There is a basic concept in auto racing called “the triangle” wherein the driver imagines that the steering wheel, throttle, and brakes are all tied to one another with a delicate string. You cannot use one object without influencing the other two.
You can turn while braking, but it is a game of percentages. Put 30 percent into braking, and you take away 30 percent of the car’s ability to turn. Put 80 percent into braking and 80 percent into turning, and you break the string, probably just before slamming into a wall.
Ultimately, racing is about balancing these calculations as accurately as you can, while holding the car at 100 percent at all times. Cooking takes a similar balance.
It’s my opinion that some of the most extreme cooks make Thai food, and the most appropriate example is pad gaprao in any of its many iterations. Pad gaprao consists of chopped chicken stir-fried with fish sauce and garlic and Thai basil (or if you’re lucky fresh holy basil), served on rice with a crispy fried egg.
It’s as much a comfort food as any quality chowder, macaroni and cheese or gas station taquito. It has the belligerent rowdiness of disquieting but addictive street food, but I have had it served to me as though it were a caviar-crusted wagyu pate. It is a very common dish, but so is the hamburger, and it’s perfect, too.
The basis of this dish is simplicity, just like driving around a track is simple. Making it something memorable while allowing it to stay comfort food, street food, soul food? Well, that’s the fun. That’s barely maintaining control to improve a lap by a tenth of a second.
I am not expert in any way, but I have eaten lots of gaprao around the country and made a lot of it at home. This is a bit of what I have learned so far.
It starts with perfecting the chopping of the chicken. I use only chicken thigh, and I hack it into large pebbles with a cleaver. I used to cut it into bite sized pieces, but the hacking seems to tenderize it and allow for better absorption of the flavors. I marinate the chicken in fish sauce, golden mountain sauce, garlic and red pepper for an hour or so before I cook it.
Hunt out a source of fresh holy basil, then email me this source immediately. Thai basil is good; holy basil is mind shattering. My favorite alteration is very much nontraditional, but outstanding: I add guajillo peppers and some of the water used to reconstitute them to the finished dish. This touch adds a soft, fruity background to the warm, earthy pepperiness of the holy basil.
Dash your fried egg with freshly made nam prik pla, a spicy Thai condiment (You did make fresh nam prik pla, right?), and enjoy with many beers. Appreciate the delicate balance of sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, sour and umami.
What? You didn’t just make some? Well, I have found some outstanding gaprao in the Kansas City area you can eat soon enough. Sawasdee in Overland Park holds my current gaprao award, with Aep getting a close second.
Sawasdee’s iteration strikes a balance while taking the flavors as far as they need to go to stand out. The dish features spicy, peppery flavor alongside hints of sweetness; it’s funky and fresh, delicate and sharp, comfortable and elaborate.
Try theirs to understand what I mean, then make your own. Auto racing is a boring sport if you’ve never driven a car before. It’s hard to truly appreciate a well-balanced dish if you haven’t broken the string yourself several times and you’ve been peeled off some unexpected walls.
Josh McKerracher decided, as a middle-aged man, that he wanted to be a cook, or at least “understand what cooks do and tell everyone about it.” He attends culinary school at Johnson County Community College and works an apprenticeship at William Jewell College.