My not-so-traditional Hainanese Chicken and my culture envy

Of all the glorious and fantastic food in the world my favourite is Chinese food. Not French food as those that know me might think; not Japanese, even though we eat so much of it my daughter thinks we are Japanese; not even Italian, which is what I am most comfortable cooking. I love all these cuisine but in my humble opinion, Chinese food offers the most variety of flavours and the most sizzle to the palate.

When I say Chinese food, I don’t just mean the deliciously greasy dishes we all order at least once a month at our local Chinese dives. I love all the variety Chinese food offers. From the dim sums and the congees, from Cantonese cooking to Mandarin cooking, from Northern Chinese fare to the spicy Szechuan dishes, I love them all. I know too that there must be a hundred more styles of Chinese cooking that I have yet to discover. My palate knows that I will love them all. I can eat Chinese food everyday and not get tired of it. Seriously!

Me in pink lining up to buy pork buns at a food stall in Kowloon, Hong Kong

Me in pink and gray lining up to buy pork buns at a food stall in Kowloon, Hong Kong

So every Chinese New Year, I feel envious of those that are obligated to celebrate the lunar new year. If Chinese food at its simplest is delicious and comforting, I can only imagine the extravagant flavours that come out of a Chinese kitchen on the biggest holiday of the lunar year.

After taking the kids to see the dragon and lion dances at the Aberdeen Mall in Richmond for the CNY festival and on our way to a restaurant for dim sum (what else!), I felt inspired to make, if not a ten course banquet, at least one Chinese influenced meal. I wanted to make crab in cream but my husband reminded me that there was a whole juicy, free range chicken waiting to be cooked in the fridge. I decided to make a Hainanese Chicken Rice.

While patiently waiting for our sio mai, steamed cuttlefish, lotus rice, etc., I found a beautiful Hainanese Chicken recipe on Steamy Kitchen’s web site.

The steps are easy to follow and the ingredients simple. It doesn’t get any simpler than chicken, rice, water, and salt (and a whole whack of it). There are a few more ingredients and I will go through them but the point is the main ingredients are accessible and are obviously simple everyday food.

I followed Steamy Kitchen’s recipe closely but to make it my own, I added two ingredients, Kaffir Lime leaves (a popular Thai ingredient which you can find in your local Asian grocer) and lime zest, and made a ginger sauce to be served with the dish. The acidity of the citrus ingredients offers freshness and lightness to the dish. My husband, my toughest critic, agrees.

Everyone who eats chicken like there is no other protein in the world but chicken should make this dish.

Hainanese Chicken Rice
(Adapted from Steamy Kitchen)
Serves 4-6 persons

for the chicken

1 whole organic or free-range chicken (3.5 lbs)
kosher salt
4 inch section of fresh ginger, in 1/4 inch slices
2 stalks green onions, cut into 1 inch sections (both the green and white parts)
5 Kaffir lime leaves
1 teaspoon sesame oil

for ginger sauce

1 1/2 tbsp ginger, finely minced
1 tbsp vegetable oil

for the rice

2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 tbsp ginger, finely minced
2 cups long-grain rice (preferably Jasmine), washed
3 cups reserved chicken poaching broth
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp kosher salt
Zest of one lime

for the chili sauce

4-5 tsp lime juice
2 tbsp reserved chicken poaching broth
2 tsp sugar
4 tbsp sriracha chili sauce
4 cloves garlic
1 inch ginger
a generous pinch of salt, to taste

to serve on the side

Soy sauce
Sprigs of cilantro
Sliced cucumber
Sliced tomatoes

to prep and cook the chicken

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1. Clean the chicken by rubbing the skin with a handful of kosher salt. Regular salt will do as well but it will take more rubbing to remove the gunk off the skin. Once the skin is smooth all over, rinse and pat dry with a paper towel.

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2. Season the chicken with another handful of salt. Because it is going to be immersed in water and simmered for a period of time, you want to make sure that you season that baby well. I found that generously salting the chicken eliminates the need to use soya sauce when serving.

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3. Stuff the cavity and that often neglected neck cavity with the slices of ginger, green onion and Kaffir lime leaves. Insert one or two slices of ginger, green onion and lime leaves in between the breast and the skin. This ensures flavourful chicken breast.

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4. Place the chicken in a heavy-bottomed pot like a Dutch oven with a non-stick enamel so the skin of the chicken stays intact. Cover the chicken with cold water up to one inch. Bring the pot to a boil in high heat then turn the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes or more if you have a bigger chicken. Remove the scum off the pot every so often. You can check for doneness by removing the chicken from the pot and sticking a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. It should read 170F. You can also make a small cut into the same part and see if the juices run clear and no longer pink.

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5. Once the chicken is cooked through, remove the ginger, green onion and Kaffir lime leaves. Put the chicken in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. The original recipe points out that the shocking process leaves the meat tender and the skin firm in texture. When the chicken is cool to the touch, remove from the ice bath and allow to drain in a cooling rack.

6. Do not discard the broth as it will be used to cook the rice and for the chili sauce. The broth is also served as an accompaniment to the chicken rice. Skim the fat off the broth and set aside.

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to make the ginger sauce

7. In a medium pot, heat the vegetable oil in medium-high heat. Fry the ginger until it turns light brown. Scoop out all the ginger and oil and set aside in a small sauce dish for serving.

Every time I eat Hainanese chicken rice in restaurants, it is served with ginger sauce. It is not included in the original recipe so I have included it in this recipe.

to cook the rice

8. In the same pot where the ginger sauce was cooked, heat vegetable oil in medium high heat. Fry the ginger and garlic just until cooked. Be careful not to burn the aromatics. Add the rice and zest, and fry the rice until the grain is almost translucent. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Add salt and stir once or twice then turn the heat to low, cover and simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed by the rice, about 15 minutes.

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to make the chili sauce

9. Combine all the ingredients for the chili sauce and purée with a hand blender or in a food processor. Pour into a serving sauce dish.

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to assemble

10. You can serve all the elements of this dish separately but it is quite something to look at when served together. Bring out your nicest platter and layer with rice and slices of chicken (with the skin on of course!), sprinkle with sesame oil and garnish with the cilantro, cucumber and tomato. Make an extra serving of the garnishing as it is a great way of incorporating veggies into this delicious meal. Serve with the array of sauces prepared.

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This is a big meal so enjoy it with a group of people you love and who love food!

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2 thoughts on “My not-so-traditional Hainanese Chicken and my culture envy

  1. Ali, I’m so impressed you made this! I’m Chinese and I would never dream of attempting it. I love the step by step photos (I know how tedious it is do when you’re constantly washing your hands of the raw chicken in order to snap the next picture). I also totally agree with you: Chinese food IS the best 😉

    • Thanks! It is a balancing act cooking while at the same time documenting the process. At one point I had to ask Ron to take the shot so I can hold the chicken upright. I just told him today that I feel like buying a camera just for my food shots. One that can be smudged with icing or the occasional grease:)

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