One of my favorite travel books is Hot Sour Salty Sweet, and while at first glance it may come off as a recipe book, it’s far more than that. The authors’ insatiable curiosity is apparent towards understanding and capturing the essence of the communities, regional flavors and techniques they were exposed to throughout Southeast Asia.
This book really resonates with me and is an inspiration to us for where we would like to take this humble blog; a chronicle of our experiences focusing on the places we visit, the people we encounter and of course, the food we experience along the way.
Many moons ago, I had the opportunity to visit Thailand to further enhance my Muay Thai training, sparring and teaching techniques. I spent most of the time in the outskirts of Bangkok visiting various training camps.
I got the opportunity to travel south to train with the famous Thai fighter, Buakaw, at his camp on the edge of the Bangpakong river. I was enamored by the culture and way of life, but it was also on this journey where I felt an early appreciation towards Southeast Asian flavor profiles.
With an upcoming trip to Bangkok later this year, I very much look forward to absorbing this wonderfully simple yet complex cuisine while breaking bread with the locals.
I distinctively remember sinking my teeth into a grilled chicken dish during my trip, and I think I may have found the recipe in the aforementioned book. In Thailand, particularly Northern Thailand and its neighboring Laos, larger pieces of chicken are traditionally used for this recipe, but for the purpose of a backyard grill or campfire session, the smaller servings are the perfect appetizer.
I’ll walk you through the three-part recipe including the root paste preparation and its dipping sauce, followed by the the marinade and the grill in that order.
Black pepper-coriander root flavor paste
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 5 to 6 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped (about 2 tbspns)
- 3 tbspns coarsely chopped coriander roots, washed thoroughly
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon Red Boat Thai fish sauce — the best fish sauce IMO
- Thai cilantro, about a fistful — Pak Chi Farang (optional)
Yield: 2 to 3 tablespoons paste
Drop in the peppercorns in a mortar with the garlic and form into to a paste. Add the coriander roots, cilantro and salt and continue to mash. This will take 5 to 10 minutes, but you can also use a small enough blender or grinder to cut your time down. Finally, stir in the fish sauce. Your paste will keep in a well-sealed glass jar for up to 4 days.
Since I had some Thai cilantro at home (otherwise known as sawtooth coriander), I added it to the paste, but it’s entirely optional.
Cilantro root is a common staple in Thai cuisine, but may be tricky to come by. You can look for it in your local Asian supermarket where they typically maintain the roots on the cilantro bunches. You may also cut them from the bunch and freeze them until further use.
Hot and sweet dipping sauce — nam jeem
- ½ cup rice or cider vinegar
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 to 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- ¼ tspn salt
- 1 ½ tspns dried red pepper flakes
Pour in the vinegar in a small non-reactive saucepan and heat to a boil. Add the sugar while stirring until it has completely dissolved, then lower the heat to medium-low and let simmer for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle grind the garlic and salt to a smooth paste. Stir in the pepper flakes and mix well with a spoon. Remove the vinegar mixture from the heat and stir into the garlic paste. Let it cool to room temperature. Use a well sealed container and store in the fridge for up to 2 days.
Grilled chicken marinade — gai yang, ping gai
- 2 tbspns pepper-coriander root flavor paste, recipe above
- 2 to 3 tbspns Thai fish sauce
- 3 lbs chicken breasts or breasts and legs, chopped into 10 to 12 pieces
Add the black pepper-coriander root flavor paste in a large bowl, pour in the fish sauce and mix together, the pepper will add some heat to the sauce. Make sure the chicken is patted dry, then place them in the marinade to get an even coating. At this point you can cover at room temperature for about 1 hour or place in the refrigerator for as long as 3 hours.
Tip: The smaller sizes of chicken makes for easier grilling and for the marinade to better bind to the meat.
After heating up your grill, distribute the chicken pieces on the bars about 4 to 5 inches from the direct flame with the bone side down.
Cook until the bottom side starts to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. At this point turn it to its other side to achieve the same results. You’ll know it’s done when the juices run clear once the meat is pierced.
Tips: If you are grilling smaller breast portions, keep a close eye as they should be done quicker since it’s all meat and no bone.
If cooking at home in a broiler or on stovetop griddle, the method is quite similar.
Once the chicken pieces are golden brown and thoroughly cooked, transfer them to a platter served with dipping sauce, plenty of sticky rice, accompanying veggies or just on its own with the dipping sauce as an appetizer.
This is a fantastic backyard grilling recipe, but with a little preparation you could easily pull this off while car camping by making the paste, marinade and dipping sauce at home ahead of time.
Looking forward to sharing more stories based around the local cuisine following our trip to Southeast Asia this coming September.