KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 11 — Food can be a mystery.

There are some dishes that linger in our memories for years — a homemade bowl of velvety fa sang wu (Cantonese peanut cream) from childhood or a platter of grilled mollejas (sweetbreads) in Buenos Aires, smoky-charred yet unbelievably creamy — and then there are those you forget before your last bite.

Some straddle between both extremes. Delicious enough that you’d delight in tasting them again yet not so demanding of your attention that you think about them all the time. (Party sized packs of potato chips and freshly fried doughnuts come to mind.)

Take for instance, pandan chicken. I haven’t thought of it in years, quite honestly. But every time that I step foot on a beach, the sand slipping away beneath my bare feet, I am brought to that particular moment in time.

The dying sunset giving way to night in Krabi. Outdoor string lights hanging from coconut trees coming alive. The cool sea breeze. Candle flame for romance and to shoo the mosquitoes away (unsuccessfully, usually).

Then dinner is served.

A starter of som tum; fiery green papaya salad that I had to convince the server I could handle ped mak (very spicy). Subtly sweet coconut water to cool down any regrets at arguing with the aforementioned server; sometimes the customer does not know best.

And somewhere between a spoonful of tom yum goong and the arrival of mango sticky rice for dessert, there is a dish of pandan chicken.

Rows of stuffed pandan chicken parcels ready for frying.
Rows of stuffed pandan chicken parcels ready for frying.

Known as gai hor bai toei in Thai (literally “chicken wrapped in pandan leaves”), it’s what every tourist to Thailand orders or at least it seems that way. Part of the appeal is how flavourful it is without any risk of setting off any alarms on the Scoville scale.

Our shared treasure of Pandanus amaryllifolius is the star here; the fragrant leaves of what Thais call bai toei wrapped lovingly around boneless morsels of chicken thighs (though breast meat is often used too).

Malaysians and Singaporeans can recognise the perfume of pandan from a mile away; so how could we resist?

Fragrant pandan leaves, known as 'bai toei' in Thai.
Fragrant pandan leaves, known as 'bai toei' in Thai.

I certainly can’t. It’s the scent of a very special moment in time. It’s the scent of sunsets and of sandy beaches. It’s the savour of a simple, ordinary life and of how increasingly rare that is.

PANDAN CHICKEN

At the risk of offending my Thai cooking instructor, making gai hor bai toei is relatively straightforward, especially if compared to more complicated recipes such as khanom chin (thin rice noodles that are made from rice that have been fermented for days) or kaeng kradang (an aspic of pork curry that has to be chilled before served).

However, that’s not the same as saying we can half-guess our way around it. Preparation is key: from obtaining the freshest pandan leaves and cleaning them properly to using tender cuts of chicken so the meat isn’t dry from the frying in hot oil.

Fold every pandan leaf into a small pocket or parcel.
Fold every pandan leaf into a small pocket or parcel.

Another way to avoid over or under cooking the meat is to test one parcel of pandan-wrapped chicken first to ensure the oil is at the right temperature. Also don’t try frying all the parcels at a go; overcrowding the wok may lead to the temperature of the oil dropping too quickly.

Lastly, allow the fried pandan chicken to rest for a couple of minutes and drain any excess oil on paper towels. Just like resting steak, this will allow the meat to retain more of its juices.

It’s human nature to want to unravel the wrappings and dig in immediately — the aroma is irresistible! — so you may prevent your guests from burning their fingers and tongues simply simply by not serving them these treats right away.

Ingredients

2-3 cloves garlic

1 piece of coriander root

½ teaspoon white peppercorns

150g boneless chicken thighs, sliced into bite sized pieces

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

½ teaspoon sugar

8-10 fresh pandan leaves

Neutral oil for cooking

Method

Add the garlic, coriander root and white peppercorns to a mortar and pound with a pestle until mashed. The texture will be like a paste, with some coarse fibres from the coriander root.

Pound some of the spices before mixing with the chicken.
Pound some of the spices before mixing with the chicken.

Place the pieces of chicken into a large bowl. Add the freshly pounded paste. Season with the oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. Mix well till every piece of chicken is coated with the marinade. Allow to rest for at least 40 minutes, preferably an hour.

While the chicken is marinating, wash the pandan leaves and dry them with a clean cloth. Fold each leaf into a pocket-sized parcel to hold one piece of chicken. (Watch a quick tutorial on folding the pandan leaf parcels here.)

Fill each pandan leaf parcel with some marinated chicken meat.
Fill each pandan leaf parcel with some marinated chicken meat.

​If folding the pandan leaves into parcels proves too cumbersome, you may also cut each leaf into two smaller sections and use these to wrap each piece of chicken, holding everything in place with a toothpick.

As long as the meat is securely wrapped with pandan leaves, either approach will work. Sometimes convenience matters more than looks; the end result will taste just as good.

Frying pandan chicken in hot oil.
Frying pandan chicken in hot oil.

Fry the parcels in hot oil over medium high heat until fully cooked. Make sure not to overcrowd the parcels; fry in separate batches if necessary.

Once cooked, remove from the oil and place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Serve with some chilli sauce, after resting the pandan chicken for a few minutes.

For more Weekend Kitchen and other slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.