Vietnamese Roast Chicken
A Vietnamese roast chicken recipe...with a touch of France.
When I led culinary tours, one of my wonderful guests said to me, “I like to follow you online because I never know what you’re going to do next.” It’s true. I don’t just make cakes or cookies or ice cream. I like to bake and cook a lot of things, which are a good way to learn about other cultures and extend my boundaries, plus I get to shop in multicultural markets, try various techniques, and discover ingredients.
Another thing I like to do is to see how things are made and meet the producers. You can read all you want about how chocolate is made, or how French cheeses are ripened, but it isn’t until you see it for yourself that you realize the work that goes into it, and why it tastes the way it does.
Cuong Pham is the owner and founder of Red Boat fish sauce. Cuong was one of the boat people. As he wrote in the introduction to The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook, he hid on a boat for a few weeks until it departed, ending up in a refugee camp in Malaysia before finally arriving in the U.S. nine months later. Cuong eventually earned a college degree in America and ended up working with a guy named Steve Jobs in 1984, who had the unusual idea of making a different kind of computer for home users.
With a similar curiosity, and entrepreneurial spirit, while consulting on a project a few years later in Vietnam, he became intrigued by locally-made fish sauce, produced artisianally, which he wrote in his book, “This was a flavor I had not tasted in twenty years. It brought me back to being as kid in my mom’s kitchen…”
In Cuong started his fish sauce company in 2006, making his fish sauce by traditional methods rather than taking short cuts. One of the most important parts of the project, as I learned when I visited his barrelhouse, is salting the fish right on the boat, rather than a few days later when the boats arrive back in their port. By that time, Cuong explained to me, the fish can arrive spoiled. He did not want to use other types of fish or add additive, as some fish sauce companies do, and came up with Red Boat fish sauce, which delighted his mother, who had joined him in the States in 1990, bringing her book of handwritten recipes with her.
Her father had paid for her to learn French cuisine when she was young, and you can see some of the influences in her recipes, which are featured in the book, such as this one that uses butter, which just happens to be the perfect foil for umami-rich fish sauce.
(There’s a terrific interview with the talented team of Tien Nguyen and Diep Tran, who translated the recipes for home cooks for the book, in the LA Times, possible paywall.)
I don’t work for the company (although they do send me fish sauce as it’s hard to get in France) and have been a proponent of their sauce since it strikes all the right notes with me. I love flavor, and when people ask me what my specialty is, as a baker and pastry chef, I used to say “ice cream” or “chocolate,” but now I just say “flavor.” I’m not as concerned with fancy techniques or trends; I want to make things that have great flavor.
This Gà Quay (roast chicken) is an adaptation of Cuong’s mother’s roast chicken. In the book, he explains that his mom would steam the chicken and drizzle it with “sizzling hot oil” to give it crisp skin. For the book, they presented a modified version that’s more accessible for home cooks. You don’t have to worry about pots of boiling oil, but you will need a wire rack—a baking cooling rack will do—to roast the chicken on.
The good news is that you can prepare this over several days. You can make the basting liquid and seasoning paste a few days ahead, and for the best flavor, you can let the prepared chicken rest in the refrigerator for up to two days before oven-roasting it.
You will need to butterfly or “spatchcock” a chicken, which in French is called crapaudine or “bullfrog” chicken, since once the backbone is removed and it’s laid out flat, it resembles a bullfrog. (In France, there are also betteraves crapaudines, named “bullfrog” beets, because they’re considered ugly.)
Here’s how to do it:
(Thanks to Romain for shooting the videos, which are a little off the cuff, but you get the idea.🙂 Future videos I hope to be able to upload directly to the newsletter, rather than my YouTube channel.)
During the last few minutes of baking, you’ll be basting the chicken with the remaining liquid, which is very flavorful, thanks to a mélange of umami-forward fish sauce, soy sauce, and tangy apple cider vinegar that’s reinforced with shallots and garlic and rounded out with butter.
The result is a wonderful main course that can be served with rice. I made a few notes and modifications to the recipe, which wowed us when it came out of the oven, and of course, when we ate it, too.
Gà Quay (Mom’s Roast Chicken)
Four servings (as part of a meal, served with other dishes)
Adapted from The Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook by Cuong Pham with Tien Nguyen and Diep Tran
This roast chicken requires a few steps, but all are easy to do, and it can be prepared over a few days. While the recipe isn’t complicated, here are a few tips that’ll help:
-When making the seasoning paste, the garlic and onions will get puréed so there’s no need to spend a lot of time dicing or chopping them so they look presentable.
-Ditto for the basting liquid; the garlic and shallots don’t have to look like museum pieces either since you’re going to be straining them out, although they should be finely chopped to extract as much flavor from them as possible. The original recipe said to discard them, but they’re quite flavorful after they’re used, so you could save the shallots and garlic after you strain them out to add to a meat braise or to mix with meat to make meatballs or meatloaf. They’re quite salty, so you’d want to use less salt or omit it if using them in another recipe. I could imagine them also being the base of a good spread for a sandwich, perhaps combined with some Japanese mayonnaise.
-For equipment, you’ll want to have a blender (or food processor), a baking dish fitted with a wire rack that will hold the spatchcocked chicken in the refrigerator while marinating, and a rimmed baking sheet that’ll hold the chicken on the wire rack for cooking, as well as a basting brush. And yes, you’ll want to make room in your refrigerator for the chicken to rest with the seasoning paste.
-The original recipe said there would be liquid on the baking sheet, when the chicken was finished roasting, to pour off and use as a sauce. My chicken didn’t yield very much liquid, just a few drips. Perhaps my heritage, free-range Label Rouge bird was the reason? (Commercial chickens are often plumped with extra water.) So you may want to line the baking sheet with parchment paper or foil to avoid any scorches and facilitate cleanup, and if there are any juices, you can pour them off and use them. (Let me know in the comments if you do!)
The seasoning paste
1 cup (110g) roughly chopped onions
5 whole cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons fish sauce (preferably Red Boat)
2 tablespoons neutral-tasting vegetable oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Put all the ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth.
One spatchcocked chicken (2 to 3 pounds, 1 to 1.5kg)
Place the spatchcocked chicken skin side up on a wire rack in a wide baking dish, one that’s big enough to accommodate the chicken so it lies flat.
Using your fingers, rub about two-thirds of the seasoning paste under the skin of the chicken—the thighs, legs, and breasts—then rub the rest over the skin and the back. Refrigerate uncovered, skin side up, for at least 8 hours, or up to two days.
The basting liquid
1/4 cup (60ml) apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup (60ml) water
1/4 cup (50g) chopped shallots
2 tablespoons (16g) chopped garlic
1/4 cup (60ml) fish sauce (preferably Red Boat)
1/4 cup (60ml) soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons sugar (you can use brown sugar or palm sugar, if you have it)
4 ounces (8 tablespoons, 115g) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
Put the vinegar, water, shallots, and garlic in a small non-reactive saucepan. Simmer over moderate heat until the liquid is almost all evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, black pepper, and bay leaves.
Reduce the heat and simmer at the lowest possible temperature until there are only about 2 tablespoons of liquid in the pan, about 8-10 minutes. Turn off the heat. Remove the bay leaves and swirl in the sugar. Add a few cubes of the butter, stirring until they’re incorporated and melted, then gradually add the rest of the butter, stirring until smooth. Strain the mixture into a small bowl, pressing the solids to extract as much flavor from them as possible.
(You can make the basting liquid a few days in advance and refrigerate it. You may need to warm it slightly before using, whisking it if it needs to come back together.)
To bake the chicken, preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC). Adjust the racks in your oven to the lower third and upper third.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and place it, still on the wire rack, on a baking sheet, skin side up. (You may want to line the baking sheet with foil or parchment paper, which’ll help with cleanup later. See headnote for more info.) Baste the chicken generously with the basting liquid. Tuck the wing tips under the chicken so they don’t burn. (Which I didn’t do, but recommend.)
Bake the chicken on the lower rack of the oven for 50 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the oven and increase the heat of the oven to 425ºF (220ºC).
When the oven reaches 425ºF (220ºC), baste the bird generously with the basting liquid, doing your best to coat as much of the surface of the chicken as possible, then place on the top rack of the oven and bake for 15 minutes, basting the chicken every 5 minutes, using all the liquid until it’s used up.
(The chicken should be done at this time. You can peek between the bones of the chicken thighs to see if it’s done. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should reach at least 165ºF/74ºC. If not, tent the chicken with foil so it doesn’t burn, and roast a few more minutes until done.)
Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest on the wire rack for 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a carving board. Pour any liquid from the pan into a ramekin or serving bowl to use as a dipping sauce. Carve the chicken into pieces and serve.
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