For this month’s Kulinarya Cooking Club barbecue theme, I decided to tackle the mother of all Filipino chicken barbecue traditions: chicken inasal.
Inasal chicken is the traditional grilled chicken from Negros, an island in the Visayas. The place with legendary inasal is Bacolod, where chicken inasal is practically a religion. It’s so popular that it has spurred all sorts of chain restaurants, many of which I understand don’t do the ‘real chicken Bacolod’. (I’ve had it, and I have to say it tasted pretty good to me, but then again, I’ve never been to Bacolod. Oh well, next time Visayas!)
In my quest to perfect my version of inasal, I barbecued it — to the delight of my family — three weekends in a row, adjusting and changing the technique of the flavorings and marinade times. Somehow the weather seemed to disagree with me every time, raining on me twice and most recently, having me shivering — in late June, mind you — in 12 C degree weather while turning pieces of chicken for 45 minutes. Holland is definitely not Bacolod when it comes to the weather.
That said, it was well worth the effort in trying to bring a little bit of the Philippines here, despite the crap weather. The first time I prepared the chicken, I only marinated it for an hour, per Marketman’s instructions (you can find his great post on chicken inasal on his website, Market Manila. He also links to a great article about Bacolod chicken originally run in the Philippine Star.) The flavor on the skin was quite good, but I found the meat to be a bit bland. I decided to compensate the next time by brining the chicken in water, sugar and salt overnight, then marinating for the last two hours. Somehow the sugar/salt combination created really strong flavor, but overwhelmed not just the chicken, but the marinade itself.
So, it turned out, third time’s the charm. I marinated the chicken for 6 hours (the same day I was grilling), and this seemed to strike the perfect timing of flavor. I normally marinate overnight, but the vinegar is pretty strong and can overwhelm a mild meat like chicken (as well as ‘cook’ it with acid) so I think same-day marinating hits the sweet spot. The other trick that was well worth the effort was taking the lemongrass and garlic (garlic is an essential component of an inasal marinade) and pounding it, with the salt, into a paste. This extracted flavor from both, without getting the woody bits of lemongrass in the grilled chicken. (my daughter was not a fan of the lemongrass chunks in earlier versions.)
Also essential to inasal is a native vinegar (I used an Ilocos-style cane vinegar, but palm vinegar is also nice), calamansi juice, and a basting sauce with achuete. My big problem is that there seems to be absolutely nowhere I can get calamansi where I live, and I once found achuete, but can’t remember where, so that was out of the picture. I squeezed in a bit of lime in place of the calamansi (blasphemy, I know), and skipped the achuete, just adding a bit of pimenton to the butter/oil basting sauce. (I know Marketman says to use Star margarine for basting, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it).
My last tip is to use all dark meat if you can. It won’t dry out, and it tastes worlds better on the grill than chicken breasts, which seem to instantly evaporate their juices on the grill and end up tasting like marinated cotton. A whole bunch of chicken thighs and drumsticks would be perfect, especially drumsticks because they have a nice meat-to-surface-area ratio. And by the way, the skin is amazing. But how could it not be? You’ll have spent 30 minutes basting it with butter.
serves 6-8 people
4 pounds (2 kg) chicken thighs and legs
3 stalks lemongrass, chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup native Philippine vinegar
3 tablespoons calamansi juice (or in my case, lime juice)
freshly ground black pepper
For the basting sauce:
1/4 cup (50 g) salted butter
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon achuete oil (if you don’t have it, you can add 1 teaspoon pimenton or paprika for color)
- Combine the lemongrass, garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle, and pound into a paste. Add the vinegar, calamansi juice and several grinds of black pepper to the paste and mix well.
- Set the chicken pieces in a large ziploc bag and pour the marinade over them. Marinate (shifting around after a few hours) for about six hours.
- When you are ready to grill, get the grill ready and prepare your basting sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the oils and plenty of black pepper and mix well.
- Set the chicken on the grill over a fairly high heat, turning so they don’t burn, but brown on all sides. Set the chicken on a cooler part of the grill and baste with the butter sauce every ten minutes or so. The chicken should be cooked through after about 30 minutes. To make sure it’s cooked through, the meat should be 170 degrees F (76 C) internally when tested with an instant-read thermometer.
- Serve with lots of rice.