By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Here's my problem with fusion cuisine: No white cook has ever learned how to properly use galangal. No black cook, either. Or Latino or Spanish or French or what-have-you. Or me. We've all tried it -- experimented the way others might with smoking weed or light bondage -- but none of us have quite figured out what to do with the stuff. Or even how to spell it correctly.
Galangal is Thai ginger, a rhizome that smells like a forest after the rain when fresh and tastes sort of like regular ginger and soap, or like regular ginger chewed with a mouthful of pine needles and pepper spray. It's a big, ugly, gnarly and phallic root that, when peeled, cleaned and diligently employed, comes close to representing the heart of Thai cuisine.
Wait. A heart should be sweet, or solid at the very least, right? So pineapple ought to be considered the heart of Thai cuisine. Pineapple and a lime. And maybe some chiles. A lot of chiles. Bump the galangal down to more southerly latitudes and call it the wang of Thai cuisine. (It is an aphrodisiac, after all.)
5228 W. 25th Ave.
Lakewood, CO 80214
Region: West Denver Suburbs
Egg rolls: $3.50
Pineapple fried rice: $6.95
Fish curry: $9.50
Here's my problem with fusion: No cook who didn't grow up with it has ever learned how to deconstruct Thai cuisine, how to tease out its individual elements and make anything even remotely edible out of them. Galangal, lemongrass, peanuts, Thai chiles, the culturally unique curries and fish cakes and slaws of mint and red onion -- forget it. We've all tried; we've all failed. And even something as simple as a peanut sauce, when presented in any non-Thai culinary gangbang of a fusion restaurant where satay and wontons and noodle bowls share space on a menu also being variously penetrated by the French, Italians and Americans, is guaranteed to disappoint. People are going to order it, people are going to taste it, and the very first thing those people are going to think is, "Shit. This just isn't as good as at that little Thai restaurant down the street."
And why? Because no non-Thai cook knows how to use galangal. The French can't figure out what to make of peanuts. British cooks have very specific notions of what constitutes a proper curry. And the Japanese would sooner eat gravel than potatoes and tofu together on the same plate.
Thai is a complicated and, even in this day, fairly insular cuisine that has not yet been savaged by the fusers, defilers, deconstructionists and border-jumping world-food enthusiasts who, in their merciless and misguided quest to force all foods to play together nicely, insist on misusing lemongrass, galangal and curry at every opportunity. But Thai food thwarts them because Thai food thwarts everyone who hasn't gone willfully and completely bamboo in the chase after its true flavors. Some people might say this is true of Mexican, French or Japanese cuisine as well, but those people would be wrong. Mexican food is approachable, working upward from a simple stock of peasant ingredients. The French have ironclad recipes for everything. And the Japanese have an apprentice system that rivals that of the elder European for severity, length and demands of blood loyalty.
Thai has none of this. It is a gut cuisine that you either understand from the inside out or not at all.
And at US Thai Cafe in Edgewater, the cooks understand Thai. Owner Ma Vue -- a Laotian computer programmer with no previous restaurant experience who came to the United States as a refugee twenty years ago by way of Thailand and France -- understands Thai. Chef Aung Kyaw -- who was born in Myanmar, raised in Thailand and just recently moved to Denver -- definitely understands Thai, since before coming to the States in 2005, he spent the bulk of his working life in restaurants in Thailand. And the waitresses...well, sometimes the waitresses know Thai. But when they don't, as occasionally happens because US Thai has only been open about six months, they know enough to ask Kyaw or Vue or one of the cooks or someone else who does understand Thai, which often results in that person coming to the table, chatting, answering questions and even bringing samples.
One afternoon at US Thai, I was beating back the lingering effects of a hangover with Thai iced coffee (like a Vietnamese iced coffee turned upside down, the sweetened, condensed milk poured over the top rather than stirred up from the bottom) and egg rolls served with a crystal-clear, gelatinized dipping sauce that was like nuoc mam Jell-O. (Sadly, US Thai does not have a liquor license.) I was curious about the difference between hot curry -- which I figured might be just the thing to get my abused digestive machinery back in line -- and Thai hot, which had been described as falling somewhere on the scale of self-inflicted sadism between drinking a shot of napalm and then swallowing a match, and administering your own Sriracha enema.
I asked the waitress how hot Thai hot really was. She ducked out to talk to the cooks, and the cooks -- no doubt struggling with the inherent inadequacy of language for describing pain -- responded by simply providing two samples. "Careful," the waitress said as she set the bowls down.