The cuisine of Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand, covers a wide range of specialties, but the most widely celebrated of them all is the so-called trinity of Isan: grilled chicken (kai yang); a spicy salad (som tam), most commonly featuring green papaya; and cooked sticky rice (khao niao)—the triune ensemble that has won hearts and minds the world over.
In this version, the salad is made with carrots, once considered a novel cold-climate vegetable grown only in certain areas in Thailand but now a part of modern Thai cooking (papaya was foreign to Southeast Asia before it was introduced by European traders). I first tasted the salad 20 years ago at a carrot farm in the province of Phetchabun and since then have come to prefer it over the green papaya version.
The carrots must be grated into long, slender, crisp strands with sharp edges—unbruised and free of carrot juice flowing every which way. This is impossible to achieve with a box grater. The ideal tool is a julienne hand grater, which is easy to find, simple to use, and affordable (I like the Kiwi brand).
Be sure to purchase the correct kind of rice, which can be variously labeled “glutinous rice,” “sweet rice,” or “sticky rice” in English. This is the type that’s widely consumed in Laos and Thailand, where it’s cooked not in boiling water but in a basket set above boiling water. At Asian markets, look for an opaque white medium-grain rice imported from Thailand with the word ข้าวเหนียว somewhere on the package.
Making this set meal can seem overwhelming, but it’s not difficult if you follow the suggested start times for each dish. Do the prep work for the salad in advance and refrigerate the fresh ingredients, so you can assemble the salad while the grilled chicken is resting.
Serves 4 to 6
For the chicken:
- 1 whole chicken, 3 1/4 to 3 3/4 pounds
- 3 lemongrass stalks
- 6 garlic cloves
- 2 cilantro roots, chopped, or 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro stems stripped of leaves
- 2 teaspoons white or black peppercorns
- 1 ounce shallots, cubed
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 3 tablespoons packed grated palm sugar or granulated coconut sugar, or 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup coconut oil
For the sweet chile sauce:
- 3 large garlic cloves
- 5 fresh red bird’s eye chiles
- 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch or potato starch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
For the sticky rice:
- 2 cups Thai glutinous rice
For the carrot salad:
- 2 large garlic cloves
- 3 or 4 fresh bird’s eye chiles
- 1 tablespoon packed grated palm sugar or granulated coconut sugar, or 2 teaspoons packed light brown sugar, plus more as needed
- 2 tablespoons dried shrimp
- 1/2 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
- 1/4 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 1⁄2-inch sticks
- 1 pound carrots (preferably the large, loose type), peeled and grated with a julienne hand grater into 3-to 4-inch-long strands
- 4 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, for garnish
To make the chicken: Spatchcock the chicken and put it into a large bowl. Trim off the tough outer leaves and the root end from each lemongrass stalk. Beginning from the root end, use a very sharp knife to cut each bulb into thin slices, stopping when the purple rings disappear.
Measure out 1/3 cup, discarding the rest, and put it into a blender along with the garlic, cilantro roots, peppercorns, shallots, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and palm sugar. Process to a smooth paste. Scrape every bit of the marinade into the chicken bowl. Rub the marinade on the chicken, making sure to spread it over every bit of the skin and meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to overnight, occasionally turning the bird over and spooning the marinade that settles at the bottom of the bowl over it.
Meanwhile, prepare the sweet chile sauce: In a small food processor, blend the garlic, chiles, vinegar, and water until the garlic and chile bits are the size of a match head. Scrape the mixture into a 1-quart saucepan. Add the granulated sugar and salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar and salt dissolve. Turn down the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Whisk the cornstarch slurry into the sauce and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens slightly and becomes glossy, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool completely. Store in a tightly capped glass jar in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or up to overnight.
To cook the sticky rice, you’ll need to begin soaking it 8 to 12 hours before you plan to cook it. First, select a large fine-mesh stainless-steel sieve and a deep saucepan or stockpot with a circumference roughly the same as that of the sieve. Set the pan aside. Put the rice into the sieve and submerge the rice—sieve and all—in a large bowl of cold water to cover by 3 inches. Let stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.
About 30 minutes before you begin to cook the chicken, start cooking the sticky rice. Lift the sieve from the bowl of water and, with the rice still in the sieve, rinse the rice under cold running water until the water runs clear; shake off the excess moisture. Rest the sieve in the rim of the reserved pan to see how low it sits, then remove the sieve and fill the pan with water to within about 3 inches of the bottom of where the sieve will reach. At no point should the rice touch the water. Place the sieve on the pan and cover the rice with a pot lid that can rest on the sieve without touching the rice. Set the pan over high heat and bring the water to a boil. Steam the rice, flipping it once after 10 minutes or so with a rubber spatula, until the grains are soft, translucent, glossy, and sticky yet remain distinct. This should take about 25 minutes. Transfer the rice to a lidded container to keep it warm while you cook the chicken.
Prepare a medium fire (350 degrees to 375 degrees F) in a charcoal grill using the two-zone method. When the coals are covered with white ash and the grate is hot, place the chicken, bone side down, toward the hold side. Cover and cook with the vents half-opened, flipping the chicken and moving it back and forth between the hold side and the hot side every 10 minutes and adjusting the vents as needed to keep the chicken from burning before it has cooked through. The bird is ready when it is golden brown on both sides and the internal temperature in the thickest part of the thigh away from bone registers 155 degrees to 160 degrees F, about 45 minutes. Transfer it to a cutting board to rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes (during this time the temperature will continue to rise to about 165 degrees F).
Meanwhile, make the salad: Put the garlic, chiles, and palm sugar into a large mortar and pound with a pestle until a paste forms. Add the dried shrimp and pound until they disintegrate. Add the peanuts, pounding until they are broken up into tiny pieces. Add the green beans and pound until they split, then stir to mix. Add the carrots and tomatoes, pounding just until the carrots are slightly softened and the tomatoes are bruised and release some juices; stir to mix. Add the lime juice and fish sauce and stir the contents of the mortar with a large spoon. Taste and add more lime juice, fish sauce, or sugar if needed. Aim for sour first, then salty, and then sweet. Transfer to a rimmed plate and top with the peanuts.
Cut the chicken into pieces and serve it immediately with the carrot salad, sticky rice, and sweet chile sauce.
Recipe reprinted with permission from “Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill: Classic Recipes for Seafood and Meats Cooked Over Charcoal” by Leela Punyaratabandhu. Copyright 2020 SheSimmers.com. Photographs copyright 2020 by David Loftus. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.