What is Pad Kraprow Gai
Pad Kraprow Gai (ผัดกระเพราไก่) literally translates to Fried Holy Basil Chicken and is a Thai street food dish that also happens to be one of my favorite dishes of all time. While there are countless reasons to love this dish, perhaps the most compelling is its incredibly good effort to taste ratio. Ten minutes is all it takes to pull this dish off, and for your pittance of effort, you’ll be rewarded with a soul-satisfyingly delicious meal that’s cheap to boot.
Ingredients for Thai Basil Chicken
As the name implies, one of the primary components of this dish is basil. Holy Basil can be difficult to find outside of South East Asia, so many Thai restaurants in the US use Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. Thyrsiflora), which is known as Horapha in Thailand. I’ve even seen some that use ordinary Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. Genovese). While these make for interesting takes on the original, it’s misleading to call these dishes Pad Kraprow Gai, as “Kraprow” is the Thai word for Holy Basil.
Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), is a member of an entirely different species of basil and has a distinct aroma with hints of cinnamon, cloves, and menthol. This gives it a flavor that’s closer to perilla or mint than most other varieties of basil which tend to have anise and licorice notes. It lends a beautiful freshness to the dish, contrasting the spicy chilies, pungent garlic, and savory-sweet chicken.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a Thai grocery store, you should be able to find it there (I’ve seen it in stores in New York and California). Otherwise, if you end up using Thai Basil, just call the dish Pad Horapha Gai, and you’re all good.
I like to use skin-on chicken thighs for making this dish, but skin-on breasts will work too. Since breast meat cooks much faster and gets unpleasantly dry when overcooked, you’ll want to add the sauce a bit earlier if you go with white meat. If you’re not a big fan of chicken skin, don’t worry, it’s going to get used, but not in the way you think. Keep reading for the details.
The Chili Peppers
I went to my local Thai market to pick us some Holy Basil, and they had a selection of a few chili peppers. I picked up some Prik Jinda and Prik Kee Noo Suan. Prik Jinda is a larger chili pepper about the length of my hand, and it comes in a variety of colors depending on how ripe it was when it was picked. It’s fairly spicy, but not as spicy as Bird’s Eye Chilies (which rate 50k to 100k on the Scoville scale). I’d say they’re on par with Serrano Chilies in terms of spiciness.
Prik Kee Noo Suan literally means “mouse dropping chilies,” presumably due to their shape and size. Despite their compact form factor, these suckers pack a punch. I popped one in my mouth, and as soon as I bit down, my nostrils started to burn, and my eyes started to water. They’re spicier than Bird’s Eye Chilies, and my guess is that they’re up around Habaneros in the heat index.
While I could have used a small amount of the Prik Kee Noo Suan, I decided to use a whole ripe Prik Jinda chili because I wanted the right balance between chili pepper flavor and heat. If you can’t find these chilies near you, you can use any pepper that fits within your tolerance for heat.
Basil chicken is typically seasoned with a combination of Thai dark soy sauce and oyster sauce. It should be noted that Thai dark soy sauce is quite different from Japanese or Korean dark soy sauce. It’s thick, syrupy and almost black in color, with molasses and caramel notes (though it’s not sweet). If you can’t find it, Indonesian Kecap Manis will work as well, but you’ll want to skip the sugar as it’s already quite sweet.
As for the oyster sauce, this adds a wallop of umami to the dish, and in a pinch, you can substitute it for the dark soy sauce as well, leaving out the sugar. Unfortunately, many oyster sauces I see are loaded with MSG and have little to no actual oysters in them, so be sure to read the ingredient label before buying one. I’m particularly fond of the Thai brand Megachef. Despite the corny name, their products, including their fish sauce is very good, and free of unnecessary additives.
A high smoke point vegetable oil will work fine for this stir-fry, but I’m always looking for ways to reduce waste in the kitchen. That’s one of the reasons why I like to render the fat out of the chicken skin, and use that to fry the Basil Chicken. But this isn’t the main reason you should be doing this. Chicken fat (a.k.a. schmaltz) is the butter of the poultry world, and it’s loaded with flavor! Best of all, for those of you that don’t like the texture of chicken skin, by rendering the fat out, it ends up disappearing into the stir-fry leaving nothing behind but flavor.
Although basil chicken is abundantly tasty on its own, the fried egg on top is what elevates this dish to an entirely new plane. The egg is shallow-fried, giving it a crisp golden brown crust on the bottom, while the molten yolk remains soft and creamy, adding a velvety richness to this humble weeknight meal.
For some crazy reason, many Thai restaurants in the US don’t top their basil chicken with an egg, so I was introduced to this concept at a night market on my first trip to Thailand. Now that I know how good this is, I can’t go back. One word of caution, when you add the egg to the pan, you’re essentially dumping a liquid into hot oil, and it’s going to splatter and make scary noises, so please be careful.
How to Make Basil Chicken
This dish is not complicated to prepare, but like most stir-fries, the cooking happens rapidly. That’s why it’s super important to have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go into the pan when needed. Once all your measuring, stirring and chopping are done, you start by rendering out the fat from the skin.
When the skin is crisp, you should have a good amount of fat in the pan that you can use to saute the garlic and chilies. The minced chicken goes into this and gets stir-fried. When the chicken is almost cooked through, the sauce goes in and gets tossed until it turns into a thick glaze that coats everything in a shiny lacquer. Finally, a fistful of holy basil gets tossed in until it’s just covered with the sauce. It’s okay if it still looks a bit raw as the residual heat will finish cooking the delicate herb on the way to the table.
Timing the egg and the chicken so that they finish simultaneously is a bit tricky, so if you’re worried about juggling two pans at the same time, you can make the egg before the chicken and set it on a plate while you prepare the chicken.
For Basil Chicken
- 20 grams holy basil
- 250 grams skin-on chicken thighs (2-3 large thighs)
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 9 grams garlic (2 medium cloves, roughly chopped)
- 5 grams chili peppers (to taste, roughly chopped)
For Thai Fried Egg
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large egg
- Pick the basil leaves from the stems and discard the stems.
- Measure out the oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar into a small bowl and stir together to combine.
- Remove the skin and fat from the thighs and slice the meat in one direction and then turn your knife 90 degrees and slice the chicken in the other direction to get pieces of chicken that are about 1/3-inch in size.
- Repeat with the skin, mincing it as finely as possible.
- Prepare two frying pans (one for the egg and one for the chicken). Put the chicken skin and fat into one pan and 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil into the other.
- For the pan with the chicken skin, turn the heat onto medium-low and slowly render out the fat, stirring from time to time to prevent burning.
- When the chicken skin is browned and starting to crisp, turn up the heat to high and then add the garlic and chili peppers and saute until fragrant (about 30 seconds).
- Meanwhile, turn the second burner onto medium-high heat and heat until the oil is shimmering and hot.
- Add the chicken to the first pan with the garlic and chili peppers and stir-fry until the chicken is cooked through.
- Carefully break an egg into the second pan and fry it until it's crisp on the bottom and the white is cooked through.
- When the chicken is mostly cooked through, add the sauce and continue tossing and stir-frying until the sauce coats the chicken evenly.
- Turn off the heat and toss the holy basil together with the chicken and plate immediately. Top your Pad Kraprow Gai with the fried egg.