Chicken tinga is a rich, tomato and cumin flavored dish but this specific recipe gets a gorgeous umami boost from fish sauce. Poached chicken, combined with tender tortillas, chiles, avocado, cilantro, crunchy onions, and cabbage, make this an outstanding dish for Tortilla Thursdays.
We use fish sauce very often in the Vietnamese braises we make at home. Cloaked in the braising liquid, it brings a subtle but irreplaceably pronounced umami to the fore. And, as it turns out, what works for Vietnamese braises also works for many other non-Vietnamese braises, too! Here we add our fish sauce to chicken tinga, a dish that hails from Puebla, Mexico. The fish sauce plays a supporting, but crucial, role in the umami-rich tomatoes that are the foundation of the braise.—Cuong Pham
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Chicken Tinga FAQs
What is fish sauce?
Basically, it’s fish and salt. Specifically, anchovies. A general rule of thumb with cooking is that when something has few ingredients, quality counts for even more. With only two components in fish sauce, the quality of both the fish and the salt is paramount so buy the good stuff when you can.
How do I use fish sauce?
Fish sauce is a seasoning ingredient, typically used in sauces, dips, and marinades. You only need a little to add some big umami flavor. Any more than a tablespoon or two will overpower a dish. Season, taste, and then season more if you need to.
For the chicken tinga
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
- 3 bay leaves divided
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 dried guajillo chiles stems and seeds removed
- 3 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
- 1/2 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) yellow onion peeled and diced
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 3/4 pound cherry tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce preferably Red Boat plus additional to taste
- 1 cup (4 oz) thinly sliced red onions
- 1/2 cup crema fresca or sour cream
- 2 limes cut into wedges
- 1 avocado pitted and thinly sliced
- 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 cups (3 oz) thinly sliced cabbage
- 1 stack corn tortillas
- Store-bought or homemade salsa
- In a large pot over medium heat, combine the chicken thighs, 1 bay leaf, salt, and just enough water to cover the chicken. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook until the chicken is cooked through and reaches an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C), 10 to 20 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and let the chicken cool in the cooking liquid.
- As the chicken cools, cut the chiles into 2-inch (5 cm) pieces. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the chiles and 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and cover. Steep the chiles for at least 10 minutes.
- While the chiles steep, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the onions, garlic, and cumin and sauté until the onions are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent the onions from scorching.
- After the chiles have steeped for at least 10 minutes, drain, rinse, and plop them in a blender. Transfer the sautéed onions to the blender and add the tomatoes and oregano. Blitz the mixture to a smooth sauce.
- Pour the sauce back into the saucepan that was used to sauté the onions. Add 3/4 cup of the chicken’s poaching liquid, the remaining 2 bay leaves, and the fish sauce. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and shred. After the sauce has simmered for 15 minutes, add the shredded chicken. Simmer for 10 minutes more to allow the chicken to soak in the sauce.
- While the chicken simmers in the sauce, mellow out the bite of the raw red onions by soaking the slices in a small bowl with just enough water to cover.
- Taste the chicken and add a splash or two of fish sauce if needed. If the tinga is thinner than you’d like at this point, continue simmering for a few more minutes until it reaches your preferred consistency.
- Serve the tinga family-style in the saucepan or move it to a serving dish. Drain the sliced red onions and serve them with the tinga, alongside the crema fresca, limes wedges, avocado, cilantro, cabbage, tortillas, and salsa.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
The tacos we made with this chicken tinga were off the charts delicious. All the time building the flavors of the sauce and cooking it resulted in a deeply flavorful sauce, with some tartness from the tomatoes, huskiness from the peppers (next time, I’d add another one), sweetness from the onions, and umami from the fish sauce. It took some time to make (not a crazy amount) but it was worth it. One thing the recipe didn’t include was a note to be sure to have plenty of napkins on hand when eating!
As for the recipe, all the steps were clear and straightforward. I think you could extend the onion cooking to 20 minutes if you’re looking for “jammy” onions. Other than that—and the fact that I would have added another guajillo chile pepper—I thought it was well done.
There was a note about adding more fish sauce, and I thought two tablespoons was plenty. I think too much fish sauce can be as bad for a dish as just the right amount of fish sauce is good for a dish. I thought 2 tablespoons was pushing the upper limit but it was OK. My sauce didn’t come out as deep red as the one in the photo, but perhaps that’s because my cherry tomatoes were from a local farm so I had some yellow ones, some red ones, and some that were a mix.
The red onions on top lent a perfect crunch to the chicken tinga. Soaking them in water did the trick to cut down on the sharpness of the red onions, which could have overpowered the dish.
To me, despite all the amazing flavors it still needed oomph—maybe a little smokiness. I ended up adding chili powder and more cumin. An overnight in the fridge helped too. After that—very happy with this chicken tinga dish.
It is very easy to make and, ideally, make this ahead. It will allow the flavors to meld. Adding chili powder or even a little adobo chipotle makes it sing with a little smokiness. It’s always fun to wrap things in tortillas—and this doesn’t disappoint. We loved it with the freshness of toppings. Perfect for a gathering!
My chicken tinga didn’t look like the photo. I shredded the chicken, the photo looks like it was cut into strips, and my sauce wasn’t as brilliant red.
I used boneless skinless thighs (which are becoming harder and harder to consistently find) but I think you could use chicken tenderloins but at great cost to the overall flavor!
I had about 6-7 cups of shredded chicken, it’s a lot. I didn’t need to add any more fish sauce, it was the right consistency. I don’t think I would add “raw” fish sauce anyway after cooking the sauce because I think the fish sauce would overpower the rest of the flavors at that point. I fed six people and had leftovers.
Speaking of leftovers, next time I will make this the day before and warm it up the next day, it was much better the next day.
Originally published December 28, 2021