Grilled chicken with peppercorn cilantro root paste is something you’re going to make again and again. The marinade and dipping sauce both come together quickly and are full of the big flavors of chile, garlic, fish sauce, and cilantro root. 

Adapted from Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid | Hot Sour Salty Sweet | Artisan, 2000

North Americans have come to love Southeast Asian food for its bright, fresh flavors. But beyond the dishes themselves, one of the most attractive aspects of the food is the life that surrounds it. In Southeast Asia, people eat for joy. The palate is wildly eclectic, proudly unrestrained. We celebrate this great culinary region with all the passion, color, and life that it deserves.–Naomi Duguid

Five small pieces of grilled chicken with peppercorn cilantro root paste on a wooden cutting board with a small dish of chili sauce beside them.

Grilled Chicken with Peppercorn Cilantro Root Paste

5 / 2 votes
During our travels, we ate traditional foods in villages and small towns and learned techniques and ingredients from cooks and market vendors and came to realize that the local cuisines share a distinctive culinary approach. Each cuisine balances, with grace and style, the regional flavor quartet of hot, sour, salty, and sweet.
Servings6 servings
Calories404 kcal
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time45 minutes


For the chicken

  • 2 tablespoons cilantro root paste*
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
  • 3 pounds bone-in chicken breasts or breasts and legs chopped into 10 to 12 pieces
  • Mild vegetable oil
  • Sticky rice to serve

For the hot and sweet dipping sauce

  • 1/2 cup rice or cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic finely minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes


Marinate the chicken

  • In a large bowl, combine the cilantro root paste and fish sauce. Place chicken pieces in the marinade and turn to coat well. Cover and marinate in the fridge for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.

Make the hot and sweet dipping sauce

  • In a small nonreactive saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the vinegar to a boil. Add the sugar, stirring until it has completely dissolved, then lower the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, using a or a bowl and the back of a spoon, pound or mash the garlic and salt to a smooth paste. Stir in the red pepper flakes and blend well.
  • Remove the vinegar mixture from the heat and stir in the garlic paste. Let cool to room temperature. Store sealed in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Finish the chicken

  • Heat a grill to 400°F (200°C) with cooking grates set 4 to 5 inches (10 to 13 cm) from the flame, or preheat the broiler to medium with the rack set 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) from the element.
  • If using a grill, clean and oil the cooking grates. Place the chicken pieces bone side down, and grill until the bottom side is starting to brown, about 6 minutes. Flip the chicken pieces and cook until golden brown on the other side and the juices run clear when the meat is pierced and the internal temperature has reached 165°F (74°C), about 6 minutes more.
    If using a broiler, lightly coat a broiler pan with oil. Broil until the chicken is starting to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the pieces over and broil until the juices run clear and the internal temperature has reached 165°F (74°C), 4 to 10 minutes more.
  • Arrange the chicken pieces on a platter and serve with the dipping sauce and plenty of sticky rice.


*What is cilantro root paste?

Cilantro root paste is a nearly all-purpose barbecue rub or marinade that takes its flavors from the southeast Asian cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam. Cilantro (coriander) plants are at their peak in late spring and early summer and once they’ve gone to seed, the roots are ripe for use. This paste enhances chicken and fish particularly well. It is reminiscent of cilantro but it’s quite a bit more pungent, with a peppery, lemony, and earthy flavor. If you’re unable to get your paws on any roots, you can absolutely use cilantro stems instead. There will be a subtle difference but it will still taste fantastic.
Hot Sour Salty Sweet Cookbook

Adapted From

Hot Sour Salty Sweet

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Serving: 1 portionCalories: 404 kcalCarbohydrates: 17 gProtein: 29 gFat: 23 gSaturated Fat: 7 gTrans Fat: 1 gCholesterol: 116 mgSodium: 685 mgPotassium: 322 mgFiber: 1 gSugar: 17 gVitamin A: 374 IUVitamin C: 3 mgCalcium: 24 mgIron: 2 mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2000 Jeffrey Alford | Naomi Duguid. Photo © 2000 Richard Jung. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

This is a great back-pocket recipe because it marinates quickly, imparts a tremendous amount of flavor, and is made with pantry ingredients I always have on hand. My family did exile me outside while I made it, since banging and scraping of cast-iron isn’t conducive to people having Zoom meetings, but I found I had the paste to a desirable consistency in 5 minutes.

While not everyone enjoyed the vinegar dipping sauce, I found it brought a delicious contrast to the chicken, reminding me of a thinner version of namchim kai (sweet chili sauce) I’ve bought bottles of for years (albeit with a stronger vinegar punch) and makes me want to dip spring rolls and chicken wings in it. I’m absolutely making this grilled chicken with peppercorn cilantro root paste again.

I used the lesser amount of the fish sauce in the marinade and it was easily salty enough, and next time I’ll only make a half recipe of the dipping sauce.

This review is for all three components to this recipe. Sure, the broiled chicken was easy to prepare! Sure, the timings were very approximate! Sure, the taste was fantastically delicious! Sure, the skin was crispy, and the chicken was tender, juicy, and flavorful.

I chose the broiler method. I had lots of cilantro roots. Sometimes these get wasted. I recently learned that you can freeze chopped cilantro roots and stems. This paste could have been made with frozen roots as well. All the ingredients were pantry staples. These are all pluses.

This chicken was meant to be served with cilantro paste and the hot and sweet dipping sauce. When recipe components are created in volumes that only contribute a small flavoring to the main recipe, then yes, they can be treated as accessories. In this case, both the paste and the dipping sauce were completely used in the chicken. These were the main players. This chicken depended on the cilantro paste and the dipping sauce.

Some recipes are meant to be used as guidelines, and some are meant to be followed in their entirety. This recipe, however, needs attention to every detail. The ingredient list should include all the ingredients to all of the components. This one is the type of recipe one follows, not only to enjoy a great food experience but also to interpret the goals of the recipe writer. Let’s face it, chicken pieces can be boring, but this combination of grilled chicken with peppercorn cilantro root paste is not! It was a joyous combination. It was a fun meal served family-style.

Go ahead, make all three recipes then let the party begin. 10 out of 10.

This recipe for grilled chicken with peppercorn cilantro root paste turned out perfectly and although I didn’t have cilantro roots for the paste, I was able to use cilantro stems which I feel made little difference in the overall flavor profile of the dish. This is a versatile dish that would work well with chicken thighs or the breasts and legs specified in this recipe.

It was a cold, snowy night, so we opted to broil the chicken which worked well as a cold-weather alternative to grilling outdoors. The 3 pounds of breasts and legs were cut into 12 pieces which fit perfectly on a half sheet pan. The pieces were initially cooked for 8 minutes and then for 4 minutes after turning them over to get them to an internal temperature of 165°F degrees. Before broiling them, I marinated the pieces for 2 hours. The cilantro paste gave the chicken lovely pops of flavor from the herb, pepper, and garlic balanced out by the savory umami of the fish sauce. The dipping sauce brought in spicy/sweet to complement the flavors of the marinade.

About David Leite

David Leite has received three James Beard Awards for his writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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