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Thursday, June 8, 2017 12:01 am

What makes the Magic Kitchen magic

Pad thai at home

Shrimp pad thai


Thirty-four years ago I heard about a little coffee shop in the parking lot of a shabby motel on Springfield’s north side that had unlikely pairing of corndogs and Thai food on the menu. Even though I had spent the last four years in Chicago and had dined in dozens of Asian restaurants, I had never experienced Thai food. My memory of that first visit to the now iconic Magic Kitchen is still vivid. I ordered lemongrass soup. My server, a short redheaded woman named Gay warned me: “It’s really, really hot.” I assured her that I could handle spicy hot. The first spoonful burned my throat and made little bumps form on my lips. The soup was delicious, but insanely hot! I recall thinking, “The food is really good and unique, but this place will never make a go of it in Springfield.” Over three decades of phenomenal success have proven my prediction very wrong.

Over the years my family has enjoyed countless meals at the Magic Kitchen. We have spent countless hours in their crowded “waiting room” or parking lot waiting for a table to open up. My daughter, Anne, who lives in New York City, one of the world’s premier restaurant cities, still craves Magic Kitchen so much that we always end up dining there the first night she’s home for a visit.

Though Thai restaurants have become mainstream, Thai cooking at home is less approachable. Due to the absence of ovens in traditional Thai home kitchens, stir-frying, grilling, boiling and steaming are the predominant cooking methods. Unlike pasta, which undergoes a 12-minute boil in salted water, Thai rice noodles “cook” by sitting in a bowl of warm water. Thai recipes call for unusual and sometimes hard to find ingredients such as fish sauce, dried shrimps and salted radishes.

Most of my education on Thai cooking comes from a unique website: ImportFood.com. This Seattle-based company was founded in 1999 by Jerry and Yaowalak Good. After living in Thailand for three years and earning an MBA at Bangkok University, Jerry returned to Seattle in 1994 to work as an international food trader for a large trading company. Yaowalak, a Thai native, spent several years as an accountant before coming to the United States in 1996. Their extensive knowledge of Thai cooking and international commerce resulted in the creation of ImportFood.com.

ImportFood offers for sale online over 400 of the best quality and freshest ingredients from Thailand. Even though many U.S. grocers stock similar products, the products may be “out of date” or inferior in quality. The unique website also features over 300 Thai recipes, over 100 Thai street vendor videos, and allows the viewer to buy hard to find imported Thai cookware and ingredients while browsing. If you subscribe to their newsletter, you will receive notice of new products and recipes. Periodically, they offer $5 flat rate shipping. This is the time to order big pans and heavy mortar and pestles. The products are carefully packed, and arrive fresh.

Shrimp pad thai
Serves 4-6

My all-time Magic Kitchen favorite is their pad thai. Pad thai is a street food dish made with soaked dried rice noodles, which are stir-fried with shallots, garlic, red chili pepper, palm sugar, firm tofu, scrambled egg, bean sprouts, garlic chives, cilantro leaves, pickled radishes and tamarind sauce. It may also contain fresh shrimp, crab, squid, chicken or pork. Pad thai is traditionally served with lime wedges, pepper flakes, sugar and fish sauce on the side to adjust flavors to personal preference.

  • 8 ounces dried flat rice stick noodles
  • 4 ounces extra-firm or pressed tofu, cut into ½-inch cubes or strips
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind paste, preferred OR 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate*
  • ¾ cup boiling (if using tamarind paste) or hot (if using concentrate) water
  • ¼ cup palm sugar (may substitute light brown sugar)
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Thai chili powder* OR cayenne pepper, or more or less to taste
  • 8 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoon plus 1 tsp. fish sauce*
  • 1/3 cup chopped shallots
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 8 ounces shrimp, peeled and deveined  
  • 3 tablespoons chopped salted radish (optional)*
  • 2 tablespoons dried shrimp, chopped *
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • 1 cup chopped Chinese garlic chives* or green parts of scallions, sliced thinly
  • 1/3 cup chopped unsalted dry roasted peanuts
  • ¼ cup cilantro leaves, optional
  • Lime wedges

*available at local Asian food stores or importfoods.com

Place noodles in a bowl of hot tap water 15-20 minutes until softened and pliable, but not completely tender. Drain and set aside. Soak the tamarind paste in the boiling water for 10 minutes, and then push the liquid through a mesh strainer to remove the fibers and seeds. If using concentrate, dissolve in hot water. Stir in the sugar, vinegar, 3 tablespoons fish sauce, chili powder, 2 tablespoons of the oil and set aside. Beat the eggs with the remaining teaspoon of fish sauce and set aside. Heat the remaining oil in a large wok over high heat. Add the tofu and stir-fry, tossing gently, until the tofu cubes are golden and slightly crispy on the outside. Drain and set aside. Pour off and reserve all the oil except a thin film. Add the (fresh) shrimp and stir-fry until just opaque and set aside. Pour a teaspoon or so of the reserved oil into the wok or skillet and add the eggs. Cook until just barely set, then flip over and cook a few seconds longer until just firm. Remove the skillet from the heat. Transfer eggs to a cutting surface, cut the egg into thin strips and set aside. Pour about 1 tablespoon of the reserved oil into the wok or skillet and return to the stove over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallots and, stirring constantly, cook until they just begin to turn golden brown. Immediately add the noodles, dried shrimp and preserved radish and toss to combine. Pour the tamarind mixture over the noodles, tossing constantly until the noodles are evenly coated. Increase heat to high and add the bean sprouts, reserved shrimp, tofu and egg strips, still tossing constantly. Add half the peanuts and half the chives or scallions and continue to cook, still tossing constantly, until the noodles are tender, about 2 or 3 minutes longer. Add a little water or reserved oil if necessary. Transfer to a large platter and sprinkle the remaining peanuts, scallions and cilantro. Garnish with lime wedges and serve immediately.

Contact Peter Glatz at docglatz@gmail.com.


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