Summertime is the season for grilling. Sunny skies beckon for picnics, tikki torches, and backyard barbecues. However few of us are prepared to house the bulk and front the expense of an outdoor grill. That is unless... Enter the Thai clay stove, prevalent actually all throughout Southeast Asia as the primary, cheap form of cooking. The stoves are squat pottery vases similar to sturdy earthenware flowerpots with maybe 2-3 gallons of capacity. A horizontally dividing honeycomb layer allows the ashes from the coals housed in the top region to filter through to the base layer. Three ridges protrude from the lip of the vase to form an even tripod for setting a cauldron of stew or a cast iron skillet. The compact size and weight of the stove is portable and convient.
These stoves are so common along the streets of Vietnam where I last encountered them that they quickly melted into the background scenery. They had nearly filtered away from memory until I happened to glimpse one in a Food and Wine article featuring a Thai grill restaurant in Portland, Oregon. That article provoked an obsession to find this portable stove and respond to the summer calling to grill. Grilling is a superb technique that creates flavors and juxtaposing textures that cannot be adequately mimicked by a stovetop-oven combination. The Thai stove offers a perfectly petite version of a grill minus the mess and with only half the cost in materials (charcoal or wood, the clay pot, and some chicken wire to create a mesh cooking surface). Time to commence the search.
ON A MISSION
Finding a Southeast Asian styled clay stove in the states provided a bit of an adventure. Not having recalled ever seeing the stove in Ranch 99, the main Asian supermarket in the area, I first approached Oakland Chinatown, where all things are sold, disregarding the Southeast Asian origin of my prize. An afternoon was spent traipsing through the various markets and cramped, chaotic shops until a bit of maneuvering and creative descriptions placed me in a dingy side aisle of a produce-miscellaneous "general" store in the heart of Chinatown. Two pots sat side-by-side on the bottom shelf. One was much too large, more indicative of a miniature pizza oven than a portable cooking vessel. The other one peered up to me behind years of dust and disregard, the perfect little charcoal stove. It has been utilized in earnest ever since its return trip from Oakland.
A PLAYGROUND OF POSSIBILITIES
With just a sprinkling of charcoal and a breezy fifteen to twenty minute wait to let the temperature rise up, this new toy has brought the realm of cooking over an open flame finally within my reach. Experimenting is the key: starting with a solid grilled ribeye accompanied by thick slices of country batard drizzled with olive oil and herbs, moving onto yams buried in the top bunk along with the embers, and most recently blackening small mackerel which drew forth curling flames with its oiliness. The flavor is unbeatable and the simple set up is wholly gratifying. There is also something sensual and rudimentary about this primitive form of cooking, huddled around the flaming pot like a campfire.
* It may be difficult to find a clay stove in Chinatown (or anywhere else) without the aid of fluent Cantonese. I suggest bringing a photo of a stove along with you on your search. (Even so some storeowners may be completely perplexed by your request). $10-18 per stove, may be negotiable but don't pay more than $20.
Posted by Alice Tu at 21:09