In the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, the people share a profound connection with the spirits inhabiting the land, trees and rivers. This bond extends to ancestral spirits residing within their homes, providing protection and guidance to the family. It is believed that food is not only shared among the living but also with those who preceded us, bridging the gap between the natural world and the ethereal realm of the spirits.
It is in this context that yam jin gai (ยำจิ้นไก่) holds a special significance. Once a delicacy served only on special occasions, this soup-like salad has come to symbolize the enduring bond between the people of Northern Thailand and their ancestral spirits. Families pay homage to their ancestors with offerings of food, fostering a sense of unity and connection that transcends mortality and even the present; although the dish is included on the menus of many restaurants, its roots remain grounded in the spiritual landscape of the northern forests.
Yam jin gai is a dish that features shredded chicken meat and offal, braised in a deep, dark hazel-gold broth. The broth is thickened with smoky, roasted chilies and the earthy nuttiness of ash-colored, toasted perilla seeds (งาขี้ม้อน). The dish is seasoned with numerous dry spices, including a makwen-rich (มะแขว่น) phrik laab seasoning mix that imparts a fiery, prickling and numbing sensation. Savory, earthy and aromatic, the dish lacks any sweetness – but is finished by mixing into it the savory and scented broth fresh herbs, giving it a distinctive soft-honeyed, spicy, slightly minty and peppery herbal aromatic profile.
The fundamental life force, the energy that allows life itself to exist, and the essence of it all surround us. It can be heard when a dog barks or seen when a flower blossom stands tall; if we discern these voices as whispered through the aromas and flavors of our food, the connection to the past and the power of tradition are detectable. It is thus our duty as makers of Thai food to render this connection palpable in our modern-day creations of traditional dishes.
We must also strive to source ‘spiritually intact’ ingredients. A whole chicken, for example, intact from beak to tail and including the liver and heart, is more likely to carry life energies in sufficient abundance to impart a delectable impression of the meeting with our ancestral spirits. Conversely, the fridge-chilled, butchered and separated parts of the hormone-fed birds found on supermarket shelves are silent and still.
This is not simply fanciful culinary poetry. In the Lanna culture, these spirits come in various forms and can even be acquired. The Lua people (คนลัว), for instance, are an ethnic group that practice Buddhism and animism; they search for spirits in the forest, capture them in bags, and carry them back to the cities and villages to sell. Once a spirit is purchased, the Lua merchant instructs the new owner on properly welcoming the spirit to its new home and ensuring that it remains safely contained in a vessel. The spirit’s container is adorned with beautiful flowers, and the initial purchase price of the spirit is later used to determine fines imposed by society when social boundaries or relationships are violated. สำนักศิลปะและวัฒนธรรม. “กลุ่มชาติพันธุ์ลัวะ/เลอเวือะ/ละเวือะ,” January 25, 2021.อาหารผี วิถีคน: หมุดหมายการเลี้ยงผีในสังคมล้านนา มิวเซียมสยาม (Museum Siam).” … Continue reading
There are, of course, various spirits, with each offering a unique set of powers. For example, Grandfather and Grandmother Spirits (ผีปู่ย่า; phee bpuu yaa) can bestow happiness and unity upon the family, drawing children, relatives and descendants closer together in warmth and harmony; thus, these spirits are typically placed in the largest room of the house. Other spirits encourage the family to work tirelessly, leading to wealth and prosperity through their unyielding diligence; and yet other spirits deliver joy and laughter to a household, culminating in festive ceremonies held annually in their honor.
To prepare yam jin gai , I select a whole chicken with all its internal organs intact. Using a sharp knife, I separate the chicken into parts and sear them on a hot plancha until the skin is slightly charred. This imparts a smoky flavor that echoes the heat of the phrik laap seasoning mix.
Once the chicken is charred to my liking, I transfer it to simmer in a pot with boiling water, lemongrass, fresh turmeric and white northern fermented shrimp paste (kapi). As the chicken cooks, the turmeric tints its skin and meat with a golden, earthy hue. While the chicken is braising, I prepare the curry paste by roasting dried chilies until they are about 40% charred, then lightly roasting perilla seeds and pounding them together with Thai garlic, salt and makwen (มะแขว่น) (Zanthozylum limonella Alston).
Once the paste is ready and the chicken is tender, I remove the chicken from the pot but continue cooking the liquids with the paste, allowing the stock to reduce. I am aiming for a rich, dark and murky transparency formed by the essence of the chicken, including its proteins, fats and memories. I season the dish with rock salt, as well as the phrik laap seasoning mix for spiciness and the laap spice mix for the aromatic intensity, before finishing the dish with roughly chopped herbs that dress the savory and earthy chicken with rich and varied herbaceous notes. These notes are a complex blend of sweetness, mint and pepper – slightly spicy and soapy, an interplay that mirrors the unity and harmony sought within families and communities as they connect with their spiritual roots.
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- 600 g free-range chicken (ไก่บ้าน) Whole, including the head, feet and offal
To braise the chicken
- 2 stalks lemongrass (ตะไคร้)
- 1 tablespoon fresh turmeric (ขมิ้นชัน) cut into thick into slices
- 1/2 tablespoon Northern style fermented shrimp paste (white kapi)(กะปิกุ้ง)
- water or stock (น้ำเปล่าหรือน้ำสต๊อก) to cover
For the paste
- 6 pieces dried Thai bird’s eye chili (phrik kee noo) (พริกขี้หนููแห้ง) roasted to 30% char and used dry
- 10 cloves Thai garlic (กระเทียมไทย)
- 1/2 tablespoon makwen (มะแขว่น) (Zanthozylum limonella Alston) roasted and ground
- 1 1/2 tablespoon Perilla frutescens seeds (งาขี้ม้อน) roasted
- 1/2 teaspoon makwen-infused fish sauce (มะแขว่นดองน้ำปลา) or fish sauce
- 1/2 tablespoon Northern laap seasoning mix (naam phrik laap) (น้ำพริกลาบ) as needed
- 1/2 teaspoon Northern laap spices mix (ชุดเครื่องเทศสำหรับลาบเหนือ) as needed
- 1/4 teaspoon makwen (มะแขว่น) (Zanthozylum limonella Alston) roasted and ground, as needed
- Choose a whole chicken, one with all its internal organs intact.
- Use a sharp knife to separate the chicken into parts.
- Sear the chicken parts on a hot plancha until the skin is slightly charred.
- Fill a pot with water and add the fermented shrimp paste (kapi), turmeric and lemongrass. Bring to a boil.
- Transfer the chicken to braise in a pot with water, lemongrass, fresh turmeric and white northern fermented shrimp paste (kapi).
- While the chicken is braising, prepare the paste by roasting dried chilies to about 40% char.
- Roast the perilla seeds lightly.
- Overview of the paste ingredients.
- Pound the charred chilies, perilla seeds, makwen, and garlic to a smooth paste. Set aside.
- Remove the chicken from the pot but continue cooking the liquids with the chili-perilla seed paste and allow the stock to reduce.
- Strain the broth and discard the lemongrass and turmeric.
- Add the paste to the broth and simmer on low heat until reduced in half.
- Separate the chicken meat from the bones and shred it roughly. Slice the cooked skin and offal into thin pieces.
- Return the shredded chicken to the pot to cook with the broth.