Ordinarily, I use chicken pieces for this classic Thai recipe, and often I stick to legs and thighs. What I love about it is the skin and juiciness. Breast portions typically deliver more meat inside which goes unseasoned, and in terms of serving portions, they throw off my count! When using a whole chicken with breast pieces, I often hack them in two crosswise, before or after roasting. In upcountry Thailand, the old-school standard portion is either an attached leg-thigh piece, or a breast-with-wing. In both cases, the birds are slender, petite and more along the lines of Cornish hens or guinea hens available in the West. The marinade is pounded into a paste using mortar and pestle, rubbed all over the bird, and left to season it for an hour or two. You can leave it longer, up to 12 hours, turning occasionally to be sure every portion gets seasoned. You can make the marinade in a blender or small food processor, as long as you add a little water, just enough, testing as you go, to get the blades moving. The paste will be softer and wetter, but results will be just fine, that is, powerfully delicious.
We grill it outdoors most of the year, and roast it on a rack in a roasting pan during the wintertime. When I’m doing a whole roast chicken, I set it right down in a deeper baking pan or gratin dish and surround it with potatoes or sweet potatoes, so as to get the benefit of all those juices. Even if I serve it traditionally with sticky rice rather than the potatoes, I’ve got those spuds as a dreamy side dish for later in the week.
I remember reaching down from the high window of a bus, passing my money to a gai yahng vendor and receiving my chicken and sticky rice in return, to enjoy on a long, hot journey. The chicken was splayed out onto a split bamboo piece which held it flat and flippable for the roasting process, and biodegraded once its job was done. The sticky rice came in plastic baggies; decades before it no doubt came folded into a banana leaf packet.
In recent years I’ve noticed this traditional street food dish referred to as Thai boxing chicken, probably because it’s popular in the vicinity of Thai boxing venues. Two reasons for that: many of the young Thai boxers come from the Northeastern region of Thailand and while fans of Thai boxing come from all over nowadays, its roots and biggest fan base is there. Secondly, it’s street food, hand-held, delicious, portable for the cooks and the sellers, all of which make a natural match for a sporting arena.
My favorite way to do gai yahng nowadays is as chicken wings. They resemble the country-style modestly-sized and proportioned chickens used in upcountry gai yahng , and as my good friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer, David Pun, once told me, wings are the best because the most tender chicken is the meat closest to the bone, and wings meet that standard better than any other portion.