Vietnamese Caramel Ginger Chicken a la Bobby Chinn Posted by: | June 3, 2010

I know this is lame but being a Vietnamese, I always feel that I do not need to buy any Vietnamese cookbooks, since I already know most of the basics, and I could just ask my Mom for recipes anytime. I’ve been trying out lots of fancy recipes from all kinds of cuisines, except for Vietnamese! To me, Vietnamese food is like my fall-back food, something I could make with my eyes closed, not something I would fuss over. All that changed when I stumbled upon the book “Vietnamese Food” by Bobby Chinn. Unlike many other Vietnamese cookbooks that are written by American Vietnamese (sadly, I have not found any good Vietnamese cookbooks by local Vietnamese sold in Singapore) that present a collection of Vietnamese recipe without any emotions or feelings, Bobby Chinn wrote an entire book about Vietnamese food through the eyes of someone who had hardly had any idea or impression about Vietnam before he moved to Hanoi 10 years ago. Every flavour, every ingredient, every dish, has a story behind it. I especially enjoyed reading the parts about his bizarre experiences and encounters in Vietnam. Anyway, Bobby Chinn’s book drew me into a whole new Hanoi, an interesting and quirky world that I had never seen before. The dishes through his description all seem familiar yet foreign – in an exciting way. And to my relief, he stayed true to the authentic Hanoi recipes and ingredients. So true, it felt as though I could cook all the dishes for my family and nobody would have thought the recipe was written by a non-Vietnamese.


Recently my Mom has also been complaining that I’ve been neglecting Vietnamese cooking to explore other cuisines. So with this book, I decided it was time for me to dive into Vietnamese cooking again, with a whole new attitude. For the first time, my Vietnamese cooking teacher would not be my Mom, but a stranger, who is a half Chinese/half Egyptian American. The first recipe I tried out, is of course my favorite Vietnamese dish: Caramel Ginger Chicken.


My Mom makes this dish quite often, but over time, she has opted for more and more shortcuts, and eventually she has even stopped making the caramel sauce. She thinks it’s not good for health. But how often do we caramelize sugar in a pan? Definitely not often enough to suffer from its side effects. Moreover, the caramel sauce is the key flavour in the dish and also adds a nice tone of brown color to everything. So there I was, reviving the traditional Vietnamese caramel sauce in my own kitchen. I almost burnt down the kitchen making this dish, but it was all worth it. Caramel and Ginger is a genius marriage of taste and aroma. And trust me, that is going to be THE most amazing flavours you taste in a chicken.


Vietnamese Caramel Ginger Chicken (adapted from “Vietnamese Food” by Bobby Chinn)



INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

  • 900g boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 5cm cubes

(For the marinade)

  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp fishsauce
  • 2 tbsp chopped shallot
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped garlic
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 green chilli, finely chopped (I left this out, as I don’t eat chilli)
  • juice squeezed from 5cm or 40g ginger (I cut the ginger into thin slices and squeezed its juice out through a garlic presser), finely chop the ginger after squeezing.

(For the caramel sauce)

  • 200g brown sugar
  • 4 tsp fish sauce
  • 750ml hot water
  • 1 chilli, cut in half (I left this out, of course)
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • 1 small cinnamon stick or 1 tsp ground cinnamon powder

(For the garnish)

  • 2.5cm gingger, cut into thin julienne strips
  • 2 spring onions, cut into 5cm lengths
  • a few sprigs of coriander/cilantro



1. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a bowl, except for the chopped ginger, and mix well with the chicken. Cover and let it marinate in the fridge for about an hour or less.


2. Making the caramel sauce: Now this is an art. Listen closely: Put the brown sugar in a pot (ideally a light colored stainless steel or aluminum pot so you can see the transition of sugar color accurately). Cook it slowly until melted, stirring quickly. Once fully melted, continue stirring quickly and make sure the sugar browns equally and not leave any spot unstirred (if unstirred, it will burn quickly). Once the sugar is just turning into a smooth, golden brown color, take it off the heat and continue stirring. The heat of the pot will continue to cook the sugar (I learnt this the hard way. I threw away an entire batch of caramel sauce because I waited too long to take it off the heat. It quickly became a gooey black mass even after I took it off the stove). remove your hand and spoon from the pot, and pour the fish sauce quickly into the caramel (the fish sauce should be room temperature, not chilled, to avoid crystallizing the sugar). The fish sauce will splatter in the hot caramel sauce, so stand a distance away from the pot. Add 500ml of hot water to thin the sauce (again, do NOT use cold or room temperature water as it would quickly make the sugar solidify again). If your sugar does crystallize again, just cook it longer until it dissolves. Reduce the heat and add the reserved chopped ginger. Add the cinnamon stick/cinnamon powder and let it simmer with the caramel sauce for a few minutes. Leave the caramel sauce to cool.


3. In another pan, pour 2 tbsp of vegetable oil over medium high heat and wait until it is close to smoking point. Add the marinated chicken to the pan and stir well for about 2 minutes until the outsides of the chicken are cooked. Transfer the chicken and its stock in the pan into a pot (ideally a clay pot, or an earthenware dish as mine), together with the caramel sauce made earlier. Simmer the chicken in the pot until cooked and the liquid has reduced by one-quarter to a half. Important: do NOT put the lid on the pot as the caramel sauce will bubble up in confined heat, causing overflow (again, this was a hard lesson learnt. I put the lid on, went out of the kitchen for 2 minutes and came back to an overflowing pot that has caught on fire and looked like a fireball. I freaked out and quickly turned off the gas, but to my relief, the chicken was not yet burnt. Perhaps it added a “Flambe” effect to the chicken. Lol).


4. Serve garnished with ginger strips, spring onions and coriander, and accompanied with fragrant white rice. You can be generous with the fresh ginger and green herbs as it really enhances the flavors of the dish. I found myself topping up the garnish multiple times throughout the meal. It was DELICIOUS!



That was my most delicious Vietnamese meal EVER in Singapore, and even made my Momma proud (even though she only got to see pictures of it). This opened a gateway into a whole new world of traditional Vietnamese cooking for me, and I can’t wait to master it!


4 Responses to “Vietnamese Caramel Ginger Chicken a la Bobby Chinn”

  1. maiko says:

    Chi Anh, I guess that somehow your/our moms must have gone though the similar path as you/we are going through right now to figure out our own style. Let’s enjoy our long and slow ride!!

    • Chi Anh says:

      Hi Maiko! That’s right. And I find myself trying to revive the traditional dishes more than she does. Who is the traditional one now. Haha! Have fun w your Japanese cooking too. N do share :)

  2. phuong says:

    What is the VNese name for this dish? Gà kho nước hàng?

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