Meatless Monday: Grilled Corn With Secret Butter Sauce

I used to love boiled corn on the cob. It was what I grew up eating, in copious amounts. When I was a growing teenager helping out on the farm, I could easily down three to four ears of fresh corn per meal without a thought, along with helpings of the green beans, tomatoes, potatoes and whatever meat happened to be there, too. It was all so good.

But then, Grandma once made roasted corn on the grill Grandpa built for them out of scrap metal and tractor parts. She had us pull the shucks off of the ears, but leave them attached to the stem below, which she cut long. (She harvested corn with a machete. Yeah, Grandma was a badass.) Then, we meticulously picked the silk off of the ears and she slathered room temperature butter over the ears, salted and peppered them liberally and then wrapped the husks back over the ears, tying them with twine at the top to hold them.

These corn “packets” she then set on the grill directly over hot coals to cook. She turned them often, using the long stem as handles, and while a bit of burning happened to the shucks, because they were green, fresh and filled with moisture, they didn’t go up in flames. Instead, parts would burn through and caramelize the corn underneath.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, depending on how hot she made the fire, she’d pull the corn off the grill, and snip the twine holding the leaves around the cob, and push them back down toward the stem, twisting them around the stem so we had a convenient, reasonably cool “handle” to hold our corn so we could eat it.

I fell in love, right then and there with smoky, fire-roasted corn. She had used older ears of corn for it, so they were a bit tougher and chewier than the milk-sweet corn she boiled, with the kernels so tender they just popped under your teeth, but the corn flavor was stronger in the older ears. Sometimes, she’d use young ears of the field corn Grandpa grew for the cows to roast–in those barely sweet kernels resided the most “corny” flavor ever. A flavor that just burst in the mouth and shouted “CORN!”

Years ago, at the Mountain State Arts and Crafts Fair in West Virginia, I bought Zak an ear of corn roasted on the fire in its husk, along with a bowl of beans and a side of cornbread. (That is soul food for a child born in West Virginia. The only thing missing is a mess of greens.)

He fell head over heels for grilled corn and ever since, that’s been the way he and I prefer to cook it.

But, our technique is different than the traditional grilling in the husk method.

And, it involves a special butter sauce/marinade that is brushed on the corn during its entire cooking time, over and over.

The butter sauce was both of our ideas. it started with Zak suggesting I add honey and salt to the butter we brushed on the ears while they cooked.

That seemed like a perfectly sensible idea, so I did it. And it was good, but there was something missing. The addition of honey tipped the flavor balance too far over into the sweet side of things, but I didn’t want to just add more salt.

So, I took to thinking about something salty that wasn’t just salt.

Soy sauce! Soy sauce not only adds salt, but adds flavor as well, most importantly, it adds umami, that elusive sixth taste that humans find irresistible because it comes from proteins called glutamates, and way back in our evolutionary day, protein was just as important to our bodies as sugar and salt. The “meaty” umami flavor would balance the sweentess of the corn, and would make up for the fact that most of the corn you buy these days is almost always just sweet, and lacks that definitive corn flavor that isn’t just made up of sugar.

The addition of soy sauce to the honey and butter improved the final flavor of the grilled corn immensely, giving it a similar robustness found in the older “roasting ears” of corn my Grandma used to make grilled corn.

But, it wasn’t yet quite perfect. Because the soy sauce had done so well in the butter, I glanced through the Asian pantry shelf and came up with toasted sesame oil. A drizzle of that added that nutty quality that older corn kernels have that younger, more tender and texturally pleasing younger ears lack.

The butter was almost finished. I finally added the tiniest pinches of both Chinese Five Spice Powder and dried powdered ginger to the butter before melting it. The amounts are so tiny that you cannot, especially after the corn is grilled, pick out the individual spices at all–they simply add an indefinable fragrance, a flowery quality similar to the essence that corn husks give grilled corn when it is cooked wrapped in green leaves.

I know, why not just cook it in the husks like Grandma did, then? Wouldn’t that be easier than chasing down spices to give a similar effect? Well, yes, it’s easier, but Zak and I both like the caramelized flavor of grilled corn, and when the kernels are protected by the husks, they don’t brown much, and in fact, steam even more than they grill. It’s a semi-wet method of cooking, rather than the completely dry heat of the grill, and you get different results. Mind you, I like both results, but I do prefer the dry heat, caramelized method of grilling to the semi-moist, somewhat steamed method of grilling or roasting in the husk.

The final version of butter is magical. When you brush it on corn repeatedly while it grills over direct heat, it does something interesting. The corn ends up tasting more like corn than it started out tasting, and it doesn’t taste definably buttery, soy-saucey, salty, honied, sugary, spicy or anything else. It just tastes like the best grilled corn you’ve ever tasted in your life, and once it comes off the grill, nothing needs to be added. It just tastes perfectly balanced and good–fragrant and fresh and delicious, and nothing tastes better. (This includes my Grilled Corn Masala, which until this recipe was perfected, was my favorite grilled corn recipe.)

So, here is the recipe. Please note that the amounts for the ingredients are generally scalable to make larger amounts of butter for larger amounts of corn. This makes enough for a half dozen ears of corn, and so you could double the recipe for a full dozen ears, but please note this caveat: do not try exactly doubling the amounts of dried ginger and Five Spice Powder. Instead, add the normal tiny pinch, and then about half again as much–if you double it straight up to two pinches, you will end up overdoing the spices and they will become noticable. Now, that isn’t necessarily bad, mind you, but it does defeat the purpose of giving the corn an indefinable lovely fragrance that the diners can neither quite place nor get enough of.

Grilled Corn with Secret Butter Sauce

6 ears of fresh, local sweet corn (And yes, we have local sweet corn this early in Athens, from one ingenious farmer who starts her corn early under plastic hoop houses that warm the ground fast and make a very warm microclimate that pleases the baby corn plants.)
3 tablespoons of butter
1/2 tablespoon local honey
1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon (depending on how salty your soy sauce is) Japanese style soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 tiny pinch Penzey’s dried powdered ginger
1 tiny pinch Penzey’s Five Spice Powder

Husk and desilk the corn carefully.

Put the butter into a microwave safe mug or small bowl. Add honey, and melt in microwave. Remove from microwave, add soy sauce (taste as you go), and sesame oil, and whisk to combine. To get tiny pinches of the spices–and yes, Penzey’s work better for this recipe–use the tip of a very sharp, dry paring knife. Lightly scoop the spices with the tip of the knife, making just a tiny pile of the spices on the very tip. Tap the knife on the edge of the mug or bowl to drop the spices into the butter, and then whisk to combine.

Prepare your grill for direct grilling. If you use soaked woodchips in a smoker box, or directly on the fire, prepare those as well. (Hardwood chunks make the best fire for this recipe.) Make sure your fire is at least 400 degrees F when the coals are burned down. Set the grill up to be about three inches from the fire.

Set the corn on the grill the so that ears don’t touch each other and baste with the butter, turning the ears completely around with tongs to butter all sides. Close up your grill and cook for two minutes. Open grill, baste and turn corn again, then close lid for another two minutes. Continue cooking, basting and turning every two minutes until corn is done–it takes it about ten minutes to cook through, but it depends on the heat of your fire and the size of your ears of corn.

By the time you are done basting, there should be very little butter left. Remove the corn from the fire, and baste one more time on the serving platter before presenting the dish to your family.

Cooking on a Cedar Plank: Miso-Honey Glazed Salmon

Cooking salmon on a grill is a great idea, but often, it sticks and does its level best to fall apart, and sometimes, the great tragedy of having half a hunk of delicious fish fall between the grates into the fire to be sacrificed to The Gods of Lost Dinners.

However, if you use an untreated wooden plank, such as cedar, that has been soaked in water for a few hours on top of your grill, then set the salmon filet on top of that, not only does the fish neither stick to the grill nor fall into the fire, it is saturated with the flavor and scent of cedar smoke.

And let me tell you, THAT’s something to yearn for.

But then, I yearn for salmon all the time. It’s one of my favorite foods. In fact, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, my greatest aspiration is to be reborn as a grizzly bear in Alaska.

The worry of being shot by a big game hunter, or worse, by Sarah Palin, would be completely offset by being able to wade into rushing cold water and catch my own salmon during the salmon run. Just think of being able to gorge on all of the sushi-grade raw salmon you could eat, while getting to play in cold, clear water at the same time.

Sure, you have to deal with the other bears, but there’s enough fish for everyone, and even the scuffles are as much in play as in earnest. It all sounds great to me.

And then, for dessert, there are wild blackberries.

Ah—that would be the life.

So, anyway, I love salmon, though I didn’t always think it was the best thing in the world. When I was a kid, my only exposure to salmon was in the form of salmon cakes made from the pink stuff from a can. Mom’s cats loved it when she made those, but not me–the smell of them made me queasy, and I could only choke down one cake and that was under duress. On salmon cake nights, I usually ate a lot of parsley potatoes and canned corn, which seemed to be the usual side dishes.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager and tasted properly cooked fresh salmon filet at a Red Lobster in Columbus, Ohio, that I realized that salmon was the best thing that ever swam, even better than rainbow trout or lake perch, my two former favorite fish ever.

(Now that you know that my first taste of real salmon came from Red Lobster, I hope you won’t hold it against me.)

Anyway, now that we know my history when it comes to the best fish in the world, let’s talk about this recipe, shall we?

I decided that Japanese flavors would go really well with cedar smoke. I don’t know why I decided that; perhaps it’s because the Japanese use cedar in building some of their soaking tubs (another thing I love almost as much as salmon–a tub that I can soak up to my neck in without having to lay down and scrunch my knees up and still have them sticking up like two pale islands, cold and sad) and my brain paired cedar and water and salmon together in some bizarre word association game.

So, I made a glaze for the salmon from white (shiro) miso, which is a mild fermented soybean paste, mirin, a low-alcohol sweet rice wine, soy sauce toasted sesame oil, local honey and mild chili pepper flakes. The milder, less salty shiro miso is a great source of umami flavor–that savory taste that comes from naturally occurring glutamates, while the mirin and honey add sweetness. More umami kick as well as some salt comes from the soy sauce, while the sesame oil adds a nutty, fragrant top note. The chili is subtle, and very mild, since I used Aleppo pepper flakes, and could be left out altogether.

The only flavor note missing is something sour. This was provided by a lemon slice placed on top of each filet, which was then “glued” down to the fish with the thick, slightly sticky glaze.

If I’d had a bottle of yuzu juice handy, I’d have used that, but lacking that, lemons would have to do, and they performed admirably. Their fresh flavor brightened everything with a sparkling pure tingle as an endnote flavor.

Putting everything together was remarkably simple. I just had to soak the plank for three hours in warm water to prepare it for the grill. The salmon filet I simply cut into three portions, and whisked the glaze together. When the coals were ready (we used hardwood charcoal) and set up for direct grilling, we simply put the plank on the grill, closed it up and let it preheat and begin to smoke. Then, right before the filets were to go onto the plank, I placed the lemon slices on top of them and then brushed the fish and lemons thoroughly with the glaze. Then, carefully using a pair of tongs, we placed the fish on the plank, closed the lid and let it cook for six minutes.

We lifted the lid, gave the filets another brush of glaze and closed the grill up and cooked them for another seven minutes, until they were just done. I had bought the back half of a salmon side so the tail piece was thin and so was the most well done, though it was not dried out at all. That was Kat’s piece. The middle piece was done perfectly, flaky and moist–that was Zak’s piece.

Mine was the thicker piece from the middle of the fish–and was done perfectly to my liking–just a tiny bit “underdone” so that while it flakes, the flesh isn’t completely opaque–there is a tiny bit of roseate translucency to it, and the fish was juicy and sweet. Just the way I like it.

It turns out that grilling salmon filets on a cedar plank is a perfectly simple operation, and it is one that is well worth repeating. I can’t wait to see what kind of glaze I can come up with next time, though I am even more impatient to eat the salmon itself again, and to heck with the glaze! (Hrm. Maybe I should use blackberries and then have an ursine main course and dessert combined!)

Miso-Honey Glazed Salmon Cooked on a Cedar Plank

1 cedar plank
1 slab of fresh skin on salmon filet (for three portions, I used 1/2 of a salmon side)
1 scant tablespoon shiro miso (Miso Master brand is my favorite)
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons mirin
1 teaspoon Japanese style soy sauce (I used Bourbon Barrel Foods soy sauce)
pinch of mild chili flakes (optional)
3 half-round slices of lemon 1/4″ thick
juice from 1 lemon wedge
a few diagonally cut slices of scallion top for garnish


Soak the cedar plank in warm water for three hours.

Cut the fish into three portions–one Mamma bear sized, one Pappa bear sized (I will have you know that the Mamma bear size at our house is bigger than the Pappa bear size–just saying) and one Baby bear sized.

Whisk together all of the glaze ingredients, from the miso to the chili flakes, until it comes together into a thick, delectable-smelling amber brown liquid.

Prepare your charcoal and when it is ready, set your grill up for direct grilling, which basically means, spread your coals out in an even layer underneath the entire grill.

Place the plank carefully on the grill. Zak used tongs to do this. I suggest you do the same. Close the grill and allow the plank to preheat, watching for smoke to rise out of the vent in a steady stream. This tells you that the plank is ready to go.

Place the lemon slices on top of the filets and brush generously with the glaze. Using tongs, carefully place the filets on the plank, without allowing them to touch each other.

Close the grill lid and allow the salmon to cook undisturbed for six minutes.

Open the lid and brush on more glaze. Close the lid and let it cook for six to nine more minutes, depending on how well done you want your salmon to be. I suggest six more minutes if you want your thickest piece to be nice and moist and juicy and unctuous like mine was.

Open the lid once more and carefully transfer the salmon to a serving platter. The skin may stick in places and tear, but if you are gentle and patient, your filets will come off the cedar nicely shaped and pretty.

Set the salmon aside (I know its hard, but do it anyway. If I could manage it, so can you) and using a different set of tongs, remove the plank from the fire and set on a metal table or some other heat-proof surface to cool. If there are fish skin bits clinging to it, don’t try to remove them now. Wait until the wood cools and brush it off then. If the plank isn’t too burnt, you can use it again, probably several more times, even.

Squeeze the juice of one lemon wedge over all three filets and sprinkle with the finely sliced scallion top, then serve forth.

Serves one Mamma bear, one Pappa bear and one Baby bear and no Goldilockses.

Untraditional Coconut Beef Curry

Note: This post is two years old, and for some unknown reason, was not published at the time. It was written back when I was still suffering from biliary dyskinesia, which is a fancy way of saying that my gallbladder didn’t work and hurt all the time, even though there were no gallstones in evidence. During this period, I did a lot of experimenting with using coconut milk in Indian curries instead of my usual dairy-trio of ghee, yogurt and milk or cream, because I had found that the saturated fat in coconut milk never awakened my angry gallbladder and made me pay for my flagrant disregard for its sensibilities with a painful assault on my health. At any rate, here it is, in its original form, unedited except for this explanatory note for long time readers who might well remember that I no longer have a gallbladder to complain about. Oh, and one more thing–the dish still makes a great curry–out of curiosity, I cooked it again a few weeks ago to see if maybe I had decided that it hadn’t tasted that good after all and that’s why I never posted it. But, no. It tastes just dandy, so we’ll just have to let the question of why it has languished in blog limbo for two years remain a mystery.

After my success with the recipe for Fragrant Coconut and Chicken Curry from Mangalore, which I adapted from Camillia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India, I wanted to see if I could do a similar curry with lamb.

Unfortunately, I had no lamb, but what I did have was a hunk of bone-in beef chuck, which I had intended to use for boeuf bourguignon. However, I wasn’t in the mood for French food, (with wine and bacon, both of which irritate my unhappy gallbladder) so I decided to make it into curry.

While beef is not eaten by devout Hindus in India, Muslims and Christians do eat it, especially in the northern areas of the country. It is less commonly eaten in the South, as I understand, but I suspect it is not unknown.

Zak was all about it, since, in his opinion, Indian food beats French food hands-down in the realm of tastiness, so I set forth to adapt the chicken recipe to one that would accentuate and complement the stronger flavor of beef.

The first thing I decided to do was to brown the bone along with the cubed meat and cook it in the pressure cooker along with the rest of the curry in order to boost the meaty flavor of the finished dish. Many northern style curries are cooked this way, especially with goat or lamb meat. If the meat is served boneless, bones are cooked in the curry and then fished out before serving, but if the meat is cut up on the bone, such as with goat and sometimes lamb meat, then the bones are just left in for service, and diners can eat around them.

Another change I decided on for the recipe was to the amount of cumin, used both as whole seeds and ground up into the masala paste. Beef, as I have noted many times before, tastes “beefier” when cooked with cumin. Something in the musky, lightly bitter seeds synergizes with the flavor of the meat and enhances it, magnifying the umami flavor immensely. The toasty fragrance of cooked cumin, whether it is pan roasted or fried in oil, also seems to cut through the strong odors associated with beef, and accentuates the delicious aroma of browned meat as the two cook together. It is a nearly magical combination in my mind, and I love using the two ingredients together any chance I get.

Another change in the spicing is my addition of a small amount of fennel seed to the masala.

Fennel is one of the sweeter spices, and while I love to use it in chicken, vegetable and fish dishes, I also find that if it is added in small amounts to meat dishes, especially lamb or beef, it brings a subtle, almost flowery fragrance to those dishes, which offsets the stronger, darker meat flavors. I use a small enough amount that it is never obvious that fennel is there, but it still makes a strong impact, giving a complexity to the masala, that might otherwise be lacking.

I also browned all of the onions before grinding them up into the masala paste, which gives this curry a deep mahogany coloring which I find appealing. This is a trick common to North Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisines–and I saw no reason not to use it here. I could have left some of the onions in their original thin slices in order to give the curry a bit more texture, but I wanted to use the onions to thicken the curry somewhat, and figured that a perfectly smooth curry sauce was fine.

I also used more chilies here, in three different forms–fresh, hot red chilies, dried hot chilies and Aleppo pepper flakes, all ground into the masala paste. These add heat, flavor and color–and I added sweet paprika to further boost the red coloration. This not only added a complex flavor–each chili not only adds heat, but each has a different fragrance and flavor, such as the sweetness and mild heat of Aleppo chili flakes–but it helped create the very appealing, rich mahogany color of the finished curry.

Finally, I used more curry leaves, knowing that their intense flavor would very much enhance the fragrance and flavor of a strong meat like beef.

Oh, and one more thing–as is usual with most curry dishes–this dish tastes even better the next day after being reheated!

This recipe could easily be adapted to lamb, but I would be even more interested in trying with either venison or goat meat, myself.

How did it taste? Well, Dan, Zak, Brittney and Kat were all highly in favor of it, so much so that I was asked to make it again soon. As for me, I am looking forward to teaching my readers a trick to use with the leftovers in my next post. Because, as delicious as leftover curry is simply warmed over, it is fun to take it and turn it into a different dish entirely.

Note: Two years later, I am rather stumped at exactly what that trick I was going to write about was. HOWEVER, I am pretty sure it is a trick I learned from the Pakistani/Bangladeshi couple I used to cook for as a personal chef. So, yes, having not shared that secret with my readers it the past, I WILL share it in the future. If it is indeed the secret I am thinking of…..

Untraditional Coconut Beef Curry

4 tablespoons canola or coconut oil
2 1/2 cups thinly sliced red onions
1 teaspoon salt
2 pounds bone-in beef chuck, cut into 1″ cubes, bone reserved
5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 inch piece cinnamon stick
3 teaspoons coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seed
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 large fresh red chili pepper
4-8 dried red chilies, depending on how hot you want your curry
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2-3 teaspoons sweet paprika
15-20 curry leaves, fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 1/2 cans Mae Ploy coconut milk
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
salt to taste
1 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish


Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed, wide skillet or pan. Add onions, and sprinkle with the teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring, until they turn a nice deep golden brown. Remove from heat, scrape the onions into the bowl of a food processor, spice grinder, mixie or blender, and add the garlic, chilies, and the spices up to and including sweet paprika. Grind to a very fine, fragrant paste.

Put the pan back on the heat, add the beef, along with the bone, and cook, stirring, until it is mostly browned on all sides–with a bit of pink showing. Add the curry leaves, and the 1 teaspoon each of cumin and mustard seeds to the pan, and cook, stirring, until the mustard seeds start to sputter and pop. Add the spice paste, and cook, stirring, until the meat is fully browned and the spices are beginning to stick and brown to the bottom of the pan–about one or two more minutes.

Deglaze with some of the coconut milk, being certain to scrape all of the browned meat and spice paste bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour the contents of the pan into a pressure cooker, and stir in the rest of the coconut milk and the tamarind concentrate. Bring to a boil, lock the lid in place on the cooker, and bring to full pressure. Turn the heat down to low and cook for forty-five minutes.

Turn off the heat under the pressure cooker and move the cooker carefully off the warm burner. Allow it to rest, undisturbed so the pressure can come down naturally for about twenty minutes. Once the pressure indicator shows the pressure to be normalized, unlock the lid and remove it. Fish out the bone and either feed it to your dog or discard it, and stir in salt to taste.

Stir in the cilantro leaves right before serving.

Baby Gai Lan With Chicken and Chilies

They say all babies are cute.

And it’s mostly true.

But some babies aren’t just cute; they’re tasty.

Baby greens, for example, are tasty.

Baby gai lan goes beyond tasty into a realm I like to call, “Well, why haven’t I been eating this my entire life?”

That’s baby gai lan. It’s tiny–the stalks are, at their largest, as thick as my pinkie finger and abut as long as my middle finger at their longest. Most are smaller than that, though. And being tiny, its just darned cute.

And sweet–all babies are sweet, too, don’tcha know? Well, baby gai lan is really sweet–it has none of the bitterness that its adult brethren can be plagued with. It’s leaves are just as velvety when they are cooked as big gai lan, but the stalks are crisper, or rather, crisp in a different way. They crunch in a more iceberg lettucy-kind of way, instead of a more cabbagey kind of way like big gai lan.

So, I found some of this wonderful winter green at one of the Asian markets in Columbus, and even though I had already chosen Mamma gai lan to come home with me, I tossed the baby in the basket as well, because I’d never had it and I just had to know.

And now I know. And I’m letting you know, so we all will know, that if you see it in the market–buy it, run right home and cook it up and eat it. You’ll love it–that is–if you love greens.

I decided to make a very simple Cantonese-style stir fry out of the little gai lan–I wanted to showcase its flavor and texture without a lot of other stuff to get in the way. I added chicken for protein and textural contrast and fresh Thai chilies for color (I love the way scarlet pops when tossed in among forest and emerald greens) and a sparkle of heat.

For aromatics, I used a small red onion, two cloves of garlic, minced and a 1
1/2 inch cube of fresh ginger, peeled and minced.

And for condiments, a thin, light soy sauce, a bit of sugar, a tiny amount of Shao Hsing wine and some sesame oil. I used no broth to make a sauce–I wanted this to be a nearly dry dish, with what sauce there was clinging to the ingredients, making their own fresh flavors the star of the show.

It turned out to be superb–sometimes the old saying that, “less is more” really is true. And the Cantonese principles of cookery which is to enhance natural flavors without masking them is so often right. Sometimes food really does taste better the less you do to it.

One thing you will notice is that I add small amounts of soy sauce at three different points in the recipe and do the same with the wine twice. The reason for this is that I wanted each component of the dish to be seasoned carefully. So, the chicken marinates in the soy sauce and wine, then when it is cooking with the aromatics and chilies, soy sauce and wine are added again to marry the flavors of the aromatics with the chicken. The third and final addition of soy sauce comes when the gai lan goes into the wok, adding a bit of salt and umami goodness to the sweet greens.

Baby Gai Lan with Chicken and Chilies

1/2-3/4 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into thin 1″ long slices
1 teaspoon thin or light soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon raw sugar
1/2 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine
1 scant tablespoon cornstarch
2-3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3-5 fresh red Thai chilies, stemmed and cut in half lengthways, seeds scraped out
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 1/2 inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons raw sugar
1 tablespoon light or thin soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine
1/2 pound baby gai lan, well washed and dried
1-2 teaspoons light or thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil


Toss the chicken with the first measures of soy sauce, wine, sugar and cornstarch. Allow to marinate for about twenty minutes, while you prep the vegetables.

Heat your wok on high heat until a thin swirl of smoke rises from the hot metal. Add the peanut or canola oil, and heat for another 30-45 seconds, or until the oil shimmers and ripples slightly from the heat.

Toss in the onion slices, and stir fry vigorously until they soften and begin to take on a golden tone. Add in the chilies and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the onions are truly golden and the chilies have wrinkled a bit and darkened from the heat.

Add the chicken in one layer to the bottom of the wok–spread it so as much of it is in contact with the hot metal as possible. Sprinkle garlic, ginger and the second measure of sugar over the top of the chicken pieces and leave the meat undisturbed on the bottom of the wok until you smell it browning. Then, start stir frying, keeping the contents of the wok in constant motion.

Add the second measure of soy sauce and wine, and keep stir frying until most of the pink has gone from the chicken and has been replaced with golden brown and white. Add in the gai lan (make sure it is really dry, please) and finally add the third measure of soy sauce. Cook, stirring, until the leaves wilt nicely and the green color of both the leaves and stalks darken slightly.

Remove from heat and stir in the sesame oil.

Serve immediately with steamed rice. I prefer jasmine.

This recipe will feed two or three people, depending on their appetite.

Fishing for Fish Sauce

Back when I wrote my post about the Thai Pesto Noodles I put together in a successful experiment, one reader commented that I never really explained much about fish sauce, nor mentioned which brand or brands I used at home. And while I did link to a very old post of mine, an exhortation to my readers on the glories of fish sauce, (Don’t Fear The Fish Sauce), that post really didn’t talk about which brands of that umami-laden sauce i used in my own kitchen, or the qualities that I found admirable in a fish sauce.

So, now I am writing just such a post.

I’ve been cooking Thai food for about seventeen or eighteen years now. (Good grief, it really has been that long….dang!) And, in the beginning, when I made my first, very tentative explorations of Thai cuisine, guided by some inadequate cookbooks and a very strong taste memory from the restaurants in Miami that Zak and his family frequented, I pretty much used whatever fish sauce I could get my neophyte’s grubby paws on.

And while I made pretty good Thai food back then, it cannot hold a candle to the dishes I make now; this is in part, because I make my own curry pastes, but it is also because the quality of my ingredients has risen. Many more brands of Thai ingredients are available now than there were nearly twenty years ago, and they are more widely available. Thanks to the Internet, which I lacked back in the day, I can even get fresh lime leaves, galangal, chilies and lemongrass shipped to my doorstep, along with any brand of fish sauce I should care to use.

So, what brands of fish sauce do I prefer, and why?

My number one, all-time favorite all-purpose Thai fish sauce is Golden Boy, which I use for everything. I use it cooked in curries, stir fries and raw in dipping sauces and dressings, and it is always delicious. If you look at the illustration above, you can see that it is a lovely amber color, very clear and light. It also has the freshest, least objectionably “fishy” odor of any fish sauce available in the US, which I find is very helpful when I am teaching Thai cooking to people who have never come across fish sauce as an ingredient before. Don’t get me wrong–Golden Boy, when drizzled into a very hot wok still sends forth a billowing cloud of fish-scented steam, but it isn’t particularly bad. In fact, I think it smells rather good, and most of my dinner guests and family agree.

It also has a very balanced flavor, strong on the umami, not too salty, with a slightly sweet finish. In my experience, Golden Boy is the least salty tasting fish sauce available in the US. There is absolutely no hint of bitterness to it, though I have read reviews which have said so. I have never detected it, and I trust myself to have a pretty darned good sense of taste.

Golden Boy is pretty easily available, at least on the East Coast and in the Midwest, though I have heard that it isn’t as easy to find on the West Coast. However, there are many online grocery stores that stock it, including my personal favorite, Import Food.
Look for the cute little grinning baby boy on the label, cradling a bottle of fish sauce on his lap with one hand and making a thumbs-up sign with his other.

Oh, one more thing–it is a beast to unseal. The plastic shrink seal on the lid is simple, you just cut that like you do any other shrink-plastic seal. It is the seal under the lid that gives some folks fits. It is a solid plastic raised disc that you take a sharp paring knife to, sawing back and forth on it until the disc flies off and you are left with a nice, smooth, small hole in the bottle lid with a fold-down, locking cap to keep the precious stuff from evaporating. (It also keeps any wayward cats who may wander your home from jumping up on the counter and knocking the bottle to the floor where it can spill and they can imbibe until they are soused on fermented fish squeezings.)

I also use Squid Brand which has a stronger, but still pleasant fish flavor, and which is a tiny bit darker in color than Golden Boy. I prefer to use it cooked in curries and soups and some very spicy stir-fried dishes, but I won’t use it raw in dipping sauces and dressings. It is a little more salty than Golden Boy and the more pronounced fish flavor, while it is great in curries, is a little overpowering when used raw.

You can see the true color of Squid Brand by looking at the lightest bit of the bottle in the photograph, just above the label. It is slightly reddish and more of a dark honey color than the more golden amber color of Golden Boy. I suspect it is not aged as long as Golden Boy, but I don’t know that for certain. What I do know, is that squid is not used in making the sauce, any more than babies go into Golden Boy. They both are made with anchovy extract, salt and sugar, though water is listed as the first ingredient in Squid Brand, which makes me think that my assumption that it is not fermented as long as my favorite brand might just be correct.

It is easy to recognize Squid Brand–it not only has a squid right on the green and white label, it also has a cute squid embossed right into the glass of the bottle.

It also opens quite easily, unlike Golden Boy, which requires a steady strong hand and a bit of cutlery and patience. You just tear off the shrink plastic seal and pop the top up and there you are! It also seals up wonderfully well–better than Golden Boy, in fact, such that I might possibly feel safe enough transporting an already opened bottle of it across town in my car.

I doubt it, though. Having once gotten a bit of fish sauce spilled into my first car, I can attest that the smell, which may not be bad in the bottle, is really bad in car upholstery, especially in the summer.

And it doesn’t really ever come out. It fades over time, and you will forget about it, until the next summer, when on the first ninety-five degree day, you open your car door to be attacked and overwhelmed by the unwelcome odor of long dead and unburied wee fishies. (This is why I always tell people that if they want to cook Thai at someone else’s house and they need to take fish sauce, take a new, sealed up bottle and then leave it there. If you can’t do that, I advocate sealing the bottle with duct tape, then wrapping it in plastic, then sealing it up in a big ziplock bag. Even then, I suggest praying to the Kitchen God the entire time you drive, lest any bizarre and unnatural event occur which would release the thrice-sealed fish sauce into your unsuspecting car seats.)

Now, there is a fish sauce I have not tried which I am going to try and find the next time I go to Columbus.

I want to try Tra Chang Golden Label Brand. It is highly rated by Import Food, and so I am curious to see if it is as good as they say, or if I will stick with my Golden Boy.

Now, what brands do I suggest you not use?

Well, in general, let me say this: if it comes in a plastic bottle don’t buy it.

I have tasted fish sauce bottled in plastic that tasted like, well, fishy plastic.


Need I say more about that?

Thai Kitchen brand fish sauce, which you can find in many supermarkets, is not one I would recommend. For one thing, it is very expensive for the tiny bottle, and for another, it has a very salty flavor and a very strong fishy smell. I am not certain it is naturally fermented, but it is certainly not worth the amount of money you pay for it in your usual supermarket. It is much better to order a good brand from online or make the effort to shop in an Asian market for your Thai ingredients than to use the overpriced produces from Thai Kitchen. (This goes for everything they make, by the way–their coconut milk is always at least fifty to ninety cents more per can than the better tasting Chaokoh and Mae Ploy I get at the Asian market.)

Thai Kitchen was the very first fish sauce I used, in large part, because it was the only one I could get in West Virginia way back in the dark days before the Internet could bring anything to your doorstep via mail order. And I have to say, while it did make my food taste sort of Thai, it also made it taste very salty, and that was not good. Thai food is about balance in flavor and too salty does not a balanced dish make.

Also, back in the day, I used to use Three Crabs Brand fish sauce, but stopped using it when I discovered Golden Boy. It is okay, but instead of being made with just anchovy extract, salt and sugar like the other brands it also has water, fructose and hydrolyzed wheat protein in it. I suspect that this accounts for the rather odd, slightly too sweet flavor it has which I now find off-putting.

However, I will say that a lot of people love Three Crabs Brand and swear by it, so if you want, try it and see if you like it. To my taste, it is both too salty and too sweet, without enough of the savory, meaty, delicious and addictive umami kick from the fish that is most of the point of fish sauce in the first place.

So there is my little treatise on which brands of fish sauce I prefer to use in my kitchen. They are all Thai–and I have to admit I use them not only in Thai food, but also in my Vietnamese dishes, always to delicious effect.

And, like many other cooks, I have found that sometimes fish sauce can give a lift to dishes from all over the world by giving them a good jolt of umami along with a dash of salt. Soups stews and especially Italian pasta sauces can really benefit from a little shake of fish sauce at some point in the cooking process.

I have yet to try using fish sauce in a dessert, though it may happen some day.

You never know.

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