Welcome to Food We Love, our Sun-Times video series featuring stories about Chicagoans family food traditions, secret recipes, special ingredients and unusual favorite dishes. Each week we’ll hear a new story about food and family and learn some amazing recipes that you can try at home. Our host is Chicago journalist Linda Yu who loves cooking at home, as well as exploring new restaurants throughout the city.
Today’s episode: The Artistry of Arun’s.
Driving along Kedzie Avenue between Irving Park and Montrose in Albany Park, you might just drive past Arun’s Thai Restaurant on the first pass. It’s a small, beige building that appears somewhat modest in appearance. But flashes of orange and red catch your eye and give you a hint of what’s inside.
Through the doors, you’ll find that the restaurant is lavishly decorated with treasured Asian art. There are statues, trinkets and other decorations throughout the intimate space. The walls are covered with richly colored murals and paintings, nearly all of them created by Anawat Sampanthavivat, the brother of the famous Arun.
Arun designed the mural that dominates the restaurant. He called on some of the centuries-old myths and traditions about the ascent of Buddha. As you sit near the mural, look for the evil ones who were trying to stop Buddha, and the forces of nature, including fire and floods, as well as armies that defended Buddha
The interior to Arun’s was updated about a year ago, giving the 33-year-old Chicago institution some new energy. Helping re-imagine the Arun’s was Paul Schermerhorn, one of the two new partners at the restaurant.
“Arun is very much a fine arts person. He is renowned for his cooking ability but also for his poetry skills,” said PS. “The restaurant décor “really speaks to Arun’s fine arts past. It’s all interwoven in everything he does from poetry to the music he’s composed, to his food. It’s that artistry and attention to detail that make this fine dining. It’s in our DNA.”
As everyone who has eaten there knows, the artistry in the dining room mirrors the creativity in the kitchen. Though in his 70s, Arun is still in the kitchen every night. “He controls the details and is still the driving force between the creativity and artistry of these dishes,” said Paul.
Recently I got to see that genius at work first-hand as Arun opened his kitchen to our “Food We Love” team to watch him make a series of his favorite dishes including prawn curry.
A cooking lesson with Arun
- Par-boiling the kabocha squash . | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Arun’s puree’s ingredients for his prawn curry sauce. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Arun slicing the squash for his prawn curry dish. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Linda gets some expert cooking advice from Arun.| Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- The prawn curry plus other dishes Linda learned how to make with Arun. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Arun’s prawn curry dish.| Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Linda working in the kitchen with Arun. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- The lush interior of the Arun’s Thai Restaurant. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Interior of the Arun’s Thai Restaurant. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Some of the ingredients for Arun’s prawn curry recipe. . | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
- Attention to detail is a hallmark of Arun’s cooking. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
Everything Arun puts into his dishes must be made himself. He showed me all the herbs to chop, grind, pulse, and purée to make the curry sauce. Do you use coriander in your cooking? Arun taught me that coriander STEMS have a more intense flavor, but eventually, I lost count of all the ingredients he used. From cleaning the prawns, to slicing the vegetables, for Arun, cooking means long on preparation, quick on the stove, and detailed on plating. Arun believes we enjoy food by its taste, its texture, and its color
You can watch the video on the Sun-Times website to see my cooking lesson with Arun.
Arun's Prawn Curry
Recipe calls for two tablespoons of curry paste; the remainder can be refrigerated for up to three weeks.
- 1 ½ cups kabocha squash, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 ½ cups coconut milk
- 2 tbsps. curry paste (see recipe below)
- 1 cup water or chicken stock
- ½ tsp. sugar
- 4 jumbo prawns, shelled and deveined, tails intact
- 1 tbsp. fish sauce
- 2-3 dried lime leaves, shredded
- ½ cup sweet basil leaves
- 1 tbsp. red pepper, shredded
Curry Paste Ingredients
- 1 lemongrass, thinly sliced across the stalk
- 1 shallot
- 10 garlic cloves
- 10 dried Chile de arbol (or Serrano) peppers
- 1 guajillo pepper, presoaked and seeded
- 1 tsp. lime rind (optional)
- 2 pieces of turmeric, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. white or black pepper
- 1 tbsp. kapi (Thai shrimp paste)
- 1 cup water, as needed for paste consistency
- Blend curry paste into a smooth mixture, set aside.
- Parboil squash 2-3 minutes, strain and set aside.
- Heat coconut milk in a small pot over a medium fire, fold in curry paste. Add sugar and water or chicken stock, blending to create a smooth texture.
- Gently stir squash into mixture until coated with curry sauce.
- Season prawns with fish sauce then add to curry. Cook 2-3 minutes. Add lime leaves, basil leaves and shredded red pepper.
- Plate in ornate bowl and serve with Jasmine rice. Yields two servings.
More recipes from Arun
I had the pleasure of learning how to make two other dishes with Arun: his summer salad with calamari moose dumplings and a spicy, delicious basil eggplant. You can watch that video and get those recipes here.
Meet more Chicago chefs, hear their cooking tips and get new recipes in these other “Food We Love” episodes:
We hope you’ve enjoyed this segment of “Food We Love with Linda Yu.” Check the links below to watch Linda’s other #foodwelove videos. Each one has a great story plus recipes for you to try at home. You can also follow Linda on social media to get the latest on her CST series.