The temperatures were pushing into the mid-90s the day I visited food cart owner Nong Poonsukwattana's Southeast Portland home. It was much too hot to cook indoors comfortably, so we decided to go "Thai old-school" and take the whole operation out to a big green mat on the back porch where there was a bit of shade and a slight breeze keeping things cool.
To make it easier to cook outside on the ground, Poonsukwattana pulled out some classic Thai cooking tools: a funnel-shaped bamboo basket called a "houad" and steamer bowl for making Thai sticky rice; a small clay grill called a "tao"; an oversized mortal and pestal called a "krok"; and a little wooden bench with metal prongs at the end for scraping the insides of a coconut to make fresh coconut milk, which Poonsukwattana calls "gra-tai kood ma praw" or "bunny ears."
Poonsukwattana built her reputation in the Portland food scene on a single dish — Khao Man Gai — a deceptively simple combination of poached chicken, flavorful rice and a pungent sauce that is a staple of Thai street food. Poonsukwattana has sold Khao Man Gai from her popular downtown cart since 2009. But over the past year she has been expanding her business, adding a second location near PSU and a small kitchen and to-go shop on SE Ankeny, which has allowed her to add wings, pork and veggie options to the menu. Her latest venture is a bottled version of her Khao Man Gai sauce, which she hopes to begin selling in local stores later this year.
On this afternoon, the plan was to make another simple Thai-style chicken with rice dish, which Poonsukwattana says she found online and adapted to her own tastes. For this dish, the main flavors are a marinated blend of coconut milk, garlic and curry with sticky, slightly sweet rice that is a staple in Northern Thailand.
Poonsukwattana spread her tools and ingredients in a wide circle around her on the mat and got to work. Other than time for soaking the rice and marinating the chicken, the dish was a snap to prepare. Poonsukwattana's hands moved quickly and expertly as she scraped, pounded and mixed the ingredients together. Before long we had a pile of golden, crispy chicken and small bowls of rice which we rolled in our fingers and ate like bread — a perfect backyard snack for a hot afternoon.
Recipe: Nong's Grilled Chicken and Sticky Rice
- 2 bone-in chicken breasts
- 2 bone-in quarter chicken legs
- 2 cups of fresh coconut milk or 1 can of coconut milk
- 2 tsp of sea salt
- 4 Tbsp of curry powder
- 2 tsp of turmeric powder
- 1 tsp of ground coriander
- 1 tsp of ground white pepper
- 1 whole garlic
- 5 cilantro roots (if can't find, use stems and leaf)
Making the Marinade
To the mortar and pestle, add garlic, cilantro roots, salt, white pepper and coriander. Grind everything together to a rough paste. In a separate bowl, add chicken, coconut milk, the paste, curry powder and turmeric powder. Mix everything well and marinate the chicken for 4 hours in the refrigerator. Grill it.
Optional: You can brine chicken before marinating it as well. Mix 2 quarts of water, 2 Tbsp of sea salt and 1/4 cups of sugar until dissolved. Brine the chicken in this mixture for 2 hours before adding it to the marinade.
Canned coconut milk works fine in this recipe, but for extra credit points and fresher coconut flavor you can try making the coconut milk from scratch as Poonsukwattana does in the video. Grate the meat from a coconut until you have about 2 cups. In a wire strainer, slowly pour about two cups of hot water over the coconut. Mix the coconut with your hands, then gently squeeze through the strainer into a bowl. You can repeat this process a couple of times. The first squeeze is called coconut cream because it has higher fat content and richer flavor and is used for cooking Thai curries. The second squeeze is considered coconut milk. Either or both types can be used in the marinade.
- 4 cups of Thai sticky rice
- 5 cups of water
Soak sticky rice in cold water overnight before you cook it.
In the video Nong uses the bamboo basket, called "houad" in Thai, and a steaming pot. You can buy a houad at an Asian market or you can improvise from whatever you have. Using a piece of cheesecloth over a strainer on top of a pot works as well.
To cook, boil the water in a large steam pot. Transfer the soaked sticky rice to the houad. Put the houad over the steam pot. Cover and leave on medium heat to steam the rice for about 10 - 15 minutes. You can shake the houad to flip the rice to make sure the steam goes throughout the rice. Taste it to check if it's cooked through.
If you are using a houad or bamboo steamer, make sure it is wet before you put the sticky rice in. This will help prevent the rice from sticking and make the basket easier to wash.