“Can we have grilled chicken skewers for dinner?” my husband asked. Sure. Wanting to try a new recipe, I looked in Bangkok, a splendid cookbook by Leela Punyaratabandhu. She had a interesting roast chicken recipe, and because I’d promised to deliver skewers, I simply deboned half a chicken, cut the flesh into strips, and applied half of the seasoning ingredients. The result was terrific, so much so that I repeated the recipe with the other half of the chicken a few days later! (I froze the bones, backs, and scraps for stock or pho.)
What’s nifty about these Thai black pepper chicken skewers is Leela’s super smart double-layering of flavors. The chicken is first marinated in a sweet-salty blend of seasonings. Then, it’s coated with garlic, cilantro and black pepper. That heady combination is astoundingly good, and fantastic with Thai sweet chile sauce.
Leela’s book is an ode to the foods and traditions of her hometown. I love how she picked a favorite rendition of kai op phrik thai dam and created a copycat version. It’s what I’d do! In the recipe introduction, she discussed how rotisserie chicken is available in many spots in Bangkok and I was taken by its everyday-ness. Given that casual aspect of the dish, I wondered if I could use readily available supermarket ingredients to make a credible Thai favorite.
Working on my new book, Vietnamese Food Any Day (it’s being printed overseas right now), has made me redouble my efforts to showcase how Asian food may be made from accessible ingredients within most people’s reach. Nowadays, making good Asian food does not necessarily require a trip to an Asian market.
Where are the fish sauce and chiles?
If you’re unfamiliar with Thai grilled chicken, you may wonder where the nam pla (fish sauce) is. Like with Vietnamese food, fish sauce isn’t in every savory Thai dish. Chinese condiments, such as soy sauce and oyster sauce, play a big role in the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam.
And before chiles arrived with the Portuguese, peppercorns were among the main sources of spicy heat. That’s why this recipe employs a bold amount of black pepper, cilantro, and garlic. That trifecta of ingredients is what I’ve used for a pesto-like cilantro black pepper sauce. Leela’s formula is extra exciting with lots of black peppercorns. As a result, there’s a lovely, exciting heat that’s also balanced by the pungent garlic and cilantro.
In order to best replicate the flavors of Bangkok, Leela’s recipe called for Thai thin soy sauce or Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce. I have those specific Thai condiments but found that regular soy sauce, Bragg liquid seasoning or Maggi are suitable substitutes. As for the oyster sauce, American supermarkets carry several good brands.
I chose the Dynasty brand, which isn’t as salty as the other brands pictured here, and actually nearly matches that of Megachef oyster sauce, which is made in Thailand and has good flavor. Leela’s marinade has multiple sources of salt so I wanted to hedge my bets. If you use a different brand of oyster sauce, back off the salt since you can always add more.
Choose sturdy skewers with some heft. I recently bought flat bamboo skewers that do not need soaking in water. Food doesn’t spin around a flat skewer! The ones by RSVP are about 1/4 inch wide and hold up during live fire cooking. Plus, you can break them into shorter lengths if you cook the skewers indoors on a stovetop grill. I bought the RSVP skewers at Whole Foods but they’re also sold here and I just noticed this other flat skewer, too.
When skewering meat, try to cover most of the skewer. That approach means you can (1) prevent a bamboo skewer from scorching, and (2) the meat stays succulent. After threading the meat on, give the meat a gently squeeze to make sure it hugs the skewers.
I left the chicken skin on (you can see some in the photo above) but it didn’t crisp up the way it would on a whole bird. The slippery skin is a bit hard to wrangle onto the skewer. You’ll be find if you use boneless skinless thighs or legs, which are juicy and cook up well. The breast is fine too, but not as juicy as the dark meat. Your choice. (Or head to the library or bookshop and get Bangkok, which is full of great stories and recipes, and make the original recipe and others, too.)
What to serve with Thai black pepper chicken skewers?
Steam some sticky rice for a traditional accompaniment, or serve the black pepper chicken skewers with regular rice. Add a salad such as green papaya or maybe a more modern salad of Asian pear, beets and fennel spiked with chile and fish sauce! If there are leftovers, make banh mi.
Last 2018 Cooking Class!
Sign up for the Dim Sum Party class on December 1 in Santa Cruz! It’s hands-on and four-hours long. Details and registration are here.
Thai Black Pepper Chicken Skewers
Yield 4 servings
You’ll need 4 (10-inch) skewers or 6 (6-inch) skewers. If they’re flimsy bamboo, soak them in water for 1 hour. See the main post for skewer buying tips. This recipe was informed and inspired by a black pepper roast chicken recipe in Bangkok, a cookbook by Leela Punyaratabandhu. To serve as an appetizer, use short skewers and make more!
- 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon Golden Mountain seasoning sauce, Maggi seasoning sauce, or Bragg Liquid Aminos, or soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar (light or dark)
- 1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh, leg, and/or breast, cut into strips about 3 inches long and 3/4 to 1 inch thick
- 3 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons packed chopped cilantro stems or roots
- 2 1/4 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
- Thai sweet chile sauce, homemade or storebought
- In a medium bowl, stir together the salt, oyster sauce, seasoning sauce, and honey. Taste the marinade and make sure it is salty enough. Add up to 1/4 teaspoon salt, if needed. When satisfied, add the chicken and stir, coating well. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes (or refrigerate for up to 8 hours).
- Meanwhile, in a small food process (or use a mortar and pestle), grind the garlic, cilantro and pepper into a paste. It will be grainy but relatively smooth. (The mixture can be covered with plastic wrap and left to sit at room temperature for hours before being used.) Add the garlic mixture to the marinated chicken, stirring to coat well.
- Thread the chicken onto the skewers, covering most of each skewer. For succulence, give each loaded skewer a gentle squeeze to ensure that the meat hugs the skewer.
- Lightly oil a cast-iron stove-top grill pan and set over medium-high heat. Or, prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill to medium-high (you can hold your hand 6 inches above the grill for 3 or 4 seconds).
- Brush the skewers with 1 tablespoon of oil. Cook the skewers for 8 to 12 minutes, turning frequently and basting with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, until the meat is slightly charred and cooked through. Nick a piece with the point of a knife to check. Serve the skewers with the chile sauce.