Finding a good Thai curry these days is about as difficult as locating a legal parking space in Lincoln Park on the weekend. I'm talking about the Bangkok original: a modestly hot, complex curry, redolent with fresh chilies that startle the tongue, slowly revealing its mysterious layers of salt, sour, and citrus. There's no shortage of Thai restaurants in Chicago, yet few cooks go to the extra effort of making homemade curry. More often than not, salt-laden eight-ounce tins of panang or mussaman are quickly stir-fried with cans of coconut milk, resulting in uninspired medleys. "They're taking shortcuts," says Uthaiwan "Toom" Wiitanen, the chef and co-owner of O Cha Cafe in Lakeview. "It's a lot of work to make curry from scratch."
Wiitanen's journey to the North Lincoln Avenue kitchen has been arduous. As one of seven children growing up in a crowded Bangkok household during the 60s, she loved watching her mother work in the kitchen, learning many of the traditional Thai methods that way. She studied law and business management in school, getting a job in Nissan's legal department after graduation in 1984. Next, it was on to a telecommunications company, helping train Motorola representatives working in Thailand. But the business world didn't really hold her interest. "I went to night school, studying [cosmetology] and cooking," she says. She also became a licensed masseuse and began teaching cooking classes. "I just loved cooking....I wanted to have my own business." She continued to work in telecommunications after she got married and had three sons--and even after she had opened a tiny restaurant in 1994, which served only on weekends. "I had to prepare all of the food Thursday night," she laments. The toll of her job, plus the restaurant, plus the cooking classes she was still teaching on the side eventually led to a divorce from her husband in 1998. The two split amicably, leaving the boys in the care of her mother and sister. "I tried to talk my ex-husband into coming to America with the kids," she says, "but he didn't want to." Two days after the divorce was final, she bought a ticket to Chicago.
She held a few odd jobs at first--masseuse in a Gold Coast spa, line cook at Hi Ricky--all the while trying to figure out how she could open her own restaurant, and more importantly where it would be. She met Wayne Wiitanen in late 1998, and they married a few months later and started looking for vacant restaurants. In April, Toom learned from a waitress friend that the owners of O Cha Cafe, previously Thai Top Ten, were tired of running a Lakeview restaurant; they had bought the place because one of them was a cousin of the previous owner, but they were already busy managing two places in Hyde Park. So she introduced herself. The owners asked her to cook for O Cha's kitchen for a while, to see how she liked it. Two weeks later the Wiitanens made an offer.
The menu is not completely traditional. There are several "Americanized" Asian dishes: crab Rangoon, egg rolls, sweet-and-sour shrimp. But a quick glance at the appetizer section reveals the confidence of a Thai chef: kha-nom jeeb, lightly steamed shrimp dumplings; tod mun, delicate fried fish cakes with a soft, slightly spicy interior flecked with chopped kaffir lime leaves; and homemade Thai sausages, a nod to the northern city of Chiang Mai. There are other highlights as well: an aromatic, mildly spicy tom kha kai soup with chunks of chicken and shiitake mushrooms in rich coconut milk. Papaya salad--som tom--is usually a barometer of a Thai restaurant's commitment to traditional recipes; here the strands of the vibrant green fruit are pounded in a mortar with chunks of peanut, green beans, and tomato, then dressed with a symbiotic trio of sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. And then there are the curries.
"There's no adaptation at all," Wiitanen says, as she begins the weekly process of making her four curry pastes. The red and green are her two basic varieties; she also offers a milder yellow and a sweet panang. For a basic red, she tosses at least a dozen ingredients into a blender, all of which she purchases at the Thai Grocery in Uptown. Garlic, red chilies, shallots, and fresh lemongrass hearts fill up nearly half the blender; those are rounded out with fresh galangal root (from the ginger family), a less-than-pleasant smelling dollop of shrimp paste, the rind from a kaffir lime, and a combination of toasted spices including clove, fennel, and cilantro seed. She grinds, adds some water, and grinds again, until she's left with a deep-colored paste. At this point there are three ways she can use the curry: to make kang, usually a soupy dish in which the curry is balanced with sweet coconut milk (listed on the menu simply as "red curry"); a pad pet curry, stir-fried in a wok to intensify the heat; or ha mok, a dish incorporating steamed red curry, mashed fish, and a hint of coconut milk, served either in a banana leaf or a young coconut shell. (This dish isn't on the menu, but you can request it.) "If you know how to make the red curry, you can adapt it easily," she says. The green, mussaman, and panang varieties can also be used interchangeably in a number of dishes.
Wiitanen's three boys--now 17, 16, and 13--are moving to Chicago later this month. Hopefully, their cravings for the food back home will inspire even more dishes from mom's kitchen.
Cha Cafe is at 2907 N. Lincoln, 773-883-0242.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.