I left Vietnam thirty years ago, but I still cherish its foods. One of my favorites is a braised chicken and ginger dish that transforms a few simple ingredients (chicken thighs, ginger, fish sauce, and sugar) into a succulent, savory dish of sweet and salty chicken laced with fragrant strands of ginger. I use a classic Vietnamese braising method called kho (pronounced KAW) that uses caramelized sugar as the base for the braising liquid and foundation flavor plus fish sauce to complete the sweet-salty profile. You might think at first that chicken and sugar are an odd match, but just think of the sweet and salty play of flavors in a traditional barbecue sauce.
The caramel sauce for kho is easy to make by boiling Chinese brown sugar (see the panel below) and water until the liquid is dark brown, almost the color of dark maple syrup. The caramel turns the chicken a rich, deep amber brown and supplies a mellow sweetness to the whole dish. In Vietnam, cooks pay close attention to the color of the kho. If the sugar doesn’t caramelize enough, the meat will be pale (“like a ghost’s eye”) and earn the cook a scolding. If it’s overcooked, the sauce will taste bitter.
The recipe is a delicious example of kho, but this braising technique isn’t limited to chicken. The method can be used with almost any type of poultry, meat, or seafood, and the dish can be made spicy or not, depending on the region and on the cook’s taste. The South Vietnamese like to add hot chiles to their seafood kho, while the North Vietnamese prefer it milder and less salty.
When I was growing up in the northern city of Hanoi, meat and seafood were very expensive, so home cooks would use kho to add lots of flavor to a dish and to stretch the family’s food budget. Because meals always included a large pot of soup, plenty of rice, and several vegetable sautés, one chicken chopped into small pieces easily fed ten people.
Three key ingredients
Fresh ginger appears frequently in Vietnamese dishes, although usually it’s used in smaller amounts than in the recipe here. For this dish, I’m partial to young ginger (also called baby ginger) with its translucent skin and mild, sweet flesh, but it can be hard to find (I usually see it only in springtime in Asian markets). The more mature ginger you’ll find at the supermarket works equally well; the dish will just have a spicier, more pungent bite. Choose ginger with smooth, firm skin and avoid soft, wrinkled, or moldy pieces. Regardless of its age, ginger is seldom peeled by Vietnamese cooks; it’s just scrubbed well and smashed with a mortar and pestle and then added to a dish. But I prefer to julienne the ginger as thinly as possible for a more elegant presentation. The thin strips break up the fibrous flesh, so even older ginger becomes more tender.
Fish sauce (nuoc mam; pronounced nook MUM) is as vital to Vietnamese cuisine as soy sauce is to Chinese cuisine. If you didn’t grow up knowing its intensely pungent smell, you might find its odor off-putting (some say it smells like wet socks). Don’t worry; it doesn’t taste offensive. In fact, its salty, fermented flavor can be much more subtle than you’d expect.
This clear amber liquid is made by layering small anchovies or other tiny fish with sea salt in large tanks and letting them ferment in the sun for up to 18 months. The finest fish sauce comes from the first pressing of the fish. When buying fish sauce look for big glass bottles labeled nuoc mam nhi—the word nhi indicates the highest quality. I prefer Viet Huong Three Crabs brand, which tastes clean, complex, and slightly sweet. Fish sauce keeps indefinitely in the pantry.
Made from unrefined cane sugar, Chinese brown sugar is the behind-the-scenes ingredient that gives kho and other Vietnamese braises their deep, complex flavor. (Don’t confuse it with palm sugar, which looks similar but is a very different product.) I buy this sugar at Asian food markets in 1-pound bricks that separate into wafers. It may also be called brown sugar in pieces or brown sugar candy. I store it in an airtight jar in my pantry, and it seems to keep forever. You can substitute white granulated sugar (not regular brown sugar) instead and cook it until it turns to caramel, and the dish will still be delicious.