It’s a rough way to get off to dinner. The pungent, lingering odor of what can only be described as, well, ladymeat. It’s fish sauce, so there is definitely a fishy quality to it, but if we’re being honest here I’ve got to say that it doesn’t smell like fish as much as the already overmentioned bagina — and I’m not even a full paragraph into this recipe yet. Fish sauce possesses a salty, musky odor that fish alone doesn’t have, and while not unpleasant, it is unnerving at best. So, maybe not every-day Cupie odor, but certainly post-gym sans-shower.
So anyway, hungry? This is one of my all-time favorite recipes that I have until now entirely forgotten to share with you. It was originally a New York Times article in early 2008, and some very cursory and half-hearted searches for “iron pot chicken” on Vietnamese cooking sites has turned up firstly that it is probably actually ga kho to, or “clay pot chicken,” and secondly that there are as many versions of it as there are versions of chocolate chip cookies. And I don’t want to turn into one of those people who gets all choked up on whatever traditional method there might be for a recipe – in all honesty, I don’t care. I love this version and will likely never stray from it.
Anyway, it’s stupidly easy. You start by cooking onions down in fish sauce and sugar until it starts to caramelize. You don’t need an iron or clay pot for this, and while it might be nice if you happen to have one, it’s one of those circumstances where I’m all, dude, just get out the frying pan. It’ll be okay. Of course, this is where is starts to smell. I never experimented with my own gender, but take of this what you will: I find the smell of onions and fish sauce cooking to be painfully intoxicating.
By far the trickiest part of the recipe is being brave enough to caramelize the sugar. I took the above photo just before I added the chicken, and it was maybe two or three minutes too soon. It could have been darker.
Anyway, the chicken immediately starts to weep juices and the caramel is reduced to a sauce in no time. I find that there are two important factors with this dish: the first is that using white meat is a total mistake. The longer the chicken can simmer in the sauce, the more delicious it gets, but white meat just can’t take more than a few minutes of cook time. The second issue is that the pieces should be fairly small, smaller than bite size but not too small. About the size of sugar cubes. This provides the best ratio of surface-to-interior on the chicken pieces, allowing for more of the chewy, salty-sweet ambrosia that is in store for you.
The result is incredible, far more than the sum of its parts and certainly one of the easiest one-dish meals I make. Besides, the allure of announcing “Vagina Chicken” for dinner is too compelling to pass up.
serves two or three – recipe is easily doubled and the leftovers are just as good if not better. My recipe is altered somewhat from the original, found here. A note on fish sauce (‘nuac mam’ in Vietnamese): get a decent brand like 3 Crabs (it has three crabs on the label) or my second-favorite, Squid. For christ’s sake, don’t get the Thai Kitchen garbage. Also: the chicken can be replaced with just about anything – shrimp, pork, tofu, whatever.
4 Tbsp. fish sauce
3 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 T. vegetable oil
1/2 medium onion, cut into eighths
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into sugar-cube sized pieces
1-inch knob of ginger, chopped fine
lots of fresh ground black pepper
1/2 to 1 C. chopped fresh cilantro
optional – fresh Thai bird’s eye chilis
- In a medium-hot pan, saute the onions in the vegetable oil just until warmed through, about a minute.
- WAIT, I ALMOST FORGOT! Start cooking your rice now, if you’re going to have rice. Phew! I was almost too late.
- To the onions, add the fish sauce and the sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Again, over medium-high to high heat, continue cooking, stirring occasionally to distribute everything, until the sauce starts to caramelize. Depending on how hot your pan is, this can take as little as 5 and as much as 10 minutes. If this step makes you nervous, just go slow and it’ll be alright.
- Add chicken to the caramel and continuously stir for a few minutes, making sure to really saturate each piece with caramel and gently scraping and dark bits off the side of the pan. Add the chopped ginger and the fresh pepper. Rather than cook with hot chilis, I prefer using lots of really good quality fresh ground black pepper. In fact, I often call this “Vietnamese pepper chicken” at home because calling it “iron pot chicken” doesn’t help Mike remember what it is. Turn the heat down to medium and continue cooking until the juices and sauce have reduced by about half, another 10 minutes or so. In fact, in the past I’ve forgotten to cook the rice and have turned the heat down to low while the rice cooks for 25 minutes, and the chicken turned out as good if not better.
- When chicken is done, add the chopped cilantro. It can take a lot, so really load it up.