Gai Yang: The Thai Grilled Chicken That Will Ignite Your Taste Buds

There aren't many nations that don't lay some kind of claim on barbecued chicken. But with the explosive flavor of gai yang, Thailand is easily a top contender. Though gai yang earned its name as a local street food favorite, it has become an anytime food the world over. In Thailand's capital city, Bangkok, you'll find it skewered, hot, and ready to eat on street carts, explains Serious Eats. They even make it in Laos, though it goes by the name ping gai, according to The Woks of Life

What makes this butterflied and flattened whole-grilled chicken so incredibly flavorful is the marinade packed with punchy, vibrant ingredients like lemongrass, coriander root, and fish sauce. The chicken is soaked in the marinade for no less than 12 hours, so the flavors are fully saturated and the meat well-tenderized. Before you read on, go ahead and fire up the grill because you are going to want to try this delectable dish yourself.

Skewers keep a butterflied chicken flat

Traditionally gai yang features small Thai hens that weigh around 1 to 3 pounds, though Cooks Illustrated says Cornish hens work just as well. The signature way to prepare gai yang is to butterfly the chicken, as you're looking to form a crispy crust on the bird's skin side, explains Serious Eats. You also want to keep it flat by skewering it the whole way through so it's easy to flip on the grill. But, if butterflying an entire chicken makes you nervous, you can also skewer different parts of the chicken, preferably with the skin intact. 

Like many culturally rich recipes, some ingredients can be challenging to find in the U.S. One, in particular, is the root of coriander or cilantro (yep, those are the same). Cilantro is easy to find, as it's featured in many Mexican dishes and has become a staple in many households. But coming across the root will be difficult in most grocery stores. Serious Eats makes do by using the flavorful cilantro stems in the marinade instead of the leaves, but any Asian grocery will have them.

Assemble your aromatics

Lemongrass, the other key ingredient in gai yang, is an herbaceous, citrusy tropical grass found in Southeast Asia (via Thai Food a Travel). Its stems are pretty fibrous, so The Woks of Life suggest you strip away the dry outer layer and any hard, green portions. Once you get to the tender core, chop up this flavorful aromatic's yellow and white parts. Don't fret if you have extra — lemongrass, like ginger, can be frozen and used for recipes later. The last ingredient in the marinade is loads of garlic, which Eating Thai Food says should ideally be mashed with a mortar and pestle (as should all the aromatics) to release as much flavor as possible, though a fine mince will get the job done. 

At this point, you can add the wet ingredients of the marinade, which are fish sauce and sugar. The salt in the fish sauce helps tenderize and flavor the chicken, but its singular potency adds the umami flavor many of us have come to crave in Asian cooking. And it's not a pantry item you need to worry about, as it can sit on the shelf or in the refrigerator for years without spoiling, according to Viet World Kitchen.

After marinating and grilling your chicken, whip up this quick and equally fragrant spicy peanut sauce. And make it quick because that delicious chicken won't last long!