Samui Wining & Dining
Got All The Gear

We’ve come a long way since the days when our cooking was done with a few sticks and a fire pit.

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There was a time when man, the hunter, was frightened by storms. It was considered to be a sign that the gods were angry and any caveman out in the open dived straight back into his hole in the rocks. But the turning point came one day after a ferocious lightning storm, when a crispy-fried mammoth was discovered still smouldering nearby. And in a single stroke mankind all at once discovered fire, realised that cooked food tasted nice, and then immediately invented the kitchen.

        Not that those first primitive kitchens had much in common with the slick trick operating rooms we know today. A couple of wooden skewers and a pile of glowing cinders was all that was needed back then, although it’s interesting to note that this kind of barbecue has stood the test of time and is still going strong today (without the mammoth steaks). But it’s not so much that the kitchens themselves that are interesting, rather it’s what you find in them. And, needless to say, this has changed greatly over the years.

    It wasn’t really until after the Industrial Revolution that kitchens started to sprout a variety of different equipment and appliances. Before that time, things were pretty basic, usually consisting of little more than a fireplace with an iron hook above it to hang a pot from. But in Victorian times all sorts of gadgets began to appear. Roasting spits were common and fireplaces were sometimes big enough to fit a whole pig inside, even though some poor kitchen boy had to spend all day turning the spit handle. But then the ‘jack’ came along, an automatic spit-turner, usually using weights and pulleys. But the oddest of all its variations was animal-powered and like a gigantic hamster wheel. Geese were usually preferred, as it was discovered that dogs rapidly became bored. And then you can also add chimney cranes to the list, as well as fish kettles and mechanical ‘rowling’ (rolling) pins. And, finally, the hand-cranked ice-cream machine, which made its debut back in 1853.

       There’s no point going into the plethora of kitchen devices as we know them today; they’re just too boringly familiar. But it’s worth mentioning one unique idea that utterly boggles the mind, and it became popular for a while in America after WWII. Atomic fusion had ‘burst’ upon the scene and the innocent public just couldn’t wait to see its peacetime uses. Whilst the US government was scheming to use nuclear explosions to clear land and build highways and dams, the same atmosphere of excitement was hatching domestic plans to create the ‘kitchen of the future’ – one that was powered entirely by the new, cheap, clean nuclear fission. An idea that was destined to remain firmly on the drawing board!

       Which brings us immediately to the realm of science. And what a wonderful thing it is, especially in the kitchen (nuclear devices excepted). It’s brought us the refrigerator, the microwave oven and the induction-wave cooker, not to mention onion goggles, the automatic burger-shaper and an astonishing pair of rubber gloves, covered in tungsten grit, that’s an absolute must for scrubbing and peeling potatoes.

       But let’s get back to being serious. As well as all of these things, science has also brought us cookers that use only warm water, the precision kitchen blow torch, solid CO2 tubs and dehydrators and flash-freezers. All that’s really needed now is an array of test tubes and Petri dishes and maybe an atomiser or two. Oh. And also an attitude towards food that’s much the same as Willy Wonker’s.

        I kid you not. Anyone who can generate long queues of gourmets just twitching to get their spoons into his ‘scrambled egg and bacon ice-cream’ or his ‘snail porridge’ has to be Wonker-like at heart. Unless you’ve been living in a cave (no doubt because of all that lightning) then you’ll immediately realise that I’m on about the irrepressible Heston Blumenthal. He of The Fat Duck restaurant fame; an eatery with three Michelin stars which was voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ in 2005. But he’s not only a cook, he’s an illusionist and a scientist, too. Where others might see a leather sandal or a seashell, he envisions a sign saying ‘eat me.’ (At one time he spent weeks trying to make an essence by distilling bits of rope to go with a fish dish, striving to evoke taste-bud images of old fishing boats.)

         Which makes one wonder about his kitchen. Is it full of leprechauns knitting sheets of edible gold leaf with perhaps an Oompa-Loompa or two stirring bubbling cauldrons as a backdrop? Not quite. But it does look more like a science lab than a kitchen, complete with retorts and Bunsen burners and test tubes and other very peculiar equipment. It’s easy to recognise his shiny craftsman-made chef’s blowtorch – he always uses it for his ‘Triple-cooked French Fries’, to scorch hay before letting the potatoes sit in it (the burned hay) overnight, “… for that perfect potatoes in a barn taste.”

           But what about that rack of insulated aluminium capsules over on the table at the far side of the kitchen? Well they hold the solid carbon dioxide that’s used to make instant ice-cream out of . . . more or less anything runny. And the shiny silver block that looks like a cross between a toaster and a stack of computer hard drives? That’s the dehydrator which extracts the essence of bacon slices and eggs for his ice-cream. And then there’s the sous vide vacuum low-temperature cooker; a must in any serious kitchen.

           And, believe it or not, you’ll find most of this equipment being used by quite a number of Samui’s more serious chefs. There’s the inventive approach towards Thai dishes at Twisted Thai in Chaweng Noi, for example, where Executive Chef, Jan Van de Voorde, infuses and implants all sorts of Thai flavours into forms that take you by surprise. Or down in Lamai, at Rocky’s Boutique Resort’s The Dining Room, where award-winning Executive Chef, Azizskandar Awang, prefers a less-startling but still outstanding menu, particularly with his sous vide approach to meat dishes. Then there’s The Tongsai Bay and its fabulous Po-Lad Beach Bistro, where Executive Chef, Mark Krueger, is a dab-hand at subtly deconstructing ingredients and creating all sorts off essences and evocative treats. And there are others, too.

          Every single one of these kitchen gurus (including Blumenthal himself) will happily tell you that they still love a good barbecue – although you might also find a rabbit or a braised potato with fennel and mullet alongside the burgers. Despite all of the technology, things haven’t really changed that much over the centuries. Except that now we’re not so scared of lightning, perhaps .

 

 

Rob De Wet


 


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