Unbrave Eats: Thai Chicken Stir-fry with Spicy Peanut Sauce

March 16, 2010

I am not what you would call an enthusiastic cook. I’m not even sure I am what you would call a cook. In Japan, I cooked most of my own meals, but it was not something I did because I enjoyed it. It was something I did so that I didn’t have to eat out every night. Eating out in Japan can be quite pricey. Plus, you actually have to get dressed in real people clothes to go out to eat there. One thing I do like about cooking at home is that you can show up to dinner in a tube top and a bath towel and no one is bothered by this. (Side note: I lived alone. I would not recommend showing up to dinner in a tube top and a bath towel if you happen to live with your parents, spouse, significant other, kids or, say, a discerning pet or two).

Luckily, Japan was a pretty easy place for a lazy cook. Much like in the United States, grocery stores were stocked with pre-made sauces and pre-cut meat parts. Japan was also a pretty easy place to shop for one. You could easily pick up a single chicken breast or a single salmon steak. You could find bread packages that contained only three or four slices of bread. Heck, you didn’t even have to buy bananas in bunches.

Rural Thailand, on the other hand, is not exactly the best place for single shoppers. These days, I buy most of my produce at the local country market where bananas come in bunches big enough to feed a herd of wild monkeys. The other day I thought I was buying one huge eggplant, and I ended up with seven. I think the woman at the vegetable stand even added in an extra one as a kind of eggplant bonus. She had loaded up the bag with six eggplants, looked at me, smiled and gave me one more. I must have looked really hungry… or like I was the type of person who actually knows what to do with seven eggplants. Unfortunately, I am not. I managed to make three meals with the eggplant (fried eggplant with pasta, stir-fried eggplant and tofu with rice, and then back to fried eggplant with pasta). The rest of the eggplants wilted in the fridge until I had to throw them in the compost bin this morning.

In addition to not exactly being the best place for single shoppers, the local country market is not exactly the best place for last-minute right-before-dinner shoppers. I’ve been going to the market around four in the afternoon after I’ve finished all my important house-sitting duties like watering plants, petting cats, killing ants, eating lunch, napping, and, ummm, staring vacantly at Twitter. By four, most of the meat is gone and the meat that’s left doesn’t look all that appealing (and, let’s just say, I’m pretty sure the meat didn’t even start out looking all that appealing). You see, there aren’t exactly any refrigerators at the market. In fact, the only technology used to keep the meat, ummm, “fresh” are these electrical ceiling fans that whir above the chunks of meat to keep the flies at bay (and, let’s just say, I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly doing the trick).

Not only are the meat products starting to look pretty grim around four in the afternoon, but also most of the fruits and vegetables are pretty picked over by then too. What’s left tends to be wilted and unrecognizable. There are usually some bunches of green stuff that looks vaguely like spinach… or weeds; although I’m pretty sure it’s not spinach. Meanwhile, you can’t find a bunch of broccoli or a green pepper to save your life at that hour.

Today, I thought I’d try to get to the market early so I could pick up some vegetables I could actually recognize. Plus, after my visit to the funky (and decidedly creepy) Baan Dam museum yesterday, where animal skulls were the decor of choice, I was starting to feel a bit, ummm, carnivorous. (Strange, right?! You’d think all those creepy animal skulls would turn me off meat, but I guess it’s going to take a lot more than un-refrigerated slabs of meat at the market and decorative animal skulls to make this girl a vegetarian!).

I wheeled my bike up to the market around ten this morning; just in time to grab a few broccoli. (I asked for two; the woman gave me three — that vegetable stand lady loves me. I just wish she would show her love in other ways besides giving me way too many vegetables I can’t eat.) I was also able to get a mango. (Only one. The fruit stand lady, apparently, does not feel the love). Then it was on to my meat purchase. There were quite a lot of options: big red hunk of meat, big pink hunk of meat, big fatty hunk of meat. While it all looked, umm, like meat, I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of meat it was or how I’d even go about cooking most of it as some of those pieces were roughly the size and diameter of a school-aged child. So I decided to go with something I could easily recognize and knew how to cook: chicken.

When I moseyed up to the guy at the chicken table, I quickly realized I had two options: chicken with feet still attached or chicken with head still attached. Figuring one appendage would be a lot easier to detach than two, I went with the chicken with the head still attached.

It wasn’t until I got home and pulled the bird out of the bag, that I started to have my doubts. The chicken I used to buy in the Japanese supermarket didn’t even have its skin still attached, and here this chicken still had a head on its shoulders! The chicken I’m used to buying looks about as much like a chicken as I look like Cameron Diaz (hint: I don’t). Aside from the whole no feathers and feet thing, this was still pretty much a chicken. Heck, if the chicken had hopped up on the cutting board and started laying eggs I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.

I shoved the chicken back into the plastic bag and into the refrigerator where it stared at me all afternoon every time I made the mistake of opening the fridge door. I then headed to the computer for help. I typed in “how to cut a whole chicken” in Google and came up with a long list of instructional websites and videos including a video by The Pampered Chef on how to debone a chicken. Unfortunately, none of these websites or videos addressed the issue of how to chop the head off the chicken. Apparently, pampered chefs don’t deal with any part of the chicken that still has eyeballs (makes sense… really).

I then typed in “how to cut the head off a chicken” into Google. This time the list of websites and videos wasn’t so instructional. The top site was a Wikipedia article about Mike the Headless Chicken, a chicken that lived for 18 months after its head was cut off back in 1945. Mike the Headless Chicken (or “Miracle Mike”) went from being Sunday dinner to a sideshow star, earning $4,500 a month. According to the Wikipedia article, Miracle Mike’s fame and success lead to a spree of “copycat chicken beheadings” and an annual festival in Fruita, Colorado which includes popular events such as “5K Run Like a Headless Chicken Race” and “Pin the Head on the Chicken.”

As fascinating as this information was, this wasn’t getting me any closer to beheading this chicken (and, in fact, was kind of freaking me out… heck, if a chicken without a head could live for 18 months, who’s to say that a chicken with a head couldn’t hop up and start laying eggs on my cutting board?!).

Figuring I was on my own as far as the whole chicken beheading went, I decided I should at least find I nice recipe for my chicken. I decided on a recipe for Thai chicken stir-fry with a spicy peanut sauce. Since my chicken had lived Thai, he should die Thai (or at least die Thai-ing… ha, ha, ha, get it?!). Of course, one might question the authenticity of a Thai recipe that calls for peanut butter, but I figured the whole chicken-with-its-head-still-on more than made up for any lack of authenticity in the recipe. Plus, this was the only recipe I could find that I actually had all the ingredients for.

After mustering up courage and a cleaver, I started in on the chicken. The head was surprising easy to detach thanks to the cleaver. Unfortunately, the rest of it wasn’t so easy going. Don’t believe that Pampered Chef guy when he tells you deboning a chicken is “so easy to do.” Maybe, it’s “so easy” to debone a wimpy American chicken, but Thai chickens don’t give up their bones so easily, I’ll have you know. Another fun fact I discovered was that my chicken did, in fact, still have its feet… they were just hiding inside (one of just many fun surprises I was to find inside my chicken!). After about twenty minutes of wrestling with the chicken and a couple different knife changes, I had finally pulled off as much meat as I could… or at least enough meat to make dinner. I was also starting to really understand the appeal of vegetarianism. I can’t remember tofu every putting up that kind of struggle (or suddenly springing a pair of surprise hidden feet!)

With the chicken deboned, I worked on the rest of the meal which was a breeze compared to the twenty-minute chicken debacle. The end result was pretty good, although I have to say I think the sauce was a bit too sweet; this is probably because of the “authentic” Thai Skippy peanut butter I used. I think next time I’ll try the recipe with crushed peanuts instead of peanut butter… and tofu instead of chicken… lots and lots of tofu.


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