Cashew Chicken is an American take on, or is it a take out of, not dissimilar regional chicken dishes found throughout China. There certainly are like dishes in Cantonese and Szechuan cooking (see recipe for Szechuan Gong Bao Chicken here). Whatever the version, cashew chicken has found popularity the world over. Always considered a reliably safe bet for the unadventurous when faced with iffy Chinese food choices. Even here in Thailand cashew chicken is more often than not a numbed down version that is mild and palatable for farang (foreign) visitors. For Thais however it’s got to be a fiery cashew chicken spiked generously with chopped small green sky pointing chilies. Keep in mind the smaller the chilies the more intense their heat. Locally grown cashews are added to the dish to somewhat tame the heat of the chilies.
Of course the great popularity of Thai food rests on the extraordinary artistry of balancing opposing fiery, sweet, sour, savory, and salty flavors that literally tease the senses and ignite the taste buds in completely unexpected experiential ways. Not Unlike the Thai language, Thai cookery has its own unfamiliar and quirky flavor vocabulary, but once you have grasped the essentials the rest is an adventure in Thai cookery just waiting at your kitchen door.
Making the fiery Thai cashew chicken recipe that follows is relatively easy to prepare and uses many of the basic flavor combinations that reappear again and again in Thai cookery. Caution not required. Fire up those chilies for a lusty meal that will not disappoint.
Fiery Thai Cashew Chicken serves 4
For the chicken:
- 1 kilo/2.2 pounds chicken thighs with skin on, deboned
- 3 tablespoons coconut or peanut oil
- 1 yellow onion, quartered and thinly sliced
- 2 large red shallots, quartered and thinly sliced
- a 2 inch knob of fresh ginger, peeled and finely julienned
- 4 large fresh Thai red chilies, halved, seeds removed, and thinly sliced on the diagonal
- 8 fresh kaffir lime leaves, central vein removed and very finely minced
- 1 cup lightly roasted cashew nuts
- fresh Thai basil leaves (garnish)
- fresh coriander leaves (garnish)
For the sauce:
- 2 ½ oz palm sugar (hard or soft) or light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons water
- 5 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 6-8 fiery small fresh Thai sky pointing chilies, finely sliced on the diagonal
- 3-4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 to 1 ½ cups chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon corn or tapioca starch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
Remove the bones from the chicken thighs and cut each thigh into 3 equal pieces and set aside.
Rather than discarding the bones place them in a large sauce pan. Add 1 small peeled and diced yellow onion and 4 whole fresh kaffir lime leaves. Fill the pan with water and bring to a low boil. Cook for about 30 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients for the recipe. The liquid should be reduced by about a half. Pass the broth through a fine mesh strainer, discard the bones and lime leaves, and set the broth aside to use later.
Slice the onion and shallots and set them aside in a bowl. Likewise, julienne the ginger, mince the kaffir lime leaves, and slice the red chilies, setting each aside in separate bowls.
To prepare the sauce place the palm sugar in a small sauce pan with 2 tablespoons water. Place the pan over low heat and slowly melt the palm sugar until it is completely dissolved, caramel colored, and bubbling up. Take the pan off the heat and add the fish sauce, oyster sauce, and light soy sauce. Swirl the pan to combine the ingredients and put the pan back onto the heat. Add the sliced fiery chillies and swirl the pan. Once bubbling set aside to use later. Reheat the sauce to a boil and stir in the lime juice just before adding it to the chicken.
Heat the coconut or peanut oil in a large skillet set over medium high heat. When nearly smoking add the chicken pieces skin side down and cook until the skin is nicely browned. Promptly turn the chicken and cook another couple of minutes. Transfer the chicken to a platter lined with paper towels and set aside to drain off excess fat.
Drain off all but a couple tablespoons of fat from the skillet and return it to the heat. When the fat is hot add the onions and shallots and saute them until they are soft, about 3 minutes. Promptly add the ginger and the sliced red chillies and saute about 2 minute. Then add the minced kaffir lime leaves and stir to combine.
Promptly reheat the sauce and stir in the lime juice. Return the browned chicken to the skillet and toss with the other ingredients. Then pour the bubbling sauce over the chicken mixture in the skillet and toss the ingredients to evenly coat them with the sauce. Cook for about 2 minutes until the sauce is quite thick and sticky. Then add just enough chicken broth to reach the top of the chicken. Stir to combine and cook at a boil for about 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the cashew nuts. Mix the corn or tapioca starch with water and add to the bubbling chicken. Gently sir for a couple of minutes until the sauce thickens and glosses the chicken and cashews.
Transfer the Chicken with Cashews to a large platter. Garnish with fresh Thai Basil leaves and bunches of fresh coriander leaves. Serve with Thai Jasmine white or brown Rice scented with kaffir lime leaves.