While waiting for the lift in the lobby of my Los Angeles hotel one recent morning, I picked up a takeaway menu from Jitlada Thai Cuisine, a Thai Town stalwart located just around the corner on a sunburned stretch of Sunset Blvd. in East Hollywood. I was feeling the need for cheap amusements on the ride up to my room and, having had a middling meal at this same restaurant a few years back, I certainly wasn’t expecting anything more than that, but, lo and behold, there on the last page of the glossy trifold menu, I found this:
in effect, the orange header reads, “The very best Southern Thai food from Jitlada”
Now, my first thought was, "Whoa. That's heavy." And, my second thought was, well, to tell you the truth, my second thought was not any different from my first. This was heavy. Really heavy, in fact, as I had never before encountered, let alone heard of a similarly extensive roster of Southern Thai offerings in an American Thai restaurant. Heck, to the best of my knowledge, Southern Thai cuisine had never been granted more than nominal representation on any American Thai restaurant menu, and, for that reason, it remains the Holy Grail of the American Thai dining scene for many Thais and non-Thais alike. So, with that in mind, you can bet that I was down there in a flash.
As it turned out, I quickly learned that Jitlada was recently acquired by a Southern Thai gentleman by the name of Suthiporn Sungkamee, or "Tui," who, along with his Southern Thai wife, is entirely responsible for all of the traditional Southern Thai recipes that make up Jitlada’s unique menu. Born into a family of thirteen children in the province of Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Tui began receiving instruction in the traditional foodways of Southern Thailand at any early age, and his recipes, which now represent generations of received family wisdom, are meticulously crafted by hand to include as many original Southern Thai ingredients as possible.
kài bàan tôm khĩi-mîn, a tumeric-seasoned soup with chicken (bone-in) and kaffir lime leaves
that’s fresh tumeric!
khanõm jiin náam yaa, a dish of rice vermicelli and Malay-style ground fish curry sauce, with
fish balls, and assorted fruit and vegetable condiments
khanõm jiin náam yaa with assorted condiments, including homemade pickled cucumbers and
pickled mustard cabbage
khâo yam “Songkhla,” a “rice salad” in the style of Songkhla province, with assorted fruit and
vegetable condiments and a sweet sauce
phîi Tui and his daughter
phîi Tui’s map; he is from Nakhon Sri Thammarat Province
"So, what makes Southern Thai food, and, more generally speaking, Southern Thailand, so special," you might ask?
Well, as I see it, here are a few of the more salient points to be made:
1. Southern Thailand forms the land bridge between the Asian mainland and the Malay Peninsula, and for several centuries it greatly functioned as a conduit for the cultural, religious, and culinary traditions of India, Arabia, and the early European world. To this day, the various cultures, religions, and cuisines of Southern Thailand combine Thai, Indian, Malay, and Chinese elements, giving it a rich, complex, and highly elaborate character.
2. The Islamic faith arrived in what is now Southern Thailand with the Arabian spice trade, sometime during the 13th century.
2a. Over time, Arab traders were responsible for the introduction of a number of spices to the area, including black pepper, cinnamon, cassia, long pepper, chile, and cardamom. To this day, the cuisines of Southern Thailand are considered to be some of the country's most complexly-seasoned and assertively-flavoured, while bracing chile heat and Indo-Arabic-styles of spicing play recurrent themes.
2b. Muslims make up roughly 5% of Thailand's population, with the majority residing in the Southern provinces closest to Malaysia.
2c. Due to the strict dietary laws of the Islamic faith, pork, which is otherwise a staple of the Thai diet, is not permitted; beef is not only acceptable but also prevalent in the Muslim Thai diet, and diets throughout the South.
3. With nearly twice the average rainfall of any other region of Thailand, and roughly two-thirds of the entire country’s coastline, Southern Thailand offers an incomparable array of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and seafoods.
3a. Fresh tumeric is present in abundance and it gives much of the cusine a distinctly orange colour and pleasant astringency.
3b. Shrimp paste, made from tiny saltwater shrimp which have been mashed to a pulpy consistency and dried in the sweltering coastal sun, is also present in abundance, and it lends a salty pungency to much of Southern Thailand's cuisine.
3c. The coconut palm, which only grows in the tropical, coastal areas of Thailand, is yet another significant player in Southern Thai cuisine, and the cloying sweetness of both its “meat” and “milk” is often nicely offset by underripe fruits, bitter herbs, and astringent buds, seeds and leaves.
3d. Hundreds of varieties of shrimp, clams, mussels, crabs, lobster and fish make their way into the Southern diet, with much of it grilled, fried, or simply dried in the hot sun.
So, having said all of that, what you really want to know is what I thought of Jitlada’s food, right? Well, let me put it this way: on my increasingly frequent trips to Los Angeles it is very rare that I will ever visit the same establishment twice during my short stay, but, in the case of Jitlada, I not only visited twice, I went back again a third time.
Here are photos of some of the dishes which I sampled on those subsequent visits:
súp hang wûa, a Southern Thai-style oxtail soup
this sour soup contains oxtail, lemon grass, shallots, scallions, and cilantro
kaeng tay poh plaa châwn hâeng, a southern Thai curry with dried mudfish and water spinach
this sour and sweet curry is flavoured with tamarind pulp and coconut milk
yam má-mûang, a shredded green mango salad with fresh shrimp, red onion and cashew nuts
puu pèn phla, a raw blue crab salad with lemongrass, mint and chile
khûa klíng “Phat Lung,”, a Phat(tha)lung-style spicy, tumeric-flavoured, dry curry with beef
plaa thâwt khĩi-mîn, a deep-fried tumeric-seasoned red snapper
kaeng hãwy bai chá-phluu, a spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with clams and wild tea leaves
And, here is my translation of Jitlada's Southern Thai menu, which, to date, and with one glaring exception (me!), remains entirely unexplored by non-Thais and is little known by the area's Thais themselves:
01. kaeng khĩaw-wãan khài “Mang-kon” : green curry with egg-yolk-stuffed fish balls
02. kaeng tay poh plaa châwn hâeng : Southern Thai-style curry with dried mudfish and water spinach
03. kaeng néua khĩi-lèk : spicy curry with beef and pickled cassia buds
04. kaeng lẽuang kûng yaanãd rẽu lawkaw : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and pineapple
05. kaeng lẽuang “Thaalaa” : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with catfish and pickled bamboo shoots
06. kaeng lẽuang plaa bawk àw-dìp : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with mullet fish and taro shoots
07. kaeng kài khĩi-phrâa : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with chicken and bottle gourd
08. kaeng kài nũn àwn : spicy curry with chicken and young jackfruit
09. kaeng kòp sôm tháwn : spicy curry with frog legs and santol fruit
10. kaeng kûng yâwt khãam àwn : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and young tamarind shoots
11. kaeng kûng yaanãd : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and pineapple
12. kaeng kûng wùa thùa : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and jicama
13. kaeng jèut plaa mèuk yát sài : “bland” soup with minced-chicken-stuffed squid
14. kaeng plaa dùk bai chá-phluu : a spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with catfish and wild tea leaves
15. kaeng pàa plaa dùk lûuk tàw : spicy, tumeric-seasoned “wild” curry with catfish and sator beans (no coconut milk)
16. kaeng phûung plaa kûng sàp : spicy, fish kidney curry with minced shrimp
17. kaeng phûung plaa plaa yâang : spicy, fish kidney curry with grilled fish
18. phàt phèt lûuk tàw puu nìm : spicy stir-fry with sator beans and soft-shelled crab
19. phàt lûuk tàw “Meuang Khon” : Nakhon Sri Tammarat-style stir-fried sator beans
20. khûa klíng “Phat Lung” : Phat(tha)lung-style spicy, tumeric-flavoured dry curry with pork or beef
21. kûng naang òp wún sên : giant shrimp baked in a clay pot with mung bean noodles and peapods
22. kûng sa-dûng fai : grilled whole shrimp topped with a special dry curry sauce
23. kài bàan tôm khĩi-mîn : tumeric-seasoned soup with chicken (bone-in) and kaffir lime leaves
24. sii-khrong mũu krà-thiam phrík thai : deep-fried pork ribs seasoned with garlic and black pepper
25. tôm khẽm nàw mái lûuk tàw : salty soup with tumeric, coconut milk, sator beans and shrimp
26. tôm yam kûng naang : sour and spicy soup with giant shrimp
27. plaa thâwt khĩi-mîn : deep-fried tumeric-seasoned fish
28. plaa thâwt náam plaa jâo khãwng râek meuang thai : seabass seasoned with fish sauce and deep-fried
29. plaa thâwt râat phrík : deep-fried fish (seabass, catfish, pompano, or pomfret) “smothered” in sweet chile sauce
30. plaa thâwt râat phrík sãam rót : deep-fried fish (see above) with “three-flavoured” sauce
31. plaa bawk tàet dìaw : dried/fried mullet fish (pieces)
32. plaa bawk tôm náam sôm jaak : sour soup with tumeric, mullet fish and nipa palm vinegar
33. yam prîaw dâwng : pickled crab salad
34. yam plaa dùk fuu : fried, shredded catfish salad with chile
35. yam sôm mûang "Pak Nang" : Amphoe Pak (Pha)nang-style papaya salad
36. khâo yam “Songkhla” : rice salad in the style of Songkhla province, with assorted vegetables and a sweet sauce (náam budu)
37. khanõm jiin “Meuang Khon” 5 náam 3 dâng : rice vermicelli with fish balls and your choice of curry sauce
38. khâo nĩaw sômtam kài yâang lâap náam tòk : sticky rice with papaya salad, grilled chicken, minced meat salad, or “waterfall” meat salad
39. néua tàet dìaw / néua sũwan : dried/fried beef “jerky”
40. puu pèn phla : raw blue crab salad with lemongrass, mint and chile
Who knows, perhaps there is another great secret lurking out there somewhere. But, until I find out about it, this, in my opinion, is the most exciting thing going on in the Thai restaurant scene in the U.S. these days by a wide margin. And, dish for dish, the Southern Thai food at Jitlada is the best Thai food that I have ever had in an American restaurant.
Jitlada Thai Cuisine (Official Site)
5233 ½ Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA
* Jitlada's Southern Thai menu is largely written in dialect and it remains a near-mystery to much of the Thai waitstaff, who have no working familiarity with this special language. I was only able to successfully navigate and translate the menu with help from Tui, who spent a few hours with me one evening teaching me some of the basic grammatical rules and constructions. When you visit, make a point of asking for assistance from Tui's lovely sister (and the restaurant's hostess), Srintip ("Jazz"), or from Tui himself. Oh, and be sure to tell them that I sent you. They will take very good care of you, I promise.
** This post has been in the works for months now, so it was quite a coincidence to see James Oseland's article on the foodways of Southern Thailand in the most recent issue of Saveur. While I enjoyed the article quite a bit, and while I found it terrifically interesting to learn that he'd spent the majority of his brief time in the very same small area where Tui's recipes were developed over generations (i.e. the provinces of Nakhon Sri Thammarat and Phatthalung) , I was somewhat puzzled by his characterization of the foodstuffs which he found there. I myself have never visited either province, but Tui was emphatic about the ubiquity of fresh tumeric in the foodstuffs of the area, as well as the abiding native love for blazing chile heat.
This post is my final contribution to LTHForum and I would like to dedicate it to my father who died tragically on this day, six years ago. My father likely remains the single greatest influence in my life, and it was he who was greatly responsible for nurturing my interest in foreign travel and cuisine. It is thanks to him that I became a seasoned foreign traveler at an early age, and some of my fondest moments were spent eating and sharing fellowship with him at various tables around the world. Of all the places that we traveled together, Thailand was one of his favourites, and I have no doubt that he would have enjoyed the food and hospitality at Jitlada immensely.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.
ORIGINAL POST EDITED TO INSERT PHOTO LINKS.