When I tell people that I love to cook, the first thing many of them ask me is “what’s your favorite thing to cook?” I am always stumped by that question. I mean, with all the different foods and cuisines and ingredients in the world, how could I have just one thing that is my favorite thing to cook?
Some ask me a variation of that question: “What type of cuisine do you most like to cook?” That’s a better question but one that I still have no answer for. There was a definite time about 20 years ago when I went through a Chinese phase. I bought books and woks and steamers and cooked Chinese food all the time. I had a mini Caribbean phase, mainly due to a cookbook someone gave me, and a mini Indonesian phase, again because of a cookbook I bought at a used-bookstore. But nowadays I cook food from many different cuisines.
However, there is one type of cuisine that I have cooked very little from even though it’s one of my absolute favorites to eat: Thai food. I don’t know why but I never cooked much Thai food. Maybe it’s because nobody ever gave me a Thai cookbook. Nevertheless, Thai food (good Thai food) is an absolute delight to eat. Sweet and spicy, with huge umami flavors thanks to the use of fermented fish in the form of dried shrimp or fish sauce (nam pla), with abundant use of chiles and herbs, Thai food is a real party for your mouth.
Unfortunately, most of the time in New York we get to eat bad Thai food with goopy sauces and huge chucks of the ubiquitous green and red italian peppers. I once ordered a pad thai at a restaurant in my neighborhood that was downright inedible. I mean, how difficult is it to make pad thai?
So a couple of years ago I decided that I would take matters into my own hands for at least one Thai dish. I chose chicken with basil because I had a lot of basil that I needed to use and because I generally like the dish when I get it in restaurants. I did a pretty extensive research online and found a lot of recipes but I finally settled on one. Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I got it. Fortunately, it’s a winner
This is a deceptively simple dish to make. It takes a little time to prepare and almost no time to cook. But it packs so much flavor, it will knock your socks off. Don’t be concerned that there is only a little sauce in your pan when you’ve finished cooking. It doesn’t need a thick and syrupy sauce like what you’d get in most restaurants. Serve it over plain white rice and you’ll see what I mean.
Thai Chicken with Basil
Makes 2 servings
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam)
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon water
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 medium onion, cut into very thin slices
2-3 fresh red chiles, cut into very thin slices
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups lightly packed basil leaves (holy basil or thai basil is best but regular green basil works fine too)
Using a very sharp knife, slice the chicken breasts crosswise into thin strips, about 1/4 inch wide. Then turn the cutting board 90° and chop the chicken strips into very small pieces. It should end up looking like coarse ground chicken. In a medium bowl, combine the chicken with the fish sauce, soy sauce, water, and sugar and let it sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes.
In a large nonstick frying pan or a wok, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until the onion has softened. Stir in the chiles and garlic and cook, stirring, 30 seconds longer.
Remove the chicken from the marinade with a slotted spoon and add it to the hot pan (very little marinade will remain in the bowl). Cook until no longer pink, stirring, about 3 minutes. Add the marinade left in the bowl and cook 30 seconds longer. Remove from the heat and stir in the basil until it’s wilted.
Serve immediately over plain rice.