Last summer in Thailand, 12 teenage boys and their soccer coach found themselves trapped in a cave for over two weeks. After the lengthy ordeal, the boys were understandably quite hungry and requested their favorite food to help them recover. It wasn’t pad thai or curry they were craving, however, but pad kra pao—a spicy fried rice dish made with hot basil and ground chicken or pork that far surpasses pad thai in popularity on the streets of Thailand.
When we as Americans think of Thai food, it’s the rainbow-colored assortment of spicy curries, noodle dishes, and coconut milk-based soups that come to mind. But, when it comes to what Thai people actually eat, the menu is quite different from what you might see at your standard Americanized restaurants.
As pad kra pao gai is quite a mouthful for the untrained English tongue to process, you won’t find it listed as such on the menu at Pattaya Thai on King Street in Riverside, where Chef Russel Clayton champions this semi-obscure dish. Instead, look for it as Chicken Hot Basil Fried Egg and be sure to order it the next opportunity you get. It’s easily become my favorite Thai dish, a sentiment shared by Russel who says as much in the menu description.
To make it, Chef Russel begins by pulverizing fresh garlic and Thai bird chiles in a mortar and pestle. Meanwhile, he heats oil in a well-used wok over a frighteningly intense gas flame and slides in a freshly-cracked egg to blister and pop until it achieves a simultaneously crispy and pillowy texture. The egg is removed to rest while the remainder of the dish comes together in the wok. The smashed garlic and chiles quickly brown and infuse the oil, joined soon after by finely chopped bits of chicken. Once lightly browned, slices of yellow onion, bell pepper and snake bean (also known as long bean) enter the fray.
The signature ingredient of this dish is hot basil, an herb native to the Indian subcontinent and frequently used in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s nothing at all like the sweet basil in your pesto or even the anise notes in purple-stemmed Thai basil in your pho. Rather, hot basil expresses floral aromatics and a peppery bite when fully cooked.
The dish is finished with a concoction made from oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar, which lends umami, salt, and sweetness to the dish in equal measure. The tossing continues in the wok as the sauce reduces, then the fragrant, spicy mixture is piled next to a heaping scoop of white rice and topped with the fried egg. Traditionally, it is served with a side of prik nam pla, a simple sauce of Thai bird chiles marinated in fish sauce—but you have to ask for it if you want it. I, for one, find it indispensable.
At this point, the tendency is to shovel it all in your mouth as fast as your utensils will allow, so grab a pair of chopsticks and savor each delicious bite. Gin hai aroy na!
This Bold Bite originally appeared in Void Magazine’s January 2020 issue.