Why you should care
Because clean eating can be very tasty.
In Thailand, it’s called gai yang — or grilled chicken — and when I moved to the Land of Smiles almost three years ago, it was one of the first Thai phrases I learned to say, along with “can I have …” and “please.”
It might not sound like the most exotic of Thai dishes, yet the humble grilled chicken’s ubiquity in the hundreds of street stalls and restaurants around the country is proof that ordinary things done exquisitely are far more attractive than exquisite things done ordinarily. Which brings me to 60-year-old Sila Sutharat, who grills chicken in perhaps the most extraordinary way possible. Unlike the charcoal-flame-licked chickens that are so common in Thailand, Sutharat’s is cooked using the ultimate heat source: the sun.
Mine was perfectly succulent, but without any of the usual blackened skin.
About 60 miles from Bangkok, following the coastal road south to Mueang District in Phetchaburi province, Sutharat’s solar array — a giant, adjustable curved wall of polished mirrors — can be seen poking out from among the trees on a small side road: a helpful giveaway if you’re unsure whether you’re in the right place. Depending on the time, you might see Sutharat himself standing in the back adjusting the chicken or pork that sits at the center of the focused light — estimated to exceed temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius — peering through a welder’s mask to carefully monitor the slabs of cooking meat.
Inspiration hit, by chance, in 1999, when a tour bus with reflective side mirrors drove past Sutharat while he was walking to his former food stall. Surprised by the heat given off, he was soon exploring ways to use mirrors to grill chicken. It might seem a basic principle of physics, but Sutharat’s pragmatic approach has since earned him praise and even an honorary science degree from Phetchaburi Rajabhat University. “I was so very proud, because I barely even finished fourth grade,” he says with a delighted smile.
Not that it has always been praise and smooth sailing. “My wife thought I was weird.… People around here said I was crazy,” Sutharat says of the early days of trial and error. The first panel was built with 3-by-5 mirrors — 300 of them — but it didn’t cook the food fast enough and struggled with cloud cover. So Sutharat decided to double down with a 600-mirror array, which “did the job, but still wasn’t enough to grill with clouds.” It grew to 1,000 mirrors; and now, according to Sutharat, it takes just 12 to 15 minutes to cook a whole gai yang.
It’s a strong culinary claim — and probably exaggerated — but the food does get cooked. Mine was perfectly succulent, but without any of the usual blackened skin. Without charcoal, the flavors of fragrant lemongrass, garlic and sweet marinade are far more pronounced, creating a softer, flavor-dense chicken. And it’s proving to be popular. These days, Sutharat has doubled his production with two 1,000-mirror grilling stations, one dedicated to cooking whole pig. You’ll have to order ahead if you want to try some, though. When I ask about availability the next day, he laughs and tells me, “It’s sold out!”
Get Some: Solar-Cooked Chicken
- Directions: Travel south from Bangkok down Highway 4 and head east past Wat Yai Suwannaram on Phong Suriya Road. Map.
- Hours: 7–10 a.m. and 2–5 p.m, Tuesday to Sunday
- Cost: THB 150–250 ($4.40–$7.30)
- Pro Tip: After savoring some solar chicken, check out the nearby resort town of Hua Hin.