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