Of all the countries Handan and I have lived in, Vietnam was our hands-down favorite. The Vietnamese people are the most gracious and friendly we’ve encountered, the land and the climate are agreeable to most (as long as you don’t mind a lot of rain and persistent flooding during the rainy season), and the cuisine is among the best in the world. In my opinion, phở (a Vietnamese soup – pronunced “fuh”), is the best dish on the planet. I ate it every morning for breakfast, and I could continue to do so for the next few hundred years. The secret to phở is the broth, and traditionally it takes a long time to make. Someday, I will crack the phở code and make a proper one to share with you. Until then, I have something simpler, but still packing all the amazing flavors of Southern Vietnamese cuisine.
I developed this recipe the other day as I was driving to pick up Handan from work. I wanted to make something using the lemongrass I’d been growing all summer and a knob of ginger I’d bought last week. My initial plan was to make something with beef, but then this idea and recipe just formed in an instant. Besides lemongrass and ginger, the only other “exotic” ingredient you’ll need is fish sauce. There is no getting around this one. There are no substitutes. If you want to recreate the tastes of Vietnam in your kitchen, you need fish sauce. If you can’t find it in your local grocery store (and unless you live in or near a big city, you probably can’t), you’ll have to order it from Amazon, like I did. Fish sauces are made all over Southeast Asian, Japan, Korea, China and a few Western countries. Each country has its own method. I’ve tried many, and my favorite style (and the one that goes best with what we’re making) is made in Vietnam. Okay, a word about fish sauce. You’re going to buy it, and you’re going to smell it, so you might as well know up front what it is. Vietnamese fish sauce is made my mixing anchovies with sea salt and letting them ferment. Yep, fish sauce is fermented fish. It smells pretty bad (though the brand I’m recommending is of a very high quality, and thus smells better than most), but that smell burns off during cooking, leaving just a beautiful umami taste to your dish. Trust me on this, you cannot have Vietnamese cuisine without fish sauce. But what to do with that leftover bottle? Try it the next time you marinate beef. It will be your secret weapon, and your friends and family will salivate at the mere mention of your name.
The rest of the ingredients are straightforward, and if you don’t have them in your kitchen already (like the red chili peppers, lemongrass and ginger), your local market will certainly stock them.
I’ve made this recipe twice now, once the day I thought of it and again a few days later, so I could make a few tweaks. For the second time, my parents came over for dinner. I was confident my mother would like it, but I was nervous about my father. He’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, and his palette doesn’t always welcome new flavors with open arms (or taste buds, as the case may be). I almost cooked a steak for him on the side in case he hated the chicken. In the heat of cooking though, I forgot about the steak. Turns out it was unnecessary. Not only did my dad not hate it, but he totally loved it! I was shocked.
Okay, let’s get on with it. All this talk of Vietnamese food has me hungry for some. I need to finish this post and get me a fix. Printer-friendly recipe at the end of the post.
Vietnamese Braised Chicken Thighs
- 6 chicken thighs, skin on
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons lemongrass, minced
- 2 tablespoons ginger, minced
- 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped, plus more for garnish
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1 teaspoon red chili pepper (such as bird’s eye), minced, plus more for garnish
- 2 cups water
- 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 small Savoy cabbage, cut into wedges
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
Measure out all of your ingredients and place them in little dishes, so you can access them quickly. The French call this mise en place, which means “everything in place.” It is something that we should all do every time we cook. I’m generally pretty scattered when I cook, and I almost never measure, so mise en place usually has no place in my kitchen. But there’s something about Asian cuisine, be it Vietnamese, Japanese or Chinese, that makes me want to measure everything out beforehand and get my mise en place on.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium heat.
- Season the thighs on both sides with 1 tablespoon of Kosher salt.
- When the pan is hot, add the oil and brown the thighs, skin-side down, in two batches. Remove the thighs and set aside.
- Reduce heat to medium low. Add the fish sauce and reduce by half.
- Add the lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, garlic, chili pepper and 1 teaspoon Kosher salt and saute for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Do not let the garlic burn.
- Add the water and stir.
- Arrange the thighs, skin-side down, in the pan and nestle the Savoy cabbage wedges between the thighs.
- Cover and braise in the oven for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, remove cover, flip the thighs skin-side up, increase heat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and cook, uncovered, for an additional 30 minutes.
- Remove chicken and cabbage from pan and set aside. Strain sauce with mesh strainer into a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup or a gravy boat or a bowl. Add lime juice and stir to combine.
- Serve chicken over a bed of white rice and spoon the sauce over the chicken and the rice. Garnish with cilantro and red chili peppers.
Enjoy one of the many incredible tastes of Southern Vietnam!