I spotted what looked like the last bunch of lemon basil at the farmers’s market and knew that it had my name on it. There was none at the Hmong stall, where I usually find it alongside holy basil and Thai basil. This lonesome bunch was at Coke Farms, owned by 70 or 80 somethings Tom and Laurie Coke. I grabbed it and as I was paying, a Middle Eastern woman asked if there was more. “No, this is the last one,” the Coke's assistant said. I’d seen her before at the market and we’d even exchanged cooking tips. I said I was sorry to ave snatched the last one.
“Enjoy it,” she responded with a smile. We both knew the treasure that I’d purchased.
I love this summer time herb and have eaten it with feta, used it to flavor grilled chicken, and made a mojito-like cocktail with it too. Normally, Southeast Asian lemon/lime basil has thin soft leaves, with delicate lemongrass-mint flavors. The bunch of Ocimum basilicum var citriodorum that I bought last weekend was robust by comparison. The thick, sturdy leaves of the lemon basil variety that Coke Farms grows has a slight menthol quality that reminds me of holy basil (hot basil, kaphrao in Thai, tulsi in Hindi). It was also a big bunch. I wanted to ensure it went to good use.
We hadn’t had any Thai food for a couple of weeks so I made this easy stir-fry, but instead of holy basil or even regular mint, I used the lemon basil and a little bit of mint that I found in fridge. You could use Thai basil and maybe Italian basil or another assertive herb with similar qualities. The foundational idea is that the herb leaves function like a super-flavorful leafy green vegetable. Yup, you use a lot of it.
This recipe is adapted from Andy Ricker and JJ Goode’s Pok Pok cookbook. I’ve made Thai chicken and basil and mint over the years with sliced boneless, skinless thigh, but Pok Pok’s recipe uses ground chicken, resulting in a dish that reminds me of thit heo bam -- a homey Viet dish where you gently fry ground pork with caramel sauce and fish sauce until it caramelizes; my family’s recipe is in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen on page 131.
Pre-ground chicken thigh is what Ricker and Goode called for but I opted to machine chop boneless, skinless thigh to mimic a hand-chopped texture. I don’t have Thai black soy sauce, which is dark and slightly syrupy. I’ve subbed kecap manis and regular soy sauce, as well as Chinese dark soy sauce and regular soy sauce and molasses. The point is that you’re looking to color the meat a lovely rich brown color and impart a certain savory-sweet flavor.
The other ingredient sub that I’ve done is to swap ground, toasted chile for the fried chiles in the recipe. If you have the toasted chile, use it; I made it a while back as a Pok Pok pantry item. Otherwise, fry a few dried chiles at the front end of the cooking process. The smashing of the garlic lends a softer pungency than chopped garlic.
This was plenty for the two of us for dinner with rice, a little soup, and vegetable. You can serve the chicken as a rice plate meal with a fried egg on top, if you like. In any event, it’s an elastic Thai preparation that Ricker says is enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or just anytime in Bangkok.
If you're familiar with this dish, what's your take? Please share techniques, seasonings as I'm curious about how you make it. Thanks!
Thai Stir-fried Chicken with Basil
Yields: 2 servings
- 10 ounces (300 g) boneless, skinless chicken thigh or ground dark meat chicken
- Scant 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- Brimming 1 tablespoon Thai black soy sauce or dark soy sauce plus 1 teaspoon sugar, or 1 tablespoon regular soy sauce plus 1 1/2 teaspoons dark molasses, or 1 1/2 tablespoons kecap manis sweet soy sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons water
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled, halved lengthwise and crushed with a mortar and pestle
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) thinly sliced long beans or regular green beans
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) thinly sliced yellow onion
- 4 to 6 Thai chilies, thinly sliced (keep seeds)
- 1 1/2 cups (360 ml) lightly packed holy basil, lemon basil, or mint leaves
- 4 to 6 dried Thai or Mexican puya chilies, or 1 1/2 teaspoons ground, toasted chile
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- If starting from boneless, skinless thighs, cut them into small chunks the size of cherries. Keep the fat for succulence. In 2 or 3 batches, chop to a coarse texture in a food processor (use 5 to 10 second bursts and pulse). Transfer to a bowl and set aside. If starting from ground chicken, break it up into chunks, then set aside.
- For a flavoring sauce, stir together the fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar (or molasses), and water. Taste and adjust for a salty-sweet flavor. Set near the stove with the remaining ingredients.
- In a large skillet, heat the whole dried chiles and oil over medium-low heat, cooking for 7 to 10 minutes until dark-brown. Leaving the oil in the pan, use a slotted spoon to transfer the chilies to a paper-towel-lined plate. Once cool, coarsely crumble chilies and add to the flavoring sauce. (If you’re using the ground, toasted chile, just add to the sauce mixture.)
- Reheat the skillet over medium-high or high heat. Add the garlic and slide the pan off heat, stirring often, until light brown, about 30 seconds. Replace the skillet on the burner over medium-high or high heat, then add the chicken, long beans, onions and fresh red chiles. Stir-fry, constantly stirring and breaking up chicken, until it’s just barely cooked through, about 1 minute. Add the fish sauce mixture and cook until liquid has been absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the skillet on the hot burner. Stir in the basil and cook until wilted and fragrant, 15 seconds. Transfer to a shallow bowl and serve.
Adapted from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode (Ten Speed Press)