From time to time FBC profiles people who are making an impact on Canada's food scene - from authors to producers to chefs and more. This month, Ethan Adeland profiles Vancouver's Pailin Chongchitnant, the charming host of the YouTube Channel, Hot Thai Kitchen, and now the author of a cookbook by the same name!
Pailin Chongchitnant is a leaper and a dreamer. As a young girl she dreamt of hosting her own cooking show. Growing up in the south of Thailand, she scribbled recipes and notes on a pad of paper while learning to cook on television from Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein and Michael Smith. Pai now resides in Vancouver where she is thankful to call two places home, Thailand and Canada with it all being shared at Hot Thai Kitchen.
Pai's Formative Years
When Pai was 12 years old, her family sent her to New Zealand to work on her English. Although there were other students from Thailand in her school, they were much older so she didn’t have many friends to speak Thai with. Her host family also didn’t speak Thai, so she was thrown into speaking English all the time. The first two weeks were rough, but soon enough she was able to get by pretty well.
While there, she realized how she’d taken the Thai food she grew up on for granted. She longed for the familiar smells and flavours she experienced cooking at home with her family.
After a year away, Pai returned to Thailand and went to school in Bangkok where her family had moved. After high school she moved to Vancouver for university, studying at UBC. After graduation, she knew she wanted to go to culinary school so she asked around for an awesome food city in North America. After hearing so many great things about San Francisco, she packed her bags and headed there to study at Le Cordon Bleu.
Culinary school trained Pai in all the classical French methods but she kept finding herself leaning back to her Thai roots.
A Star is Born
And one day, it all started to come together. Pai’s brother knew of his sister’s dream of a cooking show and, like any good big brother, he laid it out for her with some real talk. He said, “No one will put you on TV, so just do it yourself and put it on YouTube.” This was back in 2009. Pai thought (correctly) that the majority of YouTube videos were of cats being cute and people falling down.
Her brother was in the film industry and he knew of a handful of early YouTube adopters doing actual shows. And just like that, the idea of a show was born and Pai’s dream was inching closer to reality. Pailin's Kitchen was born on YouTube.
The next step was deciding what the show would be about. Pai had been taught how to cook French food and exposed to “Western” food during her time in North America, but she kept coming back to Thai food. She was far away from home and missed Thai cuisine. At the time, there wasn’t any good Thai food available in San Francisco, so she decided the world needed to know what true and authentic Thai food was all about which was not Pad Thai!
With a little help from her brother and a few tips on how to record a video, away she went with her camera and a kitchen. Even if she wasn’t on television, Pai’s dream was finally coming true — she had her own cooking show.
Putting in the Work
Looking back, she’s thankful she didn’t give much thought to production value. If she had known the equipment, set-up and know-how involved nowadays it would have scared her off!
She admits that the bar has been raised by YouTubers everywhere, including herself. Expectations are much higher in terms of a polished finished product, but there are also many more resources out there to get people started.
However, at the end of the day content still rules. Pai’s words of advice for anyone who’s ever thought of starting a YouTube channel or simply creating one video is to “just start.” And although YouTube viewers expect polished videos, they also crave real moments of just being yourself because that’s when the walls come down and true connections are made.
When Pai finished filming her first video, she realized she wasn’t done yet. The camera had been turned off and then she asked herself, “What do I do now?” So she jumped right into the world of editing. She settled on using Final Cut Pro and learned through trial and error and resource sites like Lynda.com.
The Hot Thai Kitchen Team
Initially Pai posted one video every month but she kept coming back to it. With each video completed, the next one became easier and she found herself having lots to say. Her Thai recipes and easy-going approachable manner were resonating with viewers. And with each video, Pai was cooking less in restaurant kitchens and cooking more for her YouTube viewers.
Pai’s brother was watching the videos back in Thailand, and with his film industry experience he thought her show really had potential. So with more confidence, she went from one video a month to one every two weeks and finally to weekly, which she still does today.
If you think Pai has a team or army at her disposal, you’d be wrong. Her “team” consists of a friend who’s in charge of pressing “record” on the camera, making sure her mic is on and everything’s in focus. Her brother has Skype sessions with Pai and her camera operator to give them quick tutorials on their newest piece of equipment or advice on which new gadget to buy. And that’s it.
Day in the Life of Pai
There’s no such thing as a typical day in Pai’s world. If it’s an editing day, it’s possible she won’t leave the house. But there are times that she needs to head outside, whether she’s buying ingredients for the next day of recording or teaching kids as a part-time Home Economics teacher. Creating videos can be a solitary and lonely process so having the chance to connect with kids and feed off their energy in the kitchen is a great way to spend some time.
Once a week Pai shoots two to three episodes over the course of an eight-hour workday. Afterwards, each video takes anywhere from three to six hours to be edited and ready for uploading on YouTube. Because Thai food is still relatively unknown, Pai accepts her role of helping people and spends huge portions of her week answering questions on YouTube, email and anywhere viewers find her. With over 180,000 YouTube subscribers, many of them are learning Thai cuisine for the first time and that's a responsibility she takes to heart. People have come to have faith in her recipes and that’s something she’s very proud of and takes seriously.
But that’s not all. Before recording the videos, Pai tests her recipes so they’re precise and perfect for her viewers. She admits being a perfectionist, so often she’ll test a recipe up to eight times with meticulous note-taking before she’s happy with it. She measures out everything, so if the recipe calls for one teaspoon it means one teaspoon. Her philosophy is simple: “The recipe should always get them where it needs to be.”
Pai's journey from Thailand to Canada did not have a road map but there was a will and a desire. The one constant was a dream and if you believe in yourself enough, that's all you need.
What You'll Find in the Hot Thai Kitchen Cookbook
Unlike a video that has to be as concise as possible, Pai found it freeing to write her book Hot Thai Kitchen: Demystifying Thai Cuisine With Authentic Recipes To Make At Home (affiliate link). It was a blank canvas where she could take her time and tell stories that would never be told on YouTube.
Here are Pai’s suggestion for must-try recipes.
Pork Rib Soup — It’s rare that you’ll see this dish in a Thai restaurant menu in North America but one of Pai's favourite.
Fried Egg Salad — Simple home Thai cooking at its finest. According to Pai, it doesn’t have any "weird" ingredients so it’s a very approachable recipe to get started with Thai cooking.
Eggplant Stir-Fry — A dish that comes together very quickly, it’s a much different way to prepare and eat eggplant compared to baking it in the oven like Eggplant Parmesan. (Author's note: I made this dish and it was phenomenal)
Dips — Shrimp Paste Dip is “hardcore” and not for the faint of heart but so good!
Thai desserts are totally underrepresented in North America, aside from Mango with Sticky Rice. Here are Pai’s suggestions.
Coconut Pudding Cap — A classic street food in Thailand that you simply don’t see anywhere in North America.
Coconut Jelly — A made-up dish she created for her Hot Thai Kitchen YouTube Channel that went viral. She was surprised at its popularity and the use of agar agar. It's very common in Thai cuisine yet it’s held up as molecular gastronomy in North American cuisine. So easy to use!
To tempt you even more, Pai has graciously provided the recipe for Tom Ka Gai which is her Coconut Galangal Chicken Soup. A comforting soup and an easy way to jump into Thai cooking.
- 2 cups Chicken stock, unsalted
- 1 lb Chicken thighs, boneless, skinless, bite-sized pieces
- 1 tsp Salt
- 1½ cups Coconut milk
- 1 stalk Lemongrass, bottom half only, smashed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 10 slices Galangal, sliced into thin rounds
- 5 Kaffir lime leaves, torn into chunks
- 2–3 Thai chilies, crushed just until broken
- 1½–2 Tbsp Fish sauce
- 1 tsp Palm sugar, finely chopped, packed
- 5½ oz Straw or oyster mushrooms, bite-
- sized pieces
- 2–2½ Tbsp Lime juice
- For garnish
- Chopped cilantro and/ or green onions
- For serving
- Jasmine rice (optional)
- In a medium pot, add the chicken stock, chicken thighs, and salt; simmer gently for 15 minutes, loosely covered, until the chicken is fork tender.
- Add the coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, Thai chilies, 1 1/2 Tbsp of the fish sauce, and palm sugar. Simmer for 3–5 minutes to infuse. Note: The lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves are traditionally left in the soup, but are not meant to be eaten. You can remove them after this step or inform your guests not to eat them.
- Add the mushrooms and cook for another 1–2 minutes to soften. Remove from the heat and stir in 2 Tbsp of the lime juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more fish sauce and/or lime juice if needed.
- Garnish the soup with chopped cilantro and/or green onions. You can pour the soup over rice, add rice to the soup bowl, or enjoy the soup on its own. This soup is usually mildly spiced, but you can break up the chilies to release more heat.
- Pai's Note
- If you don't have chicken stock, here's a shortcut!
- You can make a quick-fix chicken stock without adding any extra cooking time. Use chicken drumettes instead of chicken thighs and cook them, in water and salt as per the instructions, along with some of the aromatics you normally use for stock. The bones in the chicken will turn the water into stock by the time the meat is tender. You can also buy bone-in thighs, debone them, then crack the bones and throw them in to simmer with the chicken.
You can find Pai on...
This article was written by Ethan Adeland, FBC co-founder.
Recipe and photo excerpted from Hot Thai Kitchen: Demystifying Thai Cuisine With Authentic Recipes To Make At Home by Pailin Chongchitnant. Copyright 2016. Excerpted by permission of Appetite by Random House, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd. a Penguin Random House company. All rights reserved