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Caramelized Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies

Updated February 23, 2016
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The subtle, citrusy scent of lemongrass, the bittersweet flavor of caramel, and the heat of red chilies marry very well in this popular Vietnamese chicken dish. 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. Serve with freshly steamed rice.

Grandma Says: Add the fish sauce at the last minute and it won’t stink up your kitchen or your clothes.



Preparing lemongrass for cooking: Trim about an inch from the hard root end of the stalk and chop off the woody top where it just starts to turn from green to pale yellow. You should have 6 to 7 inches of lemongrass stalk remaining. Peel off the loose, tough outer layers to expose the tender white core, then bruise the entire length of the stem with a meat pounder, large knife, or heavy glass to release the aroma and oils. Lemongrass (as well as ginger and galangal) have tough fibers running through them. Mince the stalks to avoid chewing long stringy pieces and chomping down on hard, fibrous bits. To mince, cut the stalks crosswise into very thin ringlets (as thin as you can possibly cut them). Then rock your knife blade over the pieces to chop them into confetti-sized flakes. Or whirl in a food processor. You should get about 3 tablespoons from one stalk. For convenience, frozen ground lemongrass can be found in tubs in the freezer section of Asian markets.

Makes4 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal

Cooking Time45 min

Cooking Time - Text45

Cooking Methodsauteeing

CostInexpensive

Moderate

Total Timeunder 1 hour

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free

Mealdinner

Taste and Texturehot & spicy, savory, sweet, umami

Ingredients

  • 1 pound boneless chicken thighs with skin, cut into ½-inch chunks
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 plump stalks lemongrass, trimmed, bruised (see Notes), and minced (½ cup), divided
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into thin crescents
  • 1½ 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

Instructions

In a medium bowl, season the chicken with the salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Add half 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.

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