Chef and author Pailin Chongchitnant. Photo by Janis Nicolay

Sabai: 100 Simple Thai Recipes for Any Day of the Week is Pailin Chongchitnant’s newest cookbook, published last year. After watching endless videos on her YouTube Channel, Pailin’s Kitchen and on her website, Hot Thai Kitchen, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pai in my own kitchen over Zoom. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Chalida Anusasananan: Tell me about your new book and what you’re hoping readers will get from it. 

Pailin Chongchitnant: The new book, Sabai, was partly inspired by my transition into motherhood. I was teaching Thai cooking for a long time as a person without a child and it never really mattered to me how difficult a recipe was. I had all the time in the world. I didn’t need to feed anybody that couldn’t wait. It was never on my agenda whether a recipe was difficult, practical, quick and easy. If it was, it was. If it wasn’t, it wasn’t. And then I had my baby. Life completely changed as everyone who becomes a mom will tell you. All of a sudden it was like, “Oh my gosh. Now I understand the obsession with quick and easy meals like I never did before. I understand why people have such a thirst for simple recipes that they can pull off after work quickly within an hour.” So when I thought about what my second book was going to be, I thought, this is it. I have quick and easy recipes on my website and YouTube channel, but you just kind of have to browse through them and decide for yourself, “Is this quick and easy enough for you?” So I wanted the book to be a place people could open to any page, and the recipe would be simple enough for you to make on a weeknight. 

I wanted to reduce the barrier to cooking Thai food even more for people who don’t have a lot of time. My first book, Hot Thai Kitchen, is meant to reduce the barrier to Thai food by arming people with knowledge. They don’t know where to start because they’re intimidated so here’s more knowledge to feel less blind.  

The second book is: here are all the simple recipes you can start with. 

CA: The book is called Sabai. What does “sabai” mean and how do you think that word fits into Thai culture and cooking? 

PC: If you spend any time in Thailand at all, you’re probably going to come across this word because it’s a word that we use to describe a lot of things. For Thai people, it’s almost a way of life. “Sabai” means easy-peasy, carefree and comfortable. It’s the opposite of high strung. When I came to Canada, I noticed that everyone was walking faster than me. They were passing me. I thought: I am the slowest walker on any given street. North Americans living in Thailand have told me they’re constantly forced to slow down because Thai people just take their time. And that’s just how Thai people are. Even in busy Bangkok, traffic forces you to slow down. Thai people are really relaxed and I wanted to use this word because that’s the feeling I want people to have when they cook Thai food. It’s something they can do sabai, sabai. Nothing to stress over.  

CA: What are your favorite recipes in the book? 

PC: That’s a hard question. I didn’t have to worry about the clickability of things with the book. People have already bought the book. So I had freedom to share lesser known recipes that were more significant to my childhood. Like my Grandma’s Spareribs and Vegetable Stew (p. 90). It’s just a brown stew. It doesn’t look great on camera, but it’s delicious and comforting. You just throw everything in a pot and just let it simmer. The amount of flavor it delivers is unbelievable and it’s kid friendly. It’s what I call the underdog of recipes. 

CA: So you have a child now. How do they handle all the spicy Thai food? 

PC: I have a son. He’s five and he’s such a picky eater. He’s scared of everything spicy. If I don’t want him to eat the potato chips I’m eating, all I have to do is tell him that it’s spicy and he won’t eat them.  

There’s a misconception that all Thai food is spicy, but there are so many things that are not spicy at all. Both spicy and not spicy things are on the table, and as a kid grows up, they’ll try a little bit of this and a little bit of that and spice tolerance builds naturally. Right now it’s soup and omelets, but later he’ll try something a little bit spicy, and then a little more and the next thing you know, he’ll like spicy food. That was how it was for me. 

CA: You have a very successful YouTube channel and you have nearly two million subscribers, over 650 videos and two cookbooks. What are you most proud of? 

PC: I am proud of all of those things, but what makes me most happy is all the people who have said to me, “Your recipes have made a difference.” People have told me, “I never thought I could cook Thai food until you broke it down.” And I’ve watched people turn into Thai food pros. I have followers who are now chefs and doing pop-up dinners and people who have restaurants who tell me they are using my recipes in their restaurants. I like to see that my work translates into things that have impacted people’s lives in a positive way. 

And particularly for people like you who are Thai, but born elsewhere and never really got the chance to learn. I have so many Thai people who tell me, “I regret not learning any of these foods from my parents and I’m glad I found your videos because the food tastes just like my family’s” and that makes me so happy. I want to cry every time somebody says that. I didn’t think Thai people were going to watch me. That was completely unexpected. I thought I would teach foreigners, but I didn’t know about this subgroup of Thai people born elsewhere who would benefit most from videos because I can connect them to their roots. There are not a lot of people who are in the position to translate well from Thai to English equally so I’m in a unique position to be able to do that. I can bridge the two cultures very well.  I can speak their language and I’m originally Thai. I’m very, very proud to help other Thai people cook Thai food. 

CA: How did attending culinary school shape the way you cook Thai food? 

PC: It changed my life. I went to culinary school in San Francisco so SF has a special place in my heart. Culinary school really helped me understand food in a scientific way and it made me question the reasons we do everything. I transferred that sort of scientific method to my videos. I think a major reason why people connect with my videos is because again and again I hear people saying, “I really like how you explain why you do what you do.” Especially for Thai recipes there’s so few people who explain anything and I look at Thai cooking videos and I’m reading Thai recipes, but the Thai culture is so old that dishes and methods have just been passed down from generation to generation. 

It’s like that joke about the family who cuts off both ends of the roast before they put it in the oven. That’s just the way they’ve done it for years and years in their family. When someone finally asks why, it turns out Grandma’s roasting pan was too small so she had to cut off both ends of the roast. But that reason was never passed on so people kept trimming the roast. Things like this happen in cooking all the time. A thing has been done because it was relevant in the past but it’s no longer relevant today. 

CA: How has the perception of Thai food shifted in the last 15 years in North America? 

PC: It has and it hasn’t. Back when I started, Thai food was very much just cheap takeout. It was pad Thai and curries and green papaya salad and that was it. Nowadays, people have a much broader appreciation of what Thai food encompasses beyond those dishes, but it’s still very limited to big cities like San Francisco, New York and LA where restaurants are doing unconventional things. But outside of big cities, people are still familiar with those basic dishes. You know my best performing recipes are still pad Thai and green curry. In this phase of my career, I’m really trying to push lesser known dishes. 

Thai food is more than just peanuts and noodles. Mainstream media has not been good to Thai food at all. Recipes come out from major publications and claim they are Thai this and Thai that and then the recipe still has a bunch of peanuts, a cilantro garnish and a lime wedge on the side. I would think big publications would fact check and be careful of the terms they use. But I am still seeing rampant stereotypes in mainstream media.  

Overall, I think we’re going in the right direction and people are seeing more of what Thai food has to offer and I hope it continues.  

CA: When you go back to Thailand, where do you go? What’s the first thing you eat? 

PC: I’m going back in June and I usually just eat whatever my mom has prepared. Generally it ends up being beef noodle soup which is perfect because it’s so comforting especially when you’re jet-lagged. And fried bananas, because we have a vendor close to our house. That’s super satisfying because it’s not something I make a lot myself and we don’t have the right bananas here. 

CA: What do you like to eat aside from Thai food? 

PC: I love Japanese food a lot, and now that our nanny is Japanese, we have a lot of Japanese culture in our life. So Japanese is probably the most frequently consumed food in our house. It’s not spicy and there aren’t a lot of herbs. It’s the total opposite of Thai food and that’s the reason I like it. 

My husband will go through phases where he’s like, “Thai food has too much flavor,” and he needs a break from the sensory overload that is Thai food. 

I also love Mexican food. The flavors really jive with the Thai palate. You know it’s sour, spicy and fresh.  

CA: Do you think Thai people from Thailand would like your recipes, especially ones you’ve taken liberties with? 

PC: Thai people take liberties all the time. I am aware of this because I am submerged in Thai culture. I browse the Thai Internet, I’m on Thai Instagram and I follow Thai forums and food blogs. I want to see what Thai people in Thailand are doing. Real Thai people in Thailand are taking bigger liberties than I am. They are incredibly creative and there’s every combination of food you can find. Traditional methods are respected and revered, but Thai people love innovation. If our chip flavors indicate anything about our love for innovation, you know we love new food. 

CA: Thank you so much. 

Pailin Chongchitnant will be in conversation with J. Kenji López‑Alt Town Hall Seattle through Seattle Arts and Lectures on Thursday, May 9th at 7:30pm in real life and online. More information is here. Please check out Pai’s website, Hot Thai Kitchen and her book, Sabai: 100 Simple Thai Recipes for Any Day of the Week.  

Previous articleWriter Ru Freeman reminds us of our responsibilities to our fellow human beings in extraordinary essay collection  
Next articleState Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, Chinatown-ID representative in Olympia, suspends campaign for Washington Public Lands Commissioner