Shophouse is an architectural style often seen in South East Asian cities and towns in which the business is at the street level and the family quarters are in the back or upstairs. Business and family are only separated by thin cement walls and inevitably the two realms mix creating a unique retail experience. The retail experience that we are interested in is the dining and eating experience. To us, Thai cuisine is all about eating among the cacophony of family, friends, strangers and whoever happens to be nearby.

Monday, May 2, 2011

rice fat chicken

food court chicken rice
ข้าวมันไก่ or khao mun gai is the Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice. No lunchtime market would be complete without a khao mun gai seller.
The dish itself appears to be quite simple, but the details are complicated. To begin with one must choose the right bird. I prefer a more tender chicken, so I go with a younger bird. Some might say that an older bird is better because it creates more flavor. It is up to the cook.
Then the cooking begins. One can get really into the details, like brining or the intricacies of poaching, but here it is quickly in a nutshell: Put the chicken in a big pot, top it with water and simmer the bird till cooked through. The chicken is then cooled. Pull off some of the fat off the cooked bird, ladle some of the fat off the broth, smash some garlic and fry it all in a heavy bottomed pot. Add the rice, coat it with the fat and add enough broth to cook the rice. Add some ginger, pickled lime and winter melon to the broth, let it simmer till the melon is super soft and remove the lime before it gets too bitter. The sauce is also an item of contention, everyone has their own sauce, ours is a smashed mixture yellow bean paste, ginger, prik ki noo chili and dark soy. When the rice is done you are ready to eat. Lay a bed of rice down, top it with some sliced chicken, put some broth in a bowl, put a crank of white pepper and sliced green onion in it, add enough of the sauce for your liking, add some sliced cucumber and top it all with cilantro. Eat.
Oh yeah, in Thailand the chicken is served room temperature, but here in Seattle where it is cold for 9 months we heat the chicken up in the broth, it is up to you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The humble chicken

Gai yang -ไก่ย่าง- is not a fancy dish. In fact, gai yang most of the time is nothing to write in a blog about at all. Gai yang can be downright terrible, under-seasoned and dried out on the grill all day in the sweating sun with some sauce from a bottle in a condensation filled baggy.
When gai yang is good, it is something to write in a blog about. I never realized how good gai yang could be until I encountered a gai yang wichianburi ไก่ย่างวิเชียรบุรี seller down the underpass from where we were staying in South Central Bangkok. This guy's chicken was amazing. I ended up getting one chicken a week for lunch. His chicken was so good it was usually sold out by noon every day, so I would have to hit him up by 10am if I was to be lucky. When I picked up friends from the airport it was inevitably the first thing they put into their mouths.
grilled chicken bliss

There are a few different versions of gai yang. The one sold above is call gai yang wichianburi, which I gather originated in Wichianburi district in Petchabun province in Northern Thailand. The chicken is butterflied, marinated, bound into some bamboo splints and slow cooked over charcoal turning often to create a lacquered effect. The skin and outside meat is rendered and crispy, the meat is soft and well seasoned. Smaller 12-16oz chickens are used, promoting the tenderness of the meat. The size also helps in cooking and portioning, where your typical 2 1/2 -3 pound bird is unyielding and a bit much for 1 person to eat.
Other versions I have encountered are cooked on makeshift street side or highway side rotiserries and some are cooked in giant ceramic pots creating a tandoori-like chicken. All are eaten with sticky rice and are usually accompanied by a sauce.

The wichianburi chicken described above comes with a deeply spiced and slightly sweet tamarind based sauce. The sauce has a certain viscosity that sticks to the chicken when it is dredged through the sauce.
The marinade itself is also important. In addition to the holy trinity of Thai marinades, that is coriander root, black peppercorns and garlic, I like to add palm sugar, Thai soy sauce and a touch of some kind of booze like beer or whiskey. The marinade should also have a slight sticky viscosity that will stick to the chicken while it is grilling. The marinade should also help promote caramelization while it is slowly cooking over the charcoal.
Charcoal must be used to achieve gai yang greatness. No gas grill, no briquettes, no oven, but real charcoal. The slow smokiness achieved from charcoal will make your gai yang legendary.
The chicken must be smaller, never frozen and free range. Cornish game hens will work if need be, but try to find fresh birds.
If possible eat your gai yang with your hands, with sticky rice and with copious amounts of beer or whiskey.
Like most great things, gai yang is simple to eat, but cooking gai yang has the potential for disaster. However, if you can follow the rules in your tax return, you can make gai yang.