For the longest time, Thailand kept its secret. For centuries, in fact. There is a plant, called the pandan locally, that, when cooked, infuses food with a subtle and uniquely herbal sweetness quite reminiscent of vanilla. Pandan adds a soothing taste to candy and sweets; predictably, it is used for this purpose. However, it also engages chicken’s flavor quite enticingly, resulting in a flavor combination that is simultaneously sweet, savory, and impossible to reproduce with any other ingredient.
Within the last few decades, news of pandan‘s appealing properties spread to elsewhere in tropical Asia, and eventually making its way to the broader world. Nonetheless, the leaf remains obscure, being largely absent even from most Thai restaurants’ menus. That may be changing, though, as food enthusiasts are discovering all the plant has to offer, in addition to its ethereal taste and, for now at least, novelty.
It turns out pandan packs in quite a few nutrients along with its smooth flavors. Among other benefits, it’s said to be quite helpful with blood pressure, joint vigor and eye health. Impressive attributes for something acclaimed for it taste. Oh, before continuing, here are some of today’s pandan leaves, before being used to wrap marinated chicken:
Though the leaves still are used infrequently outside Southeast Asia, that paucity is mitigating and one can find the occasional recipe online. Nyonya Cooking is one such destination, and the site provides recipes not only for today’s entrée, Gai Bai Tuey, or Pandan Fried Chicken, but also for the delicious Sweet Thai Chili Sauce that elevates it.
Completing today’s offering is sticky rice, a variety that tends to adhere in clusters, suiting it ideally for sopping up sauces and for accompanying juicy meats, both of which are present on the plate. For reference, the two clusters just below the sauce are largely cohesive, and are about the size one typically tears away for personal use. This information, thanks to one of you who lived for a while in Thailand.
While the preparation featured in this week’s photo may not yet be a common offering in Thai restaurants outside East Asia, it may be soon enough. As word spreads of pandan‘s almost vanilla-like smoothness, laced with fleeting traces of nuttiness, is it long before the dining public begins to clamor?
Gai Bai Tuey
(Thai Pandan Fried Chicken)
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 lemongrass stalk, bottom six inches, tough outer layers removed, and minced
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds (*1)
- 1/2 pound chicken meat, cut into one-and-1/2 inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- salt, to taste
- 1 tablespoon sugar (*2)
- 15 to 18 pandan leaves
- 1 cup peanut oil, for frying
Place shallot, lemongrass, fennel seeds, turmeric powder, chili powder, oyster sauce and sugar in a large zip-top bag. Add the chicken, force out as much air as possible and seal the bag. massage the contents to ensure chicken is thoroughly coated. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or, ideally, overnight.
Wrap the chicken by tying a pandan leaf into a loose knot. Insert a piece of chicken into the center of the knot, then take one of the loose ends and fold it over the chicken and inside the knot, so the two pandan ends are parallel to each other. One end will be longer than is the other. For additional (visual) details, see the original recipe website.
Prepare the remaining chicken in the above manner, then set aside while the oil heats.
Place a wok over medium-high heat and pour in the peanut oil. When oil temperature reaches 300°, carefully place some of the leaf “packets” into the oil, meat end down. Using tongs, rotate the packets to ensure all parts of the meat are submerged at one point or another.
After about three minutes cooking time, remove the packets and place them on paper towels to drain. Let oil temperature climb back to 300° before continuing with the next batch. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked.
Serve with Sweet Thai Chili Sauce (recipe below) and rice.
1 – The next time, I’ll omit the fennel seeds. Not only do they impart a licorice-like taste I find mildly unappealing, but they aren’t a very “Thai” ingredient. Plus, they tend to overpower the other flavors.
2 – Use palm sugar if you can find it. Otherwise, light brown sugar is good too.
Sweet Thai Chili Sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 serrano chili, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 3 tablespoons sugar (*3)
- 3 tablespoons vinegar
- 1/4 cup water
Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan. Place the saucepan over a low flame and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar dissolves and the sauce thickens slightly, about five minutes.
3 – As with the chicken, use palm sugar if it’s available, or light brown sugar if it isn’t.