Cashew chicken is one of my favorite dishes to order at Thai restaurants. I know that it is completely inauthentic, but the combination of sweet, salty, and spicy flavors gets me every time. It turns out that the ingredients are not that complicated — in fact, the main sauce ingredient is just oyster sauce, which I’ve written about before. The only other ingredient that you might not have in your refrigerator is thai chili paste, also known as nam prik pao. The paste contains vegetable oil, dried shrimp, dried chiles, onion, garlic, tamarind, sugar, and salt. It’s sort of a super-concentrated shot of Thai flavors, and it makes it incredibly easy to cook these sorts of dishes. Using a prefab paste also means that you don’t have to deal with the dried shrimp on your own, which may be a plus for some.
You should be able to find nam prik pao in any Asian grocery store and most big grocery stores. Look for a jar that includes vegetable oil and dried shrimp. Thai Kitchen products are overpriced but are labeled very clearly. I got Mae Ploy paste, which worked great. Mae Pranom is another option. Just make sure you don’t use red or green curry paste, since those are slightly different.
You can totally make your own nam prik pao – David Thompson tells you how in this totally hardcore Thai cookbook, but as with the curry paste, many people seem to use the packaged pastes, and they work great.
One interesting thing about Thai stir fries is that even though they originally came to Thailand from China, the technique is different than a straightforward Chinese stir fry. For one, the temperature under the pan is lower, which means you don’t have to work as quickly (this is a good thing). Second, many of the cooking is not really frying or stir frying as it is boiling, or quick braising in sauce. This is another good thing – there is more room for error and you don’t have to worry as much about what kind of pan you’re using or if you’re getting enough browning on the pieces of meat and vegetable. Finally, you don’t have to have any badass knife skills — there’s no garlic or ginger to mince, and you don’t have to slice anything super thin or super precise. I like to cut the celery on the bias so they come out in 2″ strips, but you don’t even need to do that.
A word on spiciness: the chilies are optional, but I really do suggest using them. You can use any small dried chile – look in the Mexican section of your supermarket. They add a light fruity flavor to the whole dish, and if you pick them out before eating, they are not spicy. If you want more heat, add more chiles and/or chop one of them up.
The original recipe that I found includes just chicken, onions, and peppers, but I added carrots and celery like they do at my favorite Thai place on the Ave. This is incredibly flexible, though. If you want a more meat-heavy dish, increase the chicken to 1 pound and omit the celery and carrots. If you want to use tofu instead of chicken, use 12 ounces of firm tofu cut into cubes and give them a bit more time to cook at the beginning (so they brown a little and retain some texture). You can also use thin-sliced beef, pork tenderloin, or shrimp. As for the nuts, I made this with walnuts since it’s all we had in the house, but you can substitute cashews if you’d like. Jasmine rice is an absolute must here.
serves 4 with rice
- vegetable oil
- 8 ounces boneless skinless chicken breasts or tenderloins, sliced thin across the grain
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 1/2 tablespoons Thai chili paste (Mae Ploy or Mae Pranom brand are both good)
- 1/2 cup chicken broth or water
- 1 large red or orange bell pepper, cut into postage stamp-sized chunks
- 1/2 large onion or 1 small onion, cut into postage stamp-sized chunks
- 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch coins
- 4 stalks celery, leaves trimmed and stalks cut at a 45 degree angle
- 1/4 cup oyster sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 6 small dried chile peppers, such as chiles de arbol, left whole (do not remove stems)
- 5 scallions, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1 cup whole cashews or halved walnuts
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon oil. When shimmering, add the chicken and soy sauce cook for about 3 or 4 minutes, or until the chicken lightly browned and almost all the way cooked (it will go back into the pan later, so it’s ok if they’re still pink inside). Remove to a bowl.
Put the pan back on the heat and add another tablespoon of oil. Add the chili paste and cook, stirring frequently, until deeply fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, all the vegetables, the oyster sauce, and the sugar. Cook until the carrots are just barely tender, about 4-5 minutes. If it looks like things are drying out too much, add another 1/2 cup of water or broth (I had to do this; you may not). Add the chicken, chiles, scallions, and nuts and cook another minute or two, until flavors are well combined and the chicken is cooked through. Serve over jasmine rice. Be sure to warn your guests not to eat the whole chilies, unless they want a lot of extra heat!