Thai food. One of the greatest bastions of flavor on the planet. They say that every dish is supposed to contain the sweet, salty, sour, and spicy component flavors. I’m not sure that ends up always happening, but their dishes are never short of flavor.
I started eating Thai food in High School, going to a little place called Rearn Thai in Greensboro, NC. It was there I fell in love with a dish they called Ground Chicken with Basil. It seemed to be their signature dish, and it was one that they always made perfectly. After eating at many, many Thai restaurants and having the same dish, I have learned it is called Pad Prik Pao (it can be spelled dozens of different ways, but you can get the phonetics down and order it most anywhere), and I have even had the dish in a few different restaurants in Thailand.
After a number of disappointing experiences in my first few years away from North Carolina, I decided I needed to figure out a similar recipe. I found a start in the fantastic cookbook Cooking School Secrets For Real-World Cooks, a book that I highly recommend for novice cooks, and one that I have many recipes I make regularly. I made it as written a few times, but ended up changing and altering to make it more the consistency I wanted.
So what could be the barrier to making this in Japan? A few actually. First off, the key ingredients are next to impossible to find. No one sells ground chicken, commissary or local stores, very rarely does the commissary have basil, and I have never seen it in fresh form out in town, and chilies are hard to find in fresh form. It’s weird that three things I would think were used regularly are difficult to find consistently.
But I lucked out. Not only did the commissary have basil, but they also had chilies. I’m not sure what type they are, they looks like Serranos but are nowhere near as hot, but I’ll take what I can get. So, that’s 2 of the more difficult items down. And as for the ground chicken. . . well, I had been wanting to purchase a meat grinder attachment for the KitchenAid.Let’s get to it, shall we?
Pad Prik Pao
- 1lb Ground Chicken (breast or thigh is fine, I prefer thigh)
- 1 Red Bell Pepper, Diced
- 1 Yellow or Orange Bell Pepper, Diced
- 1 Medium Sweet or Yellow Onion, Diced
- 2+ Cloves Garlic, Minced
- 2+ Serrano Peppers, Diced (use Thai Chilies if you can find them, or Jalapenos if you don’t like it as spicy, or leave them out all together if you are a wuss)
- As much basil as you dare to use
- Fish Sauce
- Sweet Soy Sauce (or use regular Soy Sauce and some Molasses)
- White Pepper
- Olive Oil
Start a wok or other large pan capable of holding all of the ingredients together on high heat. Add about 1T Olive Oil and let heat until a piece of onion will sizzle. Add the onion and saute for about 2 minutes, then add the red and yellow peppers and continue for another 2 minutes before adding the garlic. DO NOT add the chilies at this stage, they will come later. Saute all of the veggies together for another minute or two, depending on how much heat you lost in the veggie adding process, until they are all soft and nicely integrated. Remove from the pan and set aside. Tip: Don’t add salt to the veggies. It will cause them to release moisture and make the later steps difficult.Return the pan to the heat, add about a tablespoon more oil, and let it get hot again. Add the chicken to the pan and break up with a wooden spoon, or implement of your choice. I prefer a spoonula type implement myself. Let it cook on the one side for a few minutes until it is looking done, then stir fry it until cooked through. Add the veggies back and mix with the chicken. Add the Serranos and stir in. Let this cook for a minute or two to try and integrate the flavors and cook off some moisture (puddling in the bottom of the pan isn’t what you want to have here).
Now is flavor adding time. The crucial bit here is Fish Sauce, a funky, briny, slightly rotten flavor that makes up so much of South East Asian flavor. Add some fish sauce to control the saltiness and the sour. I am typically pretty heavy with it because I love the taste but 2 tablespoons should do you well. The Sweet Soy Sauce is much more difficult to acquire than the fish sauce. You can find it in Asian markets with big Thai and Vietnamese sections, and some Commissaries with Filipino sections. I have had my bottle, purchased in California, a long time, though I made this recipe without it for a few years. The Sweet Soy is very thick and has a great unique flavor, but if you can’t find it, or don’t want to purchase a bottle of something with just one purpose, you can add a spoonful of Molasses and 1 tablespoon or more of normal Soy Sauce. The molasses will control the sweetness and the soy adds that flavor that only soy can bring. For the real stuff, about 1-2 tablespoons should be sufficient, though more isn’t a bad thing, just sweeter.There should already be some good spice from the chilies, but you can add some more using some white pepper. You can’t substitute black for white, they are completely different animals, and the flavor the white pepper adds is unique. You can keep adding more to make it spicier, though the flavor of the white pepper can dominate if you add too much. Finally dump a bunch of basil in, you can just rip it with your hands and dump it in, just make sure and avoid the stems. Add as much as you want, I have never thought I put too much in. Keep the heat high the whole time and try and cook off as much moisture as possible, but there will be some at this stage and that’s fine.
Put a healthy serving on top of a mound of jasmine rice, top with some chiffonade of basil leaves, and serve up to 4.
There are a few other things I’ve added, or I have seen others add to great effect. In Thailand I had a fried egg served on top of the chicken, which I like, though not enough to do it at home. A similar dish I had in Malaysia was served with a fried egg on top as a breakfast food. I also had a nearly identical dish with ground pork for breakfast in Thailand. The dish is commonly served with a sauce consisting of fish sauce, lime, chilies and sometime garlic, along side it. I don’t prepare this for myself, but use the ingredients in the recipe to dial in the flavor I want. I think you can buy that sauce already assembled at Asian markets, though I haven’t really searched for it.
If you love the basil flavor as much as I do, you can add some sprigs of Basil, or just the stalks you didn’t put in the chicken, to the water when cooking the rice. I’ve had a few places add some bamboo shoots in when cooking the veggies at the beginning. They add some good flavor and a unique texture. If you like the dish to be a little coarser, you can use chopped pieces of thigh meat instead of the ground chicken. Additionally, use chopped veggies instead or diced, or even cut into strips. I am not particularly a fan of these techniques, but I have had it served this way in a lot of restaurants.
By the way, the home ground chicken was ridiculously good.