Trade, travel, and empire have fused together the cuisines of Asia in many delectable ways. This spiced chicken-and-rice dish reflects the Muslim-Indian-Thai culinary marriage.
You may not know of khao mok gai (also spelled kao mok gai) but it is deliciously complex in perfume and flavor. In fact, in the span of a week, I ate it three (3) times while I was in Sydney, one of the greatest places for Thai food outside of Thailand! Go to one of the Chat Thai restaurants for a very good rendition.
Hell bent on replicating it, I found a recipe in David Thompson’s new book, Thai Street Food. I’ve made it several times, the first following the recipe and it was superb. Then I tweaked it slightly for the resulting khao mok gai recipe below. (Disclosure: I provided an official book jacket endorsement for Thai Street Food. Thompson’s recipe for this dish was one of the reasons why.)
Get ready. Khao mok gai takes time to make. It is not straightforward and quick like last week's Thai grilled chicken (gai yang), though you can mix a little of that lovely sweet chile sauce into the rice, if you want to.
But if you make this Thai version of biryani, you’ll have enough for 8 people, or several rounds of eating. Add a salad and you’ve got a celebratory meal that will be sure to WOW your family and friends.
A few notes:
- Basmati is my substitute for the aged long-grain rice (e.g. jasmine) that would likely be used in Thailand.
- The use of dairy (here it's yogurt) and combining cilantro and mint is unusual for Thai cooking but it works for this hybrid dish.
- The chicken and rice are great on their own but add some tart-spicy-sweet sauce and it enlivens the entire dish, making it bright and spritely. The spicy mint sauce below is akin to an Indian green chutney but the galangal zing skews it toward Thailand. Or, you can use some sweet Thai chile sauce.
- Make the paste and fry the shallots a day in advance to get a head start.
- Use a heavy-bottomed, large, wide pot that you would braise a big stew to ensure that things cook evenly. I used an All Clad 6-quart pan.
- Thai cardamom is available at well-stocked Thai markets but regular green cardamom works great.
Dive into the khao mok gai recipe below and parse the cultural influences as you cook and eat. For more background information on khao mok gai, read "Biryani, Bangkok Style" by Austin Bush, a photographer and writer in Bangkok.
Thai Chicken Biryani
Khao Mok Gai
Keep the skin on, if you like extra succulence. Use large chicken drumsticks, if you like, or maybe a dozen small ones. This recipe was adapted from David Thompson’s Thai Street Food (Penguin/Lantern, 2009; Ten Speed Press, 2010).
Serves 8 as a main course
3 tablespoons coarse chopped cilantro stems
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/4 cup plain yoghurt, low-fat or full-fat
8 to 10 chicken thighs
Spicy mint sauce
1 or 2 green Thai chiles
2 slices peeled fresh ginger, chopped
2 slices peeled galangal, chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
A pinch of salt
2 cups coarsely chopped mint leaves
2 generous cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and stems
3 to 4 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 1/2 cups basmati rice
3 1/3 cups chicken stock or shortcut Asian stock
3 tablespoons canola oil or chicken fat
1/2 cup thinly sliced shallot
3-inch piece cassia bark, or 1 1/2-inch stick cinnamon
3 Thai cardamom pods, or 1 green cardamom pod, crushed
2 dried bay leaves
1 large tomato, coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped cilantro leaves and stems
1 cup chopped mint leaves
2 pandan leaves, tied in a knot (optional)
1/4 cup plain yoghurt
1/4 to 1/3 cup Crispy Fried Shallots
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1 small cucumber, seeded and sliced
1/3 cup Thai Sweet Chile Sauce (optional)
1. For the seasoning paste, use a mini food processor to grind the cilantro stems, ginger, garlic, turmeric, salt, and sugar to a coarse texture. (Or use a mortar and pestle.) Transfer half of the paste to a bowl to marinate the chicken. Set aside the remaining paste for the rice.
To the paste for the chicken, add the fish sauce and 1/4 cup yoghurt. Stir to blend well. Set aside.
2. Remove the skin from the chicken thighs. (Save it for rendering instant schmaltz for the rice, if you like!) Cut each one through the bone into 2 pieces. Add to the seasoning paste containing the yogurt. Stir to coat well. Set aside for 1 hour to marinate. Or cover and refrigerate for up to 4 hours, setting it out at room temperature to remove some of the chill.
3. Meanwhile, make the mint sauce. Use a mini food processor to grind the chiles, ginger, galangal, sugar, and salt to a fine texture. Add the cilantro, mint, and vinegar. Grind to a fine texture. Add water by the tablespoon to create a spoonable texture. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
4. Rinse the rice in a mesh strainer and set aside to dry and drain. Put the stock in a pot and heat to a simmer.
Meanwhile, heat the oil (or chicken fat) in a large wide pot over medium-high heat. Fry the shallot for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until golden. Add the remaining seasoning paste, cassia, cardamom, and bay leaf. Fry until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the tomato, cilantro, and mint. Cook, stirring until the tomato breaks down. Add the chicken, and stir to combine. Cook, stirring, for 3 to 5 minutes, until the chicken no longer looks raw. Lower the heat, if necessary.
5. Add the rice and pandan leaves, stirring to combine well. Cooking, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes, until the rice turns opaque. Add the hot stock (expect sizzling) and 1/4 cup yoghurt.
Lower the heat slightly, cook for 3 to 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and there is a glossy layer of orange-yellow liquid at the top. The stock will bubble up through little craters dotting the surface.
Cover, lower the heat to low, and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. Lift the lid to make sure the rice is cooked. Turn off the heat and let the rice rest for 10 minutes. Use a spatula or large spoon to gently fluff the rice and turn the chicken. There will be delicious browned bits at the bottom. Let the rice sit for another 10 minutes before serving.
Transfer to a platter or shallow bowl, sprinkle with the crisp shallots and cilantro. Serve with a plate of cucumbers slices and the sauces. Invite guests to help themselves and enjoy with fork and spoon. The sauces should be mixed into the rice (think chutney).