Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
~Gen. William C. Westmoreland

Vietnamese cuisine can be so simple in its essence, yet almost obsessively numinous.

Native to India, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a genus of numerous species of citrus flavored, tall perennial grasses. A ubiquitous herb in Asia, it is commonly used in south Indian, Vietnamese and Thai regional fare…and this makes little mention of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, et al. As a general rule, wherever radiant and aromatic tropical/equatorial fare is found so is lemon grass.

Rich in citral which is the active ingredient in lemon peel, fresh lemon grass is much preferred for its vibrant flavor over the dried variety. Lemon grass is deceptively pungent and should be added with care to enhance its lemon frangrance along with those subtle inflorescences of ginger and rose. The entire stalk can be put to use. So, the green blade can be sliced very finely and added to soups, and the fragrant bulbous portion can be bruised and/or minced. Bruising releases the lemon grass essences much as you would with smashed garlic. Firmly press down on the bulb end of the lemon grass with the broad side of a chef’s knife or pound lightly with a mallet. In this lemon grass chicken version, the fibrous outer membrane of the bulb is lubriciously peeled away to reveal the soft inner skin which is then bruised and minced.

LEMON GRASS CHICKEN (Sả Thịt Gà)

3 T nước mắm Phú Quốc* (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 T honey
1 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces

3 T raw cane sugar
1/4 C water
1 1/2 T chicken stock

3 T peanut or canola oil
3 fresh stalks of lemon grass, tender white inner bulb only, bruised minced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely minced

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
Chopped, roasted peanuts, for garnish

In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, chilied soy sauce, garlic, and honey. Then, add the chicken and stir to coat well.

In a small skillet, mix sugar with the water and cook over medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Cook, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms. Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken stock. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat wok over high heat, add peanut oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the lemon grass, shallot, garlic and chiles and stir fry until fragrant. Add the chicken and darkened sugar mixture and sauté until chicken is cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Transfer to a bowl and serve with steamed jasmine or white rice. Top with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

*Pourboire: both nước mắm Phú Quốc and nước măn chay pha sản are available at asian markets. Phú Quốc is an idyllic island off southwestern Vietnam mainland, resplendent with verdant interior jungles, squeaky white sand and cobalt seas. The island is also famed for nước mắm which is crafted from a particular anchovy there. On the bottle, look for the words nước mắm nhi which signifies that it is crafted from the first extraction, not unlike the first pressing of extra virgin olive oil.

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