Chef Charles Phan’s Grilled Five-Spice Chicken with Tamarind Sauce

Charles Phan's grilled five-spice chicken with tamarind sauce to spoon over everything.

More than a decade ago, I remember taking my parents to dinner at the Slanted Door for the first time.

Housed in its original location then on Valencia Street in the heart of the Mission District in San Francisco, I remember my Mom getting out of the car and looking around the neighborhood with trepidation. Walking quickly through the somewhat sketchy neighborhood, she clutched my Dad’s arm tightly and murmured, “Where are we going???”

But once ensconced inside the lively restaurant, my parents much enjoyed what was their first real taste of Vietnamese food — from crispy imperial rolls to shaking beef to claypot chicken in caramel sauce.

Indeed, since opening that first restaurant in 1995, Chef-Owner Charles Phan has helped introduce the cuisine of his homeland to countless diners like my parents, luring them out of their comfort zone by virtue of the addicting profusion of fresh herbs and pungent fish sauce that are its hallmarks.

For years, folks have nagged Phan to write a cookbook. But with six restaurants/cafes now, he hardly had the time.

Fortunately for all of us, he finally managed to do it, releasing his first cookbook last month, “Vietnamese Home Cooking” (Ten Speed Press), of which I received a review copy.

The book is filled with beautiful photographs of Phan’s most recent trips to Vietnam. The recipes highlight the fundamental techniques used in Vietnamese cooking: frying, steaming, braising, grilling and stir-frying.

“Grilled Five-Spice Chicken with Tamarind Sauce” is easy enough to prepare. Chicken thighs or breasts marinate in a pungent bath of fish sauce, light soy sauce, loads of shallots, copious amounts of garlic, chiles, fermented red bean curd and five-spice powder.

The directions say to marinate at least 2 hours or up to overnight, but I would recommend not letting it go much beyond 6 hours. I marinated chicken thighs overnight and they ended quite aggressively salty, though tasty.

After removing from the marinade, grill the chicken pieces until cooked through and nicely charred. Serve with a tamarind sauce seasoned with sugar and fish sauce.

The chicken is tender, very juicy and quite savory from all the seasonings. The tamarind sauce is sweet, puckery and molasses-like. This is a dish that cries out for steamed rice alongside or lest the chicken be a little overpowering eaten just on its own.

Grilled Five-Spice Chicken with Tamarind Sauce

(Serves 6 as a main course)

1 cup fish sauce

1/2 cup light soy sauce

1/4 cup minced garlic

3/4 cup minced shallots

2 to 3 Thai chiles, stemmed and minced

1 1/2 cubes fermented red bean curd, mashed (about 1 tablespoon)

1 teaspoon five-spice powder

6 (5-ounce) skin-on, boneless chicken breasts or chicken thighs

For sauce:

6 ounces seedless tamarind pulp

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons fish sauce

In a large bowl, whisk together fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, shallots, chiles, bean curd, and five-spice powder. Add chicken to the marinade and turn to coat evenly. Cover and let marinate at room temperature for up to 2 hours or in the refrigerator for up to 6 hours. If refrigerated, bring to room temperature before grilling.

To make the sauce, in a small saucepan, combine tamarind pulp and 1 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease heat so the mixture is at a gentle simmer, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until tamarind pulp has softened completely and can easily be pressed against the side of the pan with the back of a spoon.

Remove from heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve placed over a bowl, pressing on the solids with a rubber spatula to force through as much pulp as possible. The liquid should have the consistency of ketchup. Discard the contents of the sieve. While the liquid is still warm, add sugar and fish sauce and stir until sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

Prepare a medium fire in a charcoal grill (you should be able to hold your hand 1 inch above the grate for only 4 to 5 seconds). When the coals are ready, push two-thirds of the coals to one-half of the grill, creating a hot zone; spread the remaining one-third on the opposite side of the grill to create a cooler zone.

Arrange the chicken pieces, skin side down, on the grate over the hottest part of the grill and cook them without moving them for 6 minutes, or until well browned on the first side. Using tongs or a spatula, flip the chicken and move to the cooler side of the grill; cook for about 4 minutes more, or until browned on the second side and no longer pink at the center when tested with a knife. Note: If using chicken thighs, especially bone-in ones, cooking time will be longer.

Transfer chicken to a platter and serve immediately. Accompany with the tamarind sauce, inviting diners to spoon it over their own servings.

Adapted from “Vietnamese Home Cooking” by Charles Phan

More: Lunch at Charles Phan’s Wo Hing General Store

And: Dinner at Charles Phan’s Heaven’s Dog

More Asian Chicken Recipes: Andrea Nguyen’s Roast Chicken with Red Fermented Tofu

And: Steven Raichlen’s Thai Grilled Chicken with Lemongrass and Ginger

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