The embers of tradition
Grilling is an integral part of Thai cuisine
Grilling is preferable for many people as it makes food more aromatic and palatable. This cooking method is not only associated with flavour but also reflects characteristics of communities, types of fuel wood, cooking time, meticulousness of the cook and the adjustment of grilling tools to fit the purpose.
Grilling is deep rooted in the northeastern region. Isan diets evolve around nature as people have adapted their lifestyles to fit in with the environment. They use raw materials found in nearby surroundings to cook delicious meals using very simple techniques.
A traditional northeastern kitchen sits on the floor, compact and handy. Cooking equipment is minimal, made up of some basic utensils like charcoal stove, mortar and pestle, knives, cutting board, pots, sticky rice steamer and grill basket. There is no wok or frying pan, which totally eliminate the hassle of acquiring cooking oil.
Smoke imparts a delectable flavour to the chicken.
Fish and frogs caught from the wild are simply boiled with native vegetables, chilli and salt. Otherwise they are grilled and eaten with nam phrik (chilli dipping sauce), which is easily prepared with ingredients handily available in the kitchen such as dried chilli, shallot, garlic, fermented fish, tamarind juice and ground roasted rice. Although easily prepared, the dishes are delicious when eaten with freshly cooked sticky rice. The excess catches are usually preserved for future consumption by rubbing with salt and dried or smoked.
Grilling is a unique expertise of northeastern people. They may use charcoal or wood but it will yield similar results. The flair of grilling techniques possessed by Isan people is evident at restaurants or roadside vendors where irresistible chicken and fish are prepared right there.
Charcoal grilling is also inseparable from the traditional lifestyle in the Central Region of Thailand. Every household has a grill basket. Many Central recipes require that pork, beef and fish be grilled before using as an ingredient for other dishes such as grilled beef curry with bai kee lek (Siamese cassia leaves), grilled beef salad (yam neua yang) and santol curry with grilled pork. Zigzag eel, which has a strong fishy smell, needs to be grilled to get rid of the foul odour and to make the meat firmer before being put in the curry or spicy and sour soup (tom klong). Gourami is normally dried in the sun and grilled before adding in spicy and sour soup with young tamarind leaves.
Grilling is not limited to meat. To make nam phrik ta daeng and nam phrik long reau, the ingredients including chilli, garlic and shallot must be roasted before being pounded and seasoned with tamarind water and fish sauce. This technique makes the nam phrik last for a few days at room temperature.
In the Central Region, mangrove charcoal is widely used as it gives strong heat for a long time and creates no sparks compared with typical charcoal. Phetchaburi and Samut Songkhram are major mangrove charcoal production areas.
To control the fire, ash is sprinkled on the burning charcoal to lower the heat and removed when higher heat is required. How much ash and when to smear or remove it to get the proper heat is an individual skill.
When cooking gas was first introduced for household use, many people refused to cook the meat, chilli, onion and garlic over the gas flame. They believed the food would be tainted with gas smell and as LPG gas is a type of fuel, exposing food directly to the gas flame could be harmful to health. And importantly, it is more costly to grill using a gas stove, especially when it takes a long time to cook.
There was a popular pork satay place in Chon Buri. The business was robust for its superb marinating technique and delicious dipping sauce. The shop had been using mangrove charcoal all along before switching to gas stoves as it was cleaner and easier to control the heat. Unfortunately, the customers gradually turned their back on the gas-grilled satay and the shop went out of business eventually.
Curried fish cake.
The charm of pork satay and beef satay is the fragrant smoke produced when the grilling satay is rubbed with sauce and the juices drip down onto the fire. It helps raise the appetite of diners. Smoke-free satay grilling can backfire on a business.
People in seaside communities have a different way of grilling. The fuel for the fire is coconut husk, which is plentiful in those areas. As coconut husk burns up pretty fast and needs to be replaced constantly, sea folks have a technique to slow the burning and maintain the heat. The fish are set on the grill and the husks are covered with banana leaves to obstruct air circulation. This approach prevents the husk from burning with a flame but generates a low heat with billowing smoke that imparts a delectable flavour to the fish.
A famous seaside speciality, jaeng lon (curried fish cake) is prepared by mixing finely chopped fish meat with curry paste, coconut milk and salt. The mixture is dense and sticky so that it can be formed into small balls and placed on bamboo skewers. The skewers are then grilled with coconut husk covered with banana leaves. The food sells very well but this traditional way of grilling takes a long time and, as a result, causes a long queue. If jaeng lon is grilled using a gas stove, its appetising quality will surely diminish.
Also grilled over the slow burning coconut husk is fish cake wrapped in banana leaf, a signature dish of Ban Krud village in Prachuap Khiri Khan.
Grilling reflects local wisdom and will remain an indispensable cooking method in every region of our country. Gas stoves are a modern and convenient source of heat but gas grilled meats just don't taste good enough to beat the traditional way.