It’s primitive cooking really; stewing aromatics in hot water to extract their flavours, then fine tune the dish with the right amounts of sweet, salt and sour to the point where you can’t distinguish any one in particular - that’s the point when you know you’ve got it right. Finish it with a smattering of exotic herbs in primary colours and something very simple becomes a bowl of flavour-sophistication you can’t help but want to explore.
This dish is currently on the menu in its chicken format; previously there has been a prawn version and also one with ‘interesting mushrooms’, however this is not a vegetarian number on account of the fish sauce, which is integral to the dish.
I rarely achieve the right balance of sweet and sour on the first go, so have a bunch of spoons to hand and add the sugar, fish sauce and lime juice incrementally, tasting as you go. When you can detect all three in equal amounts without any one element dominating, you’re done. High five.
(makes approx. 1l)
1 x skinless chicken breast
4 x lemon grass sticks
8 x kaffir lime leaves
1 x clove of garlic, peeled
1 x piece root ginger (the size of a Mars Bar), peeled.
500ml of chicken stock
75ml lime juice
2 - 3 tablespoons caster sugar
4 - 6 tablespoons fish sauce
1 bunch of spring onions, finely sliced on the diagonal
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
Fresh coriander leaves
Cut the chicken breast into five or six strips (you’ll shred it later so don’t agonize over this) and bring to the boil with 500ml of cold water in a pan. Reduce the heat and poach gently for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and leave it to steep for 20 mins.
Remove the chicken strips from the water and skim the scum off the top of the ‘stock’.
In a large robust pan, add the lemon grass stalks, ginger, lime leaves and garlic. Use the end of a rolling pin to bash the bejesus out of them, bruising, crushing and releasing their juices, retaining ever last micro-drop of flavour within the pan.
Add the reserved chicken water to the pan, along with another 500ml of chicken stock (a cube will do just fine).
Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 20 mins.
Strain through a sieve into a clean pan and return to a very low heat.
Start by adding 3 tablespoons of fish sauce, 2 of sugar and 2 of lime juice, then taste. Add more of whatever flavour you feel is missing, you might not need any, you might want more than I’ve listed; it’s a personal thing, go with your instinct.
To serve, shred the chicken with your fingers into small spoonable pieces in the serving bowls, pour over the hot broth and finish generously with the spring onion, chilli and coriander.