Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hainanese chicken rice

In my last post, I said that Sarawak laksa is the best dish ever, but another dish that comes a close second when it comes to childhood comfort food that I crave, is Hainanese Chicken Rice. Luckily, this dish is easy to put together with widely available ingredients and requires no covert smuggling of secret spice mixes from halfway around the world. In fact, I made it once for a dinner party many years ago at my friend Amanda's and it was the hit of the party. Amanda kept asking me for the recipe but I never got it to her, in large part because my version of Hainanese Chicken Rice is an amalgam of two different recipes, from these two cookbooks:

so it wasn't an easy matter of just sending her photocopies of the recipes; I'd have to stipulate which parts I used from which recipe and when. In a way this post is for Amanda: after more than 5 years (!), here is the Hainanese Chicken Rice recipe you asked for. Sorry for the delay, but better late than never, right?

First, what is Hainanese Chicken Rice? Again, it is one of those wonderful Sarawak Nonya dishes that is somehow more than the sum of its parts. There is rice cooked with shallots and garlic and rendered chicken fat in a good chicken broth, served with poached chicken marinated with a dark sauce and a dipping sauce of fresh red chillies, ginger, garlic, chicken broth and lime to pull it all together. But what a dish! I cannot really describe the unctuous mouth-feel of the rice, the delicious tang, heat and gingeriness of the dipping sauce, and the silkiest, tenderest chicken you have ever tasted.

Here is a picture of my most recent attempt:

The cucumber salad on the side is not authentic, but I think it goes beautifully with the traditional chicken, rice and dipping sauce. The recipe for the cucumber salad is from the New York Times, originally intended to accompany bluefish and rice. I have also served it with Vietnamese grilled meat patties; in fact, it pairs wonderfully with any South East Asian rice-and-meat dish, and especially Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is traditionally served with cucumber slices.

Alright, this is how I make Hainanese Chicken Rice:

Take a small chicken (about 3 pounds), trim it of excess fat and rub all over with salt. Reserve the trimmed fat - you will use it for the rice later on. In a large pot big enough to hold the chicken, boil 8 cups water with 8 cloves garlic (in their skins, smashed) and 5 slices fresh ginger (smashed). Lower the chicken into the pot, immersing it in the boiling water, weighing it down if necessary. Cover and boil for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the chicken sit in the hot water without removing the lid, for 2 hours. At the end of the 2 hours, remove the chicken and plunge into ice-cold water for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the rice. Render the chicken fat (there should be about 1/3 cup), throw out the unrendered brown bits and then sautee 3 chopped shallots and 3 chopped garlic cloves until light brown. Add two cups jasmine rice (or a long-grained rice) and sautee briefly to coat the grains. Add 4 cups chicken broth (it can be from the water used to boil the chicken, which is now a stock) and salt to taste, bring to a boil, give everything a good stir and then lower the heat to low and cover tightly. The rice is done when the liquid has been absorbed and there are steam holes on the surface of the rice, about 20 minutes.

When the chicken is done, tear the meat from the carcass. Make a marinade by mixing 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup chicken broth, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Mix the chicken meat in this marinade.

Make the dipping sauce. Now, this is the most important part of the dish. It is absolutely essential and brings everything together. Do not even think of attempting this dish without the dipping sauce! Mix together: 5 fresh red chilies (stemmed, seeded and chopped) or 1 1/2 tablespoons or more (or less) of sambal oelek if you are too lazy to stem and chop fresh chillies (which is what I do), 4 cloves chopped garlic, 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger, 1 teaspoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the juice from one lime and 1/4 cup chicken broth. I usually taste and may add more ginger, lime juice, salt or sambal oelek. It should be tangy and gingery, with a nice fresh red chilli flavor. The chilli has to be red chilli, no green chilli substitutions!

To serve, place a portion of rice with some chicken and dribble dipping sauce over all. (I like to dribble a lot of dipping sauce; in fact, back home we use it like a dressing). Place a portion of the non-authentic cucumber salad on the side. This may not be traditional, but I promise you, it makes the dish even better! Sit back and enjoy!

Amanda, I hope you like the post and will let me know how the dish turns out when you get David to make it!

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