Underwater Chicken Is Going To Blow Your Mind

A humble Thai dish with some brilliant science behind it

I recently discovered a braised chicken dish that completely opened my eyes to the science behind braising meat, specifically, chicken.

A good friend of mine is a ridiculously good chef and happens to focus a lot on Thai cuisine. I recently went to his apartment and immediately after arriving I was like “Holy shit, what’s that smell?”.

Under Water Chicken or Gai Tai Nam was the smell.

It was fucking unreal.

He had a large pot on the stove with a clay bowl on top, full of iced water. He explained that it was just the concept of distillation.

Aromatic juices from the marinated chicken evaporate in the pot, condense on the cold base of the bowl and drip back down on the chicken, continuously basting and braising it.

Another “holy shit” moment later and I thought “how many recipes could be improved with this technique?”

From Humble Circumstances

Gai Tai Nam hails from the rural areas of the semi-arid and salt-rich Issan region in the northeast of Thailand. In a region where food shortages are a real threat for many, and the unfortunate reality for some, humble and ingenious dishes like Gai Tai Nam are born.

Being in the northeast of Thailand, the Issan region is heavily influenced by Laos, in particular, the food. Being far off the spice trade route, no dry spices are used in cooking and soups and curries have clear broths as coconut milk is rarely used. Despite that, the food is still incredibly tasty and Issan cuisine is notorious for bright and pungent flavours — think Som Tum and Laab.

Most households in upcountry Issan have a garden where they grow vegetables and local herbs as well as raising free-range chickens. Thai chickens are taller and skinnier than our chickens in the west, so their meat is leaner and more flavorful.

Some believe the method behind Gai Tai Nam was originally used to slow-cook old, retired chickens that were used in cockfights and had developed tough meat. True or not, it also serves as a simple way to manage the temperature of the pot when cooking over a wood fire or coals, which many people do in rural Thailand.

Putting It Together

Gai Tai Nam applies some simple science to folk cooking and uses the principle of reflux distillation, which continuously returns the condensed liquid and braising the meat in the process.

It’s like basting the chicken without having to remove the lid and lose all the moisture.

First, the chicken is marinated in an aromatic paste of ginger, garlic, lemongrass, and herbs, and cut up into pieces with the bone left in. It’s important to leave the bone in as it improves the flavour.

And it just feels badass to use a cleaver.

You’ll cook the chicken for a little over an hour and change the water two or three times when it’s almost hot to the touch. Make sure to seal any gaps between the two pots with a damp towel or paper towel.

After an hour or so, and two to three changes of iced water, you’ll find the chicken is now braising in a good two inches of liquid. All that juice is from the meat and none is added before cooking.

That’s the beauty of this method — no moisture is lost and what’s left becomes next-level aromatic and flavorful.

After you’ve lost your mind at the smell for a minute, it’s ready to serve.

Top it off with a shit load of fresh holy basil (if you can get it, it’s worth it), cilantro, green onions, and serve with steamed jasmine rice. Sub regular basil if you have to, no big deal.

Enjoy!

RECIPE

Serves 4 | Serve with steamed jasmine rice

Ingredients:

  • 1 free-range chicken (about 1 kg), skin removed, cut into 8 pieces with bone-in
  • 10–15 garlic cloves (depending on how much you like garlic)
  • A handful of shallots (sub red onion if you have to)
  • Thai bird’s eye chiles (amount varies by spice tolerance)
  • 1 tablespoon white peppercorns (black are fine)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 5 slices of galangal (sub ginger if you have to)
  • A handful of Makrut lime leaves, roughly torn (omit if you can’t easily get them)
  • 3 lemongrass stalks (white parts only)
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar (regular sugar is fine)
  • 1/3 cup coriander leaves, chopped
  • 1/3 cup spring onions, chopped
  • 1/3 cup holy basil leaves

Method:

  1. Remove the skin from the chicken and cut up (through the bone) into 8–10 pieces with a cleaver or very sharp knife. Reserve the skin for another dish — render the fat for chicken-fat potatoes or something.
  2. In a mortar and pestle, pound the ingredients for the paste, starting with the chiles, shallots, and garlic.
  3. Next, pound the pepper, salt, and galangal/ginger.
  4. Add the hand-torn Makrut lime leaves and lightly pound to release their flavour.
  5. Add the lemongrass stalks and lightly bruise them to release their fragrance. They don’t need to be pounded to oblivion.
  6. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, and grated palm sugar. Use your knife to “grate” the sugar or pound it on your chopping board.
  7. Mix everything well, taste, and adjust if necessary
  8. Add the chicken to a pot and cover with the paste, giving it a good mix
  9. Turn heat to medium-low and cover the top of the pot with a large bowl of iced water. Make sure to seal any gaps with a damp towel or wet paper towel.
  10. Cook for about an hour, changing the water 2–3 times when it feels hot to the touch.
  11. While chicken is cooking, prepare your herbs — roughly cut up the cilantro, basil, and green onion
  12. When the chicken is ready, remove the water bowl and toss in the herbs
  13. Mix well, serve with steamed jasmine rice, and enjoy the hell out of that smell!

Cook and food writer based in Mexico City. Talking food and all its intersections | IG: https://instagram.com/_alexheery

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