27 Aug 2018
Flaming Chickens & Incendiary Spinach
Well, I had to stopover for a night in Bangkok on the way to Honolulu. It wasn’t my idea, the airline made me do it. Or maybe it was the devil – sometimes those two seem to be one and the same thing. A free night in Bangkok is not a bad thing, mind you, so once settled in my hotel, I mustered all of my once considerable moral strength and character, walked straight past the girlie bars, and made off for one of Bangkok’s most unusual restaurants – the “Gai Loy Faah” or “Flying Chicken.”
Once you arrive at the restaurant, you are led through an outdoor patio, past a number of rather uninspired plastic tables and chairs, into a central courtyard. The focal point of the courtyard is a stage-like assembly with a ramp leading up to the stage. The stage, in turn, runs probably 20 feet from end to end. At the far end of the stage is a device that looks like some kind of a medieval catapult. The modern Thai version of this ancient weapon is even more primitive. It consists of a simple iron frame encasing a large coil spring and a metal plate slightly larger than a serving platter.
When a diner orders the signature flaming chicken dish, bells go off, lights flash, music wails and a waiter begins his ritual. First, he dons a crash helmet from which protrudes a single, large tapered spike. The waiter climbs aboard a unicycle and pedals around the courtyard, weaving in and out of the tables and between amazed diners. As he does so, he gathers momentum for his run up the ramp and onto the stage.
At the same time all this is happening, another waiter emerges from the kitchen carrying a tray upon which is perched a fully cooked chicken. This waiter moves to the ‘chick-a-pult’ and pulls the tray down against the coiled spring until it latches. The waiter douses the chicken in flammable liquid, lights the chicken and stands back a safe distance.
He pulls a cord attached to the trigger and – pow! – the ‘chick-a-pult’ discharges the chicken into the Bangkok night sky. As it reaches its maximum trajectory, the unicyclist – now at centre stage – slowly pedals back and forth as unicyclists do when they want to stay in one spot. Meanwhile, the flaming chicken starts its re-entry into earth-orbit and the unicyclist finalizes his position at the expected landing zone.
The chicken, the unicyclist, and the spiked helmet all converge and ‘voila’ – a thunderous ovation from the crowd. The chicken, by this time only slightly more than a smouldering mess, is placed on a plate and brought to your table by none other than the unicyclist. Ah, kitsch at its very finest, in true Thai style.
If you’re not yet convinced that Thais enjoy their food served with a flourish, then maybe this will help. Down the road another hour or so in the seaside resort town of Pattaya, there is another restaurant that is famous for its flaming spinach dishes. I made the trek down to Pattaya and after a few wrong turns, I found myself on a dull looking street with no restaurants per se, save for a few sidewalk cafes. Don’t visualize the Champs d Elysee; think of few broken down card tables, some mismatched plastic chairs on a dirt floor barely inches from a street teeming with loud, dirty cars.
The centrepiece of this eatery is a huge, Asian style wok that sits precariously atop a propane gas burner. The show begins when the cook lobs some cooking oil in the wok, lights the flame, turns it up to full afterburner position, grabs a handful of spinach and tosses it in the flaming cauldron. Flames shoot up at least a foot on all sides of the wok yet the cook, somehow manages to stir fry the spinach (and not himself at the same time) much the same as wok chefs do all over Asia.
The difference here is when the dish is ready to be served, a young boy of no more than 12 years takes a empty plate and crosses the road to the other side of the street probably 35 or 40 feet away. He dutifully waits until the cook finishes with the spinach, whereupon he gives the mass of flaming vegetables an enormous fling, much like a jai Alai player might sling a ball from a canasta, getting full speed and torque with a powerful snap from his skilled wrists. The flaming spinach shoots out of the wok and into the night sky on a trajectory to take it across the road. It looked to me like it would still be rising when it passed over the young lad with the empty plate, but I guess these guys know what they are doing because, sure enough, down comes the fiery green mass scoring a direct hit on the boy’s plate. He darts back across the street, dodging traffic, to the restaurant and to the table of hungry diners.
A few minutes later, another dish is ordered and this time the boy catches it while he holds the plate behind his back. The next time, he puts the plate between his legs, around his neck on the opposite shoulder, etc. I was immediately clear to me that they had rehearsed and practiced this drill so often that they would never miss. I continued to think so until the next day when, by sheer coincidence I happened to be walking around the streets of Pattaya and happened by sheer accident to stumble across the restaurant. The only reason I even knew so was that in daylight I could see masses of green spinach dangling from the telephone wires that ran along both sides of the street.
I’m sure Popeye would not approve of such a waste of good vegetables.
Author: Rob Chipman is the CEO of Asian Tigers Hong Kong. He is FIDI’s de facto Thai food critic.