An Interview with Chef Jet Tila
Jet Tila talks soy sauce, cooking his Gramma's food, and why foreign food isn't foreign anymore.
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If ever there was a culinary man-of-the-world, it's Jet Tila. Tila grew up working in his family's iconic Los Angeles Thai market and restaurants while eating his Cantonese grandmother's food alongside the Salvadorean food that proliferated in his neighborhood. Further influenced by his Mexican aunt and French culinary education, Tila's own culinary experiences are as varied as the cuisines of L.A.
In between his TV appearances, restaurant launches, cookbook releases, and occasionally breaking culinary world records, Tila stays connected to his roots by leading culinary tours in L.A., earning him the unofficial title of "Mayor of Thai Town." Here, we sit down with Jet to talk about the essentials of Asian cooking, the role of education in food, his new guided-recipe collection on Yummly Pro, and his recently released cookbook, 101 Epic Dishes: Recipes That Teach You How to Make the Classics Even More Delicious.
But first … let's get down to Yum.
Yummly: In your books and interviews, you talk a lot about the whole idea of "yum." Needless to say, here at Yummly, we find this very interesting! I was hoping you could explain what "yum" means in Thai, and then what it means to you in your own cooking.
Jet Tila: Yum is a very common Thai term that sums up that balancing point between hot, sour, salty, sweet, and savory. There's a lot of that balance going on in a lot of global cuisines, not just in Asia. But I think Thais do it very well. It's a very easy thing to explain to people when you're going to talk about cooking or teach cooking. I think every country approaches it in a different way from an ingredient perspective … it's easy to grasp the overall concept.
Yummly: Do you see this principle as something that works in non-Asian cuisines as well, just in a different form?
Jet Tila: Of course. Anywhere from Gen X to Gen Z to Millennials, more and more this is how everybody eats every day; foreign food is not foreign anymore. That's really the learning point. It's not Thai food, it's Mexican food, it's Korean food... I think us first-world eaters are evolving to eat multiple flavors at every meal period.
Yummly: For folks who aren't familiar with the regional differences in Thai cooking, can you talk about some of the hallmarks of Northern Thai cooking?
Jet Tila: [In Thailand], you break down the food into four culinary regions. [With] Northern Thai cooking we're now in the golden triangle where there's no ocean, so there's no seafood, obviously. It's heavily land-, animal-, protein-dominant. It's a colder climate, so heartier vegetables; we don't worry about spoilage like the south. We don't pickle as much. So it's ultra spicy, it's herbaceous, it's very heavy, it's protein laden. You're definitely eating sticky rice over jasmine or white rice.
Yummly: Writers often talk about "finding your voice;" That's got to be similar for a chef too. Do you feel like you had a journey where you had to find your voice as a chef?
Jet Tila: I've always preached that there are two types of chefs: I think there are chefs that are more artisans versus artists. Artist chefs are more interpretive: They kind of pull from everything and create dishes. I think artisanal or artisan chefs, we're … I'm on a journey to cook my mom's food, my gramma's food, her gramma's food. I'm not freestyling; I'm not an interpretive kind of chef. I'm definitely into finding flavors that don't blend with other cultures.
Yummly: Do you specialize in a particular region in your own cooking?
Jet Tila: Well, my mom comes from the north, and my dad's from Central Thailand — Bangkok — so my cooking is definitely more central. Kind of the "best of" everything; there's [also] such Laotian influence in a lot of Thai food. I'm not a regional specialist, but I do cook a lot of overall favorites.
Jet Tila's Classic Lo Mein Noodles on Yummly Pro
THE ASIAN PANTRY
Yummly: How easy is it for someone who has never cooked Asian food to pick up the principles? Is it something totally different or are there a lot of transferable skills that they may already have in the kitchen?
Jet Tila: I think the primary difference when you get into global cuisine is going to be really understanding seasoning. Techniques are the same: All cooking is broken down into moist heat or dry heat. It's very typical: grilling/roasting/sautéing versus the moist heat of braising, boiling, etc. So yeah, it's seasoning: It's really understanding how to season like an Asian person.
And … you've gotta expand your pantry now, right? Start with hot, sour, salty, sweet as a roadmap, and then apply how each country achieves hot, sour, salty, sweet. Let's just start with salt: Thai people use fish sauce, and in Chinese, you have oyster and soy. And then sour: Koreans will use vinegar more than citrus, and Thais will use lime. Once you understand the "yum" and how a country applies it, then you have more authentic flavors. The biggest mistake people make is using [the same] soy sauce to cook every Asian dish and then they wonder why everything tastes the same.
Yummly: One of the recipes in your collection on Yummly is your famous drunken noodles. And I'll tell you, I think they're famous for a reason — they're already an early fan favorite. So I did go ahead and try making that one myself.
Jet Tila: Oh good! How'd it come out?
Yummly: It came out great! It was really, really tasty. But — you might get a laugh out of this — I had to go and get sweet soy sauce for the recipe, so I went down the road to the Hmart. So I get there and I go and find myself standing in front of the soy sauce display ... and there's probably over a 100 different kinds of soy sauces!
Jet Tila: [laughing] Oh, easily! easily!
Yummly: So do you have some tips on choosing soy sauce? Do you have favorite brands, or how do you tell a good one from a bad one?
Jet Tila: First things first: match the country of origin to the cuisine. There's a very simple way to start. Most soy sauce [like Kikkoman] is going to taste similar: The viscosity is going to be very liquidy, watery … it's going to be opaque. That's your starting point. Then add to your repertoire a sweet soy sauce which has about 60-70% molasses, which will give you a nice coating soy sauce. Then you need at least one more soy outside of the Kikkoman style: You need some thin soy or light soy — that's Chinese soy. When you get into stir fry, oyster sauce is used 10 to 1 in authentic Chinese food over soy. Between those three or four sauces, you probably cover your steps 80%.
Yummly: OK, so I need to get four relatively inexpensive bottles of sauces and I'm good to go.
Jet Tila: Exactly right.
Jet Tila's Drunken Noodles on Yummly Pro
ON LEARNING HOW TO COOK
Yummly: Do you have a particular culinary pet peeve?
Jet Tila: [laughs] You know the first one that comes to mind is this: the younger generation learning things via YouTube and thinking they know everything. There are a million ways to skin a cat, and a lot of people think there's only a few because that's what they saw, instead of learned. Just because you saw something, it still doesn't mean you've practiced it. That's a big issue. A lot of people can talk cooking, but that doesn't make them good cooks.
Yummly: I know that you're really passionate about educating people when it comes to food. If you could tell home chefs to do one thing to get better at cooking, what would that one thing be?
Jet Tila: Do it more than once. You gotta make a dish multiple times. And keep your ingredients correct, like we just talked about. Between those two, your cooking will get better quickly.
Yummly: Your second book [co-written with wife Ali Tila] just came out. How did you come up with this concept of teaching techniques through recipes?
Jet Tila: My wife was a preschool special ed teacher and I've been teaching for 20 years, so it was kind of a natural book to write because of our backgrounds in teaching. On the top layer we wanted to write recipes that just worked, and worked well, and were easy to follow; I think a lot of books skip a lot of steps and don't drill it down in a very palatable way.
Second to that, it's scaffolding teaching. I don't want to just teach you how to make the dish, but [instead] pull out a fundamental technique in it, so you can apply that to any future dish. You're not just making stir fry, you're actually learning how to sauté. Or you're not just grilling or roasting a chicken; now I can teach you how to roast, gosh, carnitas. It was important for us to give not just the "how" or the "why," but also teach a fundamental technique to make people better cooks in general.
Tila serves up his Korean Short Rib Tacos in the Yummly Pro kitchen.
WORKING WITH YUMMLY
Yummly: That's a good segue into talking about the work that you did for Yummly Pro because that's what we're trying to do there: make people more comfortable in the kitchen, give them some skills… So, for the collection that you put together for Yummly Pro, how did you choose which recipes to include?
Jet Tila: I had to be practical; I really wanted to concentrate it into the "best-of's". When people are approaching Asian cuisine, [these recipes] definitely feel like either the favorites to eat (which probably encourages the people to make it) or these are touchstone dishes from a tech-culinary point of view for the cuisine. If you can make drunken noodles, you understand fish sauce, and dark soy, and sweet soy, and noodles. These were integral dishes — the "must knows" as you get deeper in your journey.
Yummly: So, "start with these ten"...
Jet Tila: Yeah, and then get comfortable, and then every other dish in that country is going to get easier from there.
Yummly: I've seen you described as a storyteller with food; do you feel like these ten recipes come together and tell a story about where they're from?
Jet Tila: Yeah, for sure. Yummly's … a platform to very quickly and visually learn how to make a dish well. So it's the story of the ingredients and the techniques more than its a story of … my story, or the cuisine's story; that's when you buy cookbooks and get into food history. People … want to know how to make it, make it well, shop for it, and understand the ingredients.
The ingredients are the story to Asian cuisine. It's not like you're going from Italian to French, and a lot of the base material is the same. Each country has its own story, but the context and the information are in the ingredients.
Yummly: Well, even when you were just describing Northern Thai food, [Right] you were talking about how there's not much seafood here because it's landlocked; so the ingredients themselves say a lot about where they're from.
Jet Tila: Right, exactly. And just in that statement, you can extrapolate a lot of different things from the cuisine.
Yummly: I know you've certainly spent a fair amount of time in front of the camera. Is there anything different about the type of filming you were doing for Yummly Pro?
Jet Tila: The way that we were capturing content for Yummly Pro is indicative of the way people want to learn. What I like about Yummly Pro is it gets down to it quicker. And you don't get lost in the stuff you don't want. That's what I really love about it.
Want more #teamtila? Learn to cook your favorite Asian dishes alongside Jet Tila with a Yummly Pro subscription. His collection, Journey Through Asia, features a unique video format optimized for real-time use in your kitchen. You can also keep up with Jet on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or on his website, www.chefjet.com.
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