A Vibrant Thread in Our Tapestry

Another southeast Asian inspiration, this one Cambodian, by way of Boston of all places.  There you’ll find one of our country’s most sizable Cambodian-American communities and the recipes they brought with them and adapted to their new home.

One such dish is the chicken creation you see above, lively with tropical flavors such as lemongrass, yet including a quintessentially American ingredient, ketchup!  No doubt, immigrant cooks wanted to recreate the food they remember from their pasts, while using materials they can find in their bountiful new homeland.  This makes for fusion cuisine, but really, it’s also America on a plate.

Yes, ketchup originally was a southeast Asian (specifically, Malay) invention, although when it  first was created it was essentially a preserved fish sauce.  American traders brought it back with them, added tomatoes, and otherwise modified ketchup into what it is today, identifiably American.   Maybe that’s what inspired Boston’s Cambodian immigrant cooks to include a seemingly-incongruous American ingredient while trying to reconstruct their own culinary pasts.

No matter how it found its way into the recipe, ketchup adds a irreplaceable piquancy to the dish.  Lemongrass  and turmeric sound unmistakable tropical notes, while cinnamon and black pepper, both original to Southeast Asia, make it a Cambodian symphony.  As realized in the United States.

Andrew Zimmern first brought this dish to national attention when he featured it in an episode he shot in Boston.  The recipe appears on The Travel Channel’s website.

Ultimate credit, though, goes to Boston’s Cambodian immigrants, who survived the Khmer Rouge and brought their rich cultural heritage with them when they found a new home.


Boston’s Cambodian-Inspired Chicken

  • 12 boneless chicken thighs (*1)
  • 4 teaspoons salt, divided into two equal portions
  • 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 12 Thai chiles (*2)
  • 4 stalks lemongrass, tops and roots trimmed (*3)
  • 8 shallots, chopped
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • dash of black pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 2/3 cup white vinegar
  • 5 tablespoons sugar (*4)
  • 1 cup carrots, diced (*5)
  • 1 cup cooked peas (*6)
  • 40 fresh mint leaves

Sprinkle the chicken with the turmeric (*7), cinnamon and half the salt.

Cut the stems from the chiles and discard the seeds ad ribs (*8).  Mince the lemongrass and put it in a food processor.  Add the chiles, black pepper, shallots and garlic and puree until the mixture is smooth.  Set aside.

Heat the oil over high heat in a wok or a large pan.  Brown the chicken on both sides and set aside.  Add the chile mixture to the pan and cook until fragrant, about five minutes.  Reduce heat to medium.

Add the chicken back to the pan and cook thoroughly, about eight minutes (*9).  Stir in the ketchup, vinegar, sugar and the remaining salt.  Cook for several minutes after the mixture boils to consolidate the flavors.  Add the vegetables and mint.  Toss for a minute to heat through.

Platter and serve.



1 – I used nine bone-in thighs, as they’re even more flavorful.

2 – If you can’t find Thai chiles, jalapenos or serranos would be fine.

3 – If lemongrass is unavailable, add the juice and rind (but not the pith!) from one lemon.

4 – Granulated sugar is what’s intended, but I used light brown sugar, as it’s closer to the palm sugar common in Cambodia.

5 – Purely a matter of aesthetics, but I cut the carrot into matchsticks, rather than dicing it.

6 – I chose snap peas, again, for aesthetics.

7 – Be careful with the turmeric, as it tends to stain things (including fingers) yellow!

8 – Wear gloves while working with the chiles, as you want to avoid accidentally touching chile-stained fingers to your eyes.  This is how pepper spray works.  Enough said.

9 – If the thighs are bone-in, cook them for more like fifteen minutes.


2 thoughts on “A Vibrant Thread in Our Tapestry

    1. For me it was the counter. Being supremely graceless, I managed to spill sauce and didn’t notice it until half an hour later. Weeks on, it still is a neon sign advertising my clumsiness. Oh, it’ll fade by Memorial Day, but still, the warning seemed to be appropriate.


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