The name of the Thai street food staple simply translates to grilled chicken and while that is indeed accurate it fails to do it justice. A multi-layered overnight marinade of herbs, spices, and sauces yields pure poultry perfection on the BBQ: tender flesh, crispy skin, and flavor for days. (Plus, there’s the added bonus of perfuming your backyard with an utterly intoxicating aroma.)
Related Reading: A Beginner’s Guide to Thai Food
It’s no wonder gai yang has plenty of devotees and among the flock is Los Angeles-based chef Johnny Lee, who recently added the dish to the menu at his Chinatown gem Pearl River Deli. Though the restaurant focuses primarily on Cantonese-inspired cooking, bringing gai yang into the fold makes perfect sense. The dish encapsulates a trio of Lee’s most notable culinary achievements: his mastery of poached Hainan chicken (the chef’s initial claim to fame); the Thai cooking talents he showed off at Grand Central Market stall Sticky Rice; and his Chinese barbecue expertise currently being exhibited at PRD.
Below he shares his somewhat unconventional approach to what’s bound to become your new favorite summer sizzler.
Finding Your Fowl
Let’s begin with the centerpiece: a whole, bone-in chicken. For someone like Lee whose reputation was built on his poultry prowess, Purdue and Tyson just won’t cut it. While heritage birds are optimal, he recommends free-range Jidori chicken which according to Lee “is the best cross section of value and quality.”
As for size, 2 ½ to 3 lbs range is the sweet spot (another reason to avoid those monstrous supermarket standards). “When they’re a bit smaller it’s easier for me to manage an even distribution of the grilling,” Lee says.
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Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Storing, & Cooking Chicken
Prepping Your Bird
Spatchcocking (butterflying) chicken is an ideal way to achieve a uniform cook on the grill. While the most popular method involves removing the backbone, Lee prefers to carve a different path. “When you spatchcock through the back, you push the breasts together,” he says. “It gives them an odd shape in a bad way. It makes it grill more unevenly.”
Instead, Lee cuts through the breast and proceeds to remove the rib cage, breastbone, and wishbone.
If you don’t have a butcher who can do this for you, Lee recommends arming yourself with a good pair of kitchen shears, cutting along the breastbone and gradually separating the breast from the bones.
OXO Good Grips Multi-Purpose Kitchen Shears, $17.96 from Amazon
You may also want to consider inserting skewers (bamboo or metal) from the drumstick to the neck. A common practice at Thai food stalls, this will ensure your chicken remains flat and can be easy flipped.
Lee’s all-important marinade combines pantry staples and fresh herbs, but his most prized ingredient is cilantro root. “It reminds me of a mix of the coriander spice and cilantro in one, but with a more herbaceous note,” Lee says. (Disappointed with the fragrance of what’s available domestically he insists on importing his stash from Thailand.)
Doubling down on his roots, Lee also includes fresh turmeric. Though it’s not a common ingredient in gai yang, he adds it to the mix for earthiness and to give the chicken a bright golden hue.
The combo of fish sauce (Lee’s preferred brand is Son) and oyster sauce bring the umami while a dash of sugar offers sweetness and helps to caramelize the skin for just the right amount of char.
Fire It Up
Due to fire regulations, Lee prepares the Pearl River Deli gai yang on a gas grill, but at home, charcoal is his preference.
He always starts with the skin side down. (Be sure to prep your grill in advance so that the skin doesn’t stick!)
“I try to grill it at a low medium heat and then slowly caramelize one side and try to time it so that the meat cooks perfectly and the skin browns perfectly.”
Related Reading on CNET: The Best Grills of 2020
Sides and Sauces
When it comes to sides, Lee sticks with the classics.
Sauce-wise, he offers two options: a sweet and sour Thai chili sauce and nam jim jaew, which Lee prepares with fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar. “That’s on the salty and sour side,” he says. “It’s more emblematic of Isaan style food.”
Johnny Lee’s Gai Yang Chicken
See below for chef Johnny Lee’s gai yang recipe. (This makes 6 cups of marinade; use 1 cup per chicken.)
Johnny Lee’s Gai Yang Chicken
- 2 cilantro roots smashed and chopped (optional, but you can substitute with a bunch of cilantro if you want)
- 4 ounces of fresh turmeric root (peeled) or 4 tablespoons powdered tumeric
- ½ cup garlic
- 1 cup fish sauce
- 2 cups oyster sauce
- 2 cups brown sugar
- ½ cup canola oil
- 2 tablespoons ground white pepper
- Blend all ingredients into a smooth paste and use it to marinade your chicken overnight.
- The next day, grill over a medium heat fire, skin side down first until it browns beautifully before flipping to finish cooking. Overall cooking time should be 3/4 of the time skin side down and 1/4 of the time on the flesh side just to finish any uncooked parts.
- Allow chicken to rest for 10-15 minutes before chopping into pieces.
Best served with a side of sticky rice, papaya salad, and sweet Thai chili sauce (like Mae Ploy).
Header image courtesy of enviromantic / E+ / Getty Images