Last month I was traveling in northeastern Thailand for work with a couple of my Thai colleagues. The food in the Northeast is truly spectacular. Meals are worthy of special consideration up there, and I’ve had some of my most memorable meals in Thailand in the most unassuming places in that region. One trip we had an unforgettable smoky, crisp chicken from a roadside vendor that grilled the chicken over old oil barrels.
On my last trip, we had the unfortunate luck to have booked a return flight at 1pm. This meant lunch at the airport. (A universal truth – airport food is dicey.)
When we sat down in the airport restaurant, without hesitation my colleague ordered us each a plate of Chicken with Holy Basil with rice and a fried egg on top. There was nothing particularly unique about this plate of food in Thailand (I think I paid 75 cents, plus 5 cents for the egg). But, if I were in a Thai restaurant back in D.C., I probably would have paid 14 dollars for this dish and loved every bite.
Which really begs the question…how will I ever go back to paying that much for Thai food?
The experience proved just what a smart dish this is to have in your ordering arsenal if you are ever traveling through Thailand. Even in the airport, a plate of Chicken with Holy Basil makes for a welcome lunch. Friends that teach here say kids eat it in school cafeterias (and you better believe that those kids eat it spicy). Frank says that in his office, Thai Chicken with Holy Basil is the equivalent of Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches – if you can’t decide what you want for lunch, order Gai Pad Grapow.
Although some might disagree, I think that this delicious dish can be improvisational, and easily made at home. I make it using the recipe below, but you can cut down on the spice, use pork or tofu instead of chicken, and even use a simpler sauce of just regular soy sauce and a pinch of sugar (although the fish sauce really is worth adding).
The one element of the dish that is not improvisational is the basil. To make this at home, you’ve got to have Thai holy basil. Asian markets outside of Thailand may carry this basil that has a hint of lemon and pepper and a surface that is more rough than the Italian variety.
The dish gets its spice from these tiny bird’s eye chilis.
That are sliced and mixed with thinly sliced garlic.
And then cooked with a flavorful sauce.
It’s taken me a while to navigate the sea of sauces used in Thai cooking…there are many, but the sauces used in this dish are widely available.
My recipe for Gai Pad Grapow uses a combination of regular Thai soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, and fish sauce.
Here in Thailand, the final dish is served with rice and a sunny-side-up egg. Both balance the heat of the peppers in the chicken. For the truly authentic experience, serve a small bowl of fish sauce with thinly sliced chilis on the side, for additional flavor.
Should you ever find yourself stuck over mealtime in a Thai airport, don’t mess around with the rest of it – just tell them you want “Gai Pad Grapow”.
- 1 Tbsp. sweet Thai soy sauce (see note)
- 2 tsp. Thai soy sauce
- 1 tsp. fish sauce
- 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
- 16oz. (460g.) chicken, finely chopped or ground
- 3-6 Thai bird's eye chilis, thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 30 whole leaves Thai holy basil
- 2 cups cooked white rice
- 2 eggs, cooked sunny-side up
- extra fish sauce mixed with thinly sliced bird's eye chills
- In a small bowl, whisk together the sweet Thai soy sauce, Thai soy sauce, and fish sauce.
- Heat a large wok over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and, as soon as it begins to steam, add the chopped chicken to the wok, stirring continuously to cook on all sides. When the chicken is nearly cooked through and is golden brown on the outside, about 3 minutes, add the prepared sauce, chilis and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring continuously, until the sauce has evenly coated the chicken and the garlic becomes tender and caramelized, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the basil.
- Serve immediately, with rice, eggs, and extra fish sauce on the side.