Before I started dabbling in Vietnamese cuisine, cooking the dishes that I ate growing up always seemed so daunting. My grandma, mom and aunties would make these dishes with such ease and never once did they ever refer to written recipes. It wasn’t the techniques or the step-by-step preparation of the dishes that seemed difficult though. The challenge for me was being able to accurately replicate the flavors of the dishes by seasoning them with the correct proportions of spices, salt, fish sauce, etc. Without recipes specifying the quantity of each ingredient, it was always difficult to know if what I was making was on its way to becoming a disaster or if it could still be salvaged.
As frustrating as it was to cook from my mom’s vague instructions over the phone, it pushed me to trust my gut instincts and my taste buds’ memory. Through trial and error, the foods that I was churning out began to approach some of the dishes that I ate during my childhood. Initially, I made super simple foolproof dishes, such as caramelized pork ribs and soups that accompany family style meals. As I started to gain a bit of confidence in the kitchen, I graduated to more complex dishes, such as phở. And once I was able to successfully make that, I felt as though I could make anything. There are still MANY dishes that I haven’t tried my hand at yet, and I’m still learning as I go.
Over the years, I learned how to make this cà ri gà (Vietnamese chicken curry) dish. I stumbled through each of the steps during my first few attempts of making it, but I have since made this dish so many times that I can now make it with my eyes closed. I even made a few changes to my mom’s version of the dish. I broil the chicken before cooking it over the stove to seal in some of the flavor, as well as to save some time on the stove. I also add bird’s eye chili peppers to the marinade to give the dish an extra spicy kick, which is tamed by the unctuousness of the coconut milk. My mom doesn’t like coconut milk because it’s difficult to digest, so she adds evaporated milk in place of it. In recent years, she has started to boil the potatoes separately with about a teaspoon of curry powder and salt before adding them to the pot of curry towards the end of the cooking time. In doing so, it imparts a yellowish hue, while also infusing the potatoes with curry flavor. I usually to do that as well, but when I made the curry this time, I just threw them in with the carrots, as specified in the recipe below.
This Vietnamese chicken curry dish was no doubt influenced by the small Indian population that took up residence in Vietnam. Our interpretation of curry, however, differs from the Indian curries that I have had. While Indian curries tend to be thicker and more sauce-like, the Vietnamese version is more like a broth, which yields a slightly less pungent flavor. I’m a nut for anything curry-flavored and coconut milk, and often turn to this dish on dreary and gray winter days. The combination of spices adds quite a bit of gusto to the dinner table, and the heat from the added chili peppers will keep you warm from even the most blustery winter chills. What I also love about this dish is its versatility. It can be served over a bed of steamed white rice, vermicelli rice noodles or with a crusty baguette.
Vietnamese Chicken Curry
Makes 5-6 servings
1.3 kg whole chicken, chopped into 10 pieces
1.5 tsp salt
1.5 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp pepper
2 tsp curry powder
2 tbsp minced lemongrass
1 bird’s eye chili pepper, minced
1 onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp minced lemongrass
2 tsp curry powder
½ tsp turmeric
3-4 lemongrass stalks
3 tsp salt (+/- to taste)
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp fish sauce
5 carrots, cut into 3 cm long pieces
5-6 potatoes, quartered
2.2 liters hot water
250 ml coconut milk
1.5 tbsp cooking oil
Chopped cilantro for garnishing
Combine the marinade ingredients and evenly cover each cut of chicken with it. Marinate in the fridge overnight.
Broil chicken pieces in the oven for 15-20 minutes, turning them halfway through. The chicken does not need to be cooked through at this point, rather just the surface should be browned.
Heat oil in a large pot over high heat and sauté the diced onion, garlic and minced lemongrass until fragrant. Add the broiled chicken, additional salt, sugar, turmeric and curry powder. Stir until thoroughly combined.
Pound the ends of the lemongrass stalks, then add them to the pot along with the hot water. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer covered. After 20 minutes, add the chopped carrots and potatoes, and allow to simmer covered for another 20 minutes.
Check the salinity of the broth, adding more salt if necessary. (Note: The quantity of salt listed is a rough estimation. I actually don’t measure things out very precisely when I’m cooking. Rather, I adjust the seasoning as I go.) Then, add the fish sauce and coconut milk and bring to a gentle boil. Continue boiling for about 5 minutes.
Serve over steamed white rice, vermicelli rice noodles (bún, not bánh phở) or with a crusty baguette. Garnish with ground pepper and chopped cilantro. For those who like it spicy like me, add some chopped bird’s eye chili peppers.
Bonne dégustation & thanks for reading!