Thai Chicken with Holy Basil “Gai Pad Grapow”

Last month I was traveling in northeastern Thailand for work with a couple of my Thai colleagues.  The food in the Northeast is truly spectacular.  Meals are worthy of special consideration up there, and I’ve had some of my most memorable meals in Thailand in the most unassuming places in that region.  One trip we had an unforgettable smoky, crisp chicken from a roadside vendor that grilled the chicken over old oil barrels.

On my last trip, we had the unfortunate luck to have booked a return flight at 1pm.  This meant lunch at the airport.  (A universal truth – airport food is dicey.)

When we sat down in the airport restaurant, without hesitation my colleague ordered us each a plate of Chicken with Holy Basil with rice and a fried egg on top.  There was nothing particularly unique about this plate of food in Thailand (I think I paid 75 cents, plus 5 cents for the egg).  But, if I were in a Thai restaurant back in D.C., I probably would have paid 14 dollars for this dish and loved every bite.

Which really begs the question…how will I ever go back to paying that much for Thai food?

The experience proved just what a smart dish this is to have in your ordering arsenal if you are ever traveling through Thailand.  Even in the airport, a plate of Chicken with Holy Basil makes for a welcome lunch.  Friends that teach here say kids eat it in school cafeterias (and you better believe that those kids eat it spicy).  Frank says that in his office, Thai Chicken with Holy Basil is the equivalent of Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches – if you can’t decide what you want for lunch, order Gai Pad Grapow.

Although some might disagree, I think that this delicious dish can be improvisational, and easily made at home.  I make it using the recipe below, but you can cut down on the spice, use pork or tofu instead of chicken, and even use a simpler sauce of just regular soy sauce and a pinch of sugar (although the fish sauce really is worth adding).

The one element of the dish that is not improvisational is the basil.  To make this at home, you’ve got to have Thai holy basil.  Asian markets outside of Thailand may carry this basil that has a hint of lemon and pepper and a surface that is more rough than the Italian variety.

The dish gets its spice from these tiny bird’s eye chilis.

That are sliced and mixed with thinly sliced garlic.

And then cooked with a flavorful sauce.

It’s taken me a while to navigate the sea of sauces used in Thai cooking…there are many, but the sauces used in this dish are widely available.

My recipe for Gai Pad Grapow uses a combination of regular Thai soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, and fish sauce.

Here in Thailand, the final dish is served with rice and a sunny-side-up egg.  Both balance the heat of the peppers in the chicken.  For the truly authentic experience, serve a small bowl of fish sauce with thinly sliced chilis on the side, for additional flavor.

Should you ever find yourself stuck over mealtime in a Thai airport, don’t mess around with the rest of it – just tell them you want “Gai Pad Grapow”.

Thai Chicken with Holy Basil "Gai Pad Grapow" (i.e. what to eat in a Thai airport)
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
A favorite, simple Thai chicken stir-fry with chili and Thai holy basil.
Author:
Recipe type: Main Dish, Chicken
Cuisine: Thai
Serves: 2
Ingredients
For the Sauce:
  • 1 Tbsp. sweet Thai soy sauce (see note)
  • 2 tsp. Thai soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. fish sauce
For the Chicken:
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 16oz. (460g.) chicken, finely chopped or ground
  • 3-6 Thai bird's eye chilis, thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 30 whole leaves Thai holy basil
For Serving:
  • 2 cups cooked white rice
  • 2 eggs, cooked sunny-side up
  • extra fish sauce mixed with thinly sliced bird's eye chills
Instructions
  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the sweet Thai soy sauce, Thai soy sauce, and fish sauce.
  2. Heat a large wok over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and, as soon as it begins to steam, add the chopped chicken to the wok, stirring continuously to cook on all sides. When the chicken is nearly cooked through and is golden brown on the outside, about 3 minutes, add the prepared sauce, chilis and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring continuously, until the sauce has evenly coated the chicken and the garlic becomes tender and caramelized, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the basil.
  3. Serve immediately, with rice, eggs, and extra fish sauce on the side.
Notes
Sweet Thai soy sauce is a thick, dark, sweet variety of soy sauce, shown in the middle image below. There is no true substitute, but you can use regular soy sauce and dark brown sugar to approximate its combination of salty and sweet. In addition, an Indonesian sauce called "Kecap Manis" provides a close approximation of its flavor.

 

 

Comments

  1. Luke says

    As a private chef spending many years in Thailand I have to say this would be on of my all time favorite dishes. I think you will find a lot of Thai chefs use Oyster sauce in their dish.

    • says

      Luke – I completely agree – I could probably eat this every day and not get tired of it. I tested this with oyster sauce as well, since I know that is how many people make it. I didn’t love it as much as I did when it is prepared this way, but I definitely should have noted that – thank you for chiming in!

    • says

      Katie – that’s great that you can find Thai basil there! What you might be seeing is Thai sweet basil. Thai sweet basil looks a lot like Italian basil (shiny leaves), but doesn’t have the same peppery bite that holy basil does. This dish would still be delicious with Thai sweet basil…different flavor, but still worth making. P.S. I’ve had this made with firm tofu instead of chicken, and it’s fantastic!

    • says

      Averie, I bet you can get some great Thai food where you are. Any in Aruba?? ;) It’s a bit harder in my hometown of Kansas City, although there are some authentic Thai restaurants, they are definitely not endless options. What I’m loving is that there are some really great places doing riffs on classic Thai dishes that are really fun – I’ve seen them in Bangkok, but I know there are some here in the US as well!

  2. Veronica says

    I made this tonight for my husband who loves spicy Thai food, and 6 chilies was pretty spicy but enjoyable! The fried egg was delicious on the side and helped tame the heat. I just found your blog last week but have already made three recipes and loved them all! I’ll be visiting often.

    • says

      Veronica – thank you sincerely for taking the time to stop in and let me know what you thought. It’s true, 6 of those chilies is not for the faint of heart, but I’m glad it worked for your spicy-food loving husband! The fried egg definitely helps with the heat, and I love the contrast.

  3. Lan Anh says

    Hi Jess, thank you for sharing great write-ups and photos. I am a Thai food lover too. Could you give me some information about shops in Bangkok where I can buy the most typical spices (I’ll have a couple of days there next month. Thank you.
    Lan Anh

    • says

      Hi Lan Anh – the common spices and curry pastes (don’t forget to pick up a few of those) are widely available in Bangkok. Perhaps one of the easiest places to find them, in part because they will be clearly labeled in English, is at the larger international grocery stores. Tops market (many locations) has a very reasonably priced and great store brand of most spices, including dried kaffir lime, dried galangal, and toasted rice powder. That would be a great place to look. I did a giveaway a year ago where I took pictures of some of my favorite items (all from Tops Market in All Seasons Place, near the Ploen Chit BTS stop), so check out that post for some ideas and photos – http://www.inquiringchef.com/2012/06/01/giveaway-let-me-stock-your-thai-pantry/.

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