Vietnamese caramel chicken, known as ga kho, is easy to make at home with fish sauce, palm sugar, chicken, ginger, and black pepper. The recipe is authentic as it gets and comes from The Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco.
Something Smells Fishy Note
Full disclaimer. Fish sauce smells something terrible straight out of the bottle—and even worse when it’s subjected to heat. So don’t say we didn’t warn you to fling open the windows and crank the exhaust before you even think about making this stinky yet savory caramel sauce. That said, the end definitely justifies the means in this situation. Especially when you make a big batch of the Vietnamese caramel sauce—the way we see it, while you’re stinking up the house, you may as well REALLY stink it up so the results of your efforts linger. Simply stash any extra sauce in the fridge so you can satisfy weeknight cravings for this aramel chicken in just 25 minutes. You’re welcome.
Vietnamese Caramel Chicken
- Quick Glance
- 25 M
- 1 H
- Serves 2
Special Equipment: Claypot (optional)
- For the Vietnamese caramel sauce
- For the Vietnamese caramel chicken
Dump the palm sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and wait until the sugar sorta melts, which can take anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes. (If substituting light brown sugar for the palm sugar, you’ll need to add a tablespoon or two cold water to the sugar before you place it over the heat and stir almost constantly as it melts.) Palm sugar is still a touch grainy even when it melts and that’s okay. It may smoke ever so slightly, and that’s okay. If the sugar appears to seize or scorch, though, lower the heat and go ahead and stir it.
Meanwhile, measure your fish sauce and have it at the ready.
When the sugar melts, turn off the heat under the sugar and slowly and carefully stir in the fish sauce, taking care as it may bubble and spatter. If the sugar seizes into clumps, simply return the pan to low heat and stir until everything melts once again. Let cool. The caramel sauce will thicken as it cools. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
Cut the chicken thighs into bite-size pieces.
In a 10-inch claypot or sauté pan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the ginger and shallots and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chiles, chicken, and 1/4 cup caramel sauce. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer, uncovered, stirring or turning the chicken occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is bubbling, a shade darker, and thicker and stickier, 10 to 20 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and gobs of black pepper. Serve immediately with steamed rice.
What Is Palm Sugar?
The kind of palm sugar that you want—and need—for this claypot chicken recipe typically comes in a hard disk of palm sugar shrink-wrapped in plastic or tightly packed in a clear plastic jar. The palm sugar looks sorta like sand after the tide has gone out and left it drenched and packed down. It is sometimes labeled coconut sugar. You can also use Indian jaggery. Do not substitute granulated organic coconut palm sugar found at health food stores or your attempt at melting it will be a spectacularly epic fail resulting in the possible destruction of your saucepan. Trust us. Asian palm sugar has a higher moisture content which enables it to behave more collegially as it melts than the health food stuff.
Recipe Testers' Reviews
So, so good. This dish blew us away. The sticky sauce hits all the right notes—aromatic, salty, spicy, sweet. Thigh meat is genius here because it stays juicy and won't get tough like white meat can. I love that there's no frenetic, stressful stir-frying. Instead dinner coasts to done with a lazy, easy simmer. There's plenty of time to steam some broccoli, dig out the chopsticks, and pour a drink. We'll make this again and again. It is INSANELY GOOD. I'd scale the caramel sauce to make 1 cup (6.5 ounces sugar and 1/2 cup fish sauce). This took less time and was easily measured. BTW, hot fish sauce STINKS TERRIBLY, how can this be food! A pound of chicken served only 2 with rice and steamed broccoli. No seconds were to be had—and we wanted them badly.
The chicken cooked up just as the recipe states and was enjoyed by all. After the caramel sauce is made, the recipe is a breeze to come together and the final result is delicious.
Be forewarned, if you have never cooked with fish sauce, it stinks and your house will smell. Just turn on all exhaust fans. The final dish is worth the temporary smell, in my opinion. Another option if you don't want the smell is to cook the caramel sauce on an outdoor grill burner.
Because fish sauce is so incredibly salty and I was only interested in making enough caramel for 1 to 2 recipes, I only made half the sauce recipe (8 oz palm sugar chopped carefully as it is very hard and 1/4 cup fish sauce) which yielded 3/4 cup caramel sauce. I actually was skeptical that the sugar would melt with no added water, but it did. It took about 8 minutes.
When melting down the sugar in your saucepan, have your fish sauce measured and ready to go. My bottle of fish sauce did not pour out, it has a small hole at the top and you have to shake the liquid out of. I didn't have my fish sauce premeasured and as a result while measuring fish sauce my sugar got too cool within the minute or so I was measuring. I had to reheat the sugar again.
I used a Dutch oven since I do not have a clay pot. On to the ingredients. My Thai chiles were HOT. Proceed with caution if you are not into spicy food. Next time, I may only use half the full recipe amount to suit those who don't care for spicy hot. Even with my doubled recipe, it only served 3 people when served with jasmine rice. I have caramel sauce left and I will use it for another batch.