If you’ve ever travelled in Thailand you’ll know the irresistible (er, unless you don’t eat meat; or maybe worryingly irresistible even so?) smell of gai yang – marinated chicken legs cooking over charcoal. Street stalls that sell gai yang will most often simply offer sticky rice and som tam (papaya salad) to go with it. For they are, indeed the perfect accompaniments, you wouldn’t want to go messing up the tastebud aesthetic by involving anything else.
I’ve long considered gai yang one of those things best left to the experts – it’s a lot about the method of barbecuing, you see – but after reading a recipe for it in Ben O’Donaghue’s Outdoor (Hardie Grant Books, 2008), I was so hungry for it I just had to try making it last night. Plus I had a lovely green papaya sitting in the fridge from the weekend, needing to be used in som tam. I’ve adapted his recipe a bit. This serves four adults or two with lunch for the next day. The aim was to cook the marinated chicken on charcoal, outside, but even given the benefit of daylight savings, it was still too dark and cold by the time the babes were soundly asleep, so in the end the chicken legs went in the oven, on a hot temperature at first to crispen the skin, then turned down to the usual 180° celsius and cooked for about 40 minutes.
About three hours before you aim to cook them, get the chicken marinating. In a mortar and pestle (or in a processor), smash 2 medium shallots, 6 cloves garlic, 1 Thai chilli or 1 heaped tsp Thai dry chilli paste, 2 inch piece peeled fresh/frozen turmeric, 2 inch piece peeled fresh/frozen galangal, 2 tsp coriander seeds, 2 Tbsp grated palm sugar, 4 Tbsp fish sauce, into a rough paste.Stuff the mixture under the skin of 1.5 kilos chicken legs and rub it into the skin. It’s now good to go on the barbecue or in the oven. If barbecuing, charcoal is best, or you can add wood chips in a smoker to your gas barbecue to give it that smoky taste. A couple of times during cooking, baste the chicken with some coconut cream (use about 1/4 cup). You can pour any remaining coconut cream from the 1/4 cup into the steaming rice to give it flavour.
Best served with sticky rice and som tam (recipe to come). Sticky rice, however, is something that would take a bit of practice to get right at home (I’ve not had the patience to perfect it, yet), so I just steam jasmine rice so that it’s fairly sticky; the coconut milk poured over helps with that, too.
Wearing gloves while handling turmeric will prevent your fingers ending stained like those of a chain-smoking hag. I forgot to put them on until the stuffing bit.
You can buy fresh turmeric at markets such as Avondale and Otara and in the Indian grocers’. I’ve never seen fresh galangal (yet) in Auckland, but you can buy both galangal and turmeric pieces in the freezer section of any good Asian grocer. Make sure you get the pieces well mashed up or their flavour won’t disperse properly and you’ll end up with bitter chunks.