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Grill your way through the pandemic

Leela Punyaratabandhu’s new cookbook Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill is a remedy for isolation.

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One of the very few things I’ve been looking forward to this spring that hasn’t been ruined by COVID-19 is the third cookbook by Leela Punyaratabandhu, Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill: Classic Recipes for Seafood and Meats Cooked Over Charcoal.

For more than a decade I’ve relied on her advice and expertise anytime I wrote anything about Thai food. Beginning with the graceful, witty, and frequently elegiac words on her blog shesimmers.com and in subsequent books Simple Thai Food and Bangkok, she established herself as the English language’s foremost authority on Thai food. 

But her well is much deeper than that. Born and raised in Bangkok, she’s traveled throughout Southeast Asia since she was a child, enjoying a thorough exposure to food throughout the region. “Every time I go back to Thailand, I always include short trips to surrounding countries and beyond,” she told me.

If you’ve followed her Instagram account over the last few years, you’ve seen tantalizing sneak peeks at live-fire foods from Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia. I’ve been having a great time this spring with a number of recipes from the new cookbook, smoking satay of baby back ribs with peanut sauce, grilling pork and crabmeat crepinettes with pineapple-chile dipping sauce, and I’ve applied her method of lacto-fermenting pork to preserve all sorts of meats and imbue them with the tantalizing, tangy power of sour.

The book continues a long-running theme in her work: here in the U.S. you can very often cook versions of traditional Southeast Asian recipes in your home kitchen better than those you can order in restaurants—even with limited access to traditional ingredients or equipment. You don’t need coconut husks to smoke fish Quezon City-style. You don’t need an ong to make Thai-style clay jar chicken. And you don’t need salted soybean paste to make Teochew roasted duck, a recipe she shared with the Reader. (Pro tip: if things get really bad during the pandemic, ducks are plentiful in public parks this spring).*

All you need is some fuel and even the most rudimentary of grilling equipment.

Leela answered my questions about the universality of barbecue and its place in the time of COVID-19 from her halftime home in the western suburbs, where she quarantined herself in early March after flying home from Italy on a plane full of people evacuating the epicenter of the country’s outbreak. (She’s OK.) “The responsible thing to do will be to isolate myself from society,” she told me. “Very easy for this homebody to do, actually.”

Mike Sula: Anyone who follows you on Instagram knows you are a prodigious home cook. Are you cooking more prodigiously in the time of COVID-19? What, if anything, are you doing differently?

Leela Punyaratabandhu: COVID-19 has made most home cooks more creative. I don't mean experimenting with unusual flavor pairings or esoteric ingredients, but thinking outside the box—cooking by the seat of your pants. With the situation being what it is and with the weather in Chicago still being as cold as it is, you can't rely on fresh ingredients from the store or your home garden. This is the time when we start our day staring at what's left in our freezer and pantry and hope that an idea for a good dish will emerge.It's like playing Iron Chef with yourself at home. It's kind of fun. 

For example, just a week or so ago, the only fresh produce I had left was literally one kabocha squash. My next scheduled grocery delivery was a couple days away, and I had nothing else other than the squash and some seasonings and dried goods in the pantry. I cut half into 1-inch cubes, leaving the rind on for texture; I stir-fried them with fish sauce, oyster sauce, garlic powder (no fresh garlic that day), and lots of ground black pepper and served that with rice. I peeled the other half, cut it into 1-inch cubes again, and cooked the squash in coconut milk just until soft but firm. The coconut milk was then sweetened with palm sugar and seasoned with a dash of salt. It's a classic Thai dessert. I lived on these two things for two days in a row. On the third day, the squash in sweet coconut milk had become too soft, so I ran it through a sieve into something that looked like baby food and incorporated that into a pancake mix that came in that day with my grocery delivery. Kabocha-squash-overcooked-in-coconut-milk-and-palm-sugar pancakes are pretty darned delicious. 

The book does really underscore how universal and elemental cooking over coals is. Anyone can do it with a wide range of food, fuel, and equipment. But does this open, communal form of cooking have a place right now? Is there some way it could be useful or helpful for people, if only psychologically?Can you make a case for grilling outdoors, over coals, during a pandemic?

In Southeast Asia, grilling is not regarded as a seasonal activity but part of everyday life—all year round. You won't see food magazines publish their grilling issues during the summer months or hear conversations about how they need to dust off their grills and smokers and get ready for the grilling season when the weather gets warmer. A charcoal grill is regarded in much the same way as an indoor kitchen gas/electric range; it’s a cooking tool that just happens to be located outdoors out of necessity. So, with or without a pandemic in the picture, as long as people cook, people grill.

In the U.S., on the other hand, live-fire cooking outdoors has a celebratory aspect to it. When we think of grilling or barbecue, we think of a season—the arrival of warm weather and outdoor living, newsstands flooded with food magazines with grilling recipes on the covers, large gatherings of people you love, Fourth of July picnics, Memorial Day weekend, backyard cookouts with friends and family, tailgate parties, barbecue festivals, etc. The pandemic has already disrupted the rhythms of our lives and, in severe cases, turned our world upside down, and the thought of it continuing into the spring and summer doesn't exactly put us in a party mood.

Not to sound glib, but even in the midst of COVID-19 when we're hunkered down at home, instead of bemoaning this time, we can embrace it, knowing that we’re staying home to save lives. We can still make something fun out of it. Grilling as a family is already fun, but maybe if you have small children, you can turn it into an adventure in your own backyard—setting up a tent outside and cooking food in the fire pit, perhaps? Create a game of cooking exclusively outdoors for maybe a week—over charcoal or wood—to see what it's like. Cooking over live fire outdoors teaches us about how to build a fire, how to manage it, and how to control the heat as we cook. It sharpens our instinct and, I think, makes us better cooks indoors or outdoors.

How much preservational function exists for smoking and fermenting in Southeast Asia? Was the original rationale for fermenting Isan sausage (sai krok isan) preservational? What about naem (soured pork)? Was souring meat supposed to preserve it, or did people just like the taste? What about the Filipino smoked fish on page 42?

In the hot and humid climate of Southeast Asia, food preservation is essential for long-term storage—whether it be through lacto-fermentation, as is the case with soured meats like sai krok isan or naem, or curing and hot smoking as is the case with the Filipino smoked fish tinapa

In the case of naem and sai krok isan, souring is first and foremost to preserve the meat. Then people discovered that the deeply savory tang you get out of the lacto-fermentation tasted good, and so they continued to ferment the meat in this way. 

Preservation of food exists independently of the barbecue culture. Sometimes these preserved foods are cooked on the grill or smoker—like tinapa; sometimes, they're not. It all depends. For example, naem in its simplest, most traditional form—similar to pressed ham—doesn't even need to be cooked at all, let alone grilled, before serving. If not for the fear of harmful pathogens and parasites, there would be a lot of people who prefer to eat their naem raw. And if you want to cook it, you can cook it many different ways, including steaming and stir-frying. It's not accurate to think of naem as being made for barbecue since grilling or smoking is just one of the ways to cook it.

Do you still have a traditional Thai clay charcoal stove? Can you describe it? Do you use it?

Traditional Thai charcoal stoves, ang lo, come in various sizes and circumferences, and they could be straight-sided or flared at the top. But they're built the same way with a round-mouthed opening, a perforated clay grate, and a chamber at the bottom with a rectangular opening that regulates the airflow and allows you to remove the ash once the cooking is done. You put the coals on the clay grate and light them right in the stove. You manage the grill temperature by adding or removing the coals and using the woven bamboo fan to feed the charcoal with oxygen through the ash chamber opening. 

Old-school Thai kitchens are usually in the outdoors and equipped with at least one charcoal stove—a tool that's as essential to everyday home cooking as a chopping block or a mortar. A large charcoal stove with a wide circumference is reserved for heavy-duty tasks that involve a big pot, pan, wok, or steamer. A small clay charcoal stove—often shaped like a small bucket with a handle for portability—is for quick auxiliary tasks such as the grilling or charring of tiny ingredients like garlic, shallots, or chilies in small amounts. 

In the Chicago suburbs where I live, I've found that I don't need a Thai traditional clay stove. I don't ever feel like I'm missing out on anything "authentic" at all. I can achieve everything I want with the common grilling and smoking tools available in the U.S.

I do have a Thai clay charcoal stove that I brought back from Thailand a few years ago. It's very small—about 3/4 the size of a gallon milk jug—but completely functional. I bought it because it reminded me of the clay stove in my great-grandparents' kitchen, yet I suspected that I would not use it. And I was right; all this time it's been sitting on my kitchen countertop as a decoration.

What different things do you use to grill at home? You must have a formidable arsenal of equipment now.

I have two kettle grills, two kamado grills, a pellet grill/smoker, a vertical water smoker, a barrel cooker/smoker, a pig roasting box, and four types of hibachi. This is overkill. I need these tools only because I write and test recipes for a living. But honestly, all my grilling and smoking needs would be adequately met with just one standard-size kettle grill. 

You include a fascinating section on the dhungar method (dropping hot coals into ghee to impart smoke to food in an enclosed chamber). You say you often use this method to smoke things indoors. No need for a grill of any kind. Can you give examples and explain how it’s done? Can you reuse the ghee after doing this once?

The South Asian dhungar method involves an encounter between ghee (clarified butter) and a piece of burning coal which results in a plume of smoke with intoxicating aroma that gets trapped inside an enclosed chamber—usually a lidded pot—along with the food. It's a common practice in several places and communities throughout Southeast Asia with strong South Asian influences. This is not a method of cooking food through smoking in the same way that we cook, say, smoked fish, but more of a method of perfuming food with smoke without heating it.

This is a fun way to perfume food, and there are many things you can "smoke" this way. Leftover fried rice from yesterday? Heat it up and add a touch of smokiness to it, and suddenly that plate of leftover fried rice becomes so much more than it was. Is it too cold out to cook Chinese barbecued pork shoulder in a smoker? Well, cook it in the oven then perfume it with the dhungar method. 

Will you have a garden this year?

I plan to grow at least five types of basil this year. I also harbor a secret ambition of building an attached greenhouse for my citrus trees.  v

Honey-roasted duck with pickled ginger and chile-soy-vinegar sauce - COURTESY PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE
  • Courtesy Penguin Random House
  • Honey-roasted duck with pickled ginger and chile-soy-vinegar sauce

HONEY-ROASTED DUCK with Pickled Ginger and Chile-Soy-Vinegar Sauce

In the United States, we’re accustomed to the Cantonese-style roasted ducks offered in Chinatowns around the country. In Thailand, ducks cooked Cantonese-style—or Hong Kong–style, as the Thais say—can be found, too. But it’s the roasted ducks made in the tradition of the Teochew diaspora that dominate the scene. 

An observant eater will notice a few differences: Teochew roasted ducks in Thailand sport tender, charred skin, while their Cantonese counterparts have crispier, glossier skin. In terms of taste, Teochew Thai cooks subtly infuse the duck with local Thai herbs—lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime leaves—something that’s not done in Cantonese roasted ducks. Another subtle difference is the tendency of Teochew cooks in Thailand to favor fermented soybean paste over hoisin sauce, which permeates Cantonese barbecue. The fermented soybean paste—aka salted soybean paste or sauce, or tao-jiao—is a thick, umami-packed seasoning. In a pinch, dark miso can be substituted in the recipes in this book. 

Read through the recipe carefully before you begin so you can plan for it. It isn’t difficult, but it extends over two days. This is, therefore, not a weeknight meal, but instead a fun weekend project.

Leela Punyaratabandhu

Serves 4 Generously 

SAUCE

1/2 cup distilled white or cider vinegar 

1/2 cup soy sauce 

2 tablespoons honey 

4 fresh green Thai long chiles or jalapeño or serrano peppers, sliced 1⁄4 inch thick 

DUCK

3 large garlic cloves 

3 thin fresh ginger slices 

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro roots or fresh cilantro stems stripped of leaves 

2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder 

2 tablespoons oyster sauce 

1 teaspoon salt 

2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup soy sauce 

1⁄4 cup fermented soybean paste (see headnote) or miso 

1/2 cup honey 

1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine 

1 White Pekin duck, about 5 pounds, head removed 

2 lemongrass stalks, each smashed to split the bulb, then tied into a knot 

3 or 4 fresh galangal slices (optional) 

3 or 4 makrut lime leaves, hand torn (optional) 

12 cups water 

1⁄4 cup distilled white vinegar

PICKLED GINGER

4 ounces fresh ginger (see Note) 

1 teaspoon salt 

2 tablespoons granulated sugar 

1/2 cup distilled white, unseasoned rice, or cider vinegar 

1 tablespoon undiluted raw beet juice, for color 

GLAZE

1⁄4 cup water 

2 tablespoons soy sauce 

2 tablespoons honey 

1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar 

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, for brushing 

1 cup sliced cucumbers, for serving 

Cooked jasmine rice, for serving

Trim four bamboo skewers to 4 inches from the pointed end and set aside. 

To make the sauce: In a small glass jar, combine the vinegar, soy sauce, and honey and stir until well blended. Add the chile slices. Cover and refrigerate for 2 days. 

Right after you’re done with the sauce, prep the duck: In a blender, combine the garlic, ginger, cilantro root, five-spice powder, oyster sauce, salt, 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce, the fermented soybean paste, 1⁄4 cup of the honey, and the wine and process until smooth. Remove the wing tips and pat the duck dry. Stretch the skin flap at the neck to cover the neck hole and secure it with one of the bamboo skewers. With one hand grabbing the duck by its two legs, hold the duck head end down and pour the marinade into the cavity, rubbing it all over while keeping the skin on the outside dry and clean. Fill the cavity with the lemongrass and galangal and lime leaves, if using. Pull the skin flaps over the cavity and use the remaining skewers to “sew” the cavity shut (the goal is to keep the marinade inside). Wipe the skin clean of any wayward marinade.

Select a 4-quart saucepan that is wider than the circumference of the widest part of the duck. Add the water, the remaining 1/2 cup soy sauce, the remaining 1⁄4 cup honey, and the vinegar to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, set a rack on a sheet pan and keep it nearby. With one hand, hold the duck firmly by the “ankles” a couple of inches above the boiling liquid; with the other hand, ladle the liquid over the duck. Do this repeatedly, scalding every square inch of the skin, for 2 minutes. Place the duck, breast side up, on the rack and refrigerate the duck on the sheet pan for 24 hours to marinate the inside and dry out the skin. Discard the liquid. 

Meanwhile, make the pickled ginger: Cut the ginger crosswise on a sharp diagonal into paper-thin slices (use a mandoline if you have one). Mix 1/2 teaspoon of the salt into the ginger and let sit for 30 minutes. Rinse the ginger well, squeeze it dry, and place it in a clean glass jar. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, vinegar, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt over medium heat until the sugar and salt dissolve and the mixture is lukewarm. Remove from the heat and pour it over the ginger. Stir in the beet juice (the juice must be raw for staining power). Cap the jar and refrigerate until serving. 

To make the glaze: In a small bowl, whisk together the water, soy sauce, honey, and vinegar. Keep covered at room temperature until roasting time. 

Prepare a fire in a charcoal grill using the two-zone method, keeping the temperature steady at 350° F. When the coals are covered with white ash and the grate is hot, place the duck on the hold side of the grill. Cover and roast, adjusting the vents to maintain the temperature and rotating and flipping the duck every 15 minutes, until the internal temperature taken at the thickest part of the thigh registers 150° F. This should take close to 2 hours. Brush the prepared glaze all over the duck, re-cover, and continue to cook until the internal temperature registers 160° F, about 20 minutes longer (watch the duck closely during this time as the skin can burn easily). Transfer the duck to a large rimmed platter and brush all over with the oil. Let rest for 45 minutes. 

Remove and discard the bamboo skewers. Empty out the cavity into a small bowl, keeping the liquid and discarding the solids. Carve the duck and arrange it on a serving platter with the pickled ginger and cucumber slices. Drizzle the liquid from the cavity over the duck. Serve with the rice and a small bowl of the sauce on the side.

NOTE

If possible, use young fresh ginger with thin, smooth skin, often with a pink blush, and tender flesh, rather than mature ginger with brown, papery skin and fibrous flesh. It is most commonly seen in the U.S. at farmers’ markets in the spring.

Reprinted with permission from Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill: Classic Recipes for Seafood and Meats Cooked Over Charcoal by Leela Punyaratabandhu. Copyright©2020 shesimmers.com. Photographs copyright ©2020 by David Loftus. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

*Don’t do that. That would be illegal.

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