
"We use this Spicy Chili Crisp one as it's very versatile,” Pham says. “You can put it in a stir fry or a sauce, but we use it for our Yin's Wok Fried Seasoned Nuts and our vegetable stir fry. And it's vegan too, so that's nice. There are also lots of different types of vinegars that are always interesting: red vinegar, black vinegar, etc. We'll use the black ones for pickling tomatoes.”
Pham adds, “I would encourage people if they're not familiar to just come and try a bunch of things. You can come and say, 'Hey, I wonder what pickled cucumber in soy sauce is like?' And you taste it and say, 'This would be good with rice, this would be good with fish, or anything. But a general rule of thumb to follow, is that it probably goes well with rice."
"I think cooking is no different than life -- you have to experiment, you have to be willing to fail, but you also have to be a bit curious to explore and try and see what things are like. But if you just stick to your comfort zone, you're not going to experience things. It's a metaphor for life. Maybe you'll say, 'I don't know a lot about this stuff, but I'll just pick it up and see what comes out of it. And with these jars, they last for a while, so you can always experiment and then come back to it later.”
"This is another good hack, these seasoning packs are for different dishes, so instead of you making your own blend for phở, you can use these. They're kind of like bouillon cubes, but all the spices are in there for very specific dishes. You've got beef stew, chicken curry, etc."
"The thing about food that I think makes it unique to music or art or other creative fields, is that everyone must eat,” Pham says. “You don't have to listen to music or you won't die if you don't, but with food you do. And on top of that, everyone has a particular taste that they like and to me it's frustrating when people have a taste that they like, but they can't produce it or describe it to you. I'm not a fortune teller. So, I think people should be able to know what they like and why they like it, but that only comes through experimentation. You'll talk to people who just like to eat, but they don't know why they like what they like."
Before we check out, Pham adds this last bit of advice for getting started, “If you have a recipe of a dish that you have in mind to make, grab those things and maybe try to find one new thing that you've never seen or used before and then play around and experiment with that. Pick a jar that looks interesting, spend a few bucks, and try it out. The first thing is building confidence because you'll soon say, 'Oh, I can do this,’ or ‘This is not as hard as I thought!' And then the next thing you know, you're looking forward to trying something new. But you first have to build a little confidence and experiment a bit."
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