We had this the other night. I did the frying indoors and, hours after we had consumed all the chicken, the house still smelled of pandan. Like an accidental, but very welcome, air freshener.
That’s the thing about this dish. It’s as much about the flavors as it is about the aroma. The chicken cubes are wrapped in pandan leaves not only to prevent them from burning in the hot oil but to give them a tantalizing smell. If you haven’t cooked with pandan leaves before, there is a post dedicated to it.
We grow pandan in the garden. If you’re using pandan from the market, and it’s the first time you’re going to cook with the leaves, don’t be surprised if the aroma is rather faint. They need heat. The magic happens during frying.
Fish sauce, garlic, turmeric, lime juice, sugar, coconut cream, oyster sauce and, optionally, chilies. These are the ingredients that you need to season the chicken.
While the chicken pieces are quite small and they don’t need a long time to soak up the flavors in the marinade, it’s still a better strategy to give them at least an hour to allow the marinade to permeate the innermost part of the fillets.
You’ll need mature leaves. Young ones are too narrow to wrap the chicken in snugly. Choose leaves that are at least two inches at the widest portion. Rinse them well and allow excess water to drip off.
Pandan leaves can feel rather stiff in your hands. The center rib is rigid and it may seem impossible to bend the leaf to turn it into a wrapper. There are three ways to make it more pliable:
- Blanch the pandan leaves for half a minute. That means pressing them down into a pot of boiling water just until they soften then scooping them out to cool.
- The second way is shown on the left photo above. Bend the leaf from top to bottom to break the rigid center rib.
- The third way is to combine the two steps above.
Note the two ends of the pandan leaf. You have the top end which is pointy and the lower end where it had been cut off the plant. Hold a leaf with the pointy end pointing to the left. Take the cut end and fold into a loop. You want the pointy end to be longer because that’s the one that will be folded over the chicken.
Stuff a piece of marinated chicken into the loop, take the pointy end of the pandan leaf and fold it over the chicken to cover.
Turn the parcel over in your hand. Take the pointy end once more and insert it into the visible fold. Pull it up until the chicken is secure inside the leaf. Repeat with the rest of the chicken and pandan leaves.
Before you start frying, you may optionally cut off the pandan leaves. Don’t cut too close to where the chicken is so as not to loosen the folds.
Heat up cooking oil in a wok (or fryer) and drop in the pandan-wrapped chicken. Do this in batches and keep the heat on high. The pandan leaves will shrivel and parts of the chicken will get exposed to the hot oil. These exposed portions of the chicken and the pandan leaves will brown during frying. And it is during this stage when you will at last experience the full aroma of the pandan leaves.
Drop the cooked pandan chicken into a strainer. Cook the next batch, and so on, and so forth, until all the pandan-wrapped chicken had been fried.
Thai pandan chicken (gai ob bai toey)
- 1 kilogram chicken thigh fillets (preferably skin on) cut into 2-inch cubes
To cook the chicken
- pandan leaves equal to the number of cut chicken pieces
- cooking oil for deep frying
Marinate the chicken
- Place the chicken pieces in a bowl, and add all the ingredients for the marinade. Mix well.
- Cover and let sit in the fridge for at least an hour (overnight is ideal).
Wrap the chicken
- Cut off the root and light green portions of the pandan leaves.
- Take the dark green portion and blanch in hot water for 30 seconds to release the aroma and to make them more pliable.
- Wrap each piece of chicken in pandan leaf (see illustrated guide).
Fry the pandan chicken
- Heat the cooking oil in a wok or frying pan. Ideally, the oil should be at least three inches deep.
- Fry the pandan-wrapped chicken in batches over high heat. Three to four minutes should cook the chicken through. But, to be on the safe side, take one piece out of the oil and cut the chicken. If the juices run clear, the chicken is done. In not, fry a little longer.
- Drain the fried chicken pandan on a rack or strainer to allow excess oil to drip off before serving.