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.