Roasted Turkey with Thai Aromatic Paste

Roasted Turkey with Thai Aromatic Paste
From time to time, I get emails asking if I’ve ever tried to incorporate Thai flavors into my Thanksgiving turkey. I have indeed — though, I must say, only reluctantly and mostly to satisfy people’s curiosity. I guess the lack of enthusiasm on my part is due to this: while I eat Thai food all year round, only once a year do I get to enjoy plain, buttery roasted turkey along with sausage stuffing, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn pudding, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with apple cider-beer glaze, cranberry sauce, and soft dinner rolls with whipped butter. I love these side dishes with my turkey; each year I look forward to them more than I do the turkey itself. So I don’t feel I need to try thinking outside the box with the turkey and to risk having it clash with those classic sides.

Do “Thai flavors” clash with the traditional side dishes? Several years ago, some friends forced me to suggested that I make green curry-flavored turkey, and, against my better judgment, I caved. Well, let’s just say that we all are still scarred by the experience. We agreed we loved Thai green curry and we loved the usual Thanksgiving side dishes. We just didn’t love them together.

Later, I experimented with other ideas one of which is to fill the turkey’s cavity with the tom yam herbs, namely, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal — something I’d done with whole chickens and Cornish game hens before. I wouldn’t do it again. These herbs aren’t easy to find or cheap (unless you live in Southeast Asia in which case it’s the price and quality of the turkey that’s more of a problem), and you’re going to need enough of them to 1. fill the large cavity and 2. make a difference on the turkey meat which is quite thick. But the most important thing is that I found the result to be just okay. Okay is better than bad, but okay doesn’t really justify the expense and the effort. I think I’ll save this method for smaller birds.

Roasted Turkey with Thai Aromatic Paste

Use your hand to create a large pocket underneath the skin, front and back.

One thing, however, works very well. Not surprisingly, I would say, since it’s one of the most common ways the Thai people season their poultry. Readers who have been with me for a while are familiar with the basic, multi-purpose Thai aromatic paste that comprises the simple, common ingredients of fresh garlic, peppercorns, and cilantro roots — a seasoning paste whose presence is strong enough to be felt but not so strong that it becomes obnoxious at the Thanksgiving table.

The key is to spread the aromatic paste in a thin, even layer underneath the turkey skin to keep the paste from burning and becoming bitter. When you deal with a smaller bird, this isn’t much of a problem. But when it comes to a large bird like a turkey that needs to be cooked much longer (and as in this case, at a very high temperature initially), it’s best that the paste not be exposed to direct heat.

Roasted Turkey with Thai Aromatic Paste

This turkey is ready for the oven. Notice how the paste is all underneath the skin.

To do this, you will need to get your hands dirty. With one hand steadying the bird, gently insert the other hand through the opening where the breasts meet the neck (i.e. the pocket where they hide the giblet pouch) and carefully lift the skin off the flesh using your fingers. You’re not removing the skin from the turkey; you’re merely separating the skin from the flesh so you can spread the paste all over the surface of the flesh. Along the way, you will encounter a few stubborn spots where you will need the help of a small paring knife to cut through the stringy connective tissues. Keep going until you get to the narrow ends of the breasts. Throughout the whole process, be careful not to tear the skin. Flip the bird over and do the same thing on the back side. Go all the way down to the tail end and into the thighs. [You probably can’t go all the way into the legs, but that’s okay; they will get seasoned with the butter-soy mixture (see recipe) along with the wings.]

This is quite a bit of work, but your effort will be handsomely rewarded.

Roasted Turkey with Thai Aromatic Paste
Then you roast the turkey and let it rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes before carving.

I’ve suggested one way of roasting the turkey in the recipe below, but you don’t need to follow it exactly if you think you have a better way of roasting it. You can spatchcock your turkey or you can leave it whole. You can start at a high oven temperature and continue with it to the end, or you can lower the temperature a bit after the initial stage (as suggested here). I bet you can even deep-fry or grill your turkey, though I’ve done neither. The main point of this post is more about the seasoning than the roasting.

Note: For this post, I roasted two turkeys of the same size, one brined and one not. They both turned out very well. So I’m just going to say that brining is unnecessary, especially when your turkey is on the small side. The one you’re looking at here is 10 pounds. If you follow the directions, don’t overcook it, and let it rest before carving, it’s unlikely your turkey will be dry. However, if your turkey is larger (anything over 14 pounds), brining is recommended.



Roasted Turkey with Thai Aromatic Paste
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Main Course
Serves: 6-8
  • 8 large cloves garlic, peeled
  • ⅓ cup finely-chopped cilantro roots or ½ cup finely-chopped cilantro stems
  • 1 tablespoon whole white peppercorns or 1 tablespoon ground white pepper (I like this amount, but you can use half of it if you're sensitive to pepper.)
  • 1 tablespoon salt (You can use 2 tablespoons fish sauce, if you'd like, but this will make the paste too runny.)
  • ¼ cup oyster sauce
  • ⅓ cup, packed, finely grated palm sugar or ¼ cup, packed, dark or light brown sugar
  • One 10-pound turkey, thawed
  • ¾ cup clarified (best) or melted unsalted butter (okay)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce (any kind except the molasses-like sweet dark soy sauce)
  1. Make the paste by grinding the garlic, cilantro roots, and peppercorns into a smooth paste. (The best tool for this is a mortar and pestle. You can use a small food processor or mini-chopper but you may need to add a little bit of water to the paste to get the blades going.)
  2. Transfer the paste to a small bowl. Add the salt, oyster sauce, and sugar; mix well.
  3. Create a large pocket between the skin and the flesh of the turkey (see post for explanation). Spoon the paste into the pocket and rub it on the flesh underneath the skin. Once that's done, pull the skin taut and wipe off any paste on the outside. (At this point, you can roast the turkey right away or you can chill it, uncovered, for up to 6 hours.)
  4. Preheat the oven to 450F.
  5. Place the turkey, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan. Tie the turkey legs together with kitchen twine or a silicone rubber band. Roast for 30 minutes.
  6. Lower the oven temperature to 375F.
  7. Mix together the clarified butter and dark soy sauce.
  8. Brush the turkey all over with some of the butter-soy mixture. Loosely tent the turkey's breasts with a large piece of foil which has been greased (so it doesn't stick to the skin).
  9. Continue roasting the turkey, brushing the skin with more butter-soy mixture every 15 minutes and keeping the breasts tented the whole time, until the meat around the "ankles" start to split and the thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast registers 160F. For a turkey this size, this should take no more than 3 hours (excluding the first 30-minute high-heat roasting).
  10. Remove the turkey from the oven. Remove the foil tent and let the turkey rest for 30 minutes. Carve. Serve.


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