Cooking in Southeast Asia often means incorporating a riot of contrasting flavors and textures, and the classic Vietnamese technique of simmering meat or fish in dark, bittersweet caramel is a great example of this.
As we were taught by chef Peter Franklin, owner of the Anan Saigon restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, we cook chicken thighs in the sauce until it forms a glaze. Mixing the caramel with fish sauce and a few aromatics yields rich, wonderfully complex savory-sweet flavors. And the technique, which is in our book “Milk Street Tuesday Nights,” could hardly be simpler.
Instead of a traditional clay pot, we use a 12-inch skillet to make our version. Using coconut water as the cooking liquid adds a subtle, salty-sweet richness that brings even more complexity to the dish.
A generous amount of ginger, cut into matchsticks, mellows and softens as it cooks, and adds a brightness that perks up the deeper flavors. Bruising the lemon grass releases its flavor and fragrance.
Be sure to have the fish sauce measured out so that when the caramel turns mahogany, it can be added immediately to stop the cooking. Serve the chicken with steamed jasmine rice.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon coconut water, divided
¼ cup white sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 medium shallots, peeled, halved and thinly sliced (½ cup)
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch matchsticks (1/3 cup)
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed, cut into 1½-inch chunks
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 small jalapeño chili, stemmed and sliced into thin rings
1 tablespoon grated lime zest, plus 1 tablespoon lime juice
Steamed rice, to serve
Lime wedges, to serve
In a 12-inch skillet over medium-high, combine the 1 tablespoon coconut water and the sugar. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture turns golden at the edges, about 3 minutes. Reduce to medium and continue to cook, swirling the pan but without stirring, until the caramel is mahogany in color and smokes lightly, another 4 to 5 minutes.
Off heat, add the fish sauce and stir; the mixture will steam and bubble vigorously. Set the pan over medium, pour in the remaining ½ cup coconut water and stir until fully incorporated. Add the shallots and ginger and bring to a simmer, then cover, reduce to low and cook for 5 minutes.
Stir in the chicken. Cover and cook over medium, stirring once or twice, until the chicken is cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a steady simmer. Uncover, increase to medium-high and simmer vigorously (the sauce will form large bubbles), stirring occasionally, until the chicken is glazed and the sauce is syrupy, about 8 minutes.
Off heat, stir in half of the cilantro, the jalapeño, lime zest and lime juice. Top with the remaining cilantro and serve with steamed rice and lime wedges.