Leela Punyaratabandhu’s memories of home are perfumed with smoke.
The award-winning cookbook author grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was surrounded daily by the aromas of food cooking over a live fire—of charring meat and sizzling fat, tinged with fish sauce and lemongrass and the fragrant smoke of the smoldering coals below.
One of her earliest memories is of her great-grandmother’s smoked coconut cake, made in a traditional clay charcoal stove, the size of a 30-gallon steel drum, built in the late 1800s. Infused with jasmine and baked over a combination of local wood, coconut husks, dried corn husks, and sugar cane pulp, the cake “had the most amazing fragrance my little nose had ever encountered,” Punyaratabandhu writes in her third and latest cookbook, “Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill.” She cites the cake as the genesis of the book, and of her career in food as a whole: “I’d like to think that maybe my curiosity about food began that day.”
In Southeast Asia, grilling and smoking over charcoal are simply “part of everyday cooking,” Punyaratabandhu said. “If [you] cook, [you] grill.”
Traditional kitchens are typically outdoors, she explained, in large part due to the region’s tropical, hot-year-round climate, and a charcoal stove is as essential in the kitchen as a gas stove or refrigerator. Her childhood home was equipped with multiple, she recalled: a bigger one for bigger cooking tasks, and smaller ones for smaller tasks, as simple as grilling a skewer of garlic cloves or shallots to mix into a sauce.
So while here in the United States, grilling is largely a seasonal and celebratory affair, “there is no such thing as ‘grilling season’ in Southeast Asia,” she said. “Every day is ‘grilling season.’”
It’s no surprise, then, that the region’s grilling traditions are richly vibrant and varied, and have given rise to some of “the most glorious creations of Southeast Asian cuisines”—from peanut sauce-slathered satays to crackly-skinned roast suckling pigs. In her new book, Punyaratabandhu compiles a cast of her favorites.
Colorful Regional TraditionsInspired by her childhood memories and later extensive travels, the dishes come from the street carts and home kitchens across Southeast Asia, each tied to unique regional traditions.
There’s a simple recipe for whole grilled fish from Myanmar, for instance, stuffed with fresh herbs like Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander, charred until crisp-skinned and smoky, and served with a spicy tamarind sauce for dipping. In Laos, meanwhile, a classic fish dish tucks delicate filets with slivered lemongrass, chiles, and herbs in banana leaves, before they meet the hot coals.
Punyaratabandhu’s favorite charcoal-cooked dish is the iconic grilled chicken of Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand, marinated with lemongrass, fish sauce, and oyster sauce (“I wouldn’t mind having that as my last meal on earth, to be honest,” she said). But just as exciting is the famous grilled chicken of Bacolod, on Negros Island in the Philippines, marinated in coconut vinegar and calamansi juice and basted with annatto-infused oil as it cooks. Or, the curry sauce-drizzled skewers of Thailand’s deep south, where influences of Muslim cooking are strong, fragrant with turmeric, coconut milk, and tamarind.
There’s plenty of cross-cultural overlap, as “there’s a lot of shared heritage within Southeast Asia,” Punyaratabandhu said. “Before these borders were put into place, there were migrations, there were exchanges of cultures and ideas and languages and cuisines that happened.”
“But in the sameness of it all,” she added, “there are distinct features that separate [the different cuisines], too. I find it very fascinating that in the midst of the sameness, we have differences that create a uniqueness between cultures.”
Take satay, a dish of seasoned, skewered, and grilled meat served with a sauce, ubiquitous from Bangkok to Bali. It’s “such a Southeast Asian thing,” Punyaratabandhu said, “but satay in Indonesia does not look anything like satay in Thailand,” from the initial marinade down to the final presentation.
In Indonesia, for instance, you’d be likely to find chicken satay—among a huge array of other meats and offal—served with either a standard peanut sauce or one made with kecap manis, Indonesia’s sweet dark soy sauce, and cylindrical rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves.
In Thailand, meanwhile, satay made with pork is by far the most popular choice, and is always served with a mild coconut-based peanut sauce and bites of thick-cut toast—“go figure! People find that surprising: ‘You people eat bread?’ ‘Yeah!’” Punyaratabandhu said, laughing.
The Best Barbecue Is From Your Own BackyardUnfortunately, these glorious grilling traditions are often overlooked in the West.
There are relatively few Southeast Asian restaurants in America to begin with, and strict safety regulations make it very difficult to accommodate traditional live-fire cooking in a restaurant, Punyaratabandhu explained. When grilled dishes, like chicken satay, are translated to a griddle (and worse—often cooked hours in advance and reheated in a microwave), the results leave something to be desired.
And so, Punyaratabandhu concludes, the best place to experience the grilled and smoked dishes of Southeast Asia stateside is not actually an Asian restaurant—but your own backyard.
Luckily, “in the U.S., there is a huge barbecue and grilling culture that is vibrant and very well established … that supports this type of cooking already,” she pointed out. After all, despite differences in typical equipment and fuels across cultures, “the science of creating and controlling fire is universal.”
First of all, you don’t need a traditional clay charcoal stove: “If you have just a pellet grill or a kettle grill, all your grilling needs are pretty much met.”
And if you’re a beginner—as Punyaratabandhu initially found herself, learning to transition from traditional Thai clay grills to Western-style models when she moved to Chicago—there’s a passionate community with a wealth of knowledge, ready to help.
“I’m very grateful about being in the U.S. and grilling in the U.S., because of the barbecue culture that is so good at educating people about the technology and the science of grilling,” she said. “You can go on any message board or website that teaches you how to grill, how to control the heat, how to use this equipment.”
In choosing recipes for the book, Punyaratabandhu was careful to stick to dishes that could be practically replicated in a typical Western home, using easily accessible ingredients, gear, and fuel, while remaining faithful to tradition. The 60-something that made it in, ranging from grilled meats and seafood to salads, snacks, and even sweets, are all dishes she routinely prepares in her Chicago backyard.
All that’s to say: with a little courage and curiosity, you’re fully capable of grilling up authentic, flavorful Southeast Asian dishes in your own backyard, too.
“Think of it as building on what you already know—which is a lot—and turn it into an adventure,” Punyaratabandhu encouraged. “You already have your barbecue gear, you already know how to grill things, you know how to control the fire. Now, explore other flavors, outside of your smoked brisket or Texas barbecue ribs. It’s an exploration of new flavors.”