I almost didn't survive the second stage of this recipe, when fermented fish sauce hits the hot pan, and it suddenly seemed like the the scent of a thousand dead fish had washed upon my kitchen's shores. I almost turned back. The nutty, cheesy, anchovy smell was overwhelming—how could this eventually taste good? But a short writeup in last week's New York Times food section had promised me a "bright, palate-awakening blend of salty, sweet and spicy" that could be made in 12 minutes. I pressed on.
It's a good thing. This, my first foray into Vietnamese cooking, was utterly easy and delicious. That suspicious-smelling fish sauce gave the dish a rich, salty complexity that it had no business possessing after just ten minutes' cooking time. I couldn't find the fresh chilies the recipe called for, but using half as many dried ones and adding them earlier in the recipe worked fine (dried red chilies are better than a fresh green like serrano, which would give it a more astringent than mellow kick). I also couldn't find boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which turned out fine, except cutting away the meat from the bone was a bit of a hatchet job. Just for the ease of it, I might make this with skinless breasts next time, but the meat probably wouldn't have quite the richness that dark meat imparts.
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 large shallots, cut into quarters, or half a medium onion, cut into 8 wedges
- 1 pound chicken thigh meat (about 1.3 pounds on the bone), cut into bite-size pieces
- 10 fresh Thai bird chilies, stemmed and crushed, or 4-5 dried ones; in a pinch (no pun intended) use red chili flakes
- 1 inch piece ginger, peeled and cut into fine julienne or matchsticks
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup chicken stock or water
- 2 sprigs cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 cup cooked white rice, for serving (optional)
In a small bowl, stir together fish sauce and sugar until partially dissolved. Heat the oil in a 10 or 12 inch skillet (doesn't have to be iron) over medium heat. Add shallots or onion and cook, stirring, a couple minutes until soft but not brown.
Add fish sauce mixture (and dried chilies, if using) and stir as sugar caramelizes and turns golden brown, 1-2 minutes.
Add chicken pieces and and stir until opaque, about 2 minutes.
Add fresh chilies (if using), ginger and black pepper, and stir for 2 minutes.
Add stock or water, raise heat to high, and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until sauce is reduced and thickened and chicken is cooked, about 5 more minutes.
Stir in cilantro and, if desired, serve over rice.