Chiang Mai chicken

Chiang Mai Grilled Chicken

By most measures this was a rough summer. I spent a lot of it alternating between staring at my ceiling and staring at my TV as I recovered from surgery. There was a lot of pain. There were a lot of pain pills. There were few thoughts and no writing. At any given moment, the voices of my children seemed both too loud and too far away.

But I spent these dark hours surrounded by love – much of it edible. My family and closest friends took turns living with us, filling my house with laughter and comfort. One night my brother rescued a package of liver from the bottom of my freezer with a certain glee known only to people of my blood. He made my mom’s liver and onions, and I knew there was some pocket of the universe where I truly belonged and where no explanations were needed.

My larger community organized a meal train so that dinner arrived several nights a week for a good part of the summer. It was overwhelming to feel surrounded by the tangible care of so many people. I could spend the rest of my life cooking for others and never make a dent in my karmic debt.

Now, as the ugly parts of healing fade to a half-remembered haze, I find that my mind has reframed the experience as "the summer of other people’s cooking.”

Let me tell you about one of the best days.

fun at the lake

Toward the end of the summer, when I could walk and tolerate an hour in the car, we spent an afternoon at my friend Karen’s family camp on the Great Sacandaga Lake.

Karen’s sister, Christine, was visiting from her home in Olympia, Washington. That meant there were two Ciancetta sisters in the kitchen for dinner that night. This is not an opportunity you want to miss.

Both are passionate cooks – rooted in their Italian traditions but happy to branch out and explore. Karen, the older sister, is maybe a touch more precise and careful – the gnocchi pieces should be roughly the same size, no? Christine is more freewheeling and experimental.

You feel that they are sisters when you watch them cook together. Mature adults laughing, telling stories, helping each other, but always with the unspoken current of love and tension that is only possible with someone you’ve known and tussled with since your earliest days.

You notice these things when you watch them cook, but then the food arrives. A round-the-world feast. Gnocchi with butter and sage. Gnocchi in dad’s red sauce. Grilled vegetables marinated in a chimichurri sauce. And a Thai grilled chicken dish unlike anything I’d ever tasted. All of this at a picnic table. Bathing suits covered – sort of – by wraps. Children darting and snitching. Wine poured. Neighbors arriving. And the sunset over the lake.

At this point, the kitchen doings are forgotten. And there is only the fruit of their talents. And for me, a night of pleasure and beauty and friendship that helped ease the pain.

I’ll save the Ciancetta gnocchi for another post – what I want to tell you about today is Christine’s Chiang Mai Grilled Chicken.

Christine teaches cooking classes and was happy to share the recipe.

She first tasted something like this chicken when she was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Sitting on a mat, feet facing out of the circle, sticky rice in her hand, scooping nibbles from the 10 or so small dishes set out for the communal meal. There were many delicious things in front of her, but this dish – chicken tasting of orange and garlic and black pepper, sticky grilled bits, heat and char, this dish hit her in that over-the-top, daytime-soap, I-can’t-live-without-you kind of a way.

She found a recipe that brought her close to it in True Thai: The Modern Art of Thai Cooking. She’s been playing with it and adapting ever since.

Christine gave me the best sketch she could, and I took notes in my phone. I’ve made it three times. I have yet to match the chicken she made on the lake, but I’m getting there -- see the cooking notes in the recipe section.

Until then, I have the memory. Of a pastel sunset. Of new friends and old. Of a good day in among the hard ones.

Chiang Mai Grilled Chicken

There are three pieces to this recipe: the marinade, the grilling, and the dipping sauce.

One thing to note: This recipe takes time. The chicken needs to cook slowly over low heat with lots of basting and well-timed turning so you get the sticky coating on the outside without burning the crap out of it.

I don’t recommend trying this if you are in a hurry, in a bad mood, or you have three kids who need a lot of attention at that moment. In other words, this is a weekend meal, not for a quick week-night dash to the finish line.

Also, every time I make it, I start craving Cuban black beans and rice. I think it is the orange flavor. Or maybe the orange flavor mixed with beer. Not sure, but I think this may end up being a fusion dish for me.

OK then, here we go…

What you need:

8 Chicken pieces – bone in, dark meat, chicken wings are the best, but thighs and legs work well

non-stick foil to grill on

Thai sticky rice to serve with the chicken

For the marinade:

½ bunch cilantro, leaves and tender stems
1 tablespoon or more of black pepper to taste
8 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of salt
1 whole organic orange (peel and all), cut into pieces, seeds taken out
1 bottle of lager beer
several fresh Thai chili peppers (I use five or more) to taste. Leave these out if you don’t want the heat.

Put all of the above into a food processor, blend. Take out ½ cup and set aside for basting. Add the rest of the marinade to the chicken.

Marinate the chicken for at least a few hours. Overnight is best. I let it marinate for two days once. The flavors were very strong and the chicken incredibly tender. The chicken really takes on the flavor of the beer at this point, which is either a plus or a minus depending on your taste. To some people “It tastes like beer” would make a good banner ad, but one guy I fed it to found the two-night-beer-bath flavor overwhelming.

To grill:

Lay the nonstick foil on the grill and keep the heat on medium low. Cook the chicken slowly and baste often with the reserve marinade. Let the skin get brown and charred but still turn the pieces before the skin gets stuck. It is a balance. I found that I had to turn each piece several times in order to not lose all the skin. You want to keep piling on the marinade so the outside of the chicken develops a sticky coating.

You don't have to worry about the chicken drying out. The marinade keeps it very moist and tender during the slow grilling.

For the dipping sauce:

Christine makes a thick sauce out of agave nectar and chili garlic paste. She boils down the agave about 1/3 cup agave with a spoonful of the chili sauce (or crushed garlic and red pepper) till it thickens a bit (a few minutes) and then refrigerates it till it really thickens.

This is how she served it the night at the lake. I found it delicious, but when I made it this way at home, it seemed like too much sweet on sweet. I wanted sour…vinegar…some resistance to the orange flavor. I asked her about this, and she gave me a recipe adapted from True Thai.

Dipping Sauce second variation:

½ cup distilled white vinegar
1 cup of sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Tablespoon of chili-garlic sauce
Combine vinegar and half cup of the sugar on the stove
When that dissolves in add other half cup of sugar, turn it down, for about two minutes, add salt, add tablespoon of Thai chili-garlic sauce. When all ingredients are combined, transfer to a bowl and refrigerate. The sauce will keep for a couple of weeks.

(I want to add some fish sauce to this mixture on my next try.)

But what I really want with this chicken is black beans and rice... go figure.


What a lovely tribute to the pair I have dubbed "the Fabulous Ciancetta Sisters" ... yes, I am biased by being married to one of them, but that just means I am terribly spoiled by a steady diet of the wonderful food. Looking forward to the gnocchi article! -- Karen's lucky partner

Thank you, Celina. I love the way you write almost as much as I enjoy cooking with you!

I just stumbled across your site by accident and have spent the last two hours being entertained by your wonderful writing!!! I feel like I know you now lol. Please don't stop this blog, as you now have an avid reader in Colonie.

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