Thai food, strangely enough, is a larger part of my life in London than it ever was in Singapore. I’m not sure why – unfair as it sounds (and is), there might be just enough variety in the local cuisine to ‘crowd out’ Thai influences.
London was different, though. One of the first cook-offs we had, in the student halls, involved a massive and very delicious green curry; and this was in late November, the first actual winter I had experienced. (That it was nearing the end of term, and essays were coming due, helped not a bit.) So that was what got me hooked.
On going back to Singapore during the summer and winter breaks since then, I began to actively seek out Thai places in Singapore, and two dishes have caught me, besides the usual and excellent list of multicoloured curries. The first was Thai honey chicken, which remains a big and mysterious gap in my repertoire. (Will work on that, I swear.)
The second, and far more accessible, is Gai Pad Gapow – minced chicken with chilli and Thai basil. Now there is the question of what exactly is Thai basil, and I have to admit imperfect knowledge here. I would say that Thai basil leaves are… more sharply tapered, and more matte if that makes any sense. Apparently Thai and other Asian basils, being commonly used in frying and cooking, are meant to be more stable under heat; but as the preparation will show, this is not such a concern for this dish.
Simple to make, it is also such an excellent balance of sharp and rounded flavours – you have chilli and lime juice on the one hand, and the deep savouriness of fish sauce, oyster sauce and sugar. Normally, to cut down on the amount of sugar necessary, I throw a tomato in as well – it’s not authentic, admittedly, so it’s up to you. But I’d say this dish is the kind of one-saucepan wonder that everyone (watch the chillies though) can agree on.
Feeds: 3 of the peckish, 2 of the ravenous
300g ground chicken
1 lime, quartered
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 tomato, sliced (optional, but why not more veg)
1 onion, sliced (optional, but ditto)
Thai chillies, chopped, at discretion (I normally use 2-3)
25g Thai basil, roughly chopped
1-2 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch/flour
3 teaspoons sugar
Dark soy sauce at discretion (this is for colour; don’t go overboard)
1. The chicken will need marination, with 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, the juice from a quarter lime, cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Mingle well and allow to socialise.
2. The rest of your seasonings, along with the juice of two lime quarters, can be mixed into a flavour shot. Keep in reserve.
3. Heat a saucepan (one with a lid) on high heat, and then add the oil. Immediately add garlic and chilli, and let sizzle. Your nostrils will inform you, eagerly, of the sizzling progress.
4. When the garlic has gone slightly brown, throw in the onions and tomatoes, if you are using them. Agitate regularly, and heat until onions and tomatoes are softened.
5. Now add the minced chicken, and agitate to dissociate the individual pieces. Once the mince has gone white, turn the heat to medium.
6. Add the flavour shot – to keep it from vaporising immediately, I would add it along the rim of the saucepan. Mix thoroughly. If you would like it to be more acidic, juice the remaining quarter of lime in.
7. Now turn off the heat, throw in the basil and cover the saucepan. Whistle a short tune – Colonel Bogey’s March is both highly evocative and of an appropriate length. Once the tune is whistled, take the pan off the heat – the basil leaves should be wilted, but not completely shrivelled.
Serving suggestions: I honestly cannot think of something you shouldn’t be serving this over, but steamed rice is customary.