Why It Works
- Using a flavor-packed curry paste quickly imparts aroma and flavor to the dish.
- Mincing the chicken by hand provides superior texture.
- Tossing and stirring constantly helps to meld the curry paste and minced chicken together without scorching.
Khua kling gai is a simple stir-fry of minced chicken and a Southern Thai-style curry paste. While much of the flavor in the dish is provided by the aromatic and spicy curry paste, sliced lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, and fresh red chiles amplify its herbal notes, provide textural complexity, and a bit of freshness, while fish sauce and sugar are used to season and balance out the flavor profile.
Although khua kling is typically stir-fried in a wok, it isn't prepared in the same way as something like a traditional Cantonese stir-fry. Often, when people think of stir-frying, they imagine restaurant cooks vigorously tossing ingredients in a wok set over a roaring jet engine of a burner. Mimicking that kind of setup at home is difficult, and practiced home cooks know that if you don't have an similar burner at home, you can achieve similar results if you cook your ingredients in a wok on your stove in smaller batches and combine them at the end of cooking, which ensures that the ingredients will be seared but crisp instead of steamed and mushy.
However, you don't always have to cook stir-fries over extreme high heat, and you don't always have to cook the various ingredients in a stir-fry separately to produce great results. In fact, stir-fries don't have to have wok hei at all. In Siamese cooking, before the advent of jet engine-like gas burners, cooks primarily used clay burners known as tao, which would be filled with charcoal or wood fires. These clay grills are still found today in Thailand, and they're not always used for high-heat cooking.
Khua kling offers a good example of a stir-fry cooked over moderate heat. "Khua" in Thai means "to dry roast," and in the context of this dish, it refers to the fact that the goal is to end up with a dish that is relatively dry and not saucy at all. The cooking process, which involves drying out the ingredients while constantly scraping and tossing to prevent scorching, essentially binds the protein used in the dish with the curry paste. The curry paste and chicken, in this case, are cooked together and stirred constantly with a wok spatula, which is used to scrape up and move the contents of the wok even as it chops through them. Any sticky bits that form on the bottom of the pan are scraped up with the help of small additions of water.
Whenever I used minced chicken in a dish, I prefer to use dark meat (from the thighs and legs), as it holds up better when cooked for longer periods of time, and I find it's essential to mince it by hand. You can, of course, buy ground chicken at the store, or grind it yourself at home, or pulse chicken in a food processor to chop it, but it's quite easy to mince chicken by hand and the texture is far superior to any of these other options.
To mince chicken by hand, cut the chicken thighs into long strips, then line the strips up and cut them crosswise into cubes. Then run your knife over the cubed meat in a chopping motion for a few minutes. You do not need to mince the chicken super fine for this recipe; it's in fact preferable to have variation in the size of the pieces of minced chicken, some larger, some smaller, as that variety will produce a better textured final dish. Of course, as with cutting up any kind of meat, it can be very helpful to partially freeze the meat first, so it's easier to handle.
Now, while there's a common misconception that all Thai food is necessarily spicy, and that all Thai people eat spicy food. While that isn't true at all, this dish will do nothing to address that misconception, as it must be spicy. I am warning you now: Before you eat this dish, you have to prepare yourself to enter the heightened euphoric state induced by very spicy food. I also want to not that when you prepare this dish, the air in your home will also become very spicy, so I recommend turning on your hood fan or otherwise setting up some proper ventilation; at the very least, open several windows.
Because this dish is quite spicy, I recommend serving it as part of a larger meal. The spice levels will work well with other, relatively neutral dishes, like a panang curry or a Thai-style omelet. This dish also pairs great with crunchy vegetables like long beans or cucumbers.
- 1/2 pound (225g) boneless skinless chicken thighs
- 2 tablespoons (45g) Southern Thai curry paste (see note)
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons (25ml) fish sauce
- 1/8 teaspoon sugar
- 1 stalk lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced (about 15g sliced lemongrass)
- 10 fresh or frozen makrut lime leaves, mid-ribs removed, thinly sliced (see note)
- 2 to 3 fresh Thai chiles (2 to 3g total), stemmed and cut crosswise on a bias into 1/2-inch pieces (optional; see note)
- Cooked jasmine rice, for serving
- Khai jiao (Thai omelet), for serving (optional)
Using a sharp knife, cut chicken thighs into 1/2-inch-thick slices, then cut slices crosswise to form 1/2-inch cubes. Spread cubed chicken in an even layer on cutting board. Chop chicken, working the knife across the cutting board in a continuous motion, occasionally lifting and folding the meat over on the board to expose larger pieces of meat, until coarsely minced, about 3 minutes. Set aside.
Heat wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Add oil, swirl to coat, and add curry paste and cook, stirring constantly with a wok spatula, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add chicken and continue to cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the wok constantly to prevent chicken from sticking and curry paste from scorching, until chicken is cooked through and the moisture it has released has fully evaporated (the sound will change from a simmer to a sizzle as the chicken begins to fry in oil once the water has evaporated), about 4 minutes.
Add fish sauce and sugar, and continue to cook, stirring and scraping frequently, until fully absorbed, about 30 seconds. Add lemongrass, 3/4 of the makrut lime leaves, and Thai chiles (if using). Stir and toss until thoroughly combined, then remove from heat. Serve immediately with cooked jasmine rice and a Thai omelet.
Carbon steel wok, wok spatula
Makrut lime leaves can be found at Southeast Asian and South Asian markets. If you’re lucky you will find them fresh, but it is more common to find them frozen (note that they are often sold under a different name that we avoid using, as it is a derogatory term in some contexts).
Make-Ahead and Storage
Khua kling gai is best enjoyed immediately, but leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.