Okay, food confession time: I used to be a vegetarian. A pretty bad vegetarian — what kind of nice, Jewish girl from New York could resist lox and whitefish on a visit? — but a vegetarian all the same.
Today, we’re going to meet the food that undid my vegetarianism once and for all. Readers, meet gai yang.
Gai yang is a barbecued, oven-cooked or rotisserie-cooked chicken, marinated flavorfully and allowed to char slightly. In college, when I spent a semester in Thailand, I lived in an off-campus dorm a few blocks from a market called Talat Ton Payom (or Talat Suthep), where gai yang was sold. A market fiend, I was there almost every day buying treats to eat. Bags of fresh-cut pineapple. Snacks of sticky rice and spicy Northern Thai chili dipping paste. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Som tam. And, of course, gai yang, always rotating temptingly behind a sheet of glass at a stand by the sidewalk. Gai yang, the food that convinced me I couldn’t be a vegetarian. Not with something this tasty in the world, at least.
This week, I’m excited to be hosting my friend P’O, who lived on my dorm hall that semester. She told me ruefully that Talat Ton Payom has changed a lot, that it’s much more polished and indoors now, not the collection of outdoor stands it once was. We’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing, including about a night we spent eating gai yang, sticky rice and pineapple with our friend for our friend’s birthday (there was also alcohol involved, and apparently I speak Thai funny when I’m drunk).
I finally made a whole-chicken gai yang in my rotisserie oven. I was worried because it looked like the skin was burning, but I mentioned it to a Thai friend and she said, “If it’s not burnt, it’s not gai yang!” Indeed, a popular chant about gai yang translates roughly as: “Burnt gai yang! Hasn’t been skewered. Skewer it in the left butt-cheek — ooh! Skewer it in the right butt cheek — ooh! Hot, really hot, really hot, really hot!” (I’m not making this up.)
She was right. It was super moist inside and the skin tasted just like that chicken at the market. It helped that I’d bought a fresh chicken from Stokesberry Farm at the farmers market, and marinated it for a day.
Making this in the rotisserie is ideal, but you can also cook it in pieces on a tray, and flip them when they’re nearly burnt. If you don’t have a rotisserie, they tend to be cheap on craigslist, and are a fantastic way to cook whole chickens easily. My grandmother taught me this. Her famous rotisserie chicken recipe is here.
Gai Yang: Thai Rotisserie Chicken
- 1 whole fresh chicken (small is ideal; this one was about 2.5 lbs)
- cilantro, chopped fine
- garlic, chopped fine
- jam (optional)
- fish sauce
- soy sauce
- a little coconut milk (optional)
- juice of 1 lime, for a sauce (not Thai, but so delicious!)
1. In advance (at least a few hours, but 10-16 hours is ideal), marinate the fresh chicken in a mixture of the rest of the ingredients. As to quantities, there should be enough fish sauce and soy sauce that the whole chicken has been sprinkled, and some of each area rubbed or drizzled with something sweet, ideally honey and jam — plum or orange is nice — but you don’t want this to be a super sweet chicken. The rest should all be sprinkled on. I didn’t use coconut milk, but some recipes include it in the mixture.
2. When it’s time to cook, tie up gai yang and put it in your rotisserie (stabbing through the butt cheeks — ooh!). Leave foil on the bottom of the rotisserie to catch the drippings.
3. Cook about 45 min to 1 hour, or more if it’s not a very small chicken, until chicken is cooked all the way through and skin is burnt in some spots. Take out and let cool.
4. Meanwhile, collect all the drippings from the foil. Pour into a bowl and mix with juice of one lime for a sauce that’s really tasty on rice or mashed celery root/potatoes/etc.
5. Cut up gai yang* and serve with nam jeem, sweet chili dipping sauce, available in the Thai section of any store that sells Thai ingredients. It’s also very traditional with Thai sticky rice (kao neeow).
IN AN OVEN:
1. Cut up chicken when raw. Marinate as above.
2. On a foil-lined baking sheet, bake pieces skin-side-up at 375F until very well browned, nearly a little burnt. Flip and cook 10 minutes on the other side. Serve.
*CUTTING UP A CHICKEN
If you don’t know how to cut up a whole chicken, here’s a good process. Use a good kitchen scissors, especially one that has an indent for cutting bone.
1. Cut off the wings and legs.
2. Cut all the way up the front/breast.
3. Cut along the sides, separating the breast from the rest of the chicken on each side. You can cut the breast down into fewer pieces if you like.
4. Cut along the backbone on both sides, separating the thighs.
Your chicken is cut!