Playing with Fire
One of the best things about living in South East Asia was how disgusting I found the Malay food. Before moving to Singapore, I’d visited Penang a couple of times and had a few low-fidelity copycat dinners in the UK, and always worried I was missing something. The thrum of belacan under almost every dish, especially the sambals and curries? I did not thrill to it like others did; truthfully, it reminded me of cat food. The ikan bilis that others loved to strew over their nasi lemak? To me, truly, eye-openingly disgusting (I had a quail’s egg stuffed with them at Fatty Crab in New York once; it is the closest I have ever come to throwing up in a restaurant, apart from that time in a Savoyard place above Méribel when I chased a basically raw rognon de veau with a shot of Génépi and projectile-yammered all over the loos about ten seconds later – très Trois Vallées chic).
But after many, many plates of sambal-fried chicken, bowls of laksa, and otak-otaks of otak-otak – many eaten in Singaporean food courts but just as many eaten in Malaysia itself – I can confidently say: I do not like quite a lot of Malaysian food. It is a surprisingly liberating feeling. Surround yourself in a foodie filter bubble and you are hammered – on a daily basis – with subtle messages about what is so hot right now; what the cool kids are eating (point of fact: for many of them, it’s actually kid); what you, in turn, feel you should be eating too. Obviously, burgers. Obviously, niche Chinese food (Sichuan is so Lucky Peach circa 2012; Xi’an is on the way out; Yunnanese is a thing, I think?). Offal (both animal and vegetal); fish heads, bones and scales rather than delicious blameless fillets. Aged beef, aged root vegetables; fermented stuff, dried stuff, pickled stuff, stuff cooked over open flames. Ascetic Hanoi-style pho rather than the fucking herb garden you’ve got used to slurping, you total loser. Northern Thai food with the fish guts and bison blood and land crabs left in; not the green chicken curry you order from Rosa’s like the piece of shit you are. And – yes – Malaysian food: not just the flaky delights of roti canai, but krill paste and smushed sardines and tiny fried and dried anchovies. If you can’t hack it, it’s on you. Go back to your Marmite toast while you still can.
So much of online foodie culture is a weird dick-measuring contest; it’s nice, from time to time, to take a backward step, pause for breath, (metaphorically) whip yours out and meet everyone’s gaze. To have the courage to say mine’s not the biggest in the room, and I’m fine with that. This is my truth, and I am happy living it. I don’t like Malaysian food. I don’t want brains on toast for breakfast. I like Pizza Express pizza. I like Thai basil with my pho. I have no interest in going to Chick n Sours, and the name is a large part of that. The Ledbury was underwhelming. The Clove Club was underwhelming. The aged beef at Kitty Fisher’s was fine, but not a patch on some of the stuff I’ve had in Tuscany. Fermented stuff smells funny and I don’t like how it’s sometimes fizzy. 95% of all pickled food tastes worse than it does in its non-pickled form. Grouse is overrated. Korean food is overrated. Burgers are stupid and people who still get a boner for them are pathetic man-children. Thai green curry is my favourite.
You can understand why the (otherwise lovely) waitress at Kiln, newly opened in Soho, did a primo job of raising my hackles, when – as we were sitting down, mentioning we’d enjoyed eating at Smoking Goat a whole bunch of times – she made a point of saying that Kiln was “nothing like” its cousin – the food here was much less touristy, much more authentic regional Thai. Which, fine, I guess – it’s important to drum your USP into your staff, especially when regional Thai – even more specifically, regional Thai with Yunnanese and Burmese influences – is so damn hot right now it practically cooks itself. But also – come on. We’ve just sat down. Can’t we put the shlongs away until after the starters, at the very least?
Apparently not, since the first things out of the kitchen are some priapic lamb skewers and a particularly dong-like smoked sausage. The skewers are fine – not quite as immodestly seasoned at the ones at Manchurian Legends, and therefore inferior beer food. The sausage is exemplary – smoky and juicy and insistently spicy. Then some grilled chicken with a truly world-class nam jim, and some pork belly and brown crabmeat noodles and a mussel curry and a shortrib curry and some greens and an excellent mushroom laap and and and…
We order a lot; it’s mostly very, very good. The wine list – a banging Riesling in particular – looks interesting – I’d come back just for another crack at it. Sure, the whole experience is a little weird: it doesn’t really add up to a coherent meal, but it’s not echt gap klaem, food-for-booze, either. Our four-top downstairs represents a markedly inferior experience to the bar stools overlooking the open kitchen above (but on the plus side, you can book!). The when-it’s-ready order in which things come is a little infuriating: a delicate salad of cold langoustines with sweet mint is obliterated by the surrounding inferno of chilli and spices (particularly from that short rib, which really is quite pungent). But all these are quibbles. Once we’ve put our mutual junk away, the service is attentive and speedy; everyone in the place seems to be having a great time. And you can tell the kitchen is only starting to hit its stride. I have no doubt this place will be humming for months to come.
Is it weird to hope it’s for the right reason? Is it fundamentally naïve to expect a restaurant to succeed purely on the merits of its food? When a place like this is inundated with bloggers and grammers within seconds of opening, are the blogs and the grams about the food, or about what having eaten the food signals? Is it weird to talk about the food of Thailand’s impoverished agricultural regions whilst at the same time stressing your sustainable sourcing of whole pigs and hogget from Philip Warrens Farmers (“available cuts change daily”)? Is it weird to cook over charcoal not out of necessity but as a fashion choice? Is it weird to fine-cleave the distinction between Burma and Yunnan when your head chef is a self-taught white dude?
Fortunately I don’t have to give you any answers, and shame on you for demanding them. But places like Kiln, like Pok Pok in the US, like – in fact – David Thomson’s adored nahm (formerly of London, now in Bangkok) do stick in my throat somewhat when they harp on about authenticity, or make it part of their DNA. I get that food will never lose its signalling value – it’s had semiotic power for as long as people have been able to pay people to cook for them. I get that my generation in particular gets off on experiences over which our dumb, ignorant forebears chose to whitewash. I get that it’s differentiate or die in today’s ludicrously congested restaurant scene. But when – a few beers down – I smushed together some langoustine, some roe, some pork, and some rice, and dragged it through that heavenly nam jim, the knowledge that I was eating fusion Burmese-Yunnanese food cooked over charcoal meant as little to me as it would a farmer in the fields of Chiang Mai. Food is never just food, and in general I’m so, so open to exploring the ways in which is can be about more than mere sustenance – how it can tell a history of privilege, of exclusion, of immigrants and emigrants and conflicts and politics and – yes – fashion. But I still kind of wish Kiln would just shut up and thrive.