I’ve never been to Vietnam, and I’m hoping to change that soon. That said, life has blessedly always dropped me at tables where the food and culture of Vietnam thrive. My high school best friend is Vietnamese and we spent many an after-school snack gorging on these. My prom date, also Vietnamese, knew me well enough to eschew the mediocre “nice” restaurants of the moment and brought me to his family’s favorite dive instead. And in my early twenties, I was lucky enough to live in a part of town lined with Vietnamese restaurants where I nursed hangovers with syrupy sweet iced coffee and spring rolls. I ate at these places at least three times a week, making my way through every menu on the block. There was this one dish, cà ri gà, that I only selected when the Florida weather turned sufficiently cold. It totally captured me. This simple chicken curry—laced with hunks of sweet potato and served with a copious helping of baguette—warmed me on lonely cold nights. This recipe is a colonial era dish that includes influences of French and Indian cuisines that compliment this Vietnamese staple. I’ve adapted it here from Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham.
Prepare the chicken by cutting it into 1-inch pieces. Toss with 2 tablespoons of curry powder and tuck away in the fridge to marinate for at least an hour, but as long as overnight.
When you’re ready to cook the soup, pull the meat out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Heat the coconut oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until they start to become translucent. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and remaining curry powder. Sauté until an enticing fragrance starts to take over.
Add the curry-marinated chicken pieces and cook until golden brown. Add the fish sauce, sugar, lemongrass stalk, and ginger, and give it a stir. Pour the chicken stock into the pot and bring to a boil, then immediately reduce to a simmer. Add the carrots, cover partially, and simmer 10 minutes until they start to soften. Add the coconut milk, onion, and sweet potato. Cook, covered, for about 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender.
Remove the lemongrass and ginger before serving. Garnish with a handful of cilantro and/or scallions and thai basil if it’s available. And don’t forget the baguette. Savor with delight and gratitude.
*To make an Asian-style chicken broth, use about 3 pounds of chicken bones, necks, feet or chicken wings. Put them into a stockpot with 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar and cover with an inch of water. It should take about 2 ½ quarts of water. Let this stand at room temperature for 20 to 40 minutes.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to broil for about 10 minutes. Char an unpeeled onion, cut in half from root to stem, and a 3 to 4-inch knob of fresh ginger, unpeeled for about 10 minutes until dark brown, fragrant, and skin looking like brittle paper. You might have to turn the ginger a few times to insure it doesn’t burn. Discard any black pieces of onion skin and place the rest in the stockpot with the bones, along with 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 4 whole cloves, 2 star anise, and a handful of cilantro stems. Place the stockpot over high heat, but watch carefully to turn it down to a simmer as soon as it comes to a boil. Simmer for at least 2 hours, but I like to turn this to a very low simmer and cook it overnight. When it’s done simmering, strain the stock well and discard the bones, herbs, and spices.