My Goals

  • Moist, tender, flavorful meat

  • Thoroughly rendered skin with smoky char

  • Flavorful marinade that clings well

  • Sweet-tangy-spicy dipping sauce

I can’t think of a cuisine that doesn’t lay claim to a grilled chicken dish, but the Thai version might be my favorite. Called gai yang, it’s street food that originated in Thailand’s northeastern Isan region but has become ubiquitous throughout the country. Countless variations exist, but the most popular features small whole chickens that are butterflied, flattened, and marinated in a garlic-herb paste. To keep the hens flat, cooks position them between bamboo clips that look like giant clothespins; they then grill the hens over a low charcoal fire so that their fat renders and their skin crisps. What you get is the best version of grilled chicken—juicy meat, bronzed skin, and smoky char—made extraordinary by the flavor-packed marinade. The chicken is cut into pieces and served with a tangy-sweet-spicy dipping sauce and sticky rice, which soaks up the assertive flavors.

As a bonus, this dish can be prepared using mostly pantry staples. The only ingredient I’d have to work around was the bird itself. Thai chickens typically weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, so I’d have to find an alternative. After that, it would be a matter of ironing out the marinade and the fire setup, as many recipes are vague on the grill instructions.

Stick ’em Up

Street vendors all over Thailand hawk grilled chicken (called gai yang) from setups like this, with the bird pinned between bamboo holders positioned over a low fire. That way, the meat stays moist as the skin renders and browns.

Flat Out

I discovered that the Thai chickens are often replaced with whole conventional chickens, while other recipes call for parts or Cornish hens. Cornish hens offer a few unique benefits that make them ideal for this recipe: They have a high ratio of skin to meat, so both the dark and white portions cook up juicy; they weigh 1¼ pounds or so (about the same size as the Thai chickens) and cook in about 30 minutes when butterflied; and they’re convenient and elegant for portioning—one bird per person.

Gai yang vendors typically butterfly chickens along the breastbone, but I found that this method caused the skin to pull away from the breast, leaving the lean white meat exposed and at greater risk of drying out. Butterflying by cutting out the backbones with kitchen shears and flattening the birds was the better approach. The skin stayed intact on one side, so it browned evenly, and the hens were uniformly flat, so they cooked at the same rate. As for the bamboo “clothespins,” they flatten the birds and function as handles that make them easier to flip. But as long as I handled the hens carefully with tongs, I could move them on the grill without skewering.

Cut and Paste

Thai chicken gets its extraordinary flavor from a paste that the birds are marinated in before they get skewered and grilled. The paste is made from pantry ingredients such as garlic and fish sauce.

I marinated the hens overnight in a paste made from garlic, cilantro stems (a substitute for the traditional cilantro root), white pepper, and fish sauce—the four marinade components I found in every recipe. Then I grilled the hens skin side up over the cooler side of a half-grill fire. Just before the meat was done, I placed them over the coals to crisp the skin.

They cooked up juicy and savory, thanks in large part to the salty fish sauce, which essentially brined the meat, seasoning it and helping it retain moisture during cooking. To bolster that effect, I added a couple of teaspoons of salt. But many recipes further season the marinade with soy sauce, ginger, lemongrass, ground coriander, or sugar (usually Thai palm sugar or brown sugar). When I added some of these to the base ingredients for evaluation, I liked the nutty, citrusy flavor of ground coriander (made from the seeds of the cilantro plant) and the malty sweetness of brown sugar, so these were in. I also thickened the marinade, which tended to slide off the meat, to a clingy, pesto-like consistency by adding cilantro leaves along with the stems.

It took a series of tests and recipe iterations, but we eventually landed on a garlic-herb marinade that was superflavorful and had the ideal thickness to cling to the birds.

Sweet and Hot

On to fixing the flavor and consistency of the dipping sauces, which ranged from sticky and supersweet to thin and fiery. I wanted a balance of sweetness and tang, so I simmered white vinegar and sugar until the mixture thickened to a light syrup. Minced raw garlic and Thai chiles gave the sauce a fruity burn that red pepper flakes just couldn’t match.

I set out the hens and sauce along with sticky rice, which I made by mimicking the equipment used in Thailand. My colleagues tore into the burnished hens, the sweet-tangy dipping sauce dripping from their fingers.

How to Grill—and Serve—Gai Yang

Gai yang isn’t your garden-variety grilled chicken. These Cornish hens are flavor-packed and portion nicely, and the sticky rice and chili dipping sauce served alongside them complete the package.

Keys to Success

  • Moist, tender, flavorful meat

    As a substitute for the small chickens native to Thailand, we use petite Cornish hens. Their high ratio of fat-lined skin to meat makes them forgiving and flavorful. They also cook faster than a conventional whole chicken, are easier to manage on the grill than chicken parts, and portion elegantly—one bird per person.
  • Thoroughly rendered skin with smoky char

    Butterflying and flattening the hens keeps the skin intact and evenly exposed to the heat. Cooking the hens over the cooler side of a half-grill fire allows the fat in the skin to render and brown evenly. Finishing the hens over the hotter side of the grill crisps the skin and adds flavorful char.
  • Flavorful marinade that clings well

    Whole cilantro sprigs (leaves and stems) and loads of garlic—as well as fish sauce, brown sugar, salt, and spices—make a highly seasoned, pesto-like marinade that clings to the birds. The combination of salt and fish sauce acts as a brine, seasoning the meat and helping it retain moisture.
  • Sweet-tangy-spicy dipping sauce

    Briefly simmering equal parts white vinegar and sugar makes a slightly thickened sauce that’s bright-tasting and not overly sweet. Minced garlic and fresh Thai chiles add savory heat.