Every Vietnamese cook has his or her own recipe—this version comes from Huong Thu Nguyen, who ran a Vietnamese restaurant in Denville, New Jersey, in the 1980s. Even now that she has retired to Hawaii’s Big Island, this is still a core dish in her kitchen. “It takes awhile to make good caramel sauce without burning it,” she notes. So keep practicing! You may be tempted to use chicken breasts instead of thighs as well as remove the skin. Please don’t. Thigh meat is juicier and more succulent and the skin has tons of flavor, all of which add to this delightful dish.
Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 4 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
1 pound boneless chicken thighs with skin, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 plump stalks lemongrass, trimmed, bruised, and minced (3/4 cup), divided
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into thin crescents
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic, divided (4 to 5 cloves)
3 red Thai chilies, cut into rounds
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Chopped cilantro leaves for garnish
Chopped green onions for garnish
In a medium bowl, season the chicken with the salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Add 3 tablespoons of the lemongrass, toss, and set aside.
In a large skillet (if possible, use a pan with a light interior such as stainless steel so you can monitor changes in color), heat the oil over medium-high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the sugar and cook and stir continuously. After 1 to 2 minutes, the sugar will start to clump together then melt into a syrup. Cook and stir for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the clear syrup thickens into a gooey caramel-brown liquid suspended in the oil. You will also smell a pleasant burnt sugar aroma. Watch the caramel closely during this process as it can burn very quickly. If the caramel starts to turn black and smell acrid, pull the skillet off the stove for a few seconds before continuing.
Stir in the remaining lemongrass, the onion, and 1 tablespoon of the garlic and cook and stir until the ingredients turn golden brown and fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chicken and raise the heat to high. Cook, tossing the chicken in the caramel sauce, for about 1½ minutes. If there isn’t enough sauce to evenly coat the chicken, carefully add water, 1 tablespoon at a time. If the mixture starts to sputter and seize, pull the skillet off the stove until it ceases. Throw in the chilies and cook and stir until the chicken is no longer pink, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the fish sauce and the remaining garlic. Stir with a couple more flourishes to mix well. When the chicken is just cooked through (cut into a piece to check), taste and adjust seasonings if desired.
Remove from the heat and transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with black pepper to taste and garnish with cilantro leaves and green onions.
Grandma Says: Add the fish sauce at the last minute and it won’t stink up your kitchen or your clothes.
Recipe and photograph excerpted with permission from The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook, Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens by Patricia Tanumihardja (Sasquatch Books, October 2009)