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Tastes of Bangkok's Barbecued Best

August 08, 1996|STEVEN RAICHLEN | Raichlen is the author of "High-Flavor, Low-Fat Vegetarian Cooking" (Viking)

BANGKOK — This is a tale of two cities--and of two barbecues.

The first embodies the privileged world of Somerset Maugham, of the jet-setting gentry who frequent one of Asia's grandest hotels.

The second reflects the gritty realities of a Third World metropolis, the economic woes that drive peasants from their impoverished villages to a city infamous for its traffic, congestion and pollution.

Both take place in Bangkok, Thailand's political and cultural capital. And both reflect the Thai love of explosive flavors and their profound reverence for food.

Everywhere you go in Thailand, you will experience grilling--on the beaches of Samui Island, in the highlands of Chiang Mai, on the crowded streets and back alleys of Bangkok. So strong is the Thai love of yaang (live fire cooking) that they reserve it not just for special occasions, but for everyday fare.

Everyday fare? Well, that's a mundane way to describe my first experience with Thai grilling: the riverside barbecue at the Oriental Hotel. The Oriental is one of those pleasure palaces built in the last century on the banks of the Chao Praya River. Joseph Conrad resided here, as did Herman Melville and Maugham. My room in the Writers Wing is a veritable two-story townhouse, with every architectural nuance and electronic convenience known to modern man.

But what has me dropping my jaw at the moment is a torch-lit barbecue on the riverside terrace. I'm seated at a pink granite table with teak chairs, surrounded by pedestal globe lights entwined with bougainvillea. Here, a whiff of frangipani; there, the perfume of jasmine. The longtail boats skimming the river seem close enough to touch.

As with everything at the Oriental, barbecue is done in a grandiose way, with banks of grills and a buffet line stretching a good 50 feet. There's a seafood station that fairly sparkles with spiny lobsters, slipper lobsters, fresh and salt-water prawns and a fishmonger's assortment of fish, neatly bedded in ice. There are poultry and meat stations, where chicken, duck, squab, beef and pork emerge sizzling from the grills.

But don't be fooled by the fancy surroundings. The basic preparations are really quite simple. The marinades are variations on a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and garlic. The accompanying table sauces range from a mild, sweet lemon-honey-garlic sauce to an incendiary tincture of chiles, shallots and fish sauce.

I could spend a couple of paragraphs describing the side dishes--the salad spreads, elaborately carved fruit displays, dessert stations where young women in sarongs cook coconut cakes called kenoms. But what really impresses me is the straightforward manner of the grilled fare, the elegant simplicity of the fish.

A few days later, I experience a similar barbecue in a considerably more downscale setting: a hawkers' center on a tiny side street off traffic-clogged Silom Road. Centers such as this one are where the ordinary Thais eat, in a motley assortment of food stalls and pushcarts selling every imaginable street food, from stir-fries and soups to noodle dishes like the famous pad thai. The air is thick with smoke from charcoal braziers.

I stop at the cart of a tiny woman for a popular snack--squid on a stick. She fishes the tiny sea creature from a jar in which it's marinating in an aromatic mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar, garlic, chiles and lemongrass. The squid goes on a tiny skewer for a two-minute sizzle over the coals. It's sweet, salty, tender, smoky and absolutely delicious. These, of course, are the same flavors I experienced at the Oriental. But this feast costs all of 10 baht (about 45 cents).

It's no accident that fish sauce is a recurring theme in Thai barbecue. This condiment--made from salted, fermented anchovies--is as essential to Thai cooking as soy sauce is to Japanese and Chinese. Fish sauce has a wonderful way of reinforcing the briny flavor of seafood. I suppose this is the reason it's so popular in Thailand as a marinade and dip for grilled fish.

Talk to Thais long enough about barbecue and you'll hear the word "Isan." The term refers to both a region and a people: the province in northeastern Thailand adjacent to the Laotian and Cambodian borders, whose inhabitants speak a dialect of Thai close to Laotian.

The Isan makes up almost one-third of Thailand, but it's a region beset by drought, chronic crop failure and crushing poverty. As many as 60% of Bangkok's construction workers, "tuk-tuk" drivers and street vendors have come from the Isan to earn a little cash (about $5.50 a day) while they wait for the rains to return to their farmlands.

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