April 26, 2012
Nearly every August, the Hungry Papa and I pack up the boys and head to the Oregon coast for an annual family reunion. Without fail, we plan the trip reluctantly; a lot goes into dragging two small kids cross country. And also without fail, we return blissfully. Partly because it’s always better than we remember to see family, but also because we reunite with one of our favorite cities.
The Hungry Papa and I have a special connection to Portland, Oregon. Ours is a long tale set on the streets of NYC—the sordid details of which seem humdrum 15 years and 2 kids later—but sparks first flew in the City of Roses. We still feel the jolt of new love electricity when we visit and it makes laid back Portland instantly thrilling.
Psh, who needs Paris?
The lingering haze of young love isn’t the only reason we connect with Portland. It’s also the way that Portland has grown with us. We were smart ass, punck rock kids when we found each other there, me in my last year of college, him with his record collection and music store job. In 1997, it seemed that Portland was populated entirely by people like us—kids into music, art and drinking. It was obnoxious and wonderful.
Now, all these years later, we have kids, sip wine, talk food and see live music only when the show promptly begins at 7 pm. We’ve changed, but so has Portland. With its farmer’s market, great wine, super parks and fountains and affordable family lifestyle, Portland feels much more grown up than it used to. I know it’s no coincidence that I’ve found the nooks and crannys of Portland that fit who I am today, but I also know that you can’t always do that easily. You can outgrow a city. It’s happened to me before, but not with Portland.
As we’ve grown up, Portland, the Hungry Papa and I have all developed a passion for good food. The eating in Portland is fantastic, a delicious mix of high and low, street and farm, local and international. You’ll find insanely good food trucks parked next to world class restaurants and American farm cuisine next to the best south Asian food you’ll find in the country. Even living in NYC, I dream about the food in Portland between trips. Most notably, I dream about a dish unrivaled by anything found in my hometown: Nong’s Khao Man Gai.
Khao man gai is a humble dish of poached chicken, rice and the most sublime sauce you’ll ever eat in your life. It is of Chinese origin, but very popular in Thailand. Nong is the woman who makes the best khao man gai this side of Bangkok. She sells her otherworldly chicken—and only chicken—out of a truck on 10th and Alder Street in downtown Portland. (She’s recently added other locations around the city.) It’s worth the trip.
While visiting a city, I’m not normally one for returning to the same restaurant twice. No matter how good the food, I’m compelled to keep moving, to discover new culinary splendor. But when in Portland, I eat khao man gai made by Nong every day that I can. I once ate it twice in one day, for lunch and dinner. It’s that good—freak out good—which is why I can barely wait the whole year between visits to Portland.
I recently took matters into my own hands and made khao man gai at home. I didn’t bother with a google search, just went straight to my favorite Thai cooking source, She Simmers. A quick look through Leela’s gorgeous site led me to her recipe for khao man gai. Upon finding it, I felt the same rush of electricity that shoots through me when I firs step into the streets of Portland holding the Hungry Papa’s hand after 12 long months. Reunited!
It turns out that khao man gai is pretty easy to make but—I wouldn’t do the dish justice to play this down—some of the ingredients are hard to find. If you’re interested in trying this, I suggest that you buy the more exotic ingredients online: fermented soy bean sauce, dark sweet soy sauce and “white” soy sauce (not to be confused with light soy sauce). They will keep for a long time in your fridge and pantry and I PROMISE that if you make this recipe once, you’ll make it many times over. Your money will be well spent on a great dish and, more importantly, on a food adventure.
Though Leela’s recipe gave me exactly what I wanted, I can’t say that eating this at home was the same as eating Nong’s khao man gai curbside in Portland. It makes for a gloriously satisfying meal, though, and brings a dumb smile to my face in the same way that reading an old love letter does. The Hungry Papa, too.
For those of you unfamiliar with this dish or new to Thai cuisine, this is a great introduction to Thai food for small kids. It’s basically poached chicken and rice—super simple—with a mind blowingly delicious sauce that kids can try, or not try, however they like. Serve with an avocado salad for a simple, well rounded meal.
Also, khao man gai is traditionally served with a winter gourd soup made from the chicken poaching liquid. Since finding Chinese winter gourd on a whim is not easy, even in Brooklyn, I serve this with the broth alone. Ingredients for the proper winter gourd soup are not included below, but can be found on She Simmers.
Khao Man Gai
recipe by Leela, She Simmers
(can be shared with kids 8+ mos)*
1 large roasting chicken
1 tablespoon salt, plus 1 teaspoon
2 cups long grain rice (I have used brown)
Knob fresh ginger, plus 1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh ginger
5 cloves garlic
Bruised cilantro root
Few white peppercorns (optional)
5-8 red or green bird’s eye chillies (how many depends on your heat tolerance)
1/2 cup fermented soybean sauce (see note above)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark sweet soy sauce (see note above)
1/4 “white” soy sauce (see note above and also Leela’s post on soy sauces used in Thai cooking)
1/3 cup white vinegar
Cucumber slices, for serving
Cilantro leaves, for serving
Since I have not a single adaptation to Leela’s recipe, you’re best off using my ingredients for your shopping list and then heading to She Simmers for step-by-step instructions.
*Note: As mentioned above, this is a great dish even for very little eaters. Simply puree rice, cilantro and a wee bit of sauce for children not yet managing rice on their own. The sauce is strong for still developing palates, so use it sparingly. Include chicken for children already safely eating meat. Serve with mashed avocado for some veggie!