Please…Try This at Home

After all, Charles Pham, chef at The Slanted Door in San Francisco, does.  Among the many wonders he helps create in the restaurant kitchen, Mr. Pham chooses to make Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken for himself, his family and his friends when he’s at home.  If it’s good enough to top an award-winning chef’s own menu, it ought to be worth a try, right?

Food & Wine thinks so, and of all the recipes it’s run over the past forty years, the editors selected this one to be among the few it included in the commemorative retrospective they published in the September 2018 issue.  Impressive, as is the chef’s personal endorsement, though Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken is worthy of replication only if tastes good.  It does, and it’s succulent, interesting and thoughtfully spiced as well.

As the dish’s name suggests, pepper is a leading seasoning, giving the preparation a slight bite.  To make this aspect even more interesting, half the ground pepper that went into today’s entry was Szechuan pepper, providing an angle that’s floral and tingly.  This ingredient wasn’t in the original recipe, though it fits well, rewarding the risk.

In addition, a generous serving of fish sauce laces the chicken with a slightly salty richness.  It’s only a quarter-cup, but the fish sauce amplifies extensively the umami lusciousness.

However, “caramelized” also is part of the dish’s title, and half a cup of dark brown sugar helps it earn that name.  Sweetness isn’t the goal here.  Instead, the sugar provides balance, softening a little of the pepper’s edge, allowing it to retain its flavor while cushioning its sting.  Think of this as a more refined version of Kung Pao Chicken, though making up in flavorful diversity what it lacks in utter heat.

No aspersions on Kung Pao Chicken.  It’s is a personal favorite, and has appeared in these pages before.  Caramelized Chicken is its more refined cousin, though, suitable for a prominent chef’s restaurant.  In this case, at least, what you see on the screen is real; you should definitely try this at home.  Don’t bother getting your parents’ permission.


Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken

  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper (*1)
  • 2 fresh Thai chilies, halved, or 2 dried chilies (*2)
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil (*3)
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • jasmine rice and cilantro, for garnish

In a small bowl combine the brown sugar, fish sauce, water, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, black pepper and chilies.

Meanwhile, set a wok over a medium flame.  Pour in the oil and heat it until it shimmers.  Add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens, about four minutes.  Add the sugar mixture and the chicken, and turn up the heat to high.  (*4)  Simmer thusly, stirring frequently, until the chicken is cooked through, about ten minutes.  Remove and discard the chili peppers.

Transfer to a serving bowl, serve with rice and garnish with cilantro.


1 – Purely optional, but I made my pepper a 50/50 blend of conventional pepper and Szechuan pepper.  Recall that this adds floral profile, as well as a tingly, interesting burst of momentary near-numbness.  Not as pronounced an effect as it is with higher doses, but still…

2 – I used two of the dried Thai bird chilies from a bag on my pantry shelf.  It was what was on hand and besides, don’t have to worry about the seeds this way.

3 – As usual for East Asian cooking, I prefer to use peanut oil.

4 – Crank it like Zeppelin.

41 thoughts on “Please…Try This at Home

      1. Thanks for the enlightenment, Kate! I got that one about 5% correct, huh?

        Naturally, my regard for horseradish is irrelevant, though I’ve found a little really adds something to soups,. Both to a tomato soup last year, and it’ll be a nice supplement to something I’ll trot out in a few months.

        Sorry you’ve reached other conclusions. We’ll have to see what else we may devise for your culinary entertainment!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. unless you can send me food parcels I’m probably beyond redemption … but I totally appreciate your GSOH, so you use the horseradish and I’ll enjoy the laughs 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks, Kate! A smile, of whatever species, is the goal. Even when the food doesn’t oblige, glad to hear the company sometimes does.

        I really appreciate your attention, even when the food doesn’t inspire. Despite the challenge, you find your sunshine elsewhere. Your deeds surpass even your words, Kate!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Thanks so much, Kate!

        Naturally, I’d agree, though I’m hardly a disinterested source.

        Most of my friends’ parents are divorced, or can’t stand each other, making me appreciate how fortunate I’ve been.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Oooooh… Looks scrumptious and I happen to have the world’s largest bag of Sichuan pepper on hand that I need to find some uses for. lol It would be great if you could put a Pinterest button on your site! Save me a step in saving these?

    I’m sad that we missed visiting The Slanted Door when we visited San Francisco. It keeps popping up in foodie conversations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. May it beckon you back, Summer! Few places are as worthy as is San Francisco in justifying a trans-continental journey. Heck, just for the food alone…

      What’s a Pinterest?

      No, I’m not that clueless, though I am Generation X. Hear that whooshing? That’s me brandishing my cane. “Back in my day, you know what we did if we wanted to talk to someone in another state? We shouted. Really loud.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hopefully we’ll be back some day and take the time to enjoy the food there! is a social media platform that works as a free bulletin board/filing system. It is packed with food and recipes! I think you’d like it.

        I am Gen X too, on the young end. I guess they’re calling me a Xennial now 😂 I promise it is not just the spring chickens over there. Us old chickens are also posting recipes. Haha haha

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the description, Summer!

        I’m not as old or as clueless as I’d have you believe. I’m somewhat familiar with Pinterest and the lot, of course. In fact, many friends frequent them.

        Some of my reticence, to be honest, comes from stories about how greedy they are of the user’s time.

        Maybe someday, if these submissions continue to appeal to a broader audience. All of this is a bit overwhelming still, as, even a year or so ago, viewership was limited to family, friends and colleagues.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes, social media in general can take up quite a lot of time. I’ve heard some bloggers remark that people mostly want to chat on their social media rather than personal blogs these days. Sadly, I’ve found this to be true.

        Well, I’ll continue to repost some of your recipes over on Pinterest either way. It’s my favorite way to organize things I want to make at the moment!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Wow, Sommer, really? Thank you!

        Of course, your own site has quite a healthy (pun intended – and regretted) presence on social media. Ever the guide, you light the path.

        Let’s see how my own particular project fares. If this thing gets wings, I may have to expand, add venues, etc. Right now, I’m shaking that Magic-8 Ball like crazy, yet all it foretells is, “Response Cloudy – Try Again.”

        Liked by 1 person

      5. You are welcome! And if you’re having more fun not promoting on social media, why not? I think blogging is mostly about the enjoyment anyway. Well, a few lucky ones are able to earn enough to do it full-time. I imagine it’s tough to get things to that point.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Much appreciated, Summer!

        Some have developed quite a lucrative niche. One of my friends calls these people”influencers,” though I don’t think the term is original to her.

        Anyway, the absolute pinnacle of the aristocracy earns six figures and gets all sort of trips, cruises and other considerations, just for giving certain products a nod on their blogs.

        While acquiring this status is exceptional, maintaining it is next to impossible. The “it” bloggers may be incandescent right now,, but next month, they’re not-so-stylish anymore. Three or four months from now, Who? Never heard of her.

        In other words, in February 2020 it’s $210K a year, and Sandals is jetting her off to its resort in Punta Cana. By May, she’ll be posting funny cat videos to the six people who still view her blog each month.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Have you ever seen the income reports for Pinch of Yum? They do well now but I remember reading something where they said if they broke down all the time spent working, they average $10-12/h. And they are one of the successful ones!

        I get a lot of free food as an RD, so there is that benefit too… well, maybe not beneficial to the waistline. Haha

        Liked by 1 person

      8. No, I haven’t read the reports, though $10-$12 seems to be plausible. Still, I’d rather play in the shadows, and chase rumors. “I heard…”

        No doubt, everyone works hard, and puts in the hours. Even the superstars. Still, the ultra-chic among us do have a…way.

        Not for me, as I think I have the stylishness of, say, gravel. Who knows, though, maybe a company will pay me to endorse its competitor’s products?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It is, JoAnn, definitely!

      Just enough caramel to contribute intriguing notes. Many don’t think of pairing savory and sweet. but then, it took a while for salty and sweet to catch on too, didn’t it? Not at all cloying, but subtle.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love how simple, clean and zen this picture looks 🙂 three colors, white, beige and green. Can’t get any more “zen” than that 🙂 I love anything “caramelized” especially if dark brown sugar is to be blamed 🙂
    I’m very impressed with the pepper blend! I had never seen that before. Pure sophistication!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Daniela! So glad you enjoyed!

      Likely, some of that sophistication is Charles Pham’s tweaking the recipe to distinguish it in the hyper-competitive San Francisco restaurant scene, but most of the sparkle reflects Vietnamese cuisine’s centuries of refinement. Saigon long was thought to be “The Jewel of the Orient” and all.

      Liked by 1 person

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