As I’m sitting on the couch watching Top Chef and writing this, one of the best people on the face of the planet made a comment on my blog that I should post this recipe. Spooky. I can’t tell you how much I love this recipe. I first had this at a restaurant we wandered into in Boston. Ostensibly we were going to a one-minute film festival (hundreds of one minute films played on outdoor screens.) The films were bizarre and we thought food might be a better idea. I decided to try something different. This dish was the result. Thanks to bad films! I had no idea what was in it, but I was transfixed. Basil, chicken, spicy….fantastic! I looked around for a good recipe and didn’t really find one that made me too happy.
Cue much experimentation, trial, and error. What follows is a fairly simple recipe that’s better than anything I’ve gotten at a Thai restaurant, anywhere – New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, LA…anywhere. My kitchen, seemingly, is where it’s at as far as Spicy Thai Basil. The secret is really oyster sauce. It’s one of those things that you may never have even seen before, but it’s one of those things that goes into many great Chinese and Thai food dishes that you could never figure out how to make at home. This recipe will feed four quite comfortably.
You can make this as spicy as you like. I really have found that I’ve started to like heat in my food quite a lot. It all started with this very dish. I eschewed heat and spicy for a long time. No longer! This is another case where the chilis can vary wildly in heat…I still don’t know what gives with that. I usually use the same amount of chilis and the heat can vary from non-existent to truly en fuego. Just know that going in. I haven’t quite figured out what to do about that. It’s tasty no matter what, however.
You can use a wok, you can use an enameled dutch oven, a big pan, whatever you like really. Just make sure it’s big enough to hold everything. You should start some rice in your rice cooker or make some in another pot (follow whatever directions you have for whatever kind of rice you happen to like – Jasmine, Basmati, Short-grain – whatever really.) I usually replace a good 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the water in the rice with low sodium soy sauce. It gives it a nice little kick and is appropriate to the rest of the dish.
You can choose to include or omit
some many things in this recipe. You can even omit the chicken should you wish – it’s great with just tofu and asparagus. If you’re angling for veg or vegan, sadly the main portion of the sauce is Oyster Sauce – which it won’t be much surprise to you, is made from oysters. Not so vegan then. There are vegan alternatives to oyster sauce I’m told, I haven’t messed around with them so I can’t speak to how close they get to the real thing. That aside…
Mushrooms are another one of those optional items. It’s a decision you need to make early as they are the first thing that I start with. Just get them reduced down in a pan with some chicken stock, soy, basil, maybe a little butter – really whatever you like (this stuff isn’t in the recipe below – you’ll just have to wing it a bit. It doesn’t take much of any one or all of these items. You don’t really need much of anything honestly, mushrooms bring their own moisture to the party.) You need to cook them down over medium heat until they’ve reduced. That usually takes about 10 – 15 minutes. They’ll shrink quite a bit by the time they’re done and will produce quite a bit of moisture. I set them aside once they’re done, and keep whatever umami goodness is left in the pan.
You should have everything all chopped up and ready to go before this point. Mise en place style. Things go quickly and you’ll end up with a burned mess if you’re stopping to chop everything on the fly. One medium-ish sized onion finely chopped, four cloves of garlic diced likewise, and your chilis. I usually use 3 Serrano peppers and 1 Jalapeno pepper – pith, seeds, and all. You can seed and clean them and that will take quite a bit of heat out of it if you like. If you want to add bamboo, you can certainly do that. Either fresh from the store in packages or canned – which you’ll probably want to cut up a bit so it cooks quickly and evenly. I also add asparagus or tofu (the super firm kind), sometimes both. The asparagus I steam while the rest is cooking, chop it up, and it’s ready to just fold in right before serving. The only other item you need to worry about is the basil. You can get Thai basil, which is a bit sweeter than normal basil. Not every store has that though, so regular basil is just the ticket and I use that more often than not. Still quite tasty. I buy the big package of basil – you need a lot. More than you’d think. It wilts like spinach, so that big honking pile of basil you have won’t look like much once it sees a hot pan. Pre-pan it’s probably 2 cups of Basil – maybe more. You need to clean it up as best as possible. Get rid of as many stems as you can and then chop it up fairly well (you don’t have to go nuts, but it can get a little chewy if the pieces are too big.)
Your stove should be on medium-high heat at this point. Maybe 7 on my electric stove-top. Add some oil to the pan, doesn’t have to be a ton. Use something with a higher smoke point; wok oil, canola, etc…olive oil will probably smoke too quickly. I cooked a chicken earlier in the day before I made this, so I had chicken that was already cooked and shredded. If you need to cook the chicken you should start with that. It should be cut up into bit sized chunks. A pound to a pound and a half is a decent amount. At this high a heat level you can start to add everything else once you don’t see anymore pink in your chicken.
The onions, garlic, and chilis can go in at the same time. Give them a minute or two to soften up and sizzle around. Add the freshly ground pepper, dry basil, red pepper flake, paprika, chipotle or cayenne (or both) powder, onion powder, garlic powder, sugar, and maybe a little soy sauce. Stir to mix everything up nicely. If your chicken was cooked before hand, like mine, or if you’re adding tofu, now’s a great time to add it. Continue stirring and letting everything meld together. Bamboo can go in a this point to. You’ll want to treat this like a stir-fry. You don’t want everything to cook for too too long.
Now the sauce. More simple than you thought. Oyster Sauce. You can add some fish sauce, but only a little bit, if you like. It’s better not to think about what’s in fish sauce, you really don’t want to know. Just know they both make Thai food what it is, which is tasty. Half to 2/3 a bottle of oyster sauce. It depends on the size of the bottle really. I’ve used almost a whole bottle sometimes. You should have a nice thick-ish sauce that everything is nicely coated in. Too much sauce is better than not enough. And you should make that decision before you take it off the heat; the taste of oyster sauce changes a bit when heated. You can add a little more soy if you like. I use low-sodium soy when I’m cooking. That keeps everything from getting too salty. That can happen quite quickly with soy.
Once you’ve got the sauce built, take everything off the heat. Things will still be sizzling no doubt. If you’ve steamed up some asparagus, you can chop that up and fold it in that this point. Likewise the basil should go in at this point. You should stir and stir until it’s all properly wilted and worked in.
- One Medium Onion – Finely Diced
- 4 Cloves of Garlic – Finely Diced
- 3 Serrano and 1 Jalapeno Peppers – Finely Diced
- 1 Package Sliced Mushrooms (Baby Bells, Shiitake, etc…)
- 1 to 1.5 Pound of Chicken
- 2 Tablespoons Sugar
- 2 Tablespoons Dried Basil
- 1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
- 1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
- 1/2 Teaspoon Paprika
- 1/2 to 1 Teaspoon Chipotle or Cayenne Powder
- 1/2 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flake
- 2 Teaspoons Freshly Ground Pepper
- 1 Tablespoon Wok Oil or Equivalent
- 2 Tablespoons Low Sodium Soy Sauce
- (Opt) 1 Small Can or Package Bamboo Shoots
- (Opt) 1 Package Super Firm Tofu
- 1/2 Bottle to 1 Bottle Oyster Sauce (I use an 18 oz bottle – about 1/2 to 2/3 of it)
- (Opt) 1 to 2 Teaspoons Fish Sauce (to taste)
- 1 Large Package of Fresh Basil (they vary in size – get the large ones – usually about 5 bucks)
- 2 Cups of Rice (uncooked) – Follow the directions on your specific rice of choice…