Thai-Style Fried Chicken – Gai Tod (ไก่ทอด)



Those who have experienced a mini bliss that involves a Thai-style fried chicken drumstick in one hand and a ball of warm sticky rice in the other don’t need any further convincing that Thai street fried chicken is the stuff of wonders. Now, imagine that same type of fried chicken — in all its glory — done with the southern Thai twist; firm-yet-tender flesh, crispy skin and coating, perfumed with golden fried shallots. Certain types of Bangkok street food when done by members of the Muslim community both from the South and various spots in Bangkok, tend to be exceedingly better than the other versions out there. Fried chicken, in my opinion, is one of them.


Growing up, trips to my paternal grandmother’s house on weekends were filled with both dread and delight in equal measures for me. On the one hand, I knew that some kind of curry would be made, and I would get asked to hop — against my will — on the coconut bunny from Hades. On the other hand, I knew that one of my aunts would stick me in her car1 and we would drive off to a nearby wet market for some Muslim-style fried chicken. Min Buri District on the east side of Bangkok has been home to a sizable Muslim community for such a long time that the residents are used to waking up to the amplified pre-dawn adhān and seeing signs on food carts bearing the crescent moon and star along with both Thai and Arabic writings.

There’s an unspoken understanding: fried chicken vendors with bilingual signs usually have better fried chicken than ones with uni-lingual signs. Don’t ask me why.

I don’t know what activities gave you so much joy when you were a kid. One childhood memory that stands out for me is the quiet moments when I lined up with my aunt for delicious Muslim-style fried chicken trying to decipher the exquisitely beautiful Arabic script on the sign while waiting. It must have been during one of those trips to Bang Kapi market that I committed to my memory the fried chicken procedure while simultaneously deciding I wanted to study languages when I grew up.


What is the difference between Thai-style fried chicken and American-style fried chicken? Typically, American-style batter-fried chicken comprises a crispy/crackly coating covering the juicy meat inside. Thai street fried chicken also has a crispy coating, although it is somewhat thinner and lighter and clings to the entire piece of chicken more tightly. In other words, the point of separation between the coating and the meat in American-style fried chicken is more visible than that in Thai-style fried chicken.

What is the difference between regular Thai-style fried chicken and southern- or Muslim-style Thai fried chicken? Well, not much. It’s just that fried chicken done according to the tradition of the predominantly Muslim South or the Muslim communities throughout the country is, to me, superior in quality. One vendor from whom I buy regularly adds a few lightly-bruised and knotted fresh pandanus leaves to the oil and fries them along with the chicken. The pandanus leaves infuse the oil and, in turn, lightly perfume the chicken. Some vendors insist on adding skin-on quartered onions to the oil for the same effect. This is all optional.

But what tips the scale in favor of Muslim- or Southern-style fried chicken for me personally is the inclusion of crispy fried shallots that add extra savoriness and very pleasant fragrance to the whole thing. It’s optional, of course, but if there is ever an appropriate occasion to gild the lily, this is it.

The more I write, the more I realize how inadequate my words are. You just have to try it.


Success in producing good Thai street fried chicken requires that you pay attention to the following three aspects of it:

The Marinade: Since, like most Thai dishes, Thai-style fried chicken is meant to be eaten with either steamed long grain rice or sticky rice, it’s seasoned in such a way that the flavor is strong enough to compensate for the blandness of the rice. The marinade is, therefore, concentrated with flavor and it’s not used sparingly. The key is to marinate the chicken pieces before they are coated and fried. That way, the flavoring agents don’t merely cling precariously on the coating; they permeate every nook and cranny of the chicken meat all the way to the edible cartilage (which I adore). Larger pieces of chicken quarters are sometimes given a few slashes on the skin all the way to the bones in order to allow the marinade to penetrate more deeply into the meat. The marinade also acts in a similar way to brining; it dissolves protein in the chicken muscle resulting in better moisture retention. This is the very reason why Thai-style fried chicken can be “drier” yet moist. I’m going to pretend the previous sentence makes perfect sense.

The coating: Just before being fried, the marinated chicken pieces are given a quick dip in a rice flour batter which includes no more than rice flour and liquid. Rice flour alone already produces very light and very crispy coating, but some traditionalists make the power of rice flour even more potent and long-lasting by moistening it with limestone water (or 50% limestone water and 50% plain water). If you don’t have limestone water, plain seltzer water(or a mixture of water and baking soda) will work in a pinch.

My personal preference is to dip the marinated chicken in the batter first then give it another coat of plain rice flour. The chicken pieces are then left to dry out on a tray at room temperature for about 15-20 minutes before they go into the hot oil. This helps the rice flour coating to adhere more tightly to the chicken.


The Frying: Well, you know the drill; 350°F oil; cast iron skillet or pot, etc. The only remark that needs to be made is that Thai-style fried chicken stays in the oil longer than usual. As mentioned above, Thai fried chicken is fried up drier than typical American-style fried chicken. This means when you bite into a piece of it, there should be no clear juice dripping down your chin. The meat is firmer and the coating clings to the meat more tightly.

To keep the meat from drying out too much in the fryer, it helps to get good-quality, hormone-free chicken as the individual pieces won’t be so big that by the time the thickest part is cooked just right, the thinnest part is overcooked. I like to use chicken drumsticks and wings, but you can use whatever you like. When I fry my drumsticks, I like to turn them upside-down as shown in the photograph above. That way, the thinnest part doesn’t dry out too much while waiting for the thickest part to cook up.

Once the chicken is done, transfer it to a paper towel-lined tray and let it cool down to slightly warmer than room temperature. Fried chicken is at its best at that stage, in my opinion. Don’t worry that the coating will lose its crispness as it cools; with the rice flour and alkaline of either limestone or soda at work, it won’t. Just make sure that you lay out the chicken pieces in a single layer and with spaces between them so they don’t get steamed.


Thai-style fried chicken is best served with Thai sweet chilli sauce and warm sticky rice (which you can steam with a splatter guard). Lately, I’ve been using a dipping sauce made out of half Thai sweet chilli sauce and half Thai Sriracha; it tastes pretty good.

Leftover fried chicken can be kept refrigerated and re-crisped on a cookie sheet in the oven.

Revision

34 Responses to Thai-Style Fried Chicken – Gai Tod (ไก่ทอด)

  1. Justin October 22, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    i wish i wasn’t so afraid of deep-frying at home because this looks amazing

  2. .: RY :. October 22, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    One of the differences between Muslim-style fried chicken and any fried chicken is that i dont get the bloodied look and taste in the Muslim-styled fried chicken – because it’s always thoroughly cooked through. :)

  3. Arwen from Hoglet K October 22, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    You’ve got a nice piece of reasoning here that bigger cuts of meat aren’t better. We ought to tell the chicken industry. I love your photo of the boiling oil!

  4. Rick October 22, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Hey Leela, as usual a great post. I have to give this a try. Might try to brine the chicken to help retain moisture.

    Just catching up on older posts, been run off my feet these days – I like the new colours and white pumpkin.

  5. Swathi October 22, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    Leela.,

    Tempting to veggie like me too.Looks delicious

  6. lisaiscooking October 22, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    The crispy coating looks irresistible, and the marinade sounds delicious. I’d love to sample some from various vendors. That would be a great day of food research!

  7. nooami October 22, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    I uttered the sound that cannot be reproduced by word when I saw the first photo. Something along the line of, “Leela, take me home, girl.” My all time favorite. Years of failed attempts. Now I feel so safe. Thank you.

  8. Leela October 22, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

    Nooami – You’re funny. :)

  9. Jared October 26, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    mmmh you had me at “fried chicken”. The chicken looks awesome. Are you worried about the oil level in the pot? Looks kinda high.

  10. Leela October 26, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    Jared – Yeah, it’s kind of high. :) The oil bubbles very gently, though.

  11. Jun October 27, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    I am a huge fan, I just never got around to leave any comments before :) I really can’t help myself this time.

    Those are great tips on frying, Leela. Beautiful photos too!

  12. Anonymous November 9, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    is this gluten free, though? there is oyster sauce in it…which i believe has soy in it- which is wheat….?

  13. Leela November 10, 2010 at 12:15 am #

    Anon – Ah! You’re right. Thank you so much. I’ve added a note to the recipe. Those who think they’ll be affected by the amount of gluten found in 3 tablespoons of oyster sauce can go with the gluten-free option.

  14. Anonymous December 11, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    Wow. This is just as I remember from my last trip to Hat Yai. Thank you. Great recipe and very thorough explanation.

  15. Leela December 11, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    Anon – Thanks for the feedback. It’s been a while since I visited Hat Yai, so great to know.

  16. Anonymous January 19, 2011 at 5:16 am #

    Hi Leela! I have to try your recipe. Can you also tell me how to make fry chicken livers too. I remember eating fry livers with the fry chicken when I was in BangKok. It was delicious! I love it! Please and thank you!

  17. Leela January 19, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    Anon – How sweet! I rarely get a “please and thank you.” :)

    Fried chicken livers (and gizzards, too, perhaps?) are made the same way. You just marinate them (only 30 minutes or so since the pieces are small) in the same marinade, dip them in the same batter, and dust them as shown here. Is this too vague? Hope not. But if it is, please check back here and let me know.

  18. Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    thanks for the great recipe! just tried it out last night and my friends and i loved it.

    i found the crust to be a little harder than i would like, but it had great crunch! haven’t been to thailand, so not sure if it is supposed to be that way. do you think it will be lighter if i used tapioca flour? by the way, i used water and baking soda, would it be lighter if i used lime of seltzer water?

    my house still smells of pandan leaves and shallots this morning!

    thanks,
    stella

  19. Leela March 5, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    Stella – Thanks for the feedback! I’d say, yes, the crust is supposed to be drier and a tad harder than typical American fried chicken. I’ve never used tapioca flour in this recipe before, but it would be interesting to see how it turns out. If you get around to experimenting with that, would you please come back and let us know?

    I’ve experimented 5-6 times with a limestone water-based batter and a batter with baking soda added, and, consistently, there is not much difference between the two in terms of the hardness of the crusts they produce. The only difference is that the batter with baking soda has consistently resulted in darker crusts, even when the chicken is fried at the same temperature.

  20. JohnMich March 21, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    Wonderful recipe. First time I ever got the crunch I was looking for. The amount of water needed to make the batter is a lot more than in recipe. A typo?

  21. Admin March 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    JohnMich – Thanks. No, not a typo.

  22. JohnMich March 22, 2012 at 1:53 am #

    Leela
    Thanks for your quick reply but I am not understanding. If I use the flour and water as per batter ingredients it is not ‘quite runny’ its a doughy lump. Other people have not mentioned this so they must be smarter than me so please explain
    John

  23. Admin March 22, 2012 at 2:04 am #

    JohnMich – The type of rice flour I use (and the only type that should be used) is extremely fine and light and if you add any more water to it than what the recipe specifies, it gets so runny that nothing sticks to the chicken. Assuming you’re using rice flour and not sticky rice flour (some readers who have written me about the same problem with a different recipe often have the two confused and it affects the recipe), it could be that the brand you’re using is different in terms of hygroscopicity. In this case, feel free to add more water until you achieve the consistency of thin yogurt.

  24. snowlas November 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    What kind of oil are you using? I usually use a Peanut Oil to fry chicken because of the higher smoke point, but what about for this chicken? Thanks!

    • Leela November 10, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

      Anything that doesn’t have any taste will do.

  25. Frank February 3, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    Hi there. I live in Phuket and here also the best fried chicken is made by the muslims, but the batter and the fried chicken is much more more red in color than in your pictures. I don’t thinks its just ground chillies that give the colour, because it doesn’t taste very spicy. Do you knwo the secret?
    Thanks,
    แฟรงค์

    • Leela February 4, 2013 at 11:26 am #

      Frank, not having seen the red fried chicken in person, I’m thinking, based on your description that it has nothing to do with ground chilies in the batter. First of all, that’s usually not done. Secondly, a lot of ground chilies would have to be added for the chicken to turn dark and you would have tasted it.

      Two things I can think of:
      1. They have added red food coloring to the batter (or the marinade). This is an assumption based on the “no red color added” signs I have seen on some fried chicken vendors in the South. This means some vendors do add color to their chicken.
      2. The chicken is fried in vegetable oil which has been used and reused so many times that it has turned dark. Chicken or dough (e.g. pa thong ko) turn darker in color when fried in damaged oil. This is why when you replicate fried street foods at home, the results are lighter in color.

  26. Bobby Pope March 7, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Hi Leela, first of all, well done for the generousity of sharing the recipe. It was very elaboratively explained and no holding back on the secret.

    I am a novice when comes to Thai cooking. I wonder if the following ingredients would work together for the fried chicken.

    Ingredients:-
    lemon grass, shallots, garlic, galengal, fresh corrainder, corriander seed, black peppercorn, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and oyster sauce.

    Cheers.
    Bobby Pope

    • Leela March 7, 2013 at 11:53 am #

      Some of these ingredients aren’t traditionally used in fried chicken marinade (or any meat marinade, for that matter). But they should work together quite well. The flavor would deviate greatly from Southern/Muslim style fried chicken featured here, though. Also, personally, I’d separate out lime juice from the marinade and incorporate it back into the dish in the form of a dipping sauce or something. You get the best of what lime has to offer that way.

  27. Scrofula March 25, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Looks great! But just a nitpick: from what I’ve read, hormones are not approved for use on chickens in the US, so all chicken here is hormone-free.

  28. fay January 25, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    Hi there
    Do we place the optional aromatics in the batter?
    Thanks

    • Leela January 25, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

      fay – No, you add them to the oil. The post (scroll up) explains how they’re used by some vendors.

  29. fay February 1, 2014 at 12:43 am #

    Thank you for the information Leela. It turned out fine and good, down to the last bite :-)

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