Chicken, lemongrass, and sweet potatoes on their own are pretty great, but when simmered in coconut milk and topped with chopped cilantro, they become pure magic in this Vietnamese curry.
Many people compare Vietnamese food with that of Thailand. It’s natural, because the two countries are neighbors and countless ideas have flowed back and forth, intermingling as people cooked and shared. Given that, you’d think that Viet and Thai curries would have lots in common. They do, with regards to the use of coconut milk and aromatics.
But interestingly, Viet cooks prefer curry that features Indian-style spice blends, like the madras curry powder used in this recipe. India has also influenced Viet culture for millennia, particularly through the Cham Kingdom long ago.
For this chicken curry, called cà ri gà in Vietnamese, the curry powder is combined with lots of lemongrass and ginger to create a heady paste. Black pepper and cayenne inject pungent heat. By adding extra spices and aromatics, you can more easily finesse things to your liking.
WHAT IS MADRAS CURRY POWDER?
If you travel to Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) and wander the popular Ben Thanh market, you’ll see several spice vendors who offer individual spices as well as signature spice blends. Each cook has her or his preferences, and as a Vietnamese-American who’s lived in the States for over 40 years, I adore Sun Brand’s Madras-style curry powder. It’s well balanced, with lots of citrusy coriander and zippy turmeric along with warm spice notes in the background.
My mom used to hunt it down at Asian markets, buying several metal cans at a time to avoid running out. Nowadays, it’s stocked in the spice section of many supermarkets and is sold online, too! It’s my go-to and thank goodness, it’s easy to find.
Despite its name, Madras curry powder is not a true Indian ingredient. The spice blend was inspired by Madras, a city in south India that’s now called Chennai. However, like with all “curry powders,” the spice blend was invented and popularized by the British. India does produce curry powder, much of which is exported. Yes, commercialism and colonialism have complicated many things but they’ve also helped to spread ideas around the globe.
Back to the spice blend itself. Madras curry powder can be mild, moderate, or hot, depending on the brand. Sun is a moderately spicy blend that allows me to control the heat source and heat level.
TIPS FOR MAKING THIS CHICKEN CURRY
- Use boneless chicken thighs: Traditional Vietnamese curry employs bone-in chicken but for this recipe adapted from my book, Vietnamese Food Any Day, I opted for boneless, skinless thighs to speed up the cooking time. If you like, use bone-in thighs and remove the skin; you’ll have to simmer longer (poke the tip of a knife into the biggest thigh to check doneness; aim for juices running clear.).
- Finish with coconut milk: Finishing the curry with thick, rich coconut cream refreshes flavors. It’s easy to obtain: let a can of coconut milk sit for a few days (or refrigerate for a few hours), then open and scoop out the fattier cream. The remainder is the thinner, lighter milk.
- Watch your sweet potatoes: White sweet potatoes are preferred for this recipe over orange-fleshed ones, but either can be used. (At the store, if you’re not sure about sweet potato type, break off a bit of the end to check flesh color.) Compared to white-fleshed ones, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes easily become mushy as the curry cooks, so if you use them monitor the pot closely.
For a more savory curry, you can also substitute regular potatoes—choose a potato suitable for boiling or roasting, such as red, white, or Yukon gold.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH THIS CURRY
Rustic yet elegant, this fragrant curry may be served with baguette for dipping or with rice; add a mild vegetable side, such as sauteed chard, to let the curry shine. If the curry is too hot, squirt on some lime juice to cut the heat.
However you serve this curry, it is a seamless blending of cultures that reflects the unique amalgam that is Vietnam. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
First of all check out my book, Vietnamese Food Any Day! Also, try these other recipes here on Simply Recipes:
- Char Siu Chicken
- Quick Chicken Pho
- Shrimp Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce
- Vietnamese-Style Noodle Bowls with Chicken
- Vietnamese-Style Sticky Chicken Skewers
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