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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Gua Bao – Part 1

I missed the beginning of the Bao phenomenon. I must have been looking the other way or sick that day. I guess they were probably made famous throughout the western world by David Chang’s momofuku Pork Buns. Here in Melbourne, Wonderbao and Bao Now turned up around 18 months ago and have been belting out these Chinese / Taiwanese / Vietnamese steamed treats. Wonderbao sticks to the more traditional fillings, whereas Bao Now opts for an ‘international’ twist, stuffing buns with buffalo chicken, bacon cheeseburger, cheesecake and so on.

I’ve had steamed buns before. Lots of times. But I have simply known them as ‘steamed pork buns’ and didn’t think anything else of it or really care. Several weeks ago I attended the launch of lil nomnoms; Melbourne’s newest food truck, dolling out Vietnamese-inspired food. At the launch, I tried my very first Gua Bao and I loved it! I liked the beer in one hand, food in the other convenience and I liked the contrast of warm, soft, sweet dough stuffed with cold, crisp, fresh ingredients. Then of course, I noticed them everywhere.

Bao means bun or bread in Chinese (and I think Vietnamese). The universal characteristic is the whiter than white, soft, steamed sweet dough. The aforementioned Chinese Bao (also known as bāozi, bau, humbow, nunu, bausak, pow or pau) is the ubiquitous steamed bun, traditionally stuffed with char sui pork. The Vietnamese Bánh Bao (meaning enveloping cake) is also a steamed bun, but traditionally filled with minced pork or chicken meat, Chinese sausage, onion, boiled egg, mushroom and other vegetables. The Japanese also have a version called Nikuman. The Filipinos have Siopao and the Thais have Salapao. I could go on. Basically one can deduce that every Asian country has their own version.

Gua Bao originates from Taiwan and the dough is rolled and steamed to form a taco / slider hybrid. It’s traditionally filled with braised pork belly, pickled mustard greens, coriander, peanuts and Taiwanese red sugar. Tradition aside, it’s a no brainer that it also makes the perfect base for other combinations, but why you’d want to deviate from pork belly is a mystery… unless it’s duck, but more on that in Part 2.

Being the ever-inquisitive person that I am, I decided to have a go at making these for a friend’s up-and-coming dinner party. Given that there was dough involved and the more regular readers would already understand that dough and me have a strained history, I decided that there had to be several experiments to get my head around achieving perfection, or at the very least something that wouldn’t make me look inept.

Let’s start with the dough. In most recipes, it’s pretty simple; flour, water, sugar, some kind of fat, a raising agent of some description and salt. Then come all of the variants which seem countless; even when it comes to flour. High protein (12%-15%) bread flour will give a better result as it produces a light, springy dough that also stays moist and softer for longer because the protein continues to absorb moisture.

Contrary to this, there are some recipes that use cake flour, which contains less protein (7%-9%). This is what tends to happen when you do too much research. If it’s all too hard, stick to plain flour or another option is to buy ready-prepared flour from most Asian grocery stores, which already contains the required raising agents. But I guess if you want to steer clear of phosphates and sulphates, then avoid the ready-prepared stuff, which looks like this…

Bao Mix

The quantities of sugar vary from recipe to recipe and I guess it’s up to personal choice and to an extent, your filling of choice. Most recipes call for around 25-30g (2 tablespoons) per 125g (1 cup) of flour.

You didn’t think I’d need to mention water, did you? It warrants a mention; only because most Taiwanese and Chinese recipes call for water and the Vietnamese recipes tend to use milk. My preferred recipe usues water, but it also contains milk powder.

As far as raising agents go, some recipes call for dry (instant) yeast, baking powder or both. However, I’d stear clear of baking (bi-carb) soda. In an attempt to produce a lighter, fluffier Gua Bao, I decided to modify a dough recipe to incorporate yeast, baking powder and baking soda. My Gua Bao turned an unappealing shade of light brown and after some research, I later discovered that when baking soda produces an alkaline solution in water, the alkalinity accelerates the browning reaction. Apparently this is the reason that baking soda (or lye) and a water wash is recommended for pretzels to achieve that deep brown, pretzely colour.

Some recipes call for (melted) solidified fats, like lard or some simply state to use canola oil. Whatever neutral tasting oil you have at home is probably fine. I used duck fat.

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I had succeeded and failed with a number of Gua Bao dough recipes. The first version I tried was from Gourmet Traveller; purportedly adapted from a David Chang recipe, however the recipe is very different from the original. The outcome was OK; they kinda looked the part, but they just weren’t fluffy enough and a little on the heavy side.

The second attempt was from some random blog. This is where I went a bit freestyle in the desperate pursuit of lightness and fluffiness, used baking soda and failed. Whilst they tasted OK and were a little bit lighter, the colour was a little off-putting.

Two bags of the ready-prepared flour from an Asian Grocery store ($2.20 for 445g) remain unused in my pantry, so I never got around to trialling them. Although the instructions give an indication that it required far less time to prepare the dough, the recipe didn’t contain yeast.

I doubt I’ll even get around to using the ready-prepared flour because when D-Day came along, another google search found me the original momofuku book recipe and the results were brilliant:

1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 ½ cups water, at room temperature
4 ¼ cups bread flour
6 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons non-fat dry milk powder (mine was full-fat)
1 tablespoon sea salt flakes
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda (I omitted this)
1/3 cup rendered fat or vegetable shortening, melted in the microwave (I used duck fat)

The first thing I noticed was the quantity of this recipe. It yields 50 (smaller) buns. The second thing I noticed was that it was an easier recipe; the yeast and water were added straight into the bowl of a stand mixer, with a dough hook attached. The flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder (I omitted the baking soda) and duck fat were all dumped into the bowl and then mixed on the lowest speed possible for 8 to 10 minutes… No waiting for the yeast to activate in the water. It was practically fool-proof.

After the required time, the dough had gathered into a smooth, not-too-tacky ball on the hook; very similar to a brioche dough. I then placed it into a lightly oiled pyrex bowl, covered it with a clean tea towel and placed it into my oven, set at 50 degrees (fan on), with the door open. The recipe suggests leaving it to prove for at least an hour and 15 minutes. I had other stuff to do, so mine was left for about twice that amount of time.

After punching the dough down, I digressed a little. Whilst the recipe called for dividing the dough to make 50 x 25g balls, I only needed 12 and upped the size to 50g, as I was serving two per person. I wrapped the rest of the dough in cling wrap and chucked it in the freezer. The balls were then left covered with cling wrap for a further 30 minutes to rest and rise. I had more stuff to do, so they again had a little more resting time (around two hours).

Dough

Before the next stage, I cut out a dozen 10cm squares of baking paper; one for each bao. Each ball was the flattened lightly by hand, before lightly rolling to make a 15-20cm oval. From previous experience, I then sprayed the dough with a little rice bran spray oil before folding over very lightly to form the bun shape and placing each bun onto its baking paper base. The third and final rise took place under some more cling wrap for another 30 to 45 minutes.

When it was time to steam (placing about ½ a cup of white vinegar into the boiling water, which apparently makes them whiter), I placed three buns into the steamer. The baking paper made it easier to transfer the buns without touching the dough and flattening them. After about 10 minutes, they were ready and I almost shed a tear; they were perfect; light, billowy, soft and more importantly, looked exactly like the ones in the Momofuku book. From there you can use them straight away, pop them in the fridge for later or freeze them for up to a week.

Gua Bao

Stay tuned for Part 2… dinner party Gua Bao.