This easy Vietnamese chicken curry recipe makes ca ri ga – or more correctly, cà ri gà – a gently spiced Vietnamese curry that’s made with Vietnamese curry powder, a dry spice blend, rather than the ‘wet’ spice pastes made of pounded fresh herbs, roots and spices of Cambodia’s kroeungs and Thailand’s curry pastes.
I’ve only started making this Vietnamese chicken curry recipe for cà ri gà in recent years – despite having accumulated countless curry recipes since I first began cooking, first began eating Vietnamese food 35 years ago, and we first began travelling to Vietnam a decade ago. It was in the mid 1980s, after I moved from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to join Lara in her hometown of Sydney, where she’d returned to go to university, that we first started eating Vietnamese food.
Lara had been living in Glebe with her uncle Sandy, who travelled Asia in the 1970s with his brother, Lara’s other uncle Jerry, and they’d all been dining out at cheap local Asian restaurants several times a week with groups of her uncle’s friends. After Lara and I moved into the basement of a big old Balmain terrace house, we’d continue to meet them a few nights a week for beers at a pub followed by a boisterous Southeast Asian feast somewhere.
Sandy knew every Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai restaurant in inner-city Sydney and we have him to thank for our introduction to Southeast Asian cuisines. After we bought our first Sydney Cheap Eats guide we caught up quickly, eating out regularly for dinner at affordable neighbourhood restaurants and on weekends exploring the Chinatown food courts, Japanese noodle houses in the CBD, and Vietnamese eateries in Cabramatta for lunch. For special nights out, such as a birthdays and anniversaries, we’d book a table at more refined Vietnamese restaurants.
Yet during all those years eating Vietnamese food in Australia, everywhere from Campsie in Sydney to Richmond in Melbourne – and then overseas, everywhere from Paris to Dubai – slurping steaming bowls of phở, munching into fresh fragrant Vietnamese spring rolls gỏi cuốn, tucking into aromatic beef or chicken salads perfumed with mint, basil and coriander – we don’t recall eating anything like the Vietnamese chicken curry, cà ri gà. Not until we went to Vietnam over 25 years later.
Why will remain a mystery until Lara completes her sleuthing. In the meantime, here’s my easy Vietnamese chicken curry recipe for cà ri gà.
Easy Vietnamese Chicken Curry Recipe – How to Make Cà Ri Gà
When Lara first asked me to make this Vietnamese chicken curry after she became smitten with a gently spiced chicken curry that she bought from a mobile vendor outside a market in a Khmer neighbourhood in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), I expected it to be made, as the Cambodian chicken curry is, with a kroeung, a freshly pounded herb and spice paste.
I was surprised to find Vietnamese curry powder on the ingredients lists of the various Vietnamese chicken curry recipes that I tested out. But as Lara explained, having researched the subject for her Cambodian culinary history book, there’s a fascinating history of curry powder in Vietnam.
I was expecting that Lara might tell me that this Vietnamese chicken curry is of Cham origin, from Central Vietnam, just as the Saraman curry here is a dish of Cambodia’s Cham Muslim peoples – although that it required curry powder and not a freshly pounded curry paste suggested it wasn’t. The cari Saramann – which if you haven’t tried it, tastes as if it is a cousin of Thai Massaman curry, also a Muslim curry – is the only Cambodian curry that has a kroeung that incorporates dry spices, but they are still pounded with fresh ingredients.
That Lara revealed the origin of this Vietnamese chicken curry recipe is Saigon and Southern Vietnam did not surprise me, given the inclusion of coconut milk, however, still I wondered why the use of curry powder and not a curry paste, knowing that Southern Vietnam was once part of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire and Saigon its main trading port, Prey Nokor, and before than was part of the Indianised Khmer kingdoms of Chenla and Funan.
It seems curry powder arrived in Saigon much later, soon after colonial rule began in 1887, when Vietnam became a French protectorate, and along with Cambodia, and later Laos, part of French Indochina. The French, of course, had already been in India for much longer, since 1664, when they established the French East India Company, and established a trading port at Pondicherry, among other South Indian settlements, to trade in spices and other goods.
When the French colonised Indochina, not only did traffic and trade between their ports in the region increase, but there was also a movement of people, including workers such as cooks who moved from Pondicherry to Saigon. A French-Indian fusion cuisine also developed, which French Indians in Pondicherry call ‘Creole’, that included more gently spiced dishes that were made from different blends of dried spices, some still sold to this day by their descendants in Saigon’s markets.
It’s the use of that Vietnamese curry powder, rather than a freshly pounded herb and spice paste, that makes this easy Vietnamese chicken curry recipe far less time-consuming to make than, say, a Cambodian curry or a Thai curry. But it’s just as delicious and just as comforting.
I’ve used baby potatoes in this Vietnamese chicken curry recipe, but a Vietnamese foodie friend, Vu, who runs Ho Chi Minh City’s best street food tour company, Saigon Street Eats, with his wife Barbara, also recommends trying it with taro or sweet potatoes, particularly if you have a sweet tooth.
Serve this with rice. The Vietnamese also like to eat this curry with baguettes, just as Cambodians do with their chicken curry. We love to simmer this for a long time so the meat falls off the bottom, but also so that there’s a nice slick of oil that the baguette is perfect for soaking up. The rice does a good job, too. But you don’t need to cook it out that long. We recommend garnishing with fresh coriander but any fragrant herb works.
Notes on Vietnamese Curry Powder
If you live in or are travelling to Ho Chi Minh City, buy your Vietnamese curry powder from the 70-year-old Ca Ri Anh Hai spice shop at Ben Thanh Market. The owner’s Indian grandfather, who married his Vietnamese grandmother, began importing Indian spices soon after he arrived in Saigon as a teenager and the family still operates the business. You could buy the spices and blend your own but they also sell their own special pre-mixed Vietnamese curry powder, which they’ve refined over the years.
In markets and supermarkets in Saigon and elsewhere in Vietnam you’ll spot plastic bottles of curry powder in the spices and condiments section, as well as small travel-friendly sachets of curry powder that make enough for one meal. They are typically yellow-coloured. Look for the popular Bà Tám, Vianco and Cơ Sở brands of ‘Bột gia vị cà ri’. Ca Ri Ba Tam was started by Indian-Vietnamese spice seller in the 1940s, while Vianco, which began as Viet-An, was established by an Indian immigrant and his Vietnamese-Chinese business partner in 1950 according to the brands’ websites.
Outside Vietnam and Southeast Asia, look for Vietnamese curry powder in your Asian supermarkets and grocery stores. In the USA, Cambodian-Vietnamese friends tell us that Cà Ri Ni Ân Dô Madras Curry Powder, a Vietnamese-American brand is popular. Note that while it’s called ‘Madras Curry Powder’ it does not mean that it’s a spice blend that makes Madras Curry, which is hotter (it contains more chillies), redder (from the paprika), fruitier (from tamarind) and even more aromatic (thanks to the star anise and ginger), and said to be a Bangladeshi-British invention created in London in the 1970s.
Instead, Lara tells me, the name is a nod to the provenance of Vietnamese curry powder. Madras was the name for Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, and another important trading port fought over by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French. Pondicherry, now Puducherry, lies within Tamil Nadu, although it is actually defined as an independent ‘union territory’ formed from former French India. ‘Kari’ is actually a Tamil word for spiced or sautéed dishes.
Vietnamese Chicken Curry Recipe for Cà Ri Gà
- 1 kilo chicken thighs deboned, cut into chunks
- 10 baby potatoes peeled
- 1 carrot sliced
- 1 red onion sliced
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 20 g fresh ginger finely chopped
- 1 piece lemongrass stalk finely diced
- 2 tbsp curry powder
- 150 ml coconut milk
- 300 ml chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce more to taste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 1 handful bird’s eye chillis
- 1 handful coriander leaves
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tsp onion powder
- 2 tbsp curry powder
- Mix salt, onion powder & curry powder and rub all over chicken pieces. Marinate for at least 2 hours.
- Deep fry potatoes and carrots until lightly browned.
- Add oil to a wok over medium-high heat and add the marinated chicken pieces. Cook until browned.
- Remove the chicken from the wok and add the onion. Sweat the onion until coloured and then add the garlic, ginger and lemongrass and cook until softened.
- Return the chicken to the wok and add the coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar and curry powder. Cook until the coconut milk is on a low boil and add the chicken stock. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 30 mins and take the lid off and add the potatoes and carrot.
- Simmer until the sauce thickens. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary.
- Garnish with bird’s eye chillis and coriander leaves.
- Serve with steamed rice or a baguette.
More Vietnamese Recipes
If you love Vietnamese food, these are some of our favourite Vietnamese cookbooks:
The Songs of Sapa, Stories and Recipes from Vietnam by Luke Nguyen, the Aussie-Vietnamese chef who splits his time between Sydney and Saigon, this beautiful book charts his discovery of traditional Vietnamese dishes during his travels through Vietnam.
Vietnamese Street Food by Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl, the former owners of Hanoi Cooking Centre and authors of several Vietnam cookbooks.
Street Food Asia by Luke Nguyen, another fantastic cookbook on street food from Vietnam and beyond.
Do let us know if you make this Vietnamese chicken curry recipe for cà ri gà as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.