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.
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.
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.
- 1 free range chicken about 1 kg, or any of your favorite cuts
- 17 large garlic cloves 65 gr
- 8-13 shallots (หอมแดง) 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 sea salt (เกลือทะเล)
- 5 slices galangal 30 gr
- 16 kaffir lime leaves
- 3 lemongrass (ตะไคร้) 40 gr
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce (น้ำปลา)
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar (น้ำตาลทราย)
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Prepare the ingredients for the aromatic paste.
- Place the garlic, shallots and chilies into the mortar.
- Add white peppercorns.
- Add salt.
- Add galangal.
- Add the hand-torn kaffir lime leaves.
- Pound all the ingredients together to form a rough paste.
- Add the lemongrass stalks and, with the pestle, bruise them to help release their fragrance.
- Season with fish sauce.
- Add oyster sauce.
- And add sugar.
- Mix everything.
- Place the chicken in a pot.
- Add the paste.
- Mix everything. You do not need to add water.
- 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.
- Make sure the gap between the two pots is sealed properly. This picture demonstrates how wet tissue paper is used to seal the gap.
- 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.
- Place the pots on the stove, and turn the heat to medium low. Make sure that the top pot is filled with iced water.
- 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.
- When all the ice is melted, remove the upper pot and discard the water.
- Reposition the top pot, and re-fill it with cold water.
- And ice.
- 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.
- While the chicken is cooking, roughly cut the holy basil, coriander, saw coriander and the green onions; set aside.
- When the chicken is done, remove the top pot.
- Add the herbs.
- Mix the herbs with the cooked chicken.
- 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.
- Prepare a papaya salad, hot sticky rice and a bottle of Thai whiskey to go with the meal - enjoy the eating and the company!