It is curious how one finds the basic sweet and sour dish in the cuisine of every Southeast Asian country. Filipinos have escabeche; the Thai have their pad preow wan wai (they even have a name for their sweet and sour sauce—nam jim priao wan); the Malaysians have a cooking style known as masak blandah/belanda, and there’s this Vietnamese sweet and sour chicken dish with lemongrass and tamarind.
Unlike the basic Chinese sweet and sour sauce that is made by combining vinegar and sugar, the sweet and sour sauce of this chicken dish is made by mixing together sugar and tamarind juice. Yes, it is still sweet and sour but the tamarind gives the sauce a fruity and richer flavor that vinegar does not have.
- 12 chicken thigh fillets, about 800 grams (1 3/4 pounds), cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes
- 2 heaping tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 red chili peppers, finely chopped
- 2 green finger chilis, finely sliced
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, white part only, finely sliced
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 1 carrot, thinly sliced, or 1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
- 3 to 4 tablespoons tamarind extract or paste, or to taste
- Vietnamese cilantro (sometimes called Vietnamese mint) or cilantro leaves, for garnish
Gather the ingredients.
In a bowl or resealable plastic bag, place the chicken, sugar, fish sauce, chilis, garlic, pepper, and lemongrass. Mix well and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or frying pan over medium-high heat. Strain the chicken, reserving any marinade, and lightly brown in the hot oil.
Add the carrot slices (or diced bell pepper) and cook for another 30 seconds.
Pour in the marinade, broth and tamarind extract (or paste). Stir well. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
Transfer to a serving platter, sprinkle with cilantro and serve hot with rice.
There are many ways to get the tamarind you'll need to make this dish.
- If you have access to fresh tamarind, rinse them and boil in just enough water to cover until mushy. Mash the softened tamarinds, strain and use the extracted juice.
- Dried tamarinds sold in Asian stores must be soaked in hot water to soften. Discard the water, mash the tamarinds and use the extract.
- Conveniently, you can buy tamarind paste sold in jars in Asian stores. Note, however, that this prepared tamarind paste has sugar in it and is not as sour as tamarind extract. It is also darker. You may need to use a lot of tamarind paste to get the desired level of sourness and that means that the cooked dish will also be darker.
- Tamarind concentrate is another way to buy tamarind. To reconstitute, add 2 tablespoons of water for each tablespoon of tamarind concentrate.
- Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of minced shallot or green onion to the pan and sauté along with the chicken pieces.
- Replace the brown sugar with honey or another sweetener.
Is There a Substitute for Lemongrass?
Lemongrass imparts lemony flavor with a hint of ginger and mint. You can try to use a combination of lemon and lime zest, but it will not truly replicate the flavors of lemongrass. If you can't find fresh lemongrass, look for it in frozen, paste or dried form.