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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Feelings & Memories

Food and feelings go together like… vegemite and cheese. How could you not cheer on your team at the footy without a lukewarm pie and sauce? How could you not mend a broken heart without ice cream? You get the picture. It conjures up memories, good and bad and it can effectively use all of your senses (unless you also see dead people) or at the very least, enhance them. It makes you remember.

As a lover of food, some of my happier moments in life have been closely related to it; a meal out with people that are special to me or cooking for them. Or even better, cooking with them.

It took some years to get better at cooking with people. I was told that I was too bossy in the kitchen… too much of a perfectionist, which I guess is a toughie when you lack the desired skill. And if things went a little pear-shaped, I cracked the shits. I’ve improved immensely over the years. I don’t know why… Maybe my knowledge and technique have improved with practise. Maybe it’s because I’m a little older and I’ve learned not to sweat the little things. I think I’ve said before that pastry and me are slowly learning to get along.

Whilst there are fond memories of great meals with friends, things I’ve eaten by myself in amazing places in the world or meals I’ve made for others that I believe I truly nailed, I have two very vivid memories of cooking with people dear to me.

One dates back to around thirteen years ago when I was living my carefree, backpacker life. I was staying in a town called Jelsa, on the island of Hvar in Croatia. My travelling partner and I scored this ridiculously cheap apartment and we ended up staying there for two weeks. I celebrated my 25th birthday there.

Most days we’d head to the markets. We’d buy whatever fish they’d have on offer… usually a small snapper, and we’d stuff it with ham, mushrooms (one day we endured a 16km round trip walk to another town because the market at Jelsa had no mushrooms) and leeks and make a flavoured butter out of some paprika-based seasoning we’d found that was a little bit sweet, salty, spicy and tangy. We’d bake it and serve it with what we christened ‘Jelsa Salad’, which was pretty much roughly chopped up red onion, red capsicum, carrot and cucumber, tossed in lemon juice. None of it was fancy or even regional for that matter, but every now and again, if I want to take myself back to those days, I’ll make Jelsa Salad and I am there.

Whilst my other standout food memory didn’t involve an exotic setting, it’s arguably to date, my best food memory. Why? Put simply, it epitomises why I love to cook; the challenge, the fun, being able to share and of course the end result. All combined it evokes happiness and isn’t that something everyone wants to be able to remember?

Over the years, I have attempted to cook Thai cuisine; it’s never really been something  that I’ve put my love and soul into in order to deliver something that is better than OK. It’s probably also a little out of my comfort zone. However, a friend of mine who had spent a number of years living in Thailand changed that. Having someone that knew Thai food beyond the probable farang holiday-maker stuff most travellers would sample helped a lot.

Raw protein polarises people. Most will try fish in the form of sashimi or beef as carpaccio or tartare. I love stuff raw, but I’d never tried raw prawns; accidentally or as a dish.

Gung Chae Nam Pla is something I have not seen in Australian Thai restaurants, quite possibly because it might not be popular. If you have a sense of adventure and can get beyond eating a raw prawn, then give it a go. It’s amazing. One of the most extraordinary, yet simplest dishes I’ve ever made or tasted, consisting of essentially fresh (the fresher, the better) raw green prawns that have been butterflied and just prior to being served, anointed with a paste that features the usual Thai suspects and some fresh mint.

Raw Prawns with Thai Chillies (Gung Chae Nam Pla)

10-12 medium sized, raw fresh green prawns with the tail shell on
6 chillies
coriander leaves
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
Fresh mint leaves

Now the method was no brain surgery; processing the chillies, garlic, shallot, coriander, fish sauce and lemon juice into a rough paste, then artfully added it to the prawns (tails up!). Grab a couple of mint leaves to top each prawn and eat the prawn in one go, picking it up by the tail shell. We paired it with a few glasses of Mumm, which you probably wouldn’t do in Thailand, but it worked.

Gung Chae Nam Pla

One of the quintessential Thai recipes is Green Curry. Made from scratch, it’s a true labour of love and the one we made was pretty close to perfection. David Thompson may disagree.

The recipe we used was a bit of a jumble from a number of recipes, plus a bit of our own doctoring along the way. What I’ve listed below will get you pretty close.

Green Chicken Curry (Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai)

Curry paste, made from:
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tsp cumin seeds
10 white peppercorns
1 tbsp galangal, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
4 or 5 fresh green chillies
12-15 small green chillies
4 -5 shallots, chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp lemongrass, finely chopped
Coriander stems and roots from a bunch of coriander
4-5 kaffir lime leaves, chopped
Shrimp paste, to taste (start at 1 tsp and go from there)
1 tsp salt
Zest of one or two limes

The rest…

oil
3 chicken thighs, bone in
6 Thai eggplants
10-12 Green beans
1 can of coconut cream
Fish sauce, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Palm sugar, to taste (start at 1 tbsp)
Lime juice, to taste (start at 1 lime)

Whilst it would be very much authentic to use a mortar and pestle to make your paste, the one we had was a bit small. So we cheated and used one of those small food processors, like you might get as an attachment to a bamix.

First, we toasted the coriander and cumin in a dry pan until fragrant, then ground the toasted spices in the mortar and pestle (at least it got used for something) with the white pepper corns. The ground spices were added to the rest of the paste ingredients (we forgot the ginger) in the processor and blitzed until they resembled a fine paste. Try not to add water to advance the process; it only dilutes your paste.

Some of the ingredients were amped up a bit, to taste. We added more shrimp paste (maybe another half a tablespoon… maybe more). As for the chillies, the long green ones didn’t provide the heat, as much as they added to the colour (although our paste was quite a brown colour, then end result looked like the proper green curry colour). The chillies we used for heat were purchased at the Footscray markets. I will have to go there again and find out what they were; they were tiny, no more than 2cm in length, quite thin, a bit nobbly and pale green in colour. They packed a good heat that built up on you.

After we were happy with the paste, we fried of at least half a cup over a slow heat in a heavy based casserole dish. Once the paste was fragrant, we added the chopped chicken thighs, to cook in the paste for a few minutes, then the halved eggplants, more kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar and a can of coconut cream. Then we left it for about 20 minutes, continuing on a very slow heat.

About 10 minutes before serving, we checked the flavours, added a little more sugar and some lime juice. The sauce, in my opinion, had reduced a little bit too much, but there was a little bit of coconut cream left in the tin, which I added and it seemed to correct this. We added the beans and popped the lid on the let the residual heat cook the beans, but leave some crunch.

Served with the some rice, this was the end result:

Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai

Whilst factors beyond just the cooking attributed to this being my best food memory (like the company, lots of wine, the fun and so on), I have never been so pleased with the end results of the dishes we created. Sharing the toils and fruits of your labour can conjure up some great memories. Just worry about the dirty dishes later.