I used to have a hard time getting excited about ground turkey. In my mind, it was a more healthful but less flavorful substitute for ground pork — a compromise, not a craving.
Then this dish came along and proved me wrong.
When I first started making this stir-fry, I used ground pork as the base, stir-frying the meat with aromatics (ginger and garlic), lots of chiles and an umami-rich combination of fish sauce and soy sauce. A forest of cilantro and basil garnished the top, making it buoyant, green-flecked and a very fresh weeknight dish.
Then, one day, a friend who doesn’t eat pork came to dinner, so I substituted ground turkey. The dish was even better for it.
Where the pork was dense and brawny, demanding your attention, the turkey was more subtle, lingering in the background and letting the herbs, chiles and aromatics shine. It was a team player rather than a star, and I preferred the way it shifted the balance of the dish, turning it from meaty to leafy.
Even though I used dark meat, it was still leaner than pork. This made the whole dish lighter, which meant I could eat more of it before filling up. And with pungent, spicy and herbal flavors all mingling in my bowl, eating more was exactly what I wanted to do.
Whether you use turkey or pork, the key to this dish is to brown it well. I don’t mean letting it get slightly golden at the edges. I mean letting it get deeply, richly mahogany, a shade darker than milk chocolate but not quite as black as bittersweet chocolate.
The only way to achieve this is to not toss the meat too much once it’s settled into the hot oil in the pan. Give it a stir or two to cook the pink bits, then leave it be. Go chop your herbs or slice the chile. Then, when your kitchen starts to smell like toast, have a peek. Once the meat forms a dark crust on the bottom, it’s time to add the seasonings — the lime juice, fish sauce and soy sauce, softened with a smidgen of sugar.
I like to finish the dish with a shaggy mound of fried garlic and ginger. It adds even more crispness to the mix. Then eat it immediately, while it’s still hot and crunchy, and revel in a turkey dish that’s even better than pork.