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Monday, June 20, 2011

Com Ga -- Chicken Rice? Simplicity at its best

I'm sure you've heard people say that the simple things in life are the best.  Well, this dish requires the most basic culinary skills and may be one of the most enjoyable and unknown Vietnamese dishes.  It's literally translated into chicken rice.  And as simple as the name is, that's how simple this recipe is.  And honestly, it's so good.  Why this isn't more popular is beyond me as all my friends who have tried this recipe LOVES it and has their different ways of requesting it when they're over.

No.  There is no story about this recipe.  This is a recipe my mom has made hundreds of times for me when I was a child.  My very first culinary memory probably stems from this recipe as my mom used to wake me up Sunday at 10am to help her with this.  I would be the one to stir the rice.  Which is actually the most laborious part to this recipe.

Now, most Vietnamese cuisines are based on fish sauce.  What is fish sauce?  Basically that.  Fish, usually anchovies, that are fermented in salt.  It is slowly pressed to release it's liquids.  It's very strong and pungent and should definitely be used in moderation.  I like the Phu Quoc or Three Crabs brand.  Most of them work the same.  I would avoid the darker looking sauces though.  I made the mistake of assuming the darkness means a richer and less diluted fish sauce -- I was wrong.

Let's go ahead and get started.

What you'll need for this:
(Serves 4-6)
For marinade:
1 whole large chicken (4-5.5 lbs) or 10 chicken thighs
1 green onion, sliced thinly
2 tbs sugar
2 tbs fish sauce
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

The others:
1 onion (quartered)
2 carrots (optional)
3" knob ginger
2-3 cloves garlic
1 more green onion, sliced thin
5 rice cups of rice (rice cup, not regular cup, 1 rice cup ~ 3/4 cup by volume)
Nuoc Mam Gung (Ginger fish sauce)
Cilantro (for garnish)

To start, go ahead and rinse the chicken and let it dry out a bit.  You'll want to do a short marinade on the chicken.  Add the chicken and the "For Marinade" ingredients while you begin to prep everything else.  You should let it marinade for at least 15 minutes.

Bring a pot of water to a boil.  How much water?  Just enough to cover the chicken by an inch.  Add in the onion and ginger.  When water has reached its boiling point, lower the heat to let the chicken simmer for 15 minutes.  During it's time boiling/simmering, make sure to remove the scum from the pot and if you want, you can also remove some of the excess fat as well.  After simmering for 15 minutes, turn off the heat but leave the pot covered to gently cook the chicken.

As for the rice.  You're going to toast it.  All of it.  This is probably the most unique part of this dish.  Can you skip this step?  Yes.  I've had it where the rice was not toasted.  But you know what?  If you're going to do a dish wrong like this, don't do it at all.  This is where the time and labor comes in.  But it's so worth it.  It's also very easy to mess up.

The goal here is to release the oils from the rice as well as open up its pores to absorb the chicken broth you made with the chicken.  It should look like this when you're done.

Start off by rinsing the rice and drying it very well.  Heat a large pan or wok on medium to medium high heat.  You are going to want something that you can easily mix the rice around with a spatula.  So carbon steel or an anodized pan or wok is definitely my recommendation.  smash the garlic cloves, do not mince/slice it because you don't want it to burn.  Throw the garlic into the oil.  As soon as you start to smell the garlic, throw in the rice.  At first the rice will be a bit hard to stir.  It's heavier and they stick to each other quite a bit.  But it'll be okay.  Things will get better.  They always do.

But as it becomes more toasted and dry, it becomes much easier to stir around.  It also means that it'll burn quicker, so the later it gets, the more you're going to have to stir.  Be careful not to burn anything, including the garlic as it'll get bitter.  When the rice starts to look like this, add in the last green onion.

Stir it around for about 30 seconds and turn off the heat.  Transport the toasted rice to a rice cooker (or a pot) and add in the chicken stock that you have just made.  I actually add a bit more water than usual (about an extra 3/4 cup) than the rice cooker asks for.  The rice is dryer because you've toasted it so it demands even more water.

The very right line is for white rice.  I added broth for almost up to 6 cups.  (We used 5 cups).

And that's it!  As soon as the rice is ready, serve the rice with some chicken.  I garnish it with some cilantro and nuoc mam gung (ginger fish sauce).  I also dip the chicken in the ginger fish sauce as well.