Sambal Grilled Chicken

My favorite thing about grilling is the crispy charred crust that gives way to succulent meat. This dish plays to those attributes in two ways. First, it uses chicken thighs which are a little fatty and won't dry out as easily. Secondly, the marinade uses a gastrique — a combination of sugar and vinegar. But instead of straight sugar, it calls for a simple caramel, which imparts sweetness and complexity without being cloying. It also helps to cut the heat of the sambal and create that lovely charred crust that I love. Yields 8 to 12 skewers.

4/22/15 Update: There are alternate instructions for making the marinade without making the caramel and vinegar gastrique after main instructions.


  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¾ cup sambal oelek
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
  • 2½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 15 Bamboo skewers soaked in water for at least an hour


  1. In a small dry pan, heat sugar over medium-high heat. It will melt and caramelize over 5 minutes or so. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn. Once about half of the sugar has melted, stir to melt the remaining sugar and keep it from over-caramelizing.
  2. Once all the sugar has melted, add the vinegar and lean back so as not to inhale the vapours (it will burn!). The sugar will seize, but whisk vigorously until it has returned to a liquid state, another 5 to 8 minutes. Don't rush it, it will eventually melt again, but one or two small lumps of un-melted sugar are fine. Remove from heat.
  3. In a bowl, combine the sambal, fish sauce and tamari, and stir in the caramel-vinegar mixture (also known as a gastrique).
  4. Pour a scant quarter of the marinade into a smaller bowl for basting. If a dipping sauce is desired, save another portion of the sauce and simmer heat over medium heat until reduced by half — it will be very spicy.
  5. Cut each chicken thigh into sixths and throughly toss in the marinade. Massage the marinade into the chicken so every crevice is coated. Leave to marinate at least a half hour, up to six hours. If you're cooking the chicken within two hours, leave out at room temperature, otherwise refrigerate it.
  6. Heat your grill. If using charcoal, bank the coals so one side is very hot and another is cooler. Skewer 4 to 5 pieces of chicken on each skewer and allow the chicken to come up to room temperature before grilling. Don't pack the chicken too tightly, leave a small gap in between each piece so it cooks all the way through.
  7. Grill each skewer about 8 to 12 minutes on the first side until charred and caramelized. Baste with the reserved marinade, then flip and grill another 6 to 8 minutes, basting at least once. Transfer to the cool side of the grill while you cook the rest.

If you don't want to make the caramel and vinegar gastrique, follow these alternate instructions:

  1. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, vinegar, sambal, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Whisk vigorously until the sugar is totally dissolved.
  2. Continue from step 4 above.