I love the smell of fish sauce…just not early in the morning! Part Deux
Mang made home cooked Viet food, not fancy dishes. She made braised pork, chicken, or seafood. Braising the Viet way in those early years in the U.S. was labor intensive. First Mang had to make the caramel that would color and sweeten the braised dish. Cook the sugar too long and you would get a black sauce that tasted burnt. Cook the sugar to little and then you had pale, anemic looking meat that did not look appealing. Some Viet homes would make a jar of this caramel condiment and store it. My Mang is a believer in using fresh ingredients, so she would make it every time she braised food. If I were lucky and somehow there was too much caramel, then Mang let me have it as a treat – which she would then regret later as I bounced off the kitchen walls and refused to stand still. The other essential item needed was fish sauce. By the time Mang came over, there were actual Asian markets in D.C. and a better variety of fish sauce being imported. I learned from her something that I thought was very strange: the more expensive, more premium, longer aged fish sauce, the stronger the smell. These premium sauces were not used for cooking but were used to finish the food or as a condiment at the table.
Braising food may seem simple but is very hard, because the saltiness and the sweetness must balance out, and to vary the taste different aromatics and spices had to be added. There are also different styles of braising: dry braising, that was cooking the liquid down until it was totally absorbed into the protein; flash braising, where the protein was quickly stir fried and cooked on high heat so that there was a thick sauce which was great to dip cooked greens into or spoon over rice; then there was the full on liquid braising where you added extra water to the pot and just let the protein cook till it would almost fall apart. So many different dishes all using caramelized sugar and fish sauce as the base. I always had to be next to her when she was cooking because I was her pair of clean hands and her assistant. “Get the salt, go get a little more water, go rinse the bowl out”.
As my younger self was tasked with being my Mang’s assistant in the kitchen, like all kids my age I found it to be a tedious and odious task. Unbeknownst to me, my little brain was absorbing all that I saw my Mang do and stored it away until one day I realized that I enjoyed not only eating food but cooking it too!
Quick and Easy Braised Chicken Thighs
2 lbs of boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 scallion stalks
Olive oil as needed
- Rinse the chicken thighs, you can leave them whole (it takes a little bit longer to cook) or cut into 1-inch pieces.
- Clean and rinse the scallions and coarsely chop. Set aside a little for garnish.
- Heat a non-stick pan or pot on medium heat.
- When the pan is hot, add the chicken into the pan and sear. Optionally, you can add 1/2 tsp of olive oil to the pan before searing but it is not necessary.
- Once the chicken is seared, add the Caramel Braising Sauce and green onions. Make sure to shake the bottle well so all the spices are mixed evenly. Stir the meat, onions, and sauce together.
- Turn to low heat and let simmer for 10-15 minutes. This will allow the meat juices to combine with the Caramel Braising Sauce to make a sauce, and let the meat to cook through all the way.
- (Optional) If you are in a hurry, turn the heat to medium-high or high and stir-fry all the ingredients together until the meat is done (2-3 minutes). This will give you a stickier sauce consistency.
- Garnish with the leftover scallions. Serve with rice or any type of steamed cooked grains and freshly cooked vegetables. Sliced cucumbers go along well, and are quick and easy to serve.