Chef Leah Cohen shares how ‘Pig & Khao’ started

The former Top Chef and cookbook author talks about her roots in Southeast Asia.

Owner and chef at Pig and Khao in New York, Leah Cohen | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Owner and chef at Pig and Khao in New York, Leah Cohen | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Tucked away on one of the busiest streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Pig and Khao is a colorful Filipino-Thai restaurant owned by Excellent chef former Leah Cohen. Influenced by her Filipino mother and her Romanian Jewish father, Cohen recalls experiencing this fusion of food cultures from a young age, including cooking brisket and matzo dumpling soup with her grandmother.

“My parents were working so hard that I had to cook dinner and do some knife work for my mom, so when she came home from work she could cook a quick dinner,” Cohen says. “I think I have been making rice since I was 10 years old. My mom would call me when she was about to leave the office and say, “Okay, put a pot of rice”. It was actually the first thing she ever taught me to do.

But before embarking on cooking other types of Asian dishes, she had a keen interest in Italian cuisine due to frequent trips to the country she visited with her parents as a child. “I made bolognese and marinara sauce, and my dad always said mine was better than my mom’s. Telling me at 12 or 13 that I made better Bolognese sauce than my mom was really awesome. Even though she is Filipino and does not know how to cook Italian, she thought she can cook Italian, ”she says.

After participating in the fifth season of Excellent chef, Cohen worked at an Italian restaurant to fuel her culinary spark, but soon realized that she didn’t feel a real connection to cooking like she did to Filipino and Southeast Asian cuisine. And, in 2008, she made the decision to fully devote her skills as a chef to what was familiar to her.

Leah Cohen Adobo Pork Belly
Adobo pork belly at Pig and Khao | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

“I packed a suitcase, moved to Southeast Asia for a year and staged in a bunch of different cuisines in various countries,” she says. “At first I just wanted to focus on Thai food because Thai food is my favorite. I hate to say this because I’m half Filipino, but I love Thai food. ”

Upon her return to the United States, Cohen toyed with the idea of ​​opening a Thai restaurant, but her mother convinced her that she needed to get the word out about Filipino cuisine instead.

“It was the best decision I have ever made because I think that’s what is unique about Pig and Khao,” she says. “There are so many great Vietnamese or Thai restaurants in New York City, but I wanted to bring all of these dishes together under one roof, make them be authentic and not a fusion. It also celebrates many countries that I just love in this part of the world. “

Everything on Pig & Khao’s menu is based on something Cohen ate on a trip overseas: pork belly adobo, Gai Yang, sizzling sisig, and halo halo are just a few. “I wanted to bring back things that people might not know is an amazing noodle dish from Malaysia, and you might only be able to find it on two Malaysian menus in New York. Then, of course, I put my twist on it, ”she says.

In his cookbook, Lemongrass and lime: Southeast Asian cuisine at home, which debuted in September 2020, Cohen offers a range of hearty recipes from dishes she ate growing up and ones she tried in Southeast Asia, two of which have nostalgic memories for her: chicken adobo and lumpia.

“I packed a suitcase, moved to South East Asia for a year and staged in a bunch of different cuisines in various countries.

In the Philippines, spring rolls are called lumpia, and you can get them fried or fresh, with a softer, pancake-like wrap. But Cohen says his favorite is the fried version called Lumpiang Shanghai, with a garnish that combines beef, pork, and veg. The key to making delicious lumpia is to make the wrapper perfectly crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. Cohen also adds a few more ingredients like chili flakes to increase the heat.

“I think lumpia was probably the first Filipino dish I ever ate,” she says. “Filipinos love to party and when we went to a ton of potlucks with my mom’s friends, there was always lumpia on the table.

While this dish holds a special place in Cohen’s heart, she says the chicken adobo was the first real dish her mother taught her to cook. “My mom likes it with chicken, but pork is probably the most popular,” she says. “Every Filipino household has someone’s tiya or lola, who is like an aunt or grandmother, who makes them the best, better than anyone’s mother, aunt or grandmother.

Because his own recipe is to add onions and sear the chicken first, Cohen says traditional Filipinos would say his dish is not adobo. But from her education in culinary school, she learned to sear meat. “I think it’s important to get some of that fat out of the chicken. Obviously there will be more restitution and cooking during cooking, but I think it is important to get this Maillard reaction, ”she says, referring to the chemical reaction that reduces sugars and gives food golden so powerful a flavor. “A lot of Filipinos will say it’s not the traditional adobo, but my mom approves, so that’s all that matters.

Cohen attributes much of his knowledge of Southeast Asian cuisine to his mother, who was one of his “guinea pigs” when she created the initial menu for Pig and Khao. “Unfortunately, she doesn’t eat spicy food, so she’ll literally pick chili peppers out of everything, which drives me crazy,” Cohen laughs. “But she likes that I respect her culture, my culture and all the cultures that I fell in love with.”

Spread to Thai food of Filipino pork and khao
Spread of Southeast Asian dishes in Pig and Khao | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

In response to the pandemic, Pig and Khao closed their doors on March 15, 2020. But Cohen’s father passed away last year Encouraged her to reopen her restaurant because “there would be no pig and Khao without my father” and she felt that was the best way to honor her legacy. The restaurant reopened on July 8, 2020.

“[My parents] have been very supportive and they love my restaurant and the food I cook. My mom now comes every weekend to watch the baby while I work and I’m literally her personal chef, ”she says, mentioning her son who will be two this year. “My mom and dad played a big role in why I love Southeast Asian cuisine.”

Try cooking Cohen’s family-inspired adobo for yourself, with the recipe below.

Leah Cohen’s recipe for chicken adobo

Serves: 6

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • 6 chicken thighs
  • 6 chicken drumsticks
  • 1 large Spanish onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 6 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 cup Kikkoman Light Soy Sauce
  • ½ cup of Chaokoh coconut milk
  • ½ cup coconut vinegar (can replace apple cider vinegar)
  • 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground bay leaf powder
  • Steamed jasmine rice
  • 2 tablespoons of crispy garlic
  • 2 green onions (green and light green part), thinly sliced

directions

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large casserole dish over high heat until the oil begins to sparkle. Add the chicken thighs and cook, about 3 minutes per side, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a large plate.

2. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat until the oil sparkles. Add the chicken thighs and cook, about 3 minutes per side, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to the plate with the thighs.

3. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes, until tender.

4. Add the garlic, soy sauce, coconut milk, vinegar, 1 cup of water, sugar, pepper and bay leaf powder and stir until combined. Return the chicken to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook, about 1 hour, until the chicken is tender. If the liquid decreases too quickly or becomes too salty, add a little water. Serve with steamed jasmine rice topped with crispy garlic and green onions.

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Kristen adaway is a writer at Thrillist. Am here @kristenadaway.




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