A typical Vietnamese family meal consists of steamed white rice, a soup, a braised/grilled/stewed/fried protein dish and lots of fresh/pickled vegetables and herbs. The whole family gathers around a smorgasbord of food with their own bowl of steamed rice and a pair of chopsticks. Everyone grabs a little from each serving bowl and add it to their bowl of rice. Traditionally, people start off with the protein and vegetables. When the rice bowl is halfway empty, they ladle in the soup with the remaining rice and slurp it down. Slurping is not bad table manners in Vietnam. It’a sign of satisfied appetite and gratitude towards the cook.
One of my favorite family meals is chicken-based. One whole chicken can be made easily into two dishes. The backbone and wing tips of the chicken are chopped up and made into a stock for soup. My go-to soup in the Fall is Kabocha Squash Soup with Chicken (Canh Ga Nau Bi Do). The rest of the chicken is caramelized/braised with lots of ginger into a dish that we call Ga Kho Gung. I always serve the caramelized ginger chicken with fresh slices of cucumber. That way, I can use the braising liquid has a dipping sauce for the cucumbers.
When I was working the 9-to-5, I always packed the leftover caramelized ginger chicken for lunch. My work lunch was typically a bento box of caramelized ginger chicken with kimchi or freshly sliced cucumbers and a small portion of steamed white rice. The caramelized ginger chicken was always so much better the next day. So whenever I make Vietnamese caramelized ginger chicken for dinner, I always make sure to make a large batch so I can have plenty for lunch the next day.
To make Vietnamese Caramelized Chicken with Ginger (Ga Kho Gung), I use a whole chicken minus the backbone and cut it into large chunks. The bones keep the chicken moist and flavorful. However, chicken bones can be brittle if you don't cut them cleanly. The small pieces of bone can break apart in the pot which would be very difficult to fish out. To ensure a clean cut and avoid shards of bones in the pot, use a very sharp butcher knife and cut the chicken when it is half-frozen. Of course, you can skip the bones and the whole chicken by using boneless chicken thighs, which is ideal for small children and grownups who behave like small children.
Chicken shrinks up quite a bit once cooked so I cut up the chicken no smaller than 2-inch chunks. The chicken pieces are marinated with a mixture of fish sauce, salt, sugar, chicken stock powder, ginger, shallots and black pepper. A tiny bit of thick soy sauce or Vietnamese caramel cooking sauce is used to darken and color the meat. The chicken gets slowly braised with coconut soda until the sugar in the marinade reduces and caramelized into a sweet and savory liquid, which use to drizzle over rice or as a vegetable dipping sauce.
Vietnamese Caramelized Chicken with Ginger (Ga Kho Gung)
- 3 lbs bone-in chicken (legs, drumsticks, or thighs)
- 2-inch piece ginger (thumb size, peel and slice into thin strips)
- 2 large shallots (about 2 oz, peel and dice)
- 1 teaspoon thick soy sauce or 1 teaspoon homemade caramel cooking sauce
- 1 tablespoon chicken stock powder
- 2-1/2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt (reserve half for washing chicken)
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup fish sauce
- 1 can coconut soda
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro/green onions (optional)
- Chop up chicken into large 2-inch pieces. Coat the chicken with half of the salt. Rub salt into the chicken to give it a good cleaning. Rinse with cold running water then drain dry.
- Marinate chicken with ginger, shallots, dark soy sauce, chicken stock powder, sugar, remaining salt, pepper and fish sauce for at least 30 minutes at room temperature or overnight in fridge for best results.
- Lightly coat the bottom of a large skillet with vegetable oil and heat on medium high. Add chicken in a single layer (without the marinade liquid for now) and lightly fry on both sides until you smell the aroma of ginger and shallots (about 2-3 minutes per side).
- Add the marinade liquid and coconut soda. Simmer on medium low heat for 45 minutes (do not cover). Occasionally turn for even caramelization.
- When ready to serve, top with cilantro or green onions and a sprinkle of black pepper. Serve with steamed white rice and an optional side soup.