My favorite Thai dish is also the most popular one in Thailand. Thai people say that if they don’t know what they feel like eating or cooking, they automatically turn to pad kra prao—hot basil stirfry. I order pad kra prao almost every time I’m at a Thai restaurant and for almost every lunch and dinner when I’m in Thailand (on the rare occasions I feel noodle-y, I order pad kee mao—“drunkard’s noodles”).
I’m a big fan of street food (as long as what I order is cooked hot then and there … I’m wary of anything prepared at home and then brought to the street to sell, not knowing how long it has been sitting there and if it has been kept hot enough). Pad kra prao is easy to find on the street in Thailand; if your vendor has a wok, they should be able to make it for you.
During my month in Chiang Mai, I ordered it so often that my accent must have gotten really good, because people always answered me in Thai. After a while I realized their reply was “with a fried egg on top?” and I learned to reply yes (rather than a panicked “I’m sorry I have no idea what you just said to me!”). Ordering it in Thai also ensured I got my pad kra prao nice and spicy; when I just pointed to it on the menu they gave me tourist-level chilies.
While I’m an eater, not a cook, I figured it was about time I learned how to make my favorite dish. So I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai from a charming woman named Gayray, who runs Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School with her sister Moon. I was shocked to discover that I could actually make a pretty good version.
I’ve adapted Asia Scenic‘s pad kra prao recipe slightly, below.
The key ingredient in this dish is holy or hot basil. It can be hard to find outside of India and Southeast Asia, but you can sub in regular (sweet) Thai basil which is almost as good. Regular Thai basil is getting easier and easier to find. I once had to go to Chinatown or to a specialty grocer to find it, but now it is in regular supermarkets. (Keep asking your supplier of Asian ingredients for holy basil. Not only is it super delicious, but it has all sorts of health claims associated with it—antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, painkiller, lowers blood sugar, mosquito repellent, useful for stress relief, colds and flu, and the list goes on.)
You can make pad kra prao with any protein you wish. If I’m inland I usually have chicken (gai) but in coastal areas I like it with shrimp and squid. You can also use almost any vegetables you like; my favorites for this dish are long beans (traditional) and asparagus (not).
The other key ingredients are also easy to find in most grocery stores: fish sauce and oyster sauce. Buy the best quality that you can find (ask your Asian grocer what s/he uses).
As with all stir-fries, ingredient amounts are approximate and to taste. If you like more veg, use more veg; if you like beef instead of chicken, switch it; adjust everything to how you like it. My only advice is not to skimp on the garlic, oyster sauce, fish sauce or basil, and, if you can handle it, the chilies. These are giving you the flavor of your dish, and Thai food is all about flavor.
Pad Kra Prao Gai / Thai Stir-fried Chicken and Hot Basil (adapted from www.AsiaScenic.com)
For 2-3 people, serve with basmati or sticky rice
2 tbsp cooking oil
4 chili peppers (to taste, I like this dish spicy; use fewer chilies and remove the seeds if you don’t)
4-5 cloves of garlic
About 150 g chicken thigh, with bones and skin removed (or ground chicken)
About 1/3 of a red onion
3 handfuls of vegetables of your choice (e.g. long beans, green beans, asparagus, carrot, bell pepper)
3 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sugar; use palm sugar if you can find it (Note the 3 : 2 : 1 ratio for oyster sauce : fish sauce : sugar for making larger quantities)
2-3 tbsp water, if needed
1 handful of Thai holy (hot) basil (you can sub Thai sweet basil)
Prep all of your ingredients before you start cooking.
Shred the garlic with a microplane or finely chop it. Finely chop the chili peppers.
Cut the onion and other vegetables into bite-sized pieces. Remove the stems from the basil, just keeping the leaves. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces.
Measure out the sugar, fish and oyster sauces into a cup and give them a quick stir.
In a wok or large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add garlic and chilies. Cook, stirring, until fragrant (a minute or two).
Turn the heat up a little. Add the chicken and stirfry until almost all pink has disappeared. Add vegetables (except the basil) and stirfry until chicken is fully cooked.
Add the sugar, fish and oyster sauces and stir for a minute to distribute. If it looks a little dry for your liking, add water, a tablespoon at a time, until it has the consistency you want.
Add the basil, stir, and turn off the heat. Spoon rice onto plates, and then spoon on the pad kra prao. Traditionally a Thai stirfry is put beside, not on top of, the rice; but I like the rice to soak up as much flavor as possible, so I buck tradition.
Let me know how the dish works for you, and if you have any suggestions for improvement!