Vancouver has a LOT of Asian restaurants. Few restaurants, however, can boast of a reputation built around a plate of fried garlicky chicken wings, with queues out of the door as proof!
Phnom Penh Restaurant in the old Chinatown district is a famed hole-in-the-wall that won’t be winning prizes for its décor or service . . . but it doesn’t care either.
Its secret weapon is getting the food right first and keeping it consistent. After being in business for 30 plus years, with a fan club that extends far beyond the city walls, it’s fair to say they’ve nailed it. The out-of-towners make a point of visiting at least once before they kick the bucket.
My first attempt at trying to eat there with my friend Christine, a native born Vancouverite, ended in a walk-out. An estimated 45 minute wait in a tiny jam packed corridor wasn’t realistic considering our name was on the fifth page and it was -5c outside! Luckily for me, the second attempt was a success via an advance group booking of 10+ people. (We had no problems rounding up some locals to fill the table.)
There’s plenty to order on the menu but the cult following for the fried chicken wings is no joke. Every single table ordered at least one plate. And there are never any leftovers with this dish – even the last wing tips are fought over. Online, Vancouverites rave endlessly about the wings and many have attempted to replicate the secret recipe for crispy batter. I have to say after eating a few wings, I know why.
May be there’s some MSG involved but frankly without it, I would continue to eat a second, then a third and finally snatching the last wing tip – sorry Ben!
At $12.95 for a large plate, you get a pile of golden wings sitting on a piece of lettuce sprinkled with crispy sautéed garlic, spring onions (scallions in Canadian English), and coriander, with a slice of tomato thrown on the side for cosmetic effect. Then there’s the simple dipping sauce of lime (or lemon) with salt and pepper – a common condiment in Vietnamese/Cambodian cuisine. Every bite is greeted with a crispy crunchy sensation followed by well seasoned chicken.
After consuming the second wing, I detected seasoning of sugar, salt, fish sauce, pepper and garlic. As for the batter? It is light, thin and crispy golden brown…leaving little grease on the fingers. The balanced salty sourness of the dipping sauce is just right to cut through the crispy coating, fooling you into thinking your waistline can handle another plate.
So what makes them special is the combination of light crispy batter, the fried garlic/spring onions, and the salty-limey dipping sauce which gives the wings a refreshing lift. It’s a guilty pleasure made holy with a dash of Vitamin C.
I left the restaurant satisfied and vowed to my Canadian hosts that I could successfully replicate the dish back home in my London kitchen.
And I think I did.
My recipe and the detailed instructions are set out below. It’s best to allow the wings to have at least 24 hours to fully marinate in the fridge…sure, your fridge will stink of garlic overnight, but it’s all worth it.
As for the batter…I read somewhere online that the son of the restaurant owner has a background in Japanese cuisine. Bingo! Tempura batter is involved as it’s known to be light and airy. Adding cold sparkling water increases the lightness, and adding vodka (yes, really) will prevent gluten from forming in the batter, making it less likely to absorb oil and helping it stay crisp for longer.
As you can see from the attached photo – my wings look pretty yummy. The photos were taken by my husband Chris, two minutes before he promptly consumed the entire plate with a couple of cold beers!!
I have to say my wings were moister than the batch of wings I ate in the restaurant. But that’s understandable. From personal experience of running a catering business, efficient, cost effective mass production in record time always takes priority. Also ensuring that every wing is thoroughly cooked is the easiest way to avoid tummy upsets and lawyers.
Anyway, it was deliciously fun recreating this cult dish. I’ll be making them again soon for my London homies.
Thank you Phnom Penh!
Lynne – London Fan.
Ingredients for chicken
1 box of chicken wings (10 wings in the box)
4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground pepper
5 tablespoons fish sauce
500ml of vegetable oil for frying
Ingredient for the Batter
1 packet (150g) of tempura batter mix
230ml cold sparkling water
3 shots of cold vodka (two for the batter – one for you!)
Pinch of salt/pepper
For the sautéed garlic/spring onions
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1 sprig of spring onion, finely diced
1½ table spoon of vegetable oil for frying
For the dipping Sauce
Juice of 1 lime/lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
Plastic container with lid
Pestle & mortar
Deep non-stick frying pan
Shallow non-stick frying pan
Metal slotted spoon
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
- Remove wings from packaging. Place on a chopping board and cut wings into two between the joint. Now cut the wing tip off.
- Place all halved wings and tips into a colander and rinse under cold water. Set aside to drip dry.
- Place garlic in a mortar and bruise with pestle to remove outer skin from the garlic. Now add the tablespoon of salt and crush the salt with the garlic into a fine paste. You can also achieve the same result with a clean plastic bag and a rolling pin!
- Transfer the wings from colander into the plastic container. Add the garlic salt paste, sugar, pepper and fish sauce and then massage into the wings.
- Put on the lid of the plastic container and refrigerate for 24 hours.
- Put sparkling water and vodka in the fridge.
- Take wings out of fridge for at least 30 minutes to allow wings to come back to room temperature as this will reduce the risk of the wings drying out too quickly on the exterior and ensure even cooking.
- Pour vegetable oil into deep pan and heat on medium temperature. Check temperature for the oil by putting a chopstick into the oil…if bubbles appear around the chopstick, the oil is ready.
- When the oil is ready, make the batter. Pour tempura batter into bowl, add sparkling water and vodka and mix with chopsticks to a smooth thin paste. Using chopsticks prevents over stirring causing the formation of gluten. Don’t worry if there’s still some lumps. Add a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Add a quarter of your wings stockpile to the batter. Remove with tongs allowing excess batter to drip back into bowl. Carefully put the wings into the hot oil and don’t over crowd the pan to ensure wings don’t stick together.
- Cook on medium heat to allow the wings to cook thoroughly – approximately 7/8 minutes. Turn wings over if need to ensure even- browness. Then remove from oil with a slotted spoon and drain on to kitchen towel.
- Repeat the process with another batch of wings until all the wings are cooked.
- In a separate frying pan, heat 1½ tablespoon of oil and toss in the diced garlic. Allow to sizzle and before the garlic gets too brown, mix in the chopped spring onions and fry for another ½ minute, then remove from the heat.
- Re-fry the wings again quickly under a high heat and then transfer on to a plate. Sprinkle the wings with the sautéed garlic and spring onions.
- Serve immediately with a small bowl of lime/salt dipping sauce and a glass of cold beer or sparkling wine. Then listen to those murmurings of enjoyment!