Most people are surprised to learn that many of the “Thai” dishes they eat in the USA is actually more akin to the cuisine of Laos. Dishes like larp (meat salad, often with duck, buffalo or chicken), som tam (green papaya salad), sticky rice and gai yang (grilled chicken) are staples of the Northeast Region of Thailand, known as Isaan, which borders Laos. The region is know for being the backwater of Thailand and therefore produces hearty-rustic cuisine, unlike the more refined Royal Cuisine of Bangkok. In fact, the cultured Thais make a joke of calling Isaan “Lao”, a dig intended to distance themselves from their country brethren.
For my part, I love Isaan and Laos. I love the people, the food and the culture. They are easy-going, jovial sorts who eat with their hands, drink lots and lots of booze (Lao Lao) and welcome you as family when you visit. When I meet a new Thai person for the first time and they are surprised that I speak some Thai, I often break the ice by saying “phom pen kohn Lao”, which implies ‘I am from Isaan’. Laughter ensues.
I don’t cook Thai food often. Frankly, I leave most Asian food to Asians. There are subtleties that only evolve from submersive practice of a cuisine over a lifetime that I may never master. I can fake it with the best of them, but seeing an old woman huddled over a mortar and pestle banging out some som tam is truly one of the great culinary treasures on this earth. From the way she masterfully slices the papaya, to the exacting measure of garlic, fish sauce, dried shrimp – it’s an artform. I have a much better grasp of diner food, Continental and California techniques.
Still, when I get a hankering to throw down some Thai, I look to Isaan. The dominate flavors all come together in almost every dish: spicy, sour, sweet and salty. Fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and chilies form the foundation. The stuff is pretty easy to make, but wows a crowd because it is at once exotic and damn tasty.
This weekend I was in full 4-year old mode. With an only child we are hyper-sensitive about arranging for play dates. It gives him companionship and gives us a break. I was all about the play dates this weekend. Sleepover, birthday party, park, kid’s club at the gym – it was exhausting. To make matters worse, on Sunday night I offered to BBQ at my house. It was either that or play chase, hide and seek, puzzles and watch Spongebob all night. I welcomed the hoard of children that would come. The cooking, I can handle.
I grabbed some whole chickens from Avedano’s a female-owned sustainable butcher shop in Bernal. I’ve had mixed opinions about their offerings, but I’m fully on board after these chickens. At $3.79 a pound for pasture-raised birds, it was a great deal and a great bird. The birds got cut up into 8 pieces (minus the back, skin-on, bones-a-plenty) and took a soak in a bath of good fish sauce (not the crap from the Philippines), garlic, palm sugar, a splash of soy, a hint of chilies, white pepper, coriander and black pepper. I tossed and turned them four about three hours. The longer the better.
For sticky rice you need to have a special basket and pot. Look online if you don’t have a Thai grocer nearby (but I mean really, who doesn’t have a Thai grocer nearby? sheesh). The “sweet, glutenous rice” needs to soak in water for about 2-3 hours before cooking. You can find this special kind of rice from, you guessed it, a Thai grocer. Or online. You must use the right tools here – you can’t fake sticky rice. And this is the only rice you can serve with these dishes. Ya hear me? Fill up the cooking pot and put the rice in the basket to steam until it is tender and forms a nice ball when squeezed together.
Back to the chicken. Light a charcoal fire on half of your grill. Put all of the marinated chicken pieces on the other half. Let them cook with indirect heat and smoke, turning occasionally, for about 20-30 minutes. Keep checking for doneness so they don’t dry out. By using indirect heat, it is much harder to dry out the chicken. When you’re just about to pull them off, put them over the coals for a minute to get some sweet char on them.
Serve the whole mess family style. Put the sticky rice in a bowl and cover with a damp warm towel. Toss the chicken in a little bit of Thai sweet chili sauce, just to give it a light glaze. Not too much. Encourage your guests to eat with the hands and tear in. The technique is to scoop some rice and then grab a hunk of meat with the rice. The sounds of chomping and slurping an “oh that’s good” and “give me more” will follow. A true food orgy.
I served this batch with some fiery haricot verts (Dirty Girl Farms: we love you!) made with some simple roasted chili paste, a little fish sauce, ciopllini onions and a splash of soy. Saute them on high heat until slightly tender. I also cheated and grabbed a bucket of Som Tom I had Grand Pu Bah whip up for me. You try and manage a gaggle of kids running around your house for an impromptu BBQ AND make Som Tom!
For dessert, I have to give a shout out to our friend Katja who was able to pull together a honey-yogurt ice cream last minute that rocked! We topped them with the Dirty Girl Farms strawberries for a perfect end to the meal.
This dinner made me think that maybe I could go a little deeper into Thai cuisine. Subtleties be damned, the stuff is just that good. At the least every chef needs to be able to pull out some family-style Thai that shake things up from your standard ho-hum BBQ to something otherworldly.