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.)
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.
In one was a simple red-pepper sauce. Not too bad, I thought. It was the kind of thing I mix in with my pho in Vietnamese restaurants or smear on lettuce wraps when I'm feeling frisky. In the other was a dry spice mix the color of crushed bricks and rage that should have come in a lead-lined bottle with multilingual warning labels and the phone numbers for various support groups dedicated to the slow rehabilitation of those who've tried just a little too much. A pinch of it was nice when added to a mild Penang curry with chicken, floated on the back of a bowl full of rich, sweet coconut milk, lime leaf and basil. It was hot, sure. Smoky, deeply earthy in tone, like blackstrap molasses and razor blades. A pinch plus a little more was like pouring high-proof whiskey on an open wound. Adding a little more than that quickly made me forget my hangover, because my sinuses were on fire. When you're crying gasoline, all the little aches and pains of daily life seem to just dry up and drift away.
Before I messed it all up, the curry was amazing. Kyaw has an incredible talent for those dishes intrinsic to Thai cooking. After trying his curry for the first time, I dreamed of it that night -- then went back a day later with a crowd and ordered five of the six offered on his menu, which we passed around a long table, grabbing bites and fighting over bowls. The silky-sweet and pinkish Penang was just as good the second time around, and the masaman was the best I've ever had -- rich with potato chunks and brightened up with slashes of yellow onion. The green curry -- sharp and colored like crème de menthe, with big hunks of soft zucchini, eggplant, sweet bamboo, bell pepper and, oddly, green beans -- wanted for seafood but was decent with chicken. The fish curry was huge, its flavor overwhelming the five catfish fillets piled into the bowl, but everything was brought into line by a singing top note of lemon and a cushion of strange, ethereal sweetness. And the jungle curry that followed was just freaky: a spicy, thin broth full of vegetables, tangled with sliced carrots and baby corn, with only a distant taste of curry somewhere in the background.
We ate dumplings that were heavy on the ginger, their bite tempered by steaming and by strong pork paste. The toomkah soup was like Campbell's cream of galangal -- warm and slightly thick, astringent with lemongrass, busy with soft and sharp herbal flavors that I've come to understand as the defining interplay of rough and honest Thai flavor: lemon giving way to cream, stepping aside for pepper, gutshot with galangal, bowing under the teasing sweetness of coconut. And even the simplest dish, a pineapple fried rice with chicken, came dusted with yellow curry powder and studded with cashews -- sweetened by one thing, dirtied up by another.
Nothing about Thai cuisine is simple; it only seems that way on a menu or a plate. That's why the cooks who don't understand it are so tempted toward fusion. In truth, though, Thai is a peasant cuisine gone mad with excess, street food from well over the rainbow that can only be brought back to earth by cooks like Kyaw, who have grown up with ginger on their tongues and coconut milk in their veins.
Step into US Thai on a busy afternoon, when both of the small dining rooms are full and the rail of the central open kitchen is crowded with dupes, and you can watch the blur of Kyaw and his cooks at work. With the grates popped on the ancient, fire-breathing hot-top and water cascading down the backsplash to keep the whole place from burning down, they never stop moving, never stop tinkering, never stop adding to a plate, a bowl, an oil-seasoned wok, until an entree hits the rail. A dozen combative spices, countless vegetables (done rough-chopped, julienned, slivered, batonnet-cut or shaved, each in their proper way), curry as a paste, curry as a powder, nine proteins, broths and bases held aside, rice in the steamers, noodles in the lowboys, fryers always in use, flames always leaping. It's an incredible dance, with results that are almost infallibly delicious, every flavor true.
All cooks try galangal at some point in their careers. All cooks try lemongrass and curry. And we all fail at fusing Thai to anything else, because Thai, as a cuisine, cannot be prized apart. Thai isn't just about galangal or lemongrass or curry or pineapple or lime, but rather about all of these things, all together, all at the same time. It's about using everything you have for every plate you put up.
This is what Kyaw understood from the start. He knew Thai like he knew his own blood, the taste of his own breath. Unadulterated, unfused, this is Thai done pure, in all its complex wonder. And it is simply amazing.
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