“It started with—let me set the scene—me eating at a stateside Thai restaurant many years ago,” cookbook author Leela Punyaratabandhu writes in the introduction of her recently released Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill.
“As I examined a skewer of chicken satay in my hand, I knew it had been cooked on a griddle hours in advance and reheated in a microwave, which prompted me to let out a small sigh over the wretched fate of how such an iconic grilled dish had become so dry, bland, and utterly devoid of smokiness.” This moment spurred Punyaratabandhu to develop not only a stellar satay recipe, but an entire book on Southeast Asian grilling.
Last weekend, in between marinating the meat and heating the coals for Ghee-Smoked Chicken, I emailed Punyaratabandhu with some of my burning grilling questions.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Coral Lee: You write that grilled dishes are among the most glorious dishes of Southeast Asian cuisine—but are also hardly known in America. Why is that?
Leela Punyaratabandhu: The majority of people in America, unless they travel to the region or are connected in some way to a Southeast Asian family, are exposed to the cuisines of Southeast Asia almost solely through the restaurants that serve them.
Unfortunately, most Southeast Asian restaurants in America don’t usually serve grilled dishes, and when they do, those dishes are nearly always cooked or partially cooked in advance on a gas grill—or, worse, gas griddle—then reheated as needed. This is a world away from the dishes that, in Southeast Asia, would normally be prepared over charcoal and served hot off the grill, appropriately charred, smoky, and fragrant.
That said, this has more to do with the limitations of the restaurant setting that make it impractical and costly to serve charcoal-grilled dishes, than unwillingness or inability on the restaurants’ part (Thai restaurant chefs—trust me—know that good satay isn’t pan-seared in advance and reheated in a microwave, and they wouldn’t do it that way if they had a choice), or the fear that American diners would not like them (I really do believe the American diners will love them—hence the book!).
So, because of this, the vast, glorious, and celebrated world of Southeast Asian charcoal-grilled dishes—encompassing countless iterations of grilled chicken, smoked ribs, charcoal-roasted pork, skewers, and more—has remained opaque to most people in America.
CL: Why do you believe that the home cook or DIY enthusiast is best suited to introduce Asian grilling to America?
LP: American home cooks don’t have the problem that Southeast Asian restaurants in America have. They have access to some of the best grilling tools and gadgets (kettle, ceramic, or hibachi grills; smoking rigs, high heat–proof gloves, tongs, thermometers, to name a few) I have ever seen anywhere in the world, and these tools, in almost all cases, work perfectly in replicating the grilling dishes of Southeast Asia. Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill was written for the American home cook and barbecue enthusiast for this reason: They already have the tools. They already love grilling and smoking. Now they can explore new flavors, flavor combinations, and meal traditions.
That said, as far as “introducing Asian grilling to America,” I’m hoping we’ll see more Southeast Asian restaurants in America that position themselves as specialists in charcoal cooking. I want these restaurants to succeed so we’ll see even more of them. I want to see these restaurants unshackled from the misguided notion that unless it’s cheap, Asian food is overpriced. I want to see them well-represented in the media. I want to see Asian-American food writers and chefs freed from the notion espoused by gatekeepers that they can only write about or cook the “easy” and the familiar. There are so many untold stories and unexplored food cultures, and there are people qualified and excited to introduce these things to America. They need a platform to use their voices, to tell their stories, and to be supported.
CL: How might you convince those intimidated by grilling—with an electric grill, let alone an open fire—to start?
LP: I think the feeling of apprehension when it comes to something we’re not familiar with is a normal sentiment. Growing up in Thailand, where people don’t normally flambé food, when I saw it done for the first time, I was a bit scared. Likewise, because Thai houses don’t have a fireplace and chimney, when I came to the States, burning logs in the middle of your living room seemed to me like a lot could go wrong.
It’s the same when it comes to charcoal cooking. It looks scary only when you’re not used to it. Traditionally, Southeast Asian home cooks see a charcoal grill or stove as a normal, everyday piece of kitchen equipment in the same way home cooks in the West think of an oven. There’s no “grilling season,” there’s no putting away your grill at the end of summer. Food magazines don’t have their summer grilling issues. Because of this, Southeast Asian home cooks, who still make food the traditional way, know how to light charcoal, how to control the flame and the heat, and how to keep the fire going all day, if need be. They have a lot of practice. To someone who doesn’t grill at all or only a few times a year, live-fire or charcoal cooking will naturally be a bit scary.
To combat that fear, I would read up on books on grilling and barbecue, and watch as many instructional videos out there as I can. Soon you’ll come to see that with some knowledge, experience, and great tools, controlling a live fire in your backyard or apartment balcony isn’t that much more difficult than controlling a gas burner, broiler, or oven.
CL: As you prove in the book, cooking over an open fire doesn’t just mean “grilling”—but smoking, searing, roasting, even baking?
LP: We need to think about “open-fire cooking” as being the same as “cooking.” Think about all the things you can do to achieve different results using your stove burner: toasting, pan-searing, pan-frying, deep-frying, steaming. It’s just a matter of using the right tool in conjunction with your heat source, to achieve what you want. It’s the same when it comes to open-fire cooking.
Just as your stove burner can do much more than boiling and frying, your grill can do much more than grilling. With the right setup, it becomes a smoker in which food is cooked low and slow, absorbing smoke along the way. With the lid closed and the temperature well-controlled, your grill turns into an oven in which you can bake a cake or a pie, or roast a whole pork loin, and have these things come out smokier than if you were to cook them in a gas or electric oven.
You can even cook one thing using multiple techniques to achieve what you want. For example, for smoked chicken with charred and crisp skin, set up your grill as a smoker, cook the chicken at a lower temp with the lid on until cooked through, then add more coals to increase the temperature, and sear briefly to crisp up the skin.
CL: When working with an unfamiliar grill or fire setup, what are some visual cues you use to orient yourself?
LP: Regardless of what kind of grill you’re working with, the physics of fire and heat remain universal. The most helpful thing is to study the design of the grill you’re working with and figure out what features are used to achieve what ends. You just need to learn how to manipulate your grill to control the heat and maximize your fuel. A book, or at least a whole chapter in a book, can be written on this. So to keep this succinct, I’d recommend that you start by reading the instructions from the manufacturer of your grill.
Other than that, experience will teach you. You’ll see that when your coals have become too ashy, they’ll burn cooler and you won’t get a good char on your food, or that when the food or marinade has lots of fat dripping into the fire, it tends to cause flare-ups. These are just some examples of the things you’ll learn from observation. Soon, you’ll develop a feel for it. When you find yourself dealing with an unfamiliar grill (switching from a standard kettle grill to a kamado grill, for example), all you have to do is study the unique features of that grill.
CL: What do you consider when developing or fine-tuning a marinade?
LP: The marinades you find in Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill represent the traditional flavors of each particular dish the way you’d find it in Southeast Asia. The most important thing in these marinades is the salinity agent—which could be fish sauce, soy sauce, or salt. If you need to substitute anything—replacing fish sauce with a vegan substitute, for example—try your best to keep the level of salinity the same. Also, the sugar that some of these marinades contain will encourage browning of the food during grilling. So if you omit it, keep in mind that you won’t get the same browning or caramelization that you’d get otherwise. On the other hand, if you add more sugar than what is called for, you’ll be at a greater risk of burning it.
CL: There’s a page detailing how to “compose a meal the Southeast Asian way”—can you share some tips here?
LP: In most cases, starch—nearly always in the form of rice—is the center of a typical Southeast Asian meal. Everything else—including the protein-rich dish that would be considered a “main” in the West—functions as “rice accompaniments.” It’s not uncommon at all for an everyday family meal to include four to five different dishes, plus multiple condiments, that are meant to be eaten with rice.
Most of the time, you can mix and match the components of a meal to get a good variety of complementary flavors and textures. However, sometimes, certain meal combinations have become so well-loved that they’re almost frozen in form. For example, a meal of Northeastern Thai–style grilled chicken, papaya salad, and steamed sticky rice is referred to as “the trinity” because this combination has become such a classic. Can you replace the sticky rice with long-grain rice? Can you replace the papaya salad with a vegetable stir-fry? Yes, you can. But it will be like serving a burger with mashed potatoes and mulled wine as opposed to with fries and a shake.
One important implication is that since these dishes are meant to accompany rice, they’re seasoned with a heavier hand than if they were to be eaten by themselves. So when cooking Asian recipes, unless they have rice or noodles built into them, you need to adjust the seasoning if you plan to exclude rice from your meal.
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