King Phojanakong, chef-owner of Kuma Inn in Manhattan and Umi Nom in Brooklyn, N.Y., uses lessons learned from his Filipino mother and Thai father plus skills honed at the Culinary Institute of America and the kitchens of prominent chefs such as Daniel Boulud and David Bouley to bring Southeast Asian cooking to a wider audience. The New York City native shares his thoughts about Southeast Asian cuisine trends, favorite ingredients and the role of almonds in the region’s cooking.
You opened Kuma Inn a decade ago. How has the appreciation of Thai and Filipino food changed since then?
There have always been more Thai restaurants than Filipino restaurants in New York, but just in the past year or two more Filipino restaurants have popped up. And when I was a kid, we had to shop in Chinatown to get Asian ingredients, but now you can go to your local supermarket. Another change is that there are Asian influences in a lot of other cooking now, even French. I ate at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris last year and at least three dishes had Asian influences. They’re using curries and fish sauce and soy sauce, so it is spreading out to other cuisines, which is good to see.
What are the essential ingredients of your cooking?
People get scared of it a lot, but I like working with fish sauce. I understand why some people may be hesitant if they are unfamiliar with it. When you add it to a dish the fishiness goes away and along with saltiness there is an extra layer of flavor which is umami. I also like all sorts of noodles, soy sauce and oyster sauce. And I love working with different chilies.
What are some interesting applications of almonds in Southeast Asian cooking?
You can use almonds in lots of ways—as a breading or coating, crunchy garnish for dishes and even in the form of almond milk as a substitute for dairy milk.
When I cooked for the Almond Board, I made deep-fried oysters, but instead of breading them as I usually do with panko crumbs, I used a 60-40 ratio of ground almonds to panko. The almonds made the oysters extra crispy and the nuttiness brought out their umami to a greater degree.
I also made a Filipino shaved ice dessert called halo-halo, which means “mix mix.” You start with shaved ice and add milk, various jellies, jackfruit, mango, pineapple, sweet red and black beans and purple yams and mix it all up. What I did differently was make my own fresh almond milk, add a little vanilla and pour it over the shaved ice, which made it creamier and tastier. It was a hit.