Braised Chicken in Thai Aromatic Paste (ไก่ใต้น้ำ ; gai dtai naam)

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By: Hanuman

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Braised Chicken in Thai Aromatic Paste (ไก่ใต้น้ำ gai dtai naam)

ไก่ใต้น้ำ (gai dtai naam) literally: under water chicken

Gai dtai naam, which means “under water chicken” in Thai,  consists of braised chicken in a coarse, aromatic paste made from lemongrass, galangal, garlic, chilies, kaffir lime leaves, holy basil, coriander and spring onions. In the home-cooked dish popular among the Thai working class, the entire chicken – including the bones – is chopped into bite-size pieces, and served with a bottle of rice wine accompanied by local country-style music (luktung) at high volume.

The dish originated in the rural areas of the semi-arid and salt-rich Issan plateau. In a region where food shortages are both a threat and a reality, the Issan farmers are known for their positive attitude and calm demeanor, even while struggling to make a living.

Thus, every house in upcountry Issan has its own kitchen garden where vegetables and local herbs are grown. Chickens roam at will around the house; the yellowish meat of these free-range birds is denser, leaner and more flavorful than that of commercially raised chickens.

Free-range chicken (ไก่บ้าน ; gai baan)

Free-range chicken
(ไก่บ้าน ; gai baan)

The name of the dish – “under water chicken”- refers to the cooking setup, where two metal pots are stacked on top of each other. The lower pot is for braising the chicken with the aromatic paste, while the upper one, filled with ice-cold water, acts as the lid. Any gaps between the two pots are sealed tightly using banana leaves, wet towels or even wet tissue paper.

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Reflux distillation: a simple science found in folk cooking.

This method allows the meat to retain a moist, tender texture, perfumed by a generous amount of the aromatic paste. Without adding any water, the juices from the meat, the paste and the herbs create a delicious sauce with an extraordinary flavor.

Gai dtai naam applies simple science to folk cooking, using the same principle of ‘reflux distillation employed in a lab to extract essential oils. Here, the cooking vapors condense onto the chilled lid, locking smells and flavors in the pot to produce an incredibly fragrant and tender chicken dish.

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Braised Chicken in Thai Aromatic Paste Recipe (gai dtai naam)
 
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This northeastern- (Issan) style Thai braised chicken in coarse aromatic paste is very easy to prepare and requires only basic cooking skills.
By:
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Thai
Serves: 4

Ingredients

 
  • 1 free range chicken (about 1 kg), or any of your favorite cuts
  • 17 large garlic cloves (65 gr)
  • 8-13 shallots (70 gr)
  • 10-16 Thai bird’s eye red chilies (15-30 gr)
  • 20 small green Thai chilies (6 gr)
  • 1 tablespoon white peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 5 slices of galangal (30 gr)
  • 16 kaffir lime leaves
  • 3 lemongrass stalks (40 gr)
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup coriander leaves, chopped
  • 1/3 cup saw coriander leaves , chopped
  • 1/3 cup spring onions, chopped
  • 1/3 cup holy basil leaves
Method
  1. In this demonstration, we use a free-range chicken, complete with its internal organs, head, neck and feet. I find that adding the chicken feet and the head to the pot create a thicker and richer sauce.
  2. Remove and discard the skin; this allows the essential oils from the paste to permeate the meat. Chop the entire chicken, including the bones, into bite-size pieces.
  3. Prepare the ingredients for the aromatic paste.
  4. Place the garlic, shallots and chilies into the mortar.
  5. Add white peppercorns.
  6. Add salt.
  7. Add galangal.
  8. Add the hand-torn kaffir lime leaves.
  9. Pound all the ingredients together to form a rough paste.
  10. Add the lemongrass stalks and, with the pestle, bruise them to help release their fragrance.
  11. Season with fish sauce.
  12. Add oyster sauce.
  13. And add sugar.
  14. Mix everything.
  15. Place the chicken in a pot.
  16. Add the paste.
  17. Mix everything. You do not need to add water.
  18. I will cook the dish as it traditionally done - on a Thai charcoal stove, outdoors. But you can use different setups: this picture shows a simple setup on a gas stove.
  19. Make sure the gap between the two pots is sealed properly. This picture demonstrates how wet tissue paper is used to seal the gap.
  20. Here is my setup, using the charcoal stove and the two pots. I use a kitchen towel to seal the gap between the two pots.
  21. Place the pots on the stove, and turn the heat to medium low. Make sure that the top pot is filled with iced water.
  22. Check that there are no steam leaks, and cook until all the ice in the upper pot has melted. Do not allow the water in the upper pot to warm.
  23. When all the ice is melted, remove the upper pot and discard the water.
  24. Reposition the top pot, and re-fill it with cold water.
  25. And ice.
  26. Continue cooking until the ice has again melted completely. Repeat this step – changing the water and replacing it with ice, then melting the ice - three times. Cook the chicken for about 1 1/2 hours.
  27. While the chicken is cooking, roughly cut the holy basil, coriander, saw coriander and the green onions; set aside.
  28. When the chicken is done, remove the top pot.
  29. Add the herbs.
  30. Mix the herbs with the cooked chicken.
  31. If you are cooking outdoors on a charcoal stove, be aware that your neighbors may become entranced by the aroma and join you for the meal.
  32. Prepare a papaya salad, hot sticky rice and a bottle of Thai whiskey to go with the meal - enjoy the eating and the company!

 

9 comments… add one
  • Shaheda Yesmin Jul 16, 2015, 11:58 pm

    I am from Bangladesh . A culinary expert. Love Thai Food Master. I have been following your recipe after I did my Chef course on Thai Cuisine from Bangkok Thai cooking academy and later took a private course with Chef Nooror of Blue Elephant.

    Presently I have my Boutique Thai Cooking School, name JEWELS KITCHEN.

    I understood very well the recipe but my question is ‘ why the iced water on top ‘ ? Isn’t slow down the cooking process ? One can live the Chicken in low heat.

    Best
    Shaheda

    • Hanuman Jul 17, 2015, 12:14 am

      Greetings Shaheda Yesmin, The heat source is from below, the iced water condenses all the essential oils (volatile oils), and water soluble components in the vapors back to the pot. Please note that the process takes 90 minutes to cook without adding any liquids whatsoever. The chicken comes out fully cooked, soft and tender.

  • Mary-AnnePatterson Jul 17, 2015, 10:36 pm

    I began traveling to Thailand in 1987 and have visited the Kingdom numerous times since. Took our then young children to Thailand trekking to aide Akha Hilltribe with Drs. A few times. Have visited such as Nong Kai, Mae Hong Song, Ubon Thani, Hua Hin, BKK, etc. the cuisine of Isan is my favourite.

    Began cooking Thai cuisine in the 70’s but became serious about it after we took classes from James Beard award winning author, teacher, and friend, Kasma Loha-Unchit in 1986. Have learned over the years from street vendors, five Star Chefs, and home Thai cooks. I was drawn here by the authentic recipes!

    • Hanuman Jul 18, 2015, 5:28 am

      Thank you for your kind note Mary-Anne

  • Neil Breakwell Jul 18, 2015, 2:13 pm

    Hi Hanuman,

    This is a stunning dish! I made it last night here in the UK and was amazed at how much sauce was created. The ice water lid does an amazing job.
    I’ve made a couple of your other dishes and they were also great. Keep up the good work!

    Neil

    • Hanuman Jul 19, 2015, 7:19 am

      I am glad you liked it. cheers hanuman

  • Mahée Ferlini Aug 26, 2015, 9:49 pm

    This recipe looks great. I haven’t seen this method used to utilize condensation, however I certainly understand the science behind it. Also, I like that you stuck with the traditional methods and ingredients. I’ll have to add this recipe to my arsenal. Thank you so much for sharing it!

  • Pongchaya Wiwat Aug 26, 2015, 10:40 pm

    ถือเป็นเลือดอีสานแท้คนหนึ่ง ตระเวนใช้ชีวิตกับชาวบ้านมาก็มาก ขอยอมรับว่าไม่เคยเห็นกรรมวิธีการใช้น้ำแข็งใส่หม้อซ้อนตามอธิบาย แต่จะเห็นการใช้หม้อใบเล็กคว่ำปิดส่วนผสม ไก่บ้านสมุนไพร เครื่องปรุงต่างๆไว้ แล้วค่อยปิดหม้อใบใหญ่ ใช้ไม้ขัดกันหม้อเล็กเขยื้อน ตั้งไฟไปเรื่อยๆจนไก่สุกนุ่มหอม ก็เป็นหลักการพื้นฐานวิทยาศาสตร์เดียวกัน การใช้น้ำแข็งทับ ถ้าเป็นสังคมชนบทแต่ก่อนแค่ 20-30 ปีมานี้ก็พอ ถือว่าเสียทรัพยากรสำคัญเลยทีเดียว สู้เอามาใส่ในกระติกใบใหญ่ใส่น้ำฝน ทานได้ชื่นใจกันทั้งคุ้ม (คุ้มคือกลุ่มบ้านจำนวนหนึ่งที่อยู่ละแวกเดียวกันในหมู่บ้านนั้น ซึ่งก็คือโซนๆหนึ่งนั่นแหละ)

  • Gwen Feb 12, 2017, 3:02 am

    I started picking up Thai cooking after marrying to a wonderful Thai husband. Now my friends and family love anything but Thai food. Your website is my most favorite site by far. Your recipes are traditional and authentic yet very exotic and sophisticated. Please keep sharing your knowledge.

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