Kai Kawlae (Southern Thai-Style Grilled Chicken)

A rich and aromatic curry marinade lends this savory street food its distinctive, smoky flavor.

This southern Thai grilled chicken is quite possibly this area’s most famous dish. When it comes to ethnicity, culture, and religion, Thailand’s deep south has little to do with the rest of the country. Most of its residents are ethnic Malays—Muslims who speak a Malay dialect known as Yawi. Not surprisingly, the region’s food also has a lot in common with what you might find south of the border, in Malaysia. Rich, often sweet flavors dominate, and dried spices make frequent appearances.

Chicken, seasoned and grilled over coals, is a staple across Thailand, but a couple elements make this southern variant unique. Most notably, its marinade is essentially a curry, which is painted over the meat in layers as it cooks, resulting in a grilled bird that’s rich, extremely fragrant, and smoky. 

This version is adapted from one by Aisamaae Tokoi, a chef and teacher at Luukrieang, a non-governmental organization that provides a home and education for orphaned children.

Dried asam fruit can be found in some Southeast Asian markets, or in a pinch, tamarind pulp may be substituted. While local vendors typically grill the dish on bamboo skewers for ease of service, when grilling at home, it’s also possible to cook the pieces unskewered, turning them with tongs.

Featured in: “This Smoky Grilled Chicken is a Taste of Thailand’s Deep South.”

Thai Grilled Chicken Brushing Marinade
Brush on the marinade when cooking the Thai grilled chicken to build layers of flavor. Austin Bush
Kai Kawlae (Southern Thai-Style Grilled Chicken)
A rich and aromatic curry marinade lends this savory street food its distinctive, smoky flavor.
Yield: serves 6
Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

For the curry marinade:

  • 5 medium mild dried chilies (such as guajillo chiles)
  • 10 small hot dried chilies (such as chiles de arbol)
  • 2 tsp. fennel seed
  • 1 tsp. fenugreek seed
  • 3 medium lemongrass stalks, exterior tough layers peeled, green section discarded, pale section thinly sliced thinly (about ¼ cup)
  • 1 oz. galangal, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 oz. ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 12 medium garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 medium shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 tbsp. Thai shrimp paste
  • 1 tbsp. coconut oil or vegetable oil
  • 2¼ cups fresh coconut milk, or substitute 1¼ cups boxed (“UHT”) coconut milk diluted with 1 cups water (do not substitute canned coconut milk), divided
  • 4 slices dried asam fruit, or substitute 1 Tbsp. tamarind pulp

For the chicken:

  • 2¼ lb. bone-in chicken thighs (6 medium thighs)
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • Long-grained or sticky white rice, for serving (optional)

Instructions

  1. Prepare the curry marinade: To a small pot, add the chiles and enough water to cover by an inch; then bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat, cover, and set aside to rehydrate until softened, about 15 minutes. Drain, discarding the water. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the chiles’ seeds and stringy membranes, then thinly slice and set aside in a colander in the sink to drip-dry for 15 minutes more.
  2. In a wok over medium heat, dry roast the fennel seeds, stirring frequently, until toasted and fragrant, around 3 minutes. Remove and set aside. Add the fenugreek, dry roast until toasted and fragrant, around 2 minutes. Remove and set aside. Finally, add the reserved chiles and dry roast until toasted and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside.
  3. Using a mortar and pestle, pound and grind the lemongrass, galangal, ginger, and salt to a coarse paste. Add the garlic and shallots and continue grinding to a coarse paste. Add the shrimp paste and reserved toasted spices and chiles, and continue pounding and grinding to a fine paste. (Alternatively, if using a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients and blend to a fine paste.)
  4. To a wok or medium pot over medium-high heat, add the coconut oil and the curry paste. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ½ cup of the coconut milk and the dried asam fruit or tamarind paste, stirring continuously to combine. When the mixture is reduced and almost dry (about 5 minutes) stir in another ½ cup coconut milk. Repeat this process, using up a total of 2 cups of the coconut milk, until the mixture has the consistency of a rich, saucey curry. Remove from heat, remove and discard the dried asam fruit (or the tamarind seeds and/or stems), and set aside to cool. Measure ¼ cup of the marinade and set aside for serving.
  5. Preheat the grill to cook over medium heat and position the grate about 3 inches above the coals or gas flame.
  6. Prepare the chicken: Remove and discard the bones from the chicken thighs. In a large bowl, combine the chicken, turmeric powder, salt, 1 cup of the curry marinade and the remaining ¼ cup coconut milk; set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
  7. When the grill is hot, add the chicken and cook until seared and fragrant on one side, about 5 minutes, then flip. Using a brush, apply some of the remaining marinade. Repeat this process, flipping and applying new layers of marinade, until each skewer has several layers of slightly reduced, slightly charred paste, and the chicken is cooked through but still tender, a total of around 15 minutes.
  8. Once cooked, transfer to a serving platter and drizzle with the reserved ¼ cup of marinade. Serve warm or at room temperature, with long-grained or sticky rice, if desired.