A few weeks ago a husband and wife team, who were writing a story about new Bangkok restaurants, were asking me questions. They were on the other side of the bar, sipping martinis, which I've found is a very agreeable way for journalists and I to conduct interviews. I stood there and tried to say something clever, while watching the drink tickets come in.
Then I got an order and lost my train of thought, just as they asked me “what is your favorite ingredient in Thai cooking?"
Prawns? Lemongrass? Mint? Roasted sticky rice powder? Lime leaves? Fried shallots? Or maybe something more elemental, say, fish sauce or palm sugar or coconut cream? I don’t know. There are so many.
Then I started to mix the drink. Cucumber, smash. Passionfruit, just a bit. Gin, lots. Lime, ice, shake, pour. Where's the ginger ale? Shit. Seriously, where is the goddamn ginger ale? Is it down there, under the sink? There it is, behind the ice bucket. Top it, slice of cucumber, stir, wipe glass, table eight.
And I'm back.
"Now what were we talking about?"
"Your favorite ingredient."
I looked at what the two were eating. Duck larb -- a clamorous salad that resonates with sour and spicy and smoky notes – smoky, because we add smoked duck breast to the mixture. They were also eating ribs, which I slow-braise in a sort of tamarind barbecue sauce with lemongrass and chili and finish on the grill, for another taste of smoke. And stir-fried flowers with egg, which I have my wok cook blast with heat at the beginning so that my cast iron woks breathe their smoky heat into the food.
And I had one of those empty-headed revelations that you get when you’re doing four things at once. “Smoke. I like to play around with smoke. Yeah. That’s my favorite ingredient.”
A country meal of beef and two jiim jeow dips, cooked in Nong Khai, Isaan.
Thing is, it’s true. I’ve seen smoke disappear, in its myriad forms, as kitchens modernize across Asia. Smoke is drifting away from Chinese cooking, as home cooks stir-fry over low-heat ranges, in non-stick woks. Many mainland restaurants would rather drown vegetables in peanut oil and garlic than try to execute a proper, smoky stir-fry (it’s easier to do so).
I remember the first time I tasted a stir-fry of mushrooms, in a grimy Chengdu alleyway at dusk, from a wok that was so hot it glowed. It was cold and damp outside and I wondered if the cook could poke his metal spatula right through the wok (I know now that you can’t). There was chili, and soup spoons of salt and msg, and soy and oil and cornstarch maybe even a dusting of spring onions in those mushrooms. But it was the smoke, which sprung out of a pressed disk of coal underneath and heated that wok a shade of tangerine, like a cow-brand, that made the mushrooms sing.
Smoke is disappearing from street food, as more cooks flash-fry meats in little saucepots over gas rings, rather than slow-grilling the way they should and always have. Smoke is disappearing from Thai food as more people eat in sterile mall food courts in between shopping for tee-shirts and outfits for their dogs to wear. Meatballs and sausages are cooked over middling electric coils, as fat collects in little detachable plastic trays.
A charcoal grill is not difficult to install in a restaurant kitchen in unregulated Bangkok, but fewer restaurants do. Charcoal is dirty and it is tedious and it is absolutely essential if you are going to serve Northeastern Thai food.
Smoke is disappearing from the ripping-hot red dried chilies that people used to roast in their woks and grind in their kroks (that’s a mortar and pestle), but now buy pre-packaged in the super or wet market. These flat, lifeless chili flakes are not allowed in my kitchen. (It is also not hard to roast your own chilies. Cough.) It is disappearing, too, from northern curry pastes and nahm prik pao, where shallots and garlic and other things should be grilled and smashed into heady pastes.
Sometimes, when I spy a guest nervously start to rock back and forth in their chair, as they wait for their chicken wings or their steak nahm tok or a fish grilled in a leaf to arrive, I smile inside. Because two floors up my grill man Pi Bun is carefully cooking their food over the slow, low coals that people from Lao and Isaan have cooked over for centuries. Pi Bun knows about smoke.
He knows that it takes some time. But when the food arrives, suffused with the perfume of mangrove charcoal, it’s worth it.
It’s the best ingredient I’ve got.