This is my husband Will’s favorite Thai dish, perhaps because he encountered it in a small cafe overlooking the Kwae River during his first journey to Thailand. Restaurant cooks make it with minced chicken, beef, or pork, hand-chopping the meat with a heavy cleaver just before cooking. Chopping the meat provides maximum surface area to absorb the spectacular combination of hot green chilies, garlic, and holy basil (bai graprao), a pungent, peppery herb. Try this using ground meat from the grocery store, or cut any other meat into bite-sized pieces, or use shrimp, decreasing the cooking time since they cook so quickly. Don’t worry if you can’t find holy basil, since Asian basil, Italian basil, and fresh mint make delicious substitutes. Look for holy basil seeds in Asian markets in springtime, as the plant will thrive in the West in the summer sun.
Heat the oil in a large deep skillet over medium-high heat and then add the garlic and onion. Toss well, and when they begin to release their aroma, add the chicken in generous pinches. Toss well, using a spatula or slotted spoon, to help meat brown evenly and to break up big chunks to achieve a crumbly texture.
Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, water, and sugar and cook 2 to 3 minutes, tossing now and then, just until the meat is cooked and the seasonings form a thin, smooth sauce. Add the chilies and basil and toss well. Transfer to a serving plate and serve hot or warm.
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