This is a tale of one city-and three barbecues. The first embodies the privileged world of Somerset Maugham, of the jet-setting gentry that frequents one of Asia’s grandest hotels. The second and third reflect a more realistic style of Third World dining. All three take place in Thailand’s political and cultural capital: Bangkok. And all reflect the Thai love of explosive flavors and their profound reverence for food.
Curiously, I did not think of Thailand as one of the world’s great barbecue centers. There isn’t a single great barbecued dish in Thailand’s pantheon of culinary masterpieces. There’s no Thai equivalent to Brazilian churrasco, to Italian bistecca alla fiorentina, to Persian chelow kebab, or American ribs.
Yet everywhere I went in Thailand, I experienced grilling-on the beaches of Samui Island, in the highlands of Chaing Mai, on the crowded streets and back alleys of Bangkok. So strong is the Thai love of yaang (live-fire cooking), they reserve it not just for special occasions, but for everyday fare.
Everyday fare? Well that’s a mundane way to describe my first experience with Thai grilling: the riverside barbecue at the Oriental Hotel. The Oriental is one of those pleasure palaces built in the last century, on the banks of the Chao Prya River. Joseph Conrad resided there so did Herman Melville and Somerset Maugham. My room in the Writers Wing was a veritable two-story townhouse, with every architectural amenity and electronic convenience known to modern man.
But what had my jaw dropping was a torchlit barbecue on the riverside terrace. Seated at a pink granite table with teak chairs, I was surrounded by pedestal globe lights entwined with bougainvillaea. Here a whiff of frangipani, there the perfume of jasmine. The longtail boats skimming the Chao Prya River seemed close enough to touch.
As with everything at the Oriental, barbecue is done in a grandiose way, with banks of grills and a buffet line stretching a good fifty feet. There’s a seafood station that fairly sparkles with spiny lobsters, slipper lobsters, fresh and salt water prawns, and a fishmonger’s assortment of fish, neatly bedded in ice. There are poultry and meat stations, where chicken, duck, squab, beef, and pork emerge sizzling from the grills.
But despite the fancy surroundings, the basic preparations are really quite simple. The marinades are variations on a mixture of fish sauce (nampla), lime juice, sugar, and garlic. The accompanying table sauces range from a mild, sweet lemon-honey-garlic sauce to an incendiary tincture of chiles, shallots, and fish sauce. I could spend a couple of paragraphs describing the side dishes-the salad spreads, elaborate carved fruit displays, dessert stations where young women in sarongs cook coconut cakes called kenoms. But what really impressed me was the straightforwardness of the grilled fare, the elegant simplicity of the fish.
The Hawkers’ Center
A few days later, I experienced a similar barbecue in a considerably different setting: a hawkers’ center on a tiny side street off traffic-clogged Silom Road. Hawkers’ centers are where ordinary Thais eat-a motley assortment of food stalls and pushcarts selling every imaginable Thai street food, from stir-fries and soups to noodle dishes, like pad thai. The air was thick with smoke from charcoal braziers.
I stopped at the cart of a tiny woman for a popular local snack, squid on a stick. She fished the tiny sea creature from a jar where it was marinating in an aromatic mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar, garlic, chiles, and lemongrass. The squid went onto a tiny skewer for a two-minute sizzle over the coals. It was sweet, salty, tender, smoky, and absolutely delicious. These, of course are the same flavors I experienced at the Oriental. But this feast cost all of 10 baht (about 45 cents).
It’s no accident that fish sauce is a recurring theme in Thai barbecue. This malodorous condiment-made from salted, fermented anchovies-is as essential to Thai cooking as soy sauce is to Japanese and Chinese. Fish sauce has a wonderful way of reinforcing the briny flavor of seafood. I suppose this is the reason it’s so popular in Thailand as a marinade and dip for grilled fish.
Barbecue in Esarn
Talk to Thais long enough about barbecue and you’ll hear the name Esarn. The term refers to both a region and a people: the province in northeastern Thailand adjacent to the Laotian and Cambodian borders, whose inhabitants are of Lao descent.
According to my guide, Nilcharoen Prasertsak, the Esarn became masters of grilling by simple economic necessity. They couldn’t afford the oil necessary for stir-frying. So they turned to cooking food over the one commodity even the poor in Thailand have plenty of-coconut shell charcoal. Esarn street vendors are famous throughout Thailand for their gai yaang (grilled chicken) and pla yaang (grilled fish).
And that is why my next destination was an Esarn neighborhood in the Dusit District of Bangkok. There houses open directly onto the sidewalks, women sit crosslegged, washing dishes, clothes, and children in plastic tubs on the ground. Sun filters through the leaves of scraggly trees, and mangy dogs lie in the middle of the street. The scene is more reminiscent of a village in the jungle than of an Asian metropolis with seven million inhabitants.
To judge from the smoke in the air, I was certainly in barbecue central. Every square foot of sidewalk seemed to be devoted to some sort of culinary activity. On one street corner a man fanned a charcoal fire that was blazing in a hub cap. Elsewhere, women were pounding garlic and spices in mortars with pestles and shredding green papayas to make a crunchy, fiery Esarn salad called som tum.
My destination was Raan Khun Noi (Mr. Noi’s Restaurant), located at 52 Sukhantharam Road. It was clearly a class joint-you could tell by the flashing jukebox. There were also a framed picture of the King of Thailand, plastic chairs, and pink-clothed tables, and scrawny kittens foraging for scraps on the floor. There was even air conditioning-a rare luxury in these parts-although there was a 5 baht charge per person for the management to turn it on.
Mr. Noi specializes in the sort of simple but pungent fare for which the Esarn are famous: a som tum so laced with chiles, it all but melts your molars an oxtail soup that soothes your soul while it scorches your gullet a spatchcocked grilled chicken, all smoky and crisp, redolent with cilantro and garlic. As with most Esarn grilled meats, the chicken was accompanied with a platter of cabbage and celery leaves, basil sprigs, and green beans. The sticky rice came Laotian-style, steamed in a hollow length of bamboo. I devoured it Esarn style-with my fingers.
Despite dubious hygienic conditions, there was such good will and warm hospitality on the part of the staff, I decided to eat whatever was put in front of me. I survived without so much as a hiccough, but I’m not sure I would risk it again.
Incidentally, there’s one grilled dish you don’t have to risk your gastrointestinal track to enjoy, a dish you’ll find wherever you go in Thailand-high-style restaurant or down home street stall-which is all the more curious, because the dish was invented in a country a thousand miles away: Indonesia. I’m talking, of course, about saté.
Named for the Javanese word meaning to "stick" or "skewer," saté consists of tiny pieces of chicken, pork, or other meats grilled on tiny bamboo skewers. Saté has become quite popular in North America, but nothing here can rival the tiny size and delicate flavor of Thai satés. The sweet soy sauce marinade of Java has given way to a fish saucencoconut milk mixture. (The oil-rich coconut milk keeps the meat from drying out.) Thai saté is traditionally accompanied by a creamy peanut sauce and a tangy cucumber salad.
Thai barbecue makes the perfect alternative to the meat-laden cookouts of the West. Seafood and vegetables play a major role in Thai grilling. When meats are eaten, it’s in small quantities, with a high proportion of vegetables and rice. But even if this is not a concern, you can’t beat the dynamic flavors of the Thai grill.
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