Ginger Chicken Kho
When Cuong Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant and former Apple engineer, took over a small, struggling fish sauce factory on Vietnam's Phu Quoc island in 2006, little did he know it would be such a success that all three of his American children would join the Phamily business when they grew up.
Pham tells the fascinating story of his transformation into a fish-sauce maker and mogul in The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook while also sharing very enticing, multigenerational family recipes. (As a Chinese cooking site, we're not selling the cookbook, but you can get it here.) The first thing I made from the book was ga kho gung, or braised chicken with ginger. I was immediately struck by how similar the preparation of a kho is to Chinese hong shao dishes. Both are braises that start by making a simple caramel to brown the meat in before adding the sauce flavorings—which for hong shao are soy sauce and Shaoxing wine and for kho are fish sauce and black pepper.
One recipe, two very different flavor profiles, showing both how Vietnam was influenced by Chinese cooking over the centuries and how it went its own way by replacing soy sauce with fish sauce as its everyday umami. I read somewhere that it was a natural and necessary swap, since Vietnam has far more fish-rich coastline than it does soybean-suitable farmland.
As for our own family, we've always been surprised that Fongchong is as crazy about Vietnamese food as she is about Chinese cuisines, seeing as how she'd never had any Vietnamese food before moving to America (as far as she can remember). But it all started to make sense when we had her DNA tested and learned that she has more Vietnamese and Dai ancestry than Han!
Soy sauce flavored her childhood, and fish sauce is in her blood. So we've adopted, and slightly adapted, this Pham family recipe as our own.
Braised Chicken With Ginger
2 pounds bone-in chicken thighs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon Burlap & Barrel shallot powder (optional)
2 tablespoons palm sugar or white sugar
2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil
1/4 cup thinly sliced ginger
1 tablespoon Red Boat Phamily Reserve Fish Sauce
1 to 3 fresh Thai red chilies (left whole for less heat, or sliced for more heat; we add both)
- Cut thighs through the bone into 4-5 large pieces each, retaining at least some of the skin. Mix with salt, pepper and shallot powder (if using) and set aside.
- Add sugar and oil to wok or pan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar melts and turns a dark brown, being careful not to burn it. (A well-seasoned wok is ideal, both so the caramelized meat doesn't stick and so the sauce does not cook off.)
- As soon as the sugar darkens, add the chicken pieces to the caramel and cook, stirring to coat the chicken in the caramel. When the chicken is starting to brown, stir in the ginger, fish sauce and 1/4 cup water. Cover and simmer over low heat until chicken has firmed up, about 10 minutes.
- Remove lid, add chilies and simmer until sauce is slightly reduced and chicken thoroughly cooked, about 5 minutes.