Sunee Hill rarely cooked when she was growing up in Bangkok, and now look at her. She has a restaurant in Gaithersburg whose name, Thai Sa-Mai, neatly describes Hill's creative, personal style of interpreting traditional Thai cuisine.

Sa-mai means "new-fashioned" and Hill calls her food "nouvelle Thai." She explains:

"My mother and father came from China so my family cooked Chinese food with Thai overtones. We didn't eat all the Thai foods, such as raw fish or big insects. And living in the city, I ate city food, which is half Thai, half Chinese. That meant using Chinese techniques with Thai vegetables and seasonings."

The dishes Hill prepares at Thai Sa-Mai are flavored by those same seasonings -- coriander, galanga root, holy basil, garlic, ginger, tamarind, flavored fish meal, sesame oil and sesame seeds, peanut butter, duck sauce, chili paste, nam pla (Thai fish sauce), soy sauce and black bean sauce. "Every dish has its own sauce," Hill says.

She relies on her taste buds and her ability to recreate from memory sauces she has sampled at restaurants in her native land. "I went to almost every restaurant in Thailand," she says. "I tasted their specials and then created my own version. It took one whole year to test all the dishes I serve at Thai Sa-Mai."

As examples Hill cites shrimp with cellophane noodles, brimming with pork and flavored with garlic, ginger, coriander and black bean sauce; beef in red wine sauce; chicken with chili paste, onion, mushrooms and baby corn; seafood with broccoli, corn and cabbage; and seafood with tomato, pepper and pineapple. "My dishes are different," she says.

Individuality seems to be Hill's lifestyle ideal, one she applies to her clothing, her design ideas and her cooking. Before she arrived in Washington in 1971, she was a top hairdresser and a dress designer in Bangkok. On a trip to Japan, she met a friend married to an American who persuaded her that she could earn more money in the United States.

In 1975 Hill married an Air Force captain and they lived in Alaska, then Florida. Unhappy with the low pay for hairdressers in Fort Wharton Beach, she opened a restaurant called Thai Derm, a name that means old-fashioned. "That's when I learned to cook," she says.

When her husband's Pentagon job brought her to Washington, she opened another Thai Derm with her brother in Silver Spring. Last year they sold it and her brother opened a grocery in Gaithersburg. And when a space became vacant next door, opening a new restaurant seemed natural.

Hill designed the space and she and her family built most of the furniture, papered the walls, painted the trim and laid the floor. The simple, clean look makes it "like a home," Hill says. "Customers like the look."

Thai Sa-Mai is a small place, only 54 seats, located not far from the Montgomery County Airpark. Despite its success, Hill intends to keep it small. "That way I can cook myself," she says. "Others help but I cook every day. I'm very picky. I want to make sure the food's good."

To avoid the sameness that she believes plagues the food at many Thai restaurants, she cooks every dish to order. "Other restaurants cook big pots ahead. Here, other than soups and some appetizers, nothing is cooked ahead. I cook real authentic coconut milk curries. People don't know it, but coconut milk should not cook a long time because it separates. So I cook the meat and vegetables by themselves and make each curry to order."

Customers with special dietary needs will find the kitchen responsive. People can request "no MSG" and the chef complies. "Taste is no problem," she explains, "because I use expensive ingredients -- eye round beef, pork without fat and the best chicken and homemade chicken stock. We also get a lot of Indian vegetarians who feel comfortable ordering meatless dishes."

Hill admits that it is "hard work" to cook every dish to order. But "I want the customers to be happy."

RED CHICKEN CURRY (2 servings)

4 tablespoons oil

1/2 teaspoon Thai red curry paste,* or to taste

1/2 cup water

3 boneless chicken breast halves, sliced

10 ounces Thai coconut milk*

2 teaspoons nam pla*

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 tomato, halved and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices

1 bell pepper, cut in 1/2-inch thick slices

1/2 medium onion, chopped

Heat oil in a wok or skillet to medium hot. Add curry paste and stir-fry 5 minutes. Add water and chicken and cook 5 minutes. Add coconut milk and cook 5 minutes without boiling. Stir in nam pla and sugar and add tomato, pepper and onion. Continue to cook at a simmer until onion and pepper soften slightly. Serve immediately over rice, noodles or white bread.

*Available at Asian groceries.

Per serving: 955 calories, 53 gm protein, 86 gm carbohydrates, 45 gm fat, 13 gm saturated fat, 159 mg cholesterol, 301 mg sodium.


4 tablespoons oil

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

18 large shrimp, peeled

20 snow peas pods

20 pieces baby corn*

20 straw mushrooms*

1 cup chopped broccoli, blanched

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3/4 cup chicken stock

Chili paste or hot pepper flakes to taste

Heat oil in a wok or skillet to medium hot. Add garlic and stir-fry 10 seconds. Add shrimp and cook until just pink, about 3 minutes. Add snow peas, corn, mushrooms, broccoli, soy sauce and stock. Cook 1 minute. Add chili paste. Serve immediately over rice.

*Available at Asian groceries.

Per serving: 533 calories, 43 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 31 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 260 mg cholesterol, 2104 mg sodium.


Oil for deep frying

1 beancurd cake, sliced in thirds

3 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons chopped chicken

2 shrimp, chopped

2 tablespoons crabmeat

1 tablespoon dried tree ear mushrooms,* soaked until rehydrated

1 tablespoon chopped, blanched carrot

1 tablespoon peas, blanched

1 scallion, chopped

1 cup chicken stock

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon water

Salt, to taste

Sambal oelek* or hot chili oil* to taste*

Heat oil in a deep saucepan. Add beancurd and fry until it turns yellow. (For crunchy beancurd, fry until golden.) Drain well on paper towels. Heat sesame oil in a wok or skillet until medium hot. Add chicken and stir-fry 1 minute. Add shrimp and crabmeat and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add mushrooms, carrot, peas, scallion, stock and soy sauce and cook 1 minute. Combine cornstarch and water and add to pan. Stir in salt and sambal oelek to taste. Pour over beancurd and serve immediately.

*Available at Asian groceries.

Per serving: 283 calories, 13 gm protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 22 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 1996 mg sodium.

Gail Forman is an English professor at Montgomery College and a freelance writer.