For the Love of Thai

Thai food began getting "hot" in the west when it found fashion in the Californian '80s. As Thai immigration began to increase (and with them came the ingredients), classically trained "white" chefs, especially in wine country, saw a cuisine they could accommodate within their own styles. Major press influences (The Wine Spectator, L.A. Times, Gourmet magazine, John Mariani and Esquire . . . ) found Thai in their laps when it cropped up beside the oenophiles’ hunting grounds, Napa and Sonoma. The food fascinated everyone. It helped that Thais themselves were kind, gentle people who by their nature transfixed status quo-weary critics and tapped into their inner need to teach.

At the Thara Thong restaurant in Bangkok, you might start with crisp rice cups filled with ground pork, peanuts and pickled cabbage. Thais, like Indonesians, like us, know everything goes with peanuts and peanut butter.

Kaeng Phed Ped Yang is roast duck. The Long Island duck of North America was, of course, originally Chinese, the duck of Peking Duck, brought to New York in 1873 and raised here for its succulent meaty breast pieces. Until then, North America had wild duck as a native bird, Daffy Duck, duck with sinewy meat and no skin or fat, duck with the taste of liver and the texture of flannel. So the Thais take the Chinese duck, the one with flavour and mouth-melting texture, and roast it, which would be fine with us. But then they pair it with red curry. The dead duck takes flight in your mouth.

Sweet and sour seafood soup (Tom Yum Tha Lay) is laced with those Thai chilies that make Indian chilies taste like supermarket paprika. At an orchid farm in Bangkok, I got out of the speedboat taxi, spied a colourful fruit, thought it might be an exotic berry, plucked it in the curious spirit of a colleague, and put it my mouth. Instinct is a marvel. That chili went in and out faster than my eyes could blink but the blisters began to form within seconds. Had it not been for the kind administrations of Doctor John Walker, who was with us at all times in our travels, I might not have survived to eat the rest of Thailand.

We have dips like sour cream and onion soup mix, or cocktail sauce of catsup, horseradish sugar and lemon. The Thais have dips such as Saeng Wa Goong, where the sauce is the real thing. It's a sauce of shrimp, chilies, onions and lemongrass. You could dip anything into that and love it. And they do, because they dip vegetables in it. But they also dip these puffy chips that turn out to be battered and deep fried catfish as light as Frito-lay's best.         


Thai Thighs by the Twos

Some doctor or dietician says you shouldn’t eat the skin on chickens, reinforcing the truism that diet doctors are killjoys, albeit well-meaning ones. Here’s a Thai recipe (Gai Yang) inspired from one of the best Thai cookery books I have, The Essential Thai Cookbook by Vatcharin Bhumichitr (Clarkson N. Potter Inc. and Random House, 1994). The author uses boneless chicken thighs with the skin on and I’m sure it’s boffo but I use the boneless skinless kind. I’m not a dietician or a doctor but I tell you,  healthy never tasted so good.

By the way: The “twos,” as you will notice, refers to the ingredient list.

Preparation Time:  10 minutes
Cooking time:        10 minutes
Serves:                  4 to 6

12 boneless skinless chicken thighs
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 Thai bird chillies minced – or Indian green (milder) or jalapenos (even milder)
2 garlic cloves smashed and minced
2 tps minced coriander root (wash the roots thoroughly)

Mix everything together in a bowl and let marinate for half an hour. Fire up the barbecue to high. Straight from the marinade, unroll the thighs and grill for 90 seconds on one side, flip and grill another 90 seconds or until just cooked through. Serve with rice.