Grilling Chicken in the Vietnamese Manner, Great for the Summer Barbecue

Grilling Chicken in the Vietnamese Manner, Great for the Summer Barbecue

I had the good fortune of visiting Vietnam a number of times in the
1990s, on public health work. Those field visits took place primarily in the north.

My prior experience in Vietnam had been brief and happened two decades earlier. It also involved work, though I was then a young Army Medical Corps malaria researcher based elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It was in late 1974, after the US and the various Vietnamese combatants had signed the Treaty of Paris ending the war that dominated my generation. (Both of my brothers served in combat in the war.) When I was there I experienced a tattered and depressed Saigon, capital of crumbling South Vietnam, which was overrun by the North not too long afterwards.

Aside from my coming to terms twenty years later with the defining events for most of us young Americans of the mid-sixties, I found to my amazement the many Vietnamese I met, formerly our enemies, were both charming and welcoming. I also learned how wonderful Vietnamese food was, especially in the North.

During my 1974 visit to the former Saigon, if I ate real Vietnamese food, I can’t recall it. War-weary Vietnam back then, with the distant thundering and faint glow of artillery on the horizons at night and floods of displaced people, was not a place to find, much less relish, fine cuisine. I recall some vaguely Chinese dishes and, surprisingly, some good French food at the “Guillaume Tell,” a restaurant near the waterfront run by two stalwart French-speaking Swiss women.

By contrast, in Hanoi in the 1990s I was delighted by the food in general, but particularly by the grilled marinated pork and chicken that you were served at extremely low tables and stools at tiny outdoor street restaurants straight from a glowing charcoal brazier around the corner or up above you on the first floor landing of the nearby fire escape. The flavors were exquisite, and you wrapped the grilled meat in lettuce and fresh herbs, optionally added a few roasted peanuts, and dipped the parcel into the elegant -- and ubiquitous -- Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.
Photography: Maria Dondero; Platters by Marmalade Pottery,
Athens GA, Sauce Bowls traditional Vietnamese

Here’s my effort at reproducing that savory Hanoi street-restaurant barbecued chicken and its accompaniments. I’ve made the dish frequently over the years. It was always a family favorite, and was even the featured dish at the outdoor summer-time wedding reception of my daughter Anna and son-in-law Andrew, who along with my participation now own and operate Donderos’ Kitchen.

Several culinary notes: the key seasoning in both the chicken and the dipping sauce is Asian fish sauce, as it is throughout Vietnamese, Thai and Lao cooking. Used in the quantities indicated, the finished products are not fishy, but rather rich and “umami” laden. (In Athens, fish sauce [get “Squid” brand or the more expensive “Three Crabs” brand] is available at Fooks Foods, as is Chinese Five-Spice powder.) I substitute readily available sherry for the Chinese rice wine that would be closer to the original, but it works well I think. And in Vietnam there would have been more fresh herbs than just cilantro and mint to wrap into the chicken parcels, such as culantro, Asian basil, and other leaves I didn’t recognize.

Beer was the drink back then, especially Bia Hoi (freshly made local draft beer) or bottled “333,” the post-war replacement for the French colonial “33” that was drunk in South Vietnam in the old days. But elsewhere, I had learned from a fabulous Vietnamese cook who lived in France and was married to one of my French colleagues that dry French rosés, especially from Provence, go extremely well with Vietnamese flavors. Dry rosés, well chilled, are still what I would serve with this Vietnamese barbecue.

The recipe serves six, but it will go fast.

Vietnamese Grilled Chicken for Lettuce and Herb Wrap

2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (from Asian grocery store)
2 tablespoons sherry
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 very small clove garlic put through press or very finely minced
Very small pinch Chinese 5-Spice powder (from Asian grocery store)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh

Mix all ingredients except the chicken in a large bowl.

Trim off excess fatty or tough parts of chicken, leaving some fat. As chicken is trimmed, drop it into the marinade. Stir well to coat chicken with marinade. After a few minutes, mix well again. Either cover bowl with plastic wrap or transfer chicken and marinade into a large zip-lock plastic bag. Marinate at least an hour, or as long as 24 hours refrigerated, stirring occasionally or squeezing the bag to mix.

Grill over charcoal or a gas grill on medium heat, or under the oven broiler using a “cake cooling” rack on top of a baking sheet to keep chicken off the pan. Turn pieces over occasionally, until cooked and crisply browned in spots on the surface. Remove to a cutting board. Slice crosswise 1/4-inch wide and stack attractively onto a platter.

Lettuce (loose leaf or romaine) pieces, cut into roughly 3-inch squares
Cilantro sprigs
Fresh mint leaves (optional)
Finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts (optional)
Dipping sauce (recipe below)

Diners put chicken strips on a lettuce piece, place leaves of various herbs on top, and sprinkle with some chopped peanuts, if used. Spoon on a little of the dipping sauce. Wrap the lettuce and enjoy.

Vietnamese Dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham)
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar or fresh lime juice
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce
1/8 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
A large squirt of hot pepper sauce

Crush garlic finely in a bowl with the sugar. Mix in remaining ingredients. After 5 minutes, remove the garlic bits. Taste and add a little salt or sugar or vinegar, if needed to your taste. The sauce should be faintly salty and delicately sweet and sour. Serve in one or more small bowl reachable by the diners.

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