Source: Fine Cooking April/May 2003 page 32
recipeNotes: I left Vietnam thirty years ago, but I still cherish its foods. One of my favorites is a braised chicken and ginger dish that transforms a few simple ingredients (chicken thighs, ginger, fish sauce, and sugar) into a succulent, savory dish of sweet and salty chicken laced with fragrant strands of ginger. I use a classic Vietnamese braising method called kho (pronounced kaw) that uses caramelized sugar as the base for the braising liquid and foundation flavor plus fish sauce to complete the sweet-salty profile. You might think at first that chicken and sugar are an odd match, but just think of the sweet and salty play of flavors in a traditional barbecue sauce.
The caramel sauce for kho is easy to make by boiling Chinese brown sugar and water until the liquid is dark brown, almost the color of dark maple syrup. The caramel turns the chicken a rich, deep amber brown and supplies a mellow sweetness to the whole dish. In Vietnam, cooks pay close attention to the color of the kho. If the sugar doesn’t caramelize enough, the meat will pale (“”like a ghost’s eye””) and earn the cook a scolding. If it’s overcooked, the sauce will taste bitter.
The recipe a delicious example of kho, but this braising technique isn’t limited to chicken. The method can be used with almost any type of poultry, meat, or seafood, and the dish can be made spicy or not, depending on the region and on the cook’s taste. The South Vietnamese like to add hot chiles to their seafood kho, while the North Vietnamese prefer it milder and less salty.
When I was growing up in the northern city of Hanoi, meat and seafood were very expensive, so home cooks would use kho to add lots of flavor to a dish and to stretch the family’s food budget. Because meals always included a large pot of soup, plenty of rice, and several vegetable sautees, one chicken chopped into small pieces easily fed ten people.
I like to serve this with jasmine rice and sautéed broccoli. Skin-on chicken is traditional, but you can also use skinless chicken thighs or just spoon off the excess fat from the sauce before serving.
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced into rings (a scant ¼ cup)
1½ ounces fresh ginger, unpeeled and cut into matchsticks (about ½ cup)
3 pounds skin-on chicken thighs, excess fat trimmed, (optionally) cut in halves crosswise with a cleaver or by your butcher, and seasoned generously with kosher salt
3 tablespoons fish sauce
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon dried red chile flakes
3 scallions (whites and greens), thinly sliced into rings, for garnish
Have ready 1/2 cup water.
Put white sugar — without the water — in a 8-inch straightsided silver-bottom skillet over medium. Cook until it starts to melt at the edges and turn golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium low and continue cooking, gently swirling the pan, until the bubbling caramel darkens to a reddish brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and, with your face averted to avoid steam and spatters, carefully pour the ½ cup water into the pan. The caramel may harden; if it does, set the pan over medium-high heat and stir until it dissolves. Stir the liquid to blend in the caramel and pour it into a heatproof measuring cup or bowl.
Wipe out the pan and heat the olive oil over medium high. Add the shallot and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until they’re softened and starting to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
Set the skillet back over high heat. Add the seasoned chicken pieces and cook until they lose their raw color on the outside, about 2 minutes per side; the pan will be crowded and the chicken needn’t brown. Stir in the fish sauce, salt, pepper, chile flakes, and reserved caramel. Reduce the heat to medium and cook at a vigorous simmer, turning the chicken every few minutes, until the chicken is cooked through (cut into a piece to check), about 20 minutes. Remove chicken, separate fat from liquid, return chicken and liquid to pot. Stir in the reserved ginger and shallot and cook for 3 to 4 minutes to blend the flavors. Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with the scallion rings.