Thai food with a California twist

If it's true, as the saying goes, that the best place to eat is wherever the locals eat, then Thai-food lovers in Los Angeles can't do better than this: the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple in North Hollywood.

Sure, Thai restaurants abound in Los Angeles, which is home to some 40,000 to 50,000 Thais - the largest concentration outside of Thailand. There's lots of great Thai food to be found here, particularly in the "Thai Town" section of the city, which is just east of Hollywood and west of downtown.

But an interesting alternative is Wat Thai Temple, the first Thai Buddhist temple built in the United States. Every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., mom-and-pop food vendors set up for business in the courtyard that surrounds the temple.

For a few dollars a meal, you can feast on dishes that you won't find in restaurants - at least, not prepared like this. These dozen or so vendors prepare food from family recipes handed down over two and three generations: spicy green papaya salad; hot, creamy curries; little dumplings of chicken, shallots, and palm sugar; sweetly seasoned skewered chunks of chicken or pork; and freshly made pad thai noodles. There is also a huge variety of desserts, including the basic but delicious sweet sticky rice with mango, as well as split mung beans, fried and filled with condensed milk and sugar.

"Because the food at the temple is cooked by Thai home cooks for Thai consumers, it is more authentic," says Los Angeles chef and restaurant owner Evan Kleiman. "Restaurants tend to oversweeten the food to please the American palate. The food at the temple is more home-cooked in style."

The food is only part of the weekend scene at the temple, which, like those in Thailand, serves as a community gathering place. Families come for all sorts of activities, from Buddhist Sunday School to classes in Thai language, music, and dance. Teens join their elders in worship in the temple - the only Thai temple in the US built in traditional Thai style - and they gather at tables under the trees, eating food from the vendors' stalls. The soft, lilting sounds of the phonetically based Thai language are heard everywhere, while the scent of burning incense wafts through the air.

"In Thailand, the temple is the central meeting place on weekends," says Jet Tila, a first-generation American Thai who is a chef and owner of Bangkok Market in Los Angeles. "It's the place where everyone gets together, the whole family. It's a place to hang out. Everyone's got something to do here."

Mr. Tila, whose parents moved to the United States in 1967, says he grew up spending his weekends with his family at the temple. People began bringing food, potluck-style, to share with the monks after prayers. Eventually, he says, food became a way to help raise funds for the temple, with vendors donating part of their profits to the temple.

For an outsider, a visit to Wat Thai, which was built in the early 1970s, offers a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of real Thai culture without traveling to Southeast Asia. Monks in saffron-colored robes wander the grounds and will happily answer questions about the temple or their religion, and food vendors will tell you about their recipes and how they prepare them.

With its traditional red roof and ornate gold trim, the temple itself looks as if it's been lifted straight from Bangkok. Two giant carved statues, or yuks, as they are called in Thai, stand in front of the temple as spiritual guardians.

Inside, a huge gold Buddha seated in the blessing position is joined by a replica of Thailand's famous 21-inch-tall Emerald Buddha, which dates back to AD 400 and is one of the country's most prized possessions.

Visitors are welcome, although certain rules of etiquette must be observed. Leave your shoes at the door and enter barefooted or in stocking feet.

Never point your feet at someone else, as feet are thought to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body, and pointing them in anyone's direction is considered to be an insult.

Sit cross-legged or with your legs folded under you.

Lastly, if you're a woman, don't ever touch a monk. Only men are allowed to have physical contact with monks.

That said, there's a lot to be learned and observed. Visitors are welcome to look in on four-hour Sunday School classes, or to watch girls learning the delicate, highly stylized movements of classical Thai dance.

Conversations with monks can yield some interesting tidbits, such as the fact that the saffron color of their robes honors the tradition that Buddha was born in a grove of jackfruit trees, and that the orange represents the brilliant color of the pods inside the fruit.

And, of course, if you stay long enough, as Thai families do, the food vendors and their aromatic offerings always call for at least one more round of true Thai home cooking.

Beef Satay

1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon garlic powder, or more to taste
1-1/2 pounds beef flank steak
1 cup coconut milk
12 bamboo skewers, soaked in water for 20 minutes (or substitute metal skewers)

In a small bowl, combine curry powder, pepper, salt, sugar, and garlic powder.

Slice flank steak against the grain into 12 long, 1/2-inch-wide slices. Add to the marinade.

Add coconut milk, coating beef evenly. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator 4 hours to overnight.

Thread beef onto skewers, leaving 1-1/2 to 2 inches at bottom of each skewer.

Grill beef over high heat on outdoor grill or, if using stove-top grill pan or broiler, until cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes each side. (Turn with tongs, not a fork.)

Serves 4 to 6.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 tablespoon red curry paste, or more to taste
1 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons chunky peanut butter, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar, or more to taste

Heat oil in small saucepan over high heat and stir-fry curry paste 15 seconds.

Stir in coconut milk and bring to boil; boil 2 minutes.

Add peanut butter. Stir constantly until sauce begins to thicken, 2 to 3 minutes.

Reduce heat to simmer and add fish sauce, rice vinegar, and sugar. Cook sauce, stirring, 1 minute more. Remove from heat. An oily film will rise to top; skim it off if you wish.

- Recipe from Jet Tila, chef at the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple in North Hollywood, Calif.

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