One of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in all my travels to Thailand is gai yahng, grilled chicken, a specialty of Isaan, a province in the country’s northeast. For this dish, cooks favor lean birds with hardly any fat on them. The chickens are split, splayed, and clamped onto bamboo stakes that keep them flat. Before they’re grilled over charcoal, they’re rubbed with herbs, spices, and aromatics: cilantro root, white pepper, garlic. Since Thai cooks want the flavors of these ingredients to shine, they avoid charring their birds too much, cooking them high up above a low fire. If the coals get too hot or start to send up flames, they’ll sprinkle damp ash over them to cool the fire down. The end result is a subtly smoky bird that gets chopped into pieces you eat with your hands, dipping them in naam jim kai, a sauce of red chiles, garlic, sugar, and vinegar that’s a perfect counterpart to the chicken’s greasy goodness.
Andy Ricker is the chef-owner of Pok Pok restaurants in New York City and Portland, Oregon.