vietnamese grilled chicken

The first few warm days in April and we’re itching to fire up the grill. Always an event at my house since I’m one of those people who lets that cheap gas grill I bought 10 million years ago sit out in the snow all winter. Last spring the starter, well, it stopped. Since then we’ve been lighting the grill with all manner of slender flamable objects that I will not list here for fear of sending my neighbors storming into my yard to confiscate this obvious fire hazard. I promised myself I would buy a new grill this season. And I will. But first, I’ll make this chicken.

I came across this recipe – chicken pieces rubbed in pepper-coriander paste, grilled, and served with sweet and spicy dipping sauce – while fliping through Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid’s book Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. Their recipe calls for coriander root (literally the root of the cilantro or coriander plant.) It’s a little too early for farmer’s market coriander here, and I couldn’t find any with the roots still on, so I substituted with fresh chopped coriander and ground coriander seed which made a fragrant and tasty marrinade. Later in the summer, I’ll try this again with the roots. The dipping sauce is what really makes this chicken shine. It’s sweet, hot, and sticky with a little acidity for sass. It’s magic on the chicken, and I can imagine it would be great company for grilled pork also. We served the chicken with some sticky rice and a plate of simple greens and herbs – butter lettuce, sliced cucumber, torn basil leaves, cilantro, and chopped scallions. Serves 6.

For the Pepper Coriander Paste

  • 2 tsp whole black peppercorns
  • 5 to 6 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup coriander leaves, washed and roughly chopped*
  • 2 tsp ground coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp fish sauce

In a mortar or the bowl of a small food blender, combine the garlic, peppercorns, and salt and pound to a paste. Add the coriander leaves and the ground corriander and continue pounding to a paste. Stir in the fish sauce. Use immediately or refridgerate in a sealed container for up to 4 days.

*If you can find fresh coriander root in your area, the original recipe calls for 3 tbsp chopped to replace the fresh and ground coriander.

For the Chicken


  • 3 lbs chicken thighs and legs, skin and bone on
  • 2-3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 recipe pepper coriander paste
  • Fresh chopped coriander for garnish

Rinse the chicken under cold water and pat dry. Combine the pepper coriander paste and the fish sauce in a large bowl. Add the chicken and mix to coat. Marinate 1 hour at room temperature or up to 4 hours in the refrigerator. Preheat your grill. Grill the chicken skin side down until golden (6-8 minutes), then flip and continue cooking an additional 6-8 minutes until golden all over. Test for doneness by removing one piece from the grill and checking to see that the juices run clear when the meat is sliced.

For the Sweet and Spicy Dipping Sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes

Place the sugar and the vinegar in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer 5 minutes until slightly reduced. Meanwhile, combine the garlic and salt in a mortar and pound to a paste. (Or chop it finely with a knife and mash with the side of a large chefs knife or using the back of a spoon.) Remove the vinegar sugar mixture from the heat and mix in the garlic paste and the red pepper flakes. Put the sauce in a small bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature. It will thicken and become sticky as it cools. Use immediately or refrigerate in a sealed container for up to one week.