Hainanese Chicken and Rice

I’ve recently spent several months working in Melbourne’s outer south-eastern suburbs. Work-wise, it was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the corporate environment in the CBD. For food and my lunch in particular, the outer south-east is a great area to sample some good fare. So beyond avoiding Sofia’s colossus pasta meals or averting the temptation of yet another six-inch Subway Club on honey oat with all the salads, extra pickles… no onion or carrot, a short drive to Glen Waverley or Box Hill in pursuit of finding the best Hainanese Chicken and Rice was a far more sporting challenge.

Hainanese Chicken from the Chinese island province of Hainan is actually known as Wenchang chicken, which is not to be confused with UK’s new wave pop group.

DanceHallDays_cover

Wenchang actually means ‘white cut’.

As the Hainanese settled throughout South-East Asia, the dish became prominent in both Malaysia and Singapore. Of course, there’s contention as to which is better; the Malaysian version, which is subtler in flavour or the Singaporean version, which features a more savoury rice. My preference is the latter.

Did I find my utopian chicken and rice? I don’t think so. Whilst I scoured the net to give me a few clues as to where I might find a really good serving of chicken and rice, I also came across some real shockers; chicken that had been boiled for far too long that resulted in tight, stringy proteins, flavourless rice, insipid or no condiments.

Surprisingly, the best and most consistent chicken and rice was from none other than China Bar on Kingsway in Glen Waverley, with its robust condiments, moist chicken and extremely flavourful rice.

Still, nothing is as rewarding as cooking it yourself and taking advantage of a quiet weekend, I could think of nothing more therapeutic than spending several hours creating this wonderful dish. Of all of the recipes I read through, there are key methods that largely remain the same, as do the core ingredients of chicken, ginger, garlic, chillies and soy sauce. Then there are the hundreds of variances in the methods and other ingredients.

Very few ingredients
Very few ingredients go a long way

This was the second time I had cooked chicken and rice and I decided to stick with Adam Liaw’s Grandmother’s recipe as my base recipe, which features in his book, Two Asian Kitchens. I’ve made a few modifications, which are largely made out of taking on some of the other techniques in other recipes plus a bit of cheating in an attempt to boost the flavour of the rice.

The Chicken:

1 whole chicken (about 1.5kg), at room temperature
a good handful of sea salt flakes
5 whole cloves garlic
5 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 tbsp sesame oil
coriander, sliced cucumber and spring onion, to serve

The Rice:

350g jasmine rice
625ml reserved chicken stock
2 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 sachet of Asian Home Gourmet Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste

Chilli Sauce:

3 red birds-eye chillies
3 red long chillies… the mild ones
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp reserved chicken stock

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil:

4 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp sea salt flakes
3 tbsp peanut oil

The Dressing:

1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp sugar
50ml reserved chicken stock

One of the great tips I found was to give the chicken some love by means of an exfoliation. A handful of sea salt rubbed judiciously all over the chicken will leave you with one good looking bird. It’s amazing how much gunk is removed leaving the chicken with taught, smooth skin and a better final result.

Remember to exfoliate
Remember to exfoliate

One of the other handy tips to produce really good rice is the use of chicken fat. Trim any of the visible pieces of fat from the chicken; there’s usually a good amount inside the rear cavity and I also use the parson’s nose. Roughly chop all of the fatty bits and place them into a small saucepan and over a very low heat, in around 30-45 minutes, you should have 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat.

Don’t throw away those crispy pieces of chickeny goodness either. Season them and stack them on top of your rice as a garnish or even better, crack a beer and have yourself a most excellent beer snack to keep you going whilst you’re cooking.

Ready for some gentle cooking
Spa Bath

After your chicken’s skin rejuvenation, it’s time for a spa bath. Place the garlic cloves and ginger slices in the cavity of the chicken and place breast-side down in a saucepan that is just bigger than your chicken. Ideally you want to make enough chicken stock to cook the rice, plus the small amount required for the condiments and at least a litre left over to serve as a cleansing broth. So that’s probably around two litres of cold water to cover your chicken.

Get the heat ticking to just under a simmer and keep it going for around 20 minutes, then place a lid on your saucepan and leave it to continue cooking in the residual heat for another 30 minutes. The end result should be a perfectly, ever so just cooked chook.

Remove the chicken from the stock, drain, then place your chook onto some plastic wrap.  Rub the chicken all over with a good drizzle of sesame oil, then wrap it up snugly. It will look a little like Laura Palmer.

Your chicken is now ready to cut up when it’s time to serve. Put your stock to one side as you’ll be needing it later on.

Laura Palmer
Laura Palmer

While your chicken is cooking and resting, it’s time to get stuck into making the condiments.

To make the chilli sauce, combine the chillies, ginger, garlic, sugar and salt in a mortar and pound to a paste. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for six birds-eye chillies, but to make this a little more kid-friendly with less heat, I used three long red chillies to keep the chilli volume without adding any more heat. Once I had a relatively smooth paste, I added the lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of the reserved chicken stock. The result is a fragrant, spicy and sweet sauce that it much needed to cut through the richness of some of the other elements.

Chilli & Ginger Paste
Chilli & Ginger Paste

To make the spring onion and ginger oil, again in your mortar, add the spring onion, ginger and salt and pound lightly with the pestle. Heat the oil in a small frying pan until it just hits smoking point and pour onto the mixture. Once the crackling and sizzling stops, combine lightly with the pestle and leave to infuse for a few minutes, giving you a punchy, yet rich condiment.

Spring Onion & Ginger Oil
Spring Onion & Ginger Oil

The dressing for the chicken is pretty simple and serves as an integral background flavour for the chicken. Mix together the sesame oil and soy sauce with 50ml of the reserved chicken stock and add the sugar until dissolved. Adam Liaw’s recipe called for light soy. I didn’t have any, so I used normal soy. I also opted to add a touch of sweetness, hence the addition of a little sugar. You can leave it out if you want to.

My Little Secret
My Little Secret

My tweaks to the rice would most likely raise the scorn and ire of the purists, but it’s a delicious result, so I’ll stick to it. Heat your 1-2 tablespoons of chicken fat in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the ginger slices and the sachet of Hainanese Chicken Spice Paste, which is pretty much shallots, ginger and garlic. Cook out the paste until fragrant, then add the rice and toss until well coated and it starts to become opaque and begins to crackle… a bit like making a risotto. Add the reserved chicken stock, give it a stir and when it comes to the boil, pop the lid on, set your smallest burner to the lowest heat possible and leave your rice to cook slowly for 12-15 minutes. Try not to remove the lid and after the time is up, leave your rice to rest for a further 5-10 minutes.

The Final Result
The Final Result

To serve, slice the chicken up without hacking it into a complete mess. One day I’ll learn how to cut a chicken ‘Chinese-style’, which for me means annoying bones in every bite. Pour over the dressing and make it look pretty with some coriander and cucumber. Serve it with your most very flavourful rice, condiments and broth, which is the remaining chicken stock plus a little adjusting to the seasoning thanks to some salt and soy sauce.

Cooking Hainanese Chicken and Rice is most definitely a labour of love; given there are quite a number of steps. However, it’s more than worth the end result as it is one of those dishes that exemplifies how you can treat a very small number of ingredients with some care and respect to deliver a complete meal.

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The things I love

I haven’t posted anything since last September. Time tends to get away from you a bit… family, work, moving house. One month becomes two, then six. I haven’t really been eating out as much either. A few places, but nothing new… except for a trip to New Zealand. Cibo in Parnell, just out of the Auckland CBD, was great, but I forgot to take photos, otherwise I would have written a review.

There have been a few articles of late that spruik the latest and greatest food fads, which are more or less titled [insert number here] of the [best / weirdest / latest] foods you need to eat before you die. I don’t want to think about dying in that way. On my deathbed, with tubes inserted into every orifice, connected up to a machine that goes ‘ping’, the last thing I’d be thinking about would be a truffle-filled cronut wrapped in lardo. Maybe.

But it did get me thinking about my top 5 things that I love. The things that I tend to revert back to and revere. They’re not necessarily fancy or expensive, nor would they rate too highly on someone’s culinary bucket list (some might).

My Top 5... make that 4

So, without trying to sound like John Cusack in High Fidelity, here is my all-time, desert island foodie top 5…

5. Bread
Coeliacs, look away now. I’m not talking about your standard Wonder White variety that I feed to my kids. I’m talking about bread with character. Stuff that’s been made with love. A Treat of France is a Boulangerie and Patisserie that is only a few doors down from my place. They make the best olive sour dough I’ve ever eaten. Hit that shit up with some Myrtleford Butter, Pepe Saya or at the very least, Lurpak.

Random bread pic from Google

Northcote Bakeshop make the bestest, densest fruit loaf. Cut thin and crisped up in a low oven. Forego butter and opt for a tangy, creamy blue or a perfectly ripe triple cream brie.

Toasted sandwiches also rate a mention… on Wonder White if that’s all you have. I originate from Adelaide, so it’s not a jaffle either. Nan used to make us toasties with that Kraft processed cheese that you bought in the aisle, near the Vegemite or with tinned braised steak and onion that was so hot, you couldn’t taste anything else for a week until your tongue healed.

 

Kraft Cheddar anyone?

These days, simple ham and cheese is just fine or at the very least, the perfect medium for left-overs… like the meat from the previous night’s lamb shanks with cannellini beans. The best baked bean toastie there is.

4. Coffee
I only started drinking coffee when I started my first full-time job in 1994; nearly half my life ago and of course, it was Nescafé from one of those cafébar things where one click of the dial dispensed the recommended amount.

One click or three?

Way back then, I think my three clicks into a plastic disposable cup bred my love of a strong coffee. Fortunately, my tastes in coffee have matured, as has my passion for making the best coffee I can. I use St Ali’s Steadfast Blend, (formerly known as Orthodox and before that, known as Chompy) and with my Breville Smart Grinder and Gaggia Classic, I can belt out a most very decent, rich creamy shot, time after time. It seems more satisfying with the more tactile process of making an espresso with a manual machine. People may scoff at the rest of the process. Skinny milk in my favourite rabbit mug, heated in the microwave for 70 seconds, topped with a double shot and half a teaspoon of panella sugar. Hey, that’s how I like it.

STSKFW 0.5

I also feel like a bit of a wanker when it comes to ordering my small strong skinny flat white with half a sugar. I always have this feeling that then they write STSKFW 0.5 on my coffee lid with a sharpie it could also mean stupid skanky fuck wit. I hope they don’t mean that.

3. Condiments
I know that’s a pretty broad brush to paint with, but life without condiments would be joyless and somewhat less tangy, fruity, sweet and delicious.

I moved house recently and it was a good time to take stock of what lived in my fridge. Six kinds of mustard; Sweet Alstertor Mustard (that comes in the small beer mug), which we slather on sausages to get our German on, Maille Dijon and wholegrain mustards for cooking, Masterfoods Mild English for Lily’s ham and cheese roll for school, Hot English (Colman’s, of course) and that yellow stuff you put on hotdogs.

condimentspoons

There is also Gochujang chilli paste, hoi sin, miso, pickles in many forms. Countless jars of preserves, chutneys, sauces. Hank’s Chilli Jam goes with practically everything. They will all be required at some point… maybe to make up a quick BBQ sauce for ribs with tomato sauce, mustard, plum sauce and sriracha. I also keep a big jar of homemade chimichurri sauce in the fridge too. It goes with everything. I start with this recipe from Matt Preston, but vary the heat and herbs depending on how I’m feeling at the time.

2. Asian Food

And you thought condiments was a pretty broad brush. Unfortunately there’s no better way to describe so many dishes that I love that cross Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian and Thai borders. There are probably more too. It’s safe to say that of the 14 lunches and dinners available to me per week, some form of Asian cuisine would take up at least 10 of these spots.

I love dumplings. But then if I just had dumplings on my list, I couldn’t have pho or sashimi or bibimbap or any of the meats that feature in the window of a good Chinese restaurant.

Mmm... window meats

Other favourites are Hainanese chicken and rice, Korean fried chicken (and beer) with pickles and kimchee, a laksa that blows your head off, crispy crunchy Vietnamese coleslaw and rare beef salad with roasted rice, broken rice with a perfectly cooked pork chop and a punchy nuoc cham, freshly made banh mi with lots of coriander, pickled carrot and chilli, gua bao, agedashi tofu, My discovery of the raw prawn dish, Gung Chae Nam Pla, Karē Raisu, okonomiyaki, satay, red duck curry, chicken skin yakitori… any yakitori!

Gung Chae Nam Pla

A fresh Thai dish that can nail the perfect combination of hot, sour, sweet, bitter and salty can be just as exciting as a simple and comforting congee. I love it all – I’m enjoying a Bulgogi Hot Pot for lunch even as I write this; rich, sweet stock, a little heat from chilli, slippery sweet potato noodles, tender beef… You don’t get that from a salad sandwich or something from Red Rooster.

So what’s number one? Number one is tough. There are many things I’ve missed, like beer, potatoes in many forms, good hamburgers, ice cream, eggs, pigs, fresh strawberries at their prime, roast chicken, a perfect steak, ribs… or fancy stuff like truffles or even the Chinese deliacy tong zi dan, where every spring in the city of Dongyang, eggs are boiled in the urine of young schoolboys (I’m not making this up).

Sadly, there is no number one. Yet… and this remains a top 4 for now (sorry John Cusack). Fact is that there are so many things in the culinary world that I revert back to and revere and I guess that’s part of being a so-called foodie.