Like I said, sometimes you just want the more immediate pleasures of barbecue, the thrill of the grill. And, frankly, sometimes only Asian skewers will do.
fig. a: Thai Street Food
It's safe to say that this latest spate of activity was inspired by David Thompson's rather impressive Thai Street Food. Like the major works of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Thai Street Food is richly photographed and over-sized, and much more than just a coffee table book: it's passionately written and comprehensive, it strives for the very heights of authenticity,* and its topic is much bigger than just "food." This is a book that's about the entire culture that surrounds the preparation and consumption of "single-plate food" on Thai streets and in Thai markets. It's also incredibly artful. Sure, there are dozens upon dozens of carefully composed studio shots of mouth-watering dishes like Crab Noodles From Chanthaburi and Stir-Fried Squid with Flowering Garlic Chives, but at least half of the photographs fall under the category of street photography and they can be remarkably gritty and purposely un-pretty.
fig. b: Thai market culture
Anyway, it might have had to do with that cover photo, with those tantalizing satay skewers, but when it came time to give Thai Street Food a whirl, I found myself fixating on the grilled recipes, and especially the skewers. Photographs like this one,
fig. c: grilled pork skewers
for Grilled Pork Skewers, and the fact that Thompson begins his write-up for this recipe with the words "I am addicted to these," didn't hurt either.
He then continues as follows:
Along the street there are small grills, often just a large metal bowl with a rack perched on top. I'll stop and look and long for the fruits of their labour--smoky grilled skewers of pork. I'll smuggle some home as if carrying a guilty secret to relish in private. Sometimes, most of the time, I'll break into the cache on the way home.
It all sounded so illicit, so louche. By the time he got to describing the importance of charcoal to the process ("Using a charcoal grill imparts a depth of flavour that makes meat such as this grilled pork irresistible" [my emphasis]) I was 150% sold on those skewers.
Now the actual grilling time on Thai skewers like these is fairly short. After all, the pork is cut into small cubes and it's marinated. But you definitely don't want to grill them over a blazing-hot fire. The idea here is to use a fairly cool fire--Thompson recommends lighting the fire 30-60 minutes ahead of time, and waiting until the coals "glow gently." This isn't a smoked pork dish in the American tradition (ribs, pork shoulders, whole pigs), but smoke is integral to the process, so you want a fire in the neighborhood of 200º-250º F.
The marinade is positively heady. The meat is then basted with coconut cream on the grill. And the whole combination--the pork, the smoke, the marinade, the coconut cream--is pure thrills.
Grilled Pork Skewers
9 oz pork loin, neck, or shoulder
2 oz pork back fat (optional)
for the marinade:
1 tsp cleaned and chopped coriander roots
pinch of salt
1 tsp chopped garlic
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 tbsp shaved palm sugar
dash of dark soy sauce
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil
12-15 bamboo skewers
1/4 cup coconut cream**
Slice the pork into thinnish pieces about 1" square. Cut the pork fat, if using, into small rectangles (1" x 1/4").
Next make the marinade. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the coriander root, salt, garlic and pepper into a fine paste. Combine with the sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce and oil. Marinate the pork and fat in this mixture for about 3 hours. The more cautious can refrigerate this but, if doing so, then it is best marinated overnight.
Soak the bamboo skewers for at least 30 minutes before use.
Prepare the grill. Meanwhile, thread a piece of pork fat, if using, onto the skewer first followed by two or three pieces of the marinated pork. Repeat with each skewer. When the embers are glowing, gently grill the skewers, turning quite often to prevent charring and promote even caramelisation and cooking. Dab them with the coconut cream as they grill. This should make the coals smoulder and impart a smoky taste. Grill all the skewers.
On the streets, they are simply reheated over the grill to warm them through before serving, although this is not entirely necessary as they are delicious warm or cool.
[recipe based very, very closely on a recipe from David Thompson's Thai Street Food]
Not sure if Thompson would have approved--this being "single-plate food," after all--but we served ours with rice, cilantro, limes, and a selection of simple Asian pickles, and the spread looked something like this:
fig. d: grilled pork skewers à la AEB
That smoky, caramelized pork was just layered with flavor. Thompson claims that the recipe "makes enough for 4-5," but we had a hard time putting a few skewers aside for the next day's lunch. He was right. They are irresistible.
* For instance, in the introduction to Deep-Fried Salted Beef with Chilli and Tamarind Sauce, one finds this moment of authenticity: "The chilli and tamarind sauce is delectable. It can be served with any deep-fried meat or fish. I like to use maengdtaa fish sauce (made from rice roaches, bugs that scurry through the paddy fields), for its haunting aroma, but any good-quality fish sauce will do."
** More authenticity: Thompson highly recommends making your own coconut cream from scratch, a process that requires one to place the grated (or blended) coconut in cheesecloth and then "squeeze murderously, therapeutically, to obtain as much of the creamy goodness as possible." He does recognize that using canned coconut milk is "a more realistic option," however, and that's exactly what we've been doing up till now (although we're dying to make the real deal). The coconut cream is the clotted substance one finds in the top half of a can of coconut milk.
Even the canned variety imparts a wonderful flavor. One can only imagine what the artisanal stuff that one finds in Thai markets, some of which is perfumed with jasmine flowers or pandanus leaves (!), is like.