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What Is Kai Yang?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 16, 2024
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Kai yang is a chicken dish usually grilled or barbecued over hot coals. It is a very popular dish in Thailand, especially in the northeastern region of Isan, and is often sold as a street food along marketplaces. As with many Asian dishes, kai yang is often eaten with some white sticky rice, along with a side dish of spicy vegetable salad called “som tam,” and some dipping sauce for the chicken.

The term “kai yang” means “grilled chicken” in the Thai language. The dish may have been known to be a part of Thai cuisine, but it actually originated from Laos, which sits just beside the Isan region and is only separated by the Mekong River. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Isan residents are of Lao origin, and one of the many things they brought along with them was their food. In the Lao language, the grilled chicken is called “ping gai,” which is translated as “roasted chicken.” It is possible that the ping gai began as a dish for affluent people, given that the Isan residents primarily lived on seafood sourced from the Mekong River, and other types of protein were rare.

What makes the kai yang distinct from other grilled chicken dishes is the use of a variety of ingredients for the dish’s marinade. Some ingredients include fish sauce, soy sauce, ginger, and a generous amount of white pepper. Vinegar, rice wine, and the Chinese hoi sin sauce can also be added in the marinade, as well as other herbs like lemongrass, coriander, garlic, and some salt. Some cooks add some coconut milk, perhaps to somehow counter the spiciness of the marinade, while giving more dimension to the taste.

The preparation for the chicken itself is also very different compared to other grilled chicken dishes. The whole chicken, once plucked and dressed, is traditionally spread out with a clean slice running along the belly. This method is usually called “butterflying” the chicken. The chicken is then pounded to make the meat tender and help the fowl retain its “butterflied” shape. It is then marinated for a time, at least for 15 minutes or so, and then grilled over very low heat, with the sliced surface lying face down on the grill, until cooked.

The grilling is not indented for the kai yang to be burnt crisp, as this can produce a very dry meat, so the chicken is cooked slowly. This method also helps the chicken absorb more flavors from the marinade. Alternatively, the chicken can also be initially baked until it is half-cooked, and then put over the grill to finish the cooking process. Kai yang is often cut into smaller pieces before being served.

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