You have to hand it to the owner of Samrap Khon Chawp Kin Phet (The Hot Basil Restaurant for People Who Like Spicy Food). Located in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it is more parking lot than historic edifice. But the name—as with many Thai restaurants—is descriptive, yet imbued with poetic license.
That sense of poetry does not extend to the functional tables and chairs inside, nor to the empress dowager behind the cash register. It does, however, apply to the cooking and staff, all of whom are enthusiastic and generous.
Though this culinary destination is well-known (a photograph of Anthony Bourdain is prominently displayed on the wall), its method for flash stir-frying greens is a revelation: Three-foot-high flames shoot out of the wok with an upsurge of steam and a bright, hot sizzle.
The result? A spicy tangle of slightly tannic water spinach with a thin coating of sugar, garlic, Thai chilies and oyster sauce. The leaves are wilted, but the stems remain slightly crisp.
Back at Milk Street, we started with a recipe from Pok Pok's Andy Ricker, my guide in Chiang Mai. We found we didn't need water to steam the greens, but a full ¼ cup of oil was required to cook the garlic evenly and carry the flavors through the dish. A little sugar—whisked into fish and oyster sauces before cooking—balanced the saltiness of the sauces.
The biggest challenge was adapting this recipe to a 12-inch skillet instead of the huge wok used at The Hot Basil. Batch cooking—three batches in total—was necessary, and we undercooked the first batches since carryover cooking occurs.
And though a nonstick skillet is our usual choice for stir-frying (other than a wok, of course), we used a conventional skillet and heated the pan to a temperature that's dangerous for nonstick coating.
The high heat gave us a five-minute, seven-ingredient recipe that rivals anything the French have done with vegetables, going all the way back to Monsieur Escoffier. It’s just that simple.