The wings happen to be a rather common dish in Vietnam called gà chiên nước mắm. Right before I opened Pok Pok, I tried to make a version I had eaten in Saigon at a bia hơi stand. Bia hơi is often translated as “fresh beer” in Vietnamese, and little street-side stalls with comically low plastic tables and stools sell the watery, low-alcohol lager by the jug for cheap. You sit there, knees up around your ears, drinking the beer over ice and burning through delicious little snacks that help you pass the time required to get a buzz off bia hơi. By the time I’d sucked clean several orders of the wings, I knew I wanted them on the opening menu.
Making a home version requires some deviation from the method we use at the restaurant, where we have industrial deep-fryers and serious BTU fire power. Nevertheless, the result of this streamlined recipe comes pretty close to what you get at Pok Pok with about half the effort. If you’re making the spicy version, open a window and turn on the stove’s exhaust fan.
(We highly recommend listening to Chef Andy Ricker’s Omakassette Mixtape: Winging It as you fry up some wings)
RECIPE FOR IKE’S VIETNAMESE FISH-SAUCE WINGS (AKA POK POK WINGS)
Makes about one dozen wings
SAUCE AND MARINATE
1 ounce peeled garlic (about 8 medium cloves)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup Vietnamese fish sauce
1/2 cup superfine sugar
2 pounds of medium-sized chicken wings (about 12), split at the joint
TO FRY AND FINISH THE WINGS
Vegetable oil for deep frying
1 cup white rice flour (not glutinous rice flour)
1/4 cup tempura batter mix (preferably Gogi brand)
1/4 cup water
1 to 2 teaspoons Naam Phrik Phao (Roasted chile paste)
TO SERVE ALONGSIDE
Drained Cu Cai (pickled carrot and daikon radish)
Several long spears Persian, English, or Japanese cucumbers (or any firm variety without larges seeds and thick, bitter skin)
Several sprigs of Vietnamese mint, cilantro, or Thai basil
MAKE THE SAUCE AND MARINATE THE WINGS
Very finely chop the garlic, sprinkle on the salt, then chop the two together for 15 seconds or so. Scrape the mixture into small bowl, add the 1/4 cup of warm water, and let it sit for a few minutes.
Set a fine-mesh strainer over another bowl, pour the garlic mixture into the strainer (or squeeze the mixture in cheesecloth over the bowl), and use the back of a spoon to stir and smoosh the garlic to extract as much liquid as you can. Reserve the garlic. Add the fish sauce and sugar to the bowl and stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. You should have 1 cup of liquid.
Put the chicken wings in a large mixing bowl, add 1/2 cup of the fish sauce mixture, reserving the rest, and toss well with your hands. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or as long as overnight, tossing every hour or so.
FRY THE GARLIC
Meanwhile, pour enough oil into a small pan to reach a depth of 3/4 inch or so and set it over high heat until it shimmers. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof bowl. Test whether the oil is hot enough: as soon as a piece of garlic added to the oil bubbles right away, add the rest. Decrease the heat to medium-low (you don’t want to rush the process with high heat), and stir once or twice. Cook the garlic just until it’s evenly light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Strain the garlic, reserv- ing the flavorful oil for another purpose. Gently shake the strainer, then transfer the garlic in more or less one layer to paper towels to drain and cool. You should have 2 tablespoons of fried garlic. It keeps in an airtight con- tainer at room temperature for a day or two.
FRY THE WINGS
Transfer the wings to a colander in the sink, shaking them occasionally, to let them drain well before you fry them, at least 15 minutes.
Pour enough of the oil into a wok, Dutch oven, or wide pot (even better, use a countertop deep fryer) to reach a depth that will completely submerge the wings, about 2 inches. Set the pot over medium-high heat, bring the oil to 350°F (use a deep-fry thermom- eter), carefully stirring the oil to maintain a consis- tent temperature, and adjust the heat to maintain the temperature.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together the rice flour and tempura batter.
Fry the wings in two batches. Toss half the wings in the flour mixture to coat them well and knock them against the edge of the bowl so any excess flour falls off before adding them to the hot oil. Add the first batch to the oil and cook, prodding the wings to move them around a bit after 4 minutes or so and then every few minutes, until they’re evenly deep golden brown and completely cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer them to paper towels to drain, let the oil come back to 350°F, and do the same with the next batch.
FINISH THE WINGS
Add the 1/4 cup of water to the remaining fish sauce mixture, stir well, and set it aside.
Work in two batches to finish the wings (if you have a very large wok, one batch will do). Combine 1/4 cup of the fish sauce mixture and half of the chile paste (if you’re using it) in a nonstick wok, set it over high heat, and bring it to a boil. Cook until the mixture has reduced by about half, about 45 seconds. Add half of the chicken wings, and cook, using tongs, a wok spatula, or a deft flick of your wrist to toss the wings in the liquid every 15 seconds or so, until the liquid has become a sticky, caramel-colored glaze that coats the wings, about 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon of the reserved fried garlic, toss well, and keep cooking, tossing constantly, until the glaze has turned a shade or two darker, about 30 seconds more.
Transfer the wings to a serving plate. The sticky coating seals in the heat, so this batch of wings should keep warm while you finish the next one. You can also keep the first batch in an oven set to warm.
Rinse and wipe out the wok, and repeat with another 1/4 cup of the liquid, the remaining chile paste, the remaining wings, and the remaining tablespoon of fried garlic.
Serve the wings with the pickled vegetables, cucumber spears, and herb sprigs.