Thai Grilled Chicken Southern-Style (ไก่ย่างปักษ์ใต้)


thai grilled chicken recipe
All traceable records show that both sides of my family, with the exception of a few ancestors who were assigned to remote posts, have lived in Bangkok since the city was established 228 years ago. Everybody in my immediate family is from Bangkok and our lives have revolved around this city, small in area but dense in population, since — I don’t know — forever.

Our affection for southern things, in light of all this, is quite perplexing.

thai grilled chicken recipe
When I was growing up, each time we got together for a family potluck-type party, pretty much every adult member of the clan had his or her own signature dishes which we would expect at the party. Southern dishes were always included among the stars of the show (and some of the first to get devoured). I can’t recall why we like southern things so much in our family. But that’s not a complaint. Southern Thai food is delicious. Many dishes are too fiery hot for me, but all are very good.

One of my aunts would bring to these parties a huge pot of her southern fish-based vegetable curry (แกงไตปลา) made with fermented fish innards (ไตปลา), a specialty ingredient from the South. It is fiery hot and full of bold flavors. Her version, to this day, has remained unrivaled. Where and how she learned to make it, I never know.

Catching a whiff of the news of her cousin’s plan, my mom, in the spirit of friendly competition, would pull out her big gun — southern rice salad with southern fish sauce-based dressing (ข้าวยำ or, to be a bit redundant, ข้าวยำปักษ์ใต้). My mom always had dozens of bottles of southern-style fish sauce (น้ำบูดู) from the city of Sai Buri (อำเภอสายบุรี) in the southern province of Pattani (จังหวัดปัตตานี) — apparently the place whence the best of this type of sauce comes. She carefully rationed them out over the months until our next vacation down south.

How precious was this sauce to her? Let’s put it this way: sometimes my mom would leave her jewelry lying around in the house and one time we spent a week searching the whole house for my birth certificate, but her southern fish sauce bottles were safely kept in the sanctum sanctorum of her kitchen pantry, neatly arranged according to expiration dates.

Take her jewelry, if you must. Take the only documentation testifying the actual, yet forgettable and insignificant, event that is the birth of her firstborn, if that pleases you. But don’t you even think about prying from my mother’s firm grip a bottle of this southern fish sauce.

thai grilled chicken recipe
But I digress.

In keeping with the informal southern theme, one of my uncles would bring pre-marinated, spatchcocked, whole chickens to be grilled at the party. His southern-style grilled chicken was always a hit among the younger clan members as 1. we got to help him with the grilling and that was awesome, 2. the chicken made us feel like we were grown-ups because it looked spicy even though it wasn’t, 3. it reminded us of the turmeric-tinted grilled chicken sold at most train stations which never failed to fascinate us when we took train trips down south, and 4. it was unbelievably delicious.

Though different ratios and variants are found, the standard Thai barbecue marinade primarily comprises fresh garlic, white peppercorns, and cilantro roots. Purists would use nothing but fish sauce and palm sugar as the seasoning agents in addition to the classic trio mentioned above. But the use of salt, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and various types of sweetener is also common.

Traditionally, fresh turmeric rhizomes are pounded together with the other ingredients to form a smooth paste. I have opted for ground turmeric since it’s more widely available. You can certainly use fresh turmeric if you can find it. A piece of fresh turmeric the size of the first knuckle of your pinkie finger would be roughly the equivalent of a tablespoon of ground turmeric in this recipe.

The key to this marinade lies in the use of fresh garlic and whole white peppercorns. This is a wet marinade, not a dry rub. Fresh garlic, when pounded into a paste, provides the body to the marinade, making it cling on the chicken skin better. This means that garlic powder is not going to deliver the same result. As for as the peppercorns, there’s no comparison between pre-ground peppercorns and ones that are pounded whole into a paste along with the other ingredients. I prefer white peppercorns as they are more commonly used in Thai cuisine, but you can certainly use black peppercorns.

thai chicken recipe
Also, do you have access to fresh cilantro roots? Some of us aren’t so fortunate as some people somewhere decide on our behalf (against our will) that cilantro roots are useless and deserve to be thrown out. But if fresh cilantro in your area comes with the roots, use them (and send holiday cards to your grocer). Cilantro roots add to the grilled meats a unique flavor that you can’t get from anything else, not even cilantro leaves! The seeds don’t give you that flavor either. Though coriander seeds are sometimes used in various Thai marinades, they’re used only on their own merit, never as a substitute for the inimitable roots.

If you don’t have fresh cilantro roots, don’t worry; just use the stems. (Added 5-28-13: Or grow your own cilantro to harvest the roots.)

Revision

  1. I have been wanting to write you to ask about doing a post on grilled chicken (or did I already and forgot?!). Thank you for this post! I have grilled many chickens since my visit to Thailand, but used a marinade adapted from http://pokpokpdx.com/.

    I ate at grilled chicken joint up in Chiang Mai, but they had a soy-based dipping sauce that I could have bathed in. I have tried many times to replicate such a recipe. I asked my father (who lives there) if he could extract the recipe from the chef and even offered him 10,000 baht on the spot, but no such luck.

    Have you had such a dipping sauce? I think it had ingredients like tamarind, palm sugar, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, shallots, cilantro and khao koor, maybe soya bean sauce. I’m not sure though. Whatever it was, I may have to provide a bigger bribe to get it!

  2. it’s really tough to find that much fresh cilantro root outside of Asia. i usually have to substitute with the leaves, stems and a tiny tiny bit of root. the burnt bits on your chicken look delicious!

    • As for the difficulty to find Cilantro Root outside of Asia…. I plant regular Coriander seeds about 1″ deep in soil and they grow beautifully !! Using the roots are fresh and easy then. Just plant them about 1″ apart and 1″ deep. Good luck and Stay Hungry !!

  3. LOM – LOL I know the feeling of wanting to bathe in a sauce. :)

    In the central part, the standard dipping sauces for grilled chicken are usually the sweet chilli sauce and jaew (made with dried chillis, shallots, and khao kua). Even so, different vendors add their own twist to the sauces. I would think with the influence of northern dipping sauces, the sauces sold in Chiang Mai would come with even more varieties.

    Actually, if you give me the exact location of this grilled chicken vendor, I might be able to stop by that place on my next trip there, get a sample, and try to reverse engineer it. (Without having tasted the sauce, I kind of doubt it has soy in it … but you never know.)

  4. Your chicken sounds great, going to try this once we get a dry weekend suitable for grilling.

  5. I took a picture with my GPS on to grab the location of the restaurant. I have emailed my father to see if I can get the name of the restaurant. Here are the coordinates:

    Latitude: 18.801520° N
    Longitude: 98.981837° E

    I stuck the coordinates in Google Maps and the image of the location looks about right:

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=18.801520%C2%B0+N+98.981837%C2%B0+E&sll=47.611665,-122.347773&sspn=0.007161,0.013754&ie=UTF8&ll=18.801333,98.98201&spn=0.002514,0.003439&t=h&z=18

    You would be my personal hero if you could figure out how to reverse engineer it!

  6. LOM – Man, you are fierce! Such tenacity deserves to be taken seriously. I’ll personally track this place down on my next trip to CM (within the next 6 months). I can’t guarantee success, but I can guarantee my best effort.

  7. Leela – There is just something amazing about grilled chicken, Thai or no. I just had some Argentine bird that was unbelievable. However for the sake of fairness, I feel I must make your version which has me salivating on this early morning. I think I’ll also make that corn dessert to wrap things up with.

  8. When you love something so much…

    So, my father sent me an email this morning and gave me a little bit more information about the restaurant:

    http://www.thaiblades.com/forums/showthread.php?t=900
    103. Ruam Jai Kai Yang
    (รวมใจไก่ย่าง) (See Map: C3)
    Great grilled chicken and pork with papaya salad. Packed all the time, another landmark restaurant. Succulent, soft and crunchy pork tendons in a spicy broth.
    Next to Chiang Mai Ram l hospital, Boonruangrit Road
    053 275 912

  9. Leela, I tried this recipe yesterday and I love it! It is so delicious. I didn’t have any cilantro root and am not a huge fan of the fish sauce brand I have so I used a mix of 1.5 Tb soy sauce (saltier than normal perhaps) and .5 Tb fish sauce. And then for added kick I added a Tb of cayenne pepper and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. My guy grilled it and after he tried it, he took all credit for it because it was so good. Hahah. Thanks for sharing this recipe and I have to agree, the ‘puree’d’ garlic makes a huge difference.

  10. Fantastic recipe! I pulled some cilantro from our little garden and threw in the root (I never knew it could be used). Every bite was so flavorful. I can’t wait to make this again.

  11. LOM – Whoa. Pulling cilantro off the ground to use its roots is quite impressive. Glad you liked the chicken!

    By the way, Lita, I’ve got your last message on the name and location of the grilled chicken restaurant in CM. I just didn’t publish the comment because the reference might be construed as advertisement. :)

    The challenge is on. I’m definitely going there. Stay tuned.

  12. Yum, I made a thai chicken salad this weekend. However, not having your marinade recipe at the time, I simply roasted the chicken which had been smothered in thai 7 spice.

    Good, but your recipe looks amazing, will have to try this next time,thanks for sharing.

  13. Bookmarked and ready to be made! I spatchcocked a chicken for the first time early this grilling season, so I’m primed to try this out. I’ll take a page from LOM and pull out one of my cilantro for its root (I’m not worried about sacrificing it: it has sent out satellite shoots growing in the cracks of our walkway). Can’t wait!

  14. sounds perfect. I’ve got a chicken in the fridge and coals awaiting to be used. My cilantro roots look anemic compared to yours, but will give it a try anyway. Can’t wait!

    Love your references in your story :)

  15. LOL It’s coming. I don’t have anyone whom I can send to the location just yet. On my next trip, I’m going there myself for sure. :)

  16. Hi, what’s the dark (fish sauce like) condiment sometime served with Thai roast chicken? It looks like pork shoulder (kor moo yang) sauce but not as thick.I believe it has cilantro in it too. BTW can you post a kor moo yang recipe too? Cheers :)

  17. Anon – I believe that’s Jaew (แจ่ว). When you buy bbq chicken, they usually give you two kinds of sauces: sweet chilli and jaew. There are many versions of jaew, though. One can be found here.

  18. Hey Leela do you have a recipe for street vendor “Moo Yang”. It’s the one thing (w/sticky rice of course) I could eat everyday for the rest of my life. Not sure why they don’t serve it in any of the restaurants here in S.F

    Sabai, Sabai ;)

  19. leela,
    i am looking forward to eating your chicken this weekend, thank you for posting the recipe. even more than the chicken, i am savoring your beautiful story and tribute to your uncle p. it brings a tear and a smile.

    did you ever re-engineer the sauce that lom wants to bathe in?! another smile…..

  20. How do you think this would be with boneless thighs? I am thinking of making this and taking it sealed in the marinade to the beach fir a family meal, and I have some crazy family members who do not like their chicken with bones!

  21. Chicken Butts! The Thai restaurant nearby has both Chicken Ass and Chicken Anus listed on their menu to the never ending laughter of my co-workers. What is it? It must be the tail right?

  22. FYI – I tried blending the marinade in my 7c food processor, but the blades totally missed the peppercorns and only coarsely chopped the cilantro root and garlic. So I’d recommend going with a smaller food processor, or use a mortar & pestle for the garlic, peppercorn, and cilantro root/stem and then adding the other ingredients. Looking forward to grilling tomorrow!

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  27. Came across this recipe via Tastespotting. Tremendous flavor!

    I let the marinade sit on the chicken for 3 days the first time around. Problem was that the flavors of the marinade didn’t penetrate the meat.

    So the second time around I mad a brine that used all the ingredients in the marinade (but only 1/2 the fish sauce since a brine has salt) and brined it for 24 hours.

    Then applied the marinade and let it sit for about 4 hours.

    That got all of these great flavors all throughout the meat too!

    Thanks for the recipe!

    • Great tip. Thank you. Brining also keeps the meat juicy as well. I’m also experimenting with that for the rotisserie chicken recipe I’m developing.

    • Having said that, brining isn’t traditionally done when it comes to Thai grilled chicken. Could be because, at least in the old days, smaller, thinner home-grown, free-range chickens were used. Making sure the marinade goes under the skin, as the recipe says, has worked well.

  28. Made this alongside pad Thai- incredible. So juicy and the marinade (we did it for 4 hours) permeated the whole thing. Just delicious. A staple recipe for us now. Wouldn’t change a thing. Made a big bottle of the “sauce” so we can have it on hand.

  29. Did you ever get the recipe for the 2010 request from: Next to Chiang Mai Ram l hospital, Boonruangrit Road ? I’m anxious to hear if you have duped it yet ??

  30. Excellent! This is the first time I have grilled a whole chicken. It worked beautifully. The chicken was very tender and had a lot of flavor. Thank you.