Nong Poonsukwattana seems to have boundless energy. At 9 a.m., she bikes up to her restaurant, then bounces from station to station as the crew preps the chicken and rice dish her empire is named for: khao man gai.
Poonsukwattana's story has become something of a Portland fairy tale: After arriving in Oregon from her native Bangkok in 2003 with only $70 and a suitcase, she saved just enough money to open the Nong's Khao Man Gai food cart in 2009, serving chicken and rice every day until the product ran out. "By the end of the first year, I had some people tell me, 'You are the American dream,'" Poonsukwattana recalls. "I didn't know what that was until the end of the second year. I was in my own apartment, and [thought], 'Wow, I can afford to live without roommates.' That's when I felt I succeeded at something." Today, she bottles and sells her Khao Man Gai Sauce and branded t-shirts, has two cart locations, and a full-blown restaurant.
"I aways wanted to do something on my own, I always wanted to do khao man gai," Poonsukwattana explains of her journey. "But I didn't have know-how or courage." In 2008, she took a job at Portland's acclaimed Thai restaurant Pok Pok, where she was the only Thai cook on the line. "They played Thai music — country music, not the pop that I grew up listening to. It was about being away from home and missing loved ones, and how you had to go to Bangkok to do a construction job or work in a factory. While I was working, I was like — oh wow, that's me." Even though money was extremely tight as she was saving up to launch her own project, Poonsukwattana would shop for the best chicken and best rice she could find to make the classic dish at home.
"But it's not just chicken and rice, it's my work."
When she was finally able to buy the cart, she kept the same ethos. "I thought, nobody knows what chicken and rice is, but it's not just chicken and rice." And even though her preferred ingredients are expensive — perhaps resulting in a dish more expensive than Portlanders would initially pay at a food cart for something as seemingly humble as chicken and rice — Poonsukwattana was adamant about quality. "That is my work," she insists. "I want people to taste the chicken and rice I'd make for my friends. It's not just me charging you money."
Poonsukwattana had to teach Portland the ways of khao man gai. "It's about balance," she repeatedly says as she walks through how the dish is made. "Here and there I see people criticize my dish. They think that every part of it has to have flavor, like a burrito. But it doesn't work that way for me." Instead, Poonsukwattana layers flavors slowly, infusing each of the three main components of the dish — the chicken, rice, and soup — with essence of the others, whether in shared aromatics or, in the case of the rice and the soup, literally infusing it with the very chickens being served on the same plate. A wallop of flavor comes from the sauce. "I like the chicken and rice," Poonsukwattana smiles. "And one word comes to my mind: celebrating."
Below the elements of Nong's khao man gai:
1. The Chicken
Explaining exactly how Poonsukwattana's chicken and rice comes together is difficult considering the interconnectedness of the three major components (chicken, rice, soup). But if there's a natural place to begin, it's with the cases of Marys Free Range chickens that get processed in the restaurant daily. Poonsukwattana is truly running a "whole chicken program," and every last bit of the chicken serves a purpose.
It starts with fat. Or rather, it starts with fat being trimmed from the chickens, along with extra bits of skin. This excess fat is vital to the rice-cooking. A few times a week, a member of Poonsukwattana's crew renders the fat, and then infuses it with aromatics: shallot, galangal, pandan leaves, garlic, and a secret ingredient Poonsukwattana won't disclose. The resulting oil is fragrant — and potent. The skin doesn't go to waste, either — but more on that later.
After trimming, the whole, skin-on chickens go into massive pots to be poached in a broth of water, ginger, pandan leaves, and garlic. To note: besides the initial trimming, the chickens aren't prepped, seasoned, or treated at all before going into that pot. The chickens are removed, fully cooked, in 35 minutes. Each chicken weighs about five pounds, and using a pair of long tongs to take them out, one by one, isn't easy work. "Don't drop it!" Poonsukwattana jokingly advises her team. Ten chickens can cook at a time, and a full cycle will include three batches of 10 chickens.
Cooking chicken happens throughout the day at Nong's. Because the process is a lengthy one, the chicken cannot be cooked to order — but because chicken dries out if it sits too long, it must be served fairly soon after it's finished. And there's the rub. Knowing how much chicken to buy and when to cook it is a fundamental challenge at Nong's, and it's the very challenge that Poonsukwattana has been trying to solve since her first day in the food cart. "Every day for the first two years I was figuring it out," she now recalls. In the beginning, "it wasn't sold out every day; there were some days where I made $40 all day. I had to throw out food and I was crying." But today, with two carts and the restaurant — and a recipe that's been slightly tweaked to compensate for the high volume — Poonsukwattana finally has it under control. "This is like another level now."
2. The Soup
Remember that broth Poonsukwattana uses for poaching chicken? It's made with water, ginger, pandan leaves, and garlic. But after 35 chickens are cooked in it, it gets pretty concentrated and infused with chicken flavor. Throughout the day, the kitchen team saves all the bones from the chickens they serve (that's about 500 chickens) and adds them to the concentrated broth. "There's a lot of chicken flavor," says Poonsukwattana. "It's a super stock." This "super stock" then goes on to serve two critical roles: It's used in the preparation of the rice and in the preparation of the soup that's served with the khao man gai. For the latter, Poonsukwattana adds a bit more water and some Chinese winter squash.
3. The Rice
Poonsukwattana's rice relies on both aspects of the chicken prep — the aromatic fat and the super-stock — but it starts with high-quality jasmine rice. She won't reveal the brand, but does divulge that between the cost of her rice and the cost of her chickens, she could be charging higher prices.
Poonsukwattana toasts the dry jasmine rice in the aromatic fat infusion. She stirs to make sure it's evenly coated. Then she adds the "super stock," a bit of garlic and ginger (the kitchen nickname for this blend is "powder"), and lets the rice cook. When it's done, it goes straight into a rice warmer. Like the chicken, rice is cooked throughout the day at the restaurant.
While it seems simple, Poonsukwattana says the rice is, in many ways, the hardest part of the khao man gai process. "You have to watch the cooks, it takes a lot of training," she explains. It's not just a simple matter of knowing when the rice is cooked, either. "In the beginning of the year, the rice needs less water, but after the middle of the year it needs more water," Poonsukwattana explains of the varying moisture levels in the crop. Her cooks need to be in tune with the rice to prepare it properly. The sign of perfectly cooked rice: "a balanced texture."
4. The Assembly
Customers have some choices when they place an order for khao man gai: whether they want white or dark meat (white meat is more popular); whether or not they want to add chicken livers on the side; and whether or not they choose to add fried chicken skin (assuming Poonsukwattana hasn't sold out already). That fried chicken skin is in short supply because it comes from the extra trimmings taken from the chicken at the very beginning of the process. When the skins are out, they're out: Tough luck for customers who snooze on getting their order in.
Chickens are broken down to order, and the plating begins with a measured scoop of rice. Either the white meat or dark meat is added on top of the rice.
Next comes a bowl of the "super stock" soup, garnished with a bit of green onion and cilantro. The plate is further garnished with sliced cucumbers and cilantro. The final touch is a serving of Nong's Khao Man Gai Sauce, which Poonsukwattana now sells by the bottle. "The sauce is a traditional element," she explains. "Every household or mom has their own sauce, this is my khao man gai sauce." The sauce is made and bottled at night after restaurant closes for service, with ingredients including fermented soybean, Thai chili, vinegar, house-made syrup, and mountains of hand-peeled ginger and garlic.
Poonsukwattana is particularly proud of the hand-peeled garlic. "Flavor-wise, it's much more powerful than pre-peeled, maybe sometimes too powerful," she laughs. "Hand-peeling garlic is a lot of work, a lot of manpower. I can buy the pre-peeled garlic, but I didn't do that; we make our own." Why should she take a shortcut? Nong Poonsukwattana has never been afraid of hard work.