Available everywhere in Thailand, no matter where you are, chicken with cashew nuts turns out to be one of the nation’s favourites. If you’ve spent much time in the country, then it’ll need no introduction at all, but if it’s new to you, then try it in a restaurant first and see how tasty it is. There’s so much yumminess in this dish that it’s one people return to over and over again. But best of all, you can make it at home, and very easily too. The combination of cashew nuts and chicken might seem a bit strange, but once you’ve tried it you’ll have to agree that the two ingredients seem just made for each other. Strangely enough though, despite the popularity of this dish, the Thais have only been eating it since the beginning of the last century. This is because it was only in 1901 that the first cashew plants were introduced to Thailand.
Cashews are extraordinarily healthy. They’re packed with copper, which wards off a surprising number of diseases, and they also contain significant amounts of magnesium and zinc, along with plenty of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, E and K. If you eat nuts four times a week you’ll cut down your risk of heart disease by over a third, compared to someone who rarely eats nuts. On top of that each further serving lessens your risk by 8% each time.
But the main appeal of this recipe is its deliciousness, so get your apron on and you’ll be the star of the house once your friends and family have tried it. Expect to be asked to make it again and again – it’s that good. And it’s adaptable, too, so you can very easily vary the dish. Even toddlers and very young children have been known to eat it, though you may need to tone down some of the ingredients. The dish isn’t traditionally one of the spicier ones in Thailand and most people prefer to eat it mild.
• Juice of 6 to 8 limes, freshly squeezed, without pips
• 1 teaspoon fish sauce, more if required
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce, light
• 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
• 2 tablespoons quality vegetable oil, not coconut oil
• 2 onions, thinly sliced
• 3 garlic cloves, sliced
• 2 large red chillies, very thinly sliced
• 6 shallots, thinly sliced
• 1 stem lemon grass, trimmed
• Half a cup or more of cashews, depending on how many you would like
• 700g chicken breast, thinly sliced
• 1/4 teaspoon pepper, preferably cracked
• 1 bunch of very fresh Thai basil, leaves picked off stems
Firstly prepare everything possible; once the stir-fry process starts, you won’t have very much time before the dish is ready. When stir-frying remember that you need to let the ingredients cook for about 30 seconds at a time and only then give the wok a stir. If you keep stirring, the dish won’t taste so good and though the chicken will be cooked, it’ll be poached and white, rather than brown and glistening. Use high-medium heat for this dish and an oil that has a high smoke point. If you don’t have a wok, just use the biggest and deepest pan you have.
First, place the lime juice, fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a dish and mix together. Taste to check that the fish sauce isn’t overwhelming – this is perhaps the biggest mistake to make in the recipe. Set aside.
Next, heat half the oil in a wok until it’s just about to start smoking. Throw in the onion, garlic, chillies, shallots and lemon grass. Be careful when you add the chillies; as soon as you place them in the wok they’re likely to start making you cough and you’re eyes water. Just make sure the heat is not too high and that you have the windows open. Stir-fry together and when the onion softens, transfer everything to a largish bowl and let stand.
Place the remaining oil in the wok, and once hot add the cashews. Stir-fry until golden. This should take a couple of minutes only. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to the bowl you’ve previously set aside for the first batch of stir-fry ingredients. Next fry the chicken. With the amount you have, this is best done in batches. Add about a third of the chicken to the wok each time. Stir-fry until it’s just starting to go brown and then immediately transfer to the bowl. Repeat the process until all the chicken is cooked.
Return the chicken and onion mixture to the wok. Now add the fish sauce mixture and pepper. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes or until the ensemble has thoroughly heated through. Finally stir in most of the basil (but save a little for topping each individual plate) and immediately remove from heat and take out the lemon grass. The dish is now ready to be served. The results should be both colourful and highly tasty. Serve immediately with a side of jasmine rice.
You can also adapt the recipe and build on it. Eggplant and zucchini can also be added to the mix if you would like to give a vegetable boost to the dish. They go so, so well with this recipe. Some people also like to add noodles to the dish, cooking them along with the mix. There are quite a few variations possible on this versatile theme.