Kitchn Love Letters

The 2-Ingredient Sauce That Makes Chicken Sing

published Jan 2, 2022
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Credit: Christine Gallary

I used to teach cooking classes themed around cookbooks from popular San Francisco restaurants, and it was really fun to be able to make (and eat!) delicious dishes at home that you usually went out for. One of the first books I taught was Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door, a Vietnamese restaurant with a gorgeous location in the Ferry Building. My students made a variety of dishes from the book, but the one that still sticks with me to this day is a caramel chicken made with a two-ingredient sauce that’s as simple as it comes. The tender chicken simmered in the sticky sauce is a family favorite, perfuming the whole house with its enticing smell as it cooks.

The backbone of the dish is the caramel, which only has two ingredients. A big batch of this magical sauce in your refrigerator means sweet-savory caramel chicken is only a few minutes away, perfect for busy weekdays or when you need a comforting dish to serve over rice. It’s also versatile and can be used to cook fish, braise tofu, or toss with roasted or stir-fried vegetables.

How to Make Vietnamese Caramel Chicken

The Vietnamese caramel sauce is as simple as melting down hard disks of Asian palm sugar (light brown brown sugar or Indian jaggery can be substituted, but don’t use organic coconut palm sugar) on the stovetop, then adding in a lot of fish sauce. This process requires some patience, as you have to use medium heat and wait for the sugar to melt. A tiny bit of water helps speed things up, but you do want to be standing close by the whole time to make sure the sugar doesn’t burn. Once the sauce is made, it can be used right away or refrigerated or frozen. It’s worth making a big batch to use for future dishes.

To make the caramel chicken, sauté ginger and shallots first, then add cut-up chicken thighs, thinly sliced chiles, and some caramel sauce. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce reduces a little. Eat with copious amounts of steamed white rice to soak in all that tasty sauce.

If You’re Making Vietnamese Caramel Chicken, a Few Tips

  • Use the right kind of sugar. It’s buried in the directions of the recipe, but you can use an equal weight of light brown sugar for the Asian palm sugar, which is much easier to find for me. Sugar takes a long time to melt, so be patient. You can drizzle in a tiny bit of water to get the process going, but it’s best to just stir a lot and take your time. I cook over medium heat with no problem.
  • Use a large-enough saucepan. When you add the fish sauce to the melted sugar, it bubbles up a LOT. Use a large saucepan or bigger to avoid getting burned by the sugar or having to clean up melted sugar if it bubbles out of the pan and onto your stovetop.
  • Make a big batch of sauce. Make the full batch of sauce even if you don’t use it all at once; your future self with thank you. Cook it with tofu, fish, shrimp, or even use it as a stir-fry sauce.
  • Cook a lot of chicken. The recipe only calls for 12 ounces of chicken, but I think 1 pound is a better amount, as the chicken cooks down a lot and really only serves 2 people. I like doubling the recipe by using 2 pounds of chicken to generously serve 4.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.