Although I eat out a lot on the streets of Bangkok, the foodie inside me always wants to keep cooking at home – nothing beats the sense of satisfaction to be had from whipping up a dish from scratch using fresh ingredients. And the Thai capital is certainly no bad place to get the freshest of produce from its plethora of local markets. So in this new feature, I want to share with you recipes for some of my favourite dishes – some Thai, some not – from my travels. Wherever you are in the world, even if you are not blessed with the same markets as Bangkok, you should be able to source these ingredients in your local supermarket or Asian store.
Thai stir-fried chicken with holy basil (pad krapao gai)
A staple perhaps somewhat akin to fish and chips back in the UK, this stir-fry dish is what Thai people order when they don’t know what else to eat. It’s difficult to walk very far on the streets of Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand without coming across someone chowing down on a plate of it at a simple stall set-up with a couple of plastic chairs.
I make pad krapao in one of two ways, depending on how much time I have and what end result I want to achieve. The recipe here is for a more labour-intensive (though still dead easy) version that yields a richer flavour, but if you need a quick fix then drop the garlic and don’t bother pounding the chillies – do everything else as below and throw in the chillies, finely chopped, towards the end of the cooking process. You can also include finely chopped green beans when making this dish (they are best if first blanched very quickly in boiling water) – for no real reason, I tend to include them when making the quick version, but don’t if I’m making this one with more love.
You have to be generous with the krapao holy basil leaves, though, because this dish just isn’t worth eating without the intense flavour they bring – in the same way as, for me at least, a green curry that skimps on horapa sweet basil leaves is nothing short of a travesty. I pick both varieties of basil from my balcony, but across Thailand you can pick up a bunch of either for a modest 5 baht. If you don’t have a Thai market on your doorstep, good Thai, Chinese and other Asian supermarkets around the world offer freshly imported Thai herbs.
Finally, I’ve included monosodium glutamate – and I use it a fair bit when cooking Thai food – because it really brings out the flavour and I don’t believe you can get that true authentic taste of the streets of Bangkok (healthy or otherwise) without it. Consumed in modest quantities it’s not unhealthy, but if you prefer not to eat MSG then just leave it out.
1 chicken thigh
a generous bunch of krapao Thai holy basil (use regular basil if you can’t get it)
5 red birds eye chillies, halved and stems removed
2 small garlic cloves, peeled
1tsp chicken stock powder (use Rotdee powder if you can get it, if not then an Oxo cube is fine)
1tbsp granulated sugar, or to taste (I like it sweet!)
2tbsp oyster sauce
a squirt of fish sauce
1tsp monosodium glutamate
1tbsp vegetable oil
Remove the uncooked chicken meat from the bone and dice very finely – don’t make the mistake of leaving your pieces of chicken too big, or you’ll just end up emulating Thai food in the west, which often misses the mark for this very reason (among others). Each piece should be just a fraction of a bite, since you’ll want to get it into your mouth along with some basil, sauce and rice.
Pound the chillies and garlic in a pestle and mortar until both are finely ground and the chillies have spat out all their seeds (which you want to retain and use, for added kick). Heat the oil in a wok on a high setting then add the chicken stock powder until it sizzles, followed by the chilli and garlic scooped out from the pestle and mortar. Cook briefly then add all of the chicken, moving it around to ensure it cooks through and takes on a brown colour on both sides. Now add the sugar, fish sauce, oyster sauce and monosodium glutamate and continue to toss around with a spatula.
Tear the basil leaves off the stems but leave them intact, then throw them into the wok and again stir well to combine everything. Continue to cook through until the basil leaves are wilted and the whole pan has taken on a delicious, deep golden colour. Quickly taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then serve hot over freshly steamed rice as a one-dish.
This post was updated on 20 October 2013 to correct a typo – the original ingredients list mistakenly included horapa (sweet Thai basil) instead of krapao (holy Thai basil) leaves. Thanks to TaaSaparot for spotting the mistake!