I’ve always found the best window into a nation’s cuisine to be its food markets. The moment I arrived in Saigon, I rushed to the colossal Ben Thanh market, located across the street from the hotel where I was staying. You can buy just about anything at Ben Thanh: eel, snake, all manner of innards, even grasshoppers. When you tire of shopping, an army of food vendors stands ready to ply you with Vietnamese soups, stews, and barbecue.
Here’s how one vendor prepares chicken wings; her recipe is as easy to make as it is flavorful. To increase the surface area of meat exposed to the flames, the wings are spread open as though poised for flight and threaded on skewers for grilling.
Step 1: Rinse the chicken wings under cold running water, then drain and blot dry with paper towels. Make two or three deep slashes, to the bone, in the meaty part of each wing. Set the wings aside while you prepare the marinade.
Step 2: Combine the garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, and sugar in a mortar and pound to a paste with a pestle, then work in the fish sauce, lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon of the oil. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, combine all these ingredients in a blender or food processor and process to a smooth puree. Scrape the marinade into a large bowl, add the chicken wings, and turn to coat thoroughly. Cover the wings and let marinate, in the refrigerator, for at least 4 hours, but preferably 24, turning the wings occasionally.
Step 3: Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to medium-high.
Step 4: When ready to cook, drain the chicken wings, reserving the marinade, then thread each wing on a skewer, running the skewer through all three sections of the wing to hold it open as widely as possible. Brush the wings on both sides with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.
Step 5: Brush and oil the grill grate, then arrange the chicken wings on the hot grate with the aluminum foil shield under the ends of the skewers. Grill the wings, turning them several times with tongs, until the thicker wing sections are no longer pink near the bone, 12 to 16 minutes in all. Reduce the heat if the wings start to burn. Brush the wings once or twice with the reserved marinade, but do not brush them during the last 3 minutes of cooking.
Step 6: Transfer the grilled wings to a serving platter, sprinkle the peanuts and cilantro (if using) over them, and serve.
To be strictly authentic, you’ll need lemongrass and fish sauce for the marinade. In a pinch, you could substitute lemon zest and soy sauce.