Tasty Tuesday – Khao Mun Gai
This week’s tasty Tuesday focuses on yet another of my favorite simple Thai dishes. It’s name is ข้าวมันไก่, or as you can pronounce it khao mun gai. Here’s a shot of this very dish in front of me at lunch today.
Sadly, those of you who have actually ventured into the world of Thai cuisine back in the States may or may not have heard of this particular meal. It is not very well known outside of Thailand, and yet it would be considered by most to be a national favorite. This is perhaps one of the most common things I will see others eating in the night market or small shops during the lunch hour. Why? It’s simple and delicious. Another wonderful thing about this particular dish is that it is one of the few that has virtually no variation on its preparation throughout the country. Each region of Thailand typically has its own spin or flavor added to the typical Thai dishes. This one, however, is the same wherever you go. It is often plated in the same fashion as well – nice mound of rice, meat on top, cilantro garnish… bowl of sauce and sliced cucumbers on the side… and a bowl of soup. Yum.
So what exactly is khao mun gai?
Let’s start with the main ingredient of many-a-plate of Thai food. Rice. Most Thai dishes will use some form of steamed or boiled white rice as their foundation, and khao mun gai is no exception. Well, except for the fact that it’s not just plain old white rice. This rice is actually cooked in chicken stock, and usually has a bit of crushed garlic, ginger, and some bruised cilantro tossed in as well. This gives the white rice a sort of dingy beige color, but the flavor benefits are absolutely wonderful. I really don’t know how to describe it to you, other than to tell you to just give it a try for yourself. It’s just good.
Next, we’ve got the protein – steamed chicken (sometimes switched out with duck, if the vendor is running low… tastes just as great). Several slices of meat are placed on top of the rice, then garnished with a few sprigs of cilantro. I absolutely love cilantro, and the fact that it is used so often in Thai cuisine is yet another reason why I enjoy eating in this country. There’s just something about taking a bite of the savory rice, tender chicken, and a leaf of pungent cilantro (or coriander for my friends outside the USA) all at the same time that’s magical. Yes, I said this food is magical. Laugh if you want, but you’ll believe me when you try it for yourself.
Now, the sauce. Oh, the sauce. As I list the following ingredients, I can already see some of your noses turning up, but again, I ask you to trust me. These things are magical, too. (Go ahead and roll your eyes.) The slightly sweet, slightly sour, little bit spicy sauce that’s a little bit liquid and a little bit chunks is what really brings everything together. So, what are the scary things it’s made of – both dark and white soy sauce, some white vinegar, a few Thai bird chilies, garlic, and ginger all crunched up, a bit of sugar and… fermented soybeans. Some of you cringe at the mention of soybeans already, let alone tagging the word fermented onto it. The sauce is served in a small bowl to the side of the plate, allowing the diner to either dump the whole thing straight onto their meal and redistribute it with a fork (which is my preferred method), or simply dip pieces of meat into it while eating.
Also on the side are the usual fresh, thick, peeled cucumber slices. Everything tastes better with cucumbers.
And finally, the soup. The soup is the only part of this meal that varies according to your location. It just depends on whose shop you are eating at, and how they like to make it. One thing that is always the same is the base – chicken broth. What else goes into it is up to your cook. Most places with give a sprinkle of finely chopped green onion or chives, while others (like our shop today) will throw in a few sprigs of cilantro instead. Some restaurants will even add a splash of fish sauce or sugar to give the broth a little more flavor. Traditionally, there is supposed to be a piece or two of Chinese winter gourd in the bowl as well – though some vendors omit this item for the sake of cost. I’ve had this gourd in my soup many times, and it’s quite nice – when cooked, it looks and slices sort of like a boiled potato, but with the slight crunch of a water chestnut. Whatever broth I get, it’s usually pretty good, and several spoonfuls always seem to find their way onto my plate of rice.
So, there you have it. Yet another Thai dish to add to your list of things you need to try… or eat when you come to visit us in Thailand. 🙂