June 29, 2012
Kippah’s and Thai Ice teas
When a friend told me a kosher vegan Thai restaurant was a hidden gem on Pico’s gastronomic stretch, I had my reservations. I wondered how “Vegan” and “Kosher Thai” could fit together. After all, the kosher dining experience I had grown accustom to involved shawarma, pastrami sandwiches and kung-pao chicken. Was there room for kosher Thai?
A flaming bowl of Tom Yum vegetable soup arrived and changed my mind. I was sitting and my order came out I was caught by surprise, not just by the flame, but what came next: A unique kosher dining experience that was similar to other ethnic restaurants that dot Los Angeles landscape.
Some of the lesser known Mexican restaurants that dot East Los Angeles and the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley have been built into strip malls. Located between a laundry mat and a Chinese take out place, Bodhi Vegetarian and Vegan Kitchen maintains a similar relationship because of location.
But there’s more to the restaurant than just location. The neighborhood has played a significant role in shaping the style of food served at Bodhi. In an area with a large Orthodox population, Bodhi tries to straddle Jewish and Thai cultures.
“When I first opened, we weren’t kosher. We didn’t know this was a Jewish area,” said co-owner Nakarin Phornpituck.
“The first few months, the majority of our customers would ask, ‘Are you kosher?’ I would reply, ‘What’s Kosher?’” Said Phornpituck, who went through the kosher certification process with Kosher LA.
Besides the certification, co-owner Nakarin saw a natural connection between Thai and kosher.
“I studied the bible, and from what I can see Jews eat pure food. They use a lot of fresh and pure ingredients in making their food. Thais use a lot of fresh ingredients as well,” he said.
What other barriers could exist between Thai food and kosher cuisine? How about scorching heat associated with Thai cooking. In LA Thai restaurants In which I have dined, their menus featured voluminous menus, with pages full of asterisks and red dots warning about the dangers of Thai chilies.
As I found from dining at Bohdi, the menu is considerably cooled down for non-Thai palates. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t authentic.
The Thai food business was nothing new to the Phornpituck family. Restaurant owner Nakarin is a Thai immigrant, who has been in the United States for the Past 17 years. His mother, Pasook, is a chef at the restaurant and has been cooking since her days as a street food vendor in an open market in Thailand. The owner is also a vegetarian.
So with that being said, I expected a healthy authentic Thai meal.
My meal began with a bowl of Tom Yum vegetable soup. This was probably the spiciest thing I ordered and the heat prepared my palate my for the rest of the meal.
The soup’s foundation is a lemongrass broth, which gives off a sour taste. Added were crunchy carrots and various other fresh vegetables. Not succumbing to sogginess, carrots and other vegetables maintained their texture in the broth. The soup also had elements of Thai spice. Homemade chili paste added a spicy flavor to the lemongrass broth.
Next came the entrees, which I was able to share with the two friends who came with me. The noodle dish, Pad See Ew, I eagerly slurped down. I enjoyed how the noodles were bathed in a “home special sauce”. The noodle dish came with a choice of seitan Chicken/Beef seitan (seitan is wheat/gluten product that acts as a substitute to meat) or tofu. I tried the chicken, which didn’t taste like chicken, but does it really matter? The noodles were a little burnt, but still this was my favorite dish.
A key ingredient of the dish was the boiled bok choy. When I was a kid, the green stuff was pushed off my plate, but not here. I tasted a subtle bitterness with each bite.
The red curry arrived next. Even though the menu says it uses Thai chilies, I couldn’t taste the added heat. Instead, the curry acted as a palate cleanser from the previous soup. The curry featured a thickened broth made from coconut milk, which gave off sweetness to the dish. The dish also came with brown rice, which added savoriness as I mixed in the curry with the rice.
Not every dish had its charms though one dish that I found a bit disorienting was the spicy pumpkin tofu eggplant. That just didn’t seem to mix together well and the eggplant was too burnt for my liking.
Overall, I left Bodhi feeling like I ate at a restaurant in Thai-Town in Hollywood. As a LA kosher diner, there really isn’t anything like this I have been able to find; where an immigrant family transforms its homeland recipes just enough to make Jews feel like they are a part of an authentic ethnic dining experience.