Hainanese Chicken Rice with thanks to Keanu Reeves
So it’s not exactly high-art, but The Matrix isn’t a bad film as far as disposable fluff goes. At the very least its a fun couple of hours, crammed full of eye-popping special effects and remarkably wooden acting from the remarkably wooden Keanu Reeves. The sequels stand as two of the worst films ever made.
Weirdly [although maybe not if you consider my food-centric world view], the one scene from The Matrix that always returns to me involves a conversation between two characters about the flavour of chicken. It’s revealed that the machines who have enslaved humanity and trapped us in a virtual facsimile of the world, couldn’t find any detailed description of the taste of chicken in human memory, only that most unfamiliar foods are described as ‘like chicken’.
The result was that inside the matrix EVERYTHING tasted like chicken.
I can’t help thinking that, should the machines eventually take over [ my MP3 player is well on the way] and defy all logic, common sense and efficiency in deciding to use us as an energy source by plugging us all into a virtual version of Sydney in the late 90’s, then chances are, we will indeed be stuck with the amorphous taste of ‘chicken’ for all time.
Because who can actually describe the flavour of chicken? And why do we describe so many other foods – frog’s legs, crocodile, bats, babies etc, – as tasting like chicken?
I think it has a lot to do with the quality of the chicken we eat. Until recently one was hard-pressed to find a decent bird in New Zealand [so to speak]. As, a result we have tended to use chicken as a vehicle for other flavours, rather than the star player. Whatever flabby flavour Henny-Penny had was lost under viscous sauces and streaky-bacon sarcophagi. Things have improved. Good quality chicken is now available in most supermarkets and is relatively well priced. The trouble is, most of us haven’t adjusted our thinking. We still use chicken as winged white bread to mop-up our gravy.
Now, I’ve eaten a lot of chicken, I’ve cooked a lot of chicken and I’ve travelled a fair bit to places where they do very clever things with chicken, and I think I can finally reveal, by way of a simple recipe , exactly what chicken tastes like.
Chicken Rice. Such a boring name really, but at least its succinct. Here in New Zealand, it probably evokes memories of horrid instant risotto products, but in Singapore or Malaysia, this name will lead you to a dish revered by both countries to an almost religious degree. Fans travel great distances and wait in epic queues to get the best renditions, and experts endlessly debate which ingredients are traditional and exactly how and when one should eat it. These politics and protocols don’t really interest me. Chicken rice is, very simply, my favourite dish, night or day. So far.
Known variously as Chicken Rice, Hainan chicken rice, Hunyu pinyin, Khao mun gai and Jyutping, this dish can be found all over South East Asia, but it’s earned it’s most devoted following in Malaysia and Singapore. Although a dish with its roots in the traditions of settlers from Hainan island, in China’s tropical south, the dish has evolved into something that is more of a hybrid of Hainanese, Cantonese and Malay techniques. The version found in Hainan today is probably more influenced by its Singaporean/Malay counterpart than vice versa.
A most unpretentious dish, Chicken rice is nothing more and nothing less than chicken, poached in a master stock [wait on, I’ll explain], thinly sliced and served with rice [cooked in more of the same], various condiments and a bowl of broth. It sounds kind of dull in print, but in reality, its like a distillation of all that is chickeny. The subtle use of spices, such as star anise, ginger and 5-spice, complement and lift the warm, clean flavor of the meat rather than drowning it. This is wholly satisfying stuff. Light yet filling and it leaves you feeling nourished and happy.
The use of Master stocks is an ancient Chinese practise. The stock in question is often decades or even allegedly centuries old, permanently kept on the simmer, with more water and bones added as required. This results in a meaty elixir of incredible complexity, rivaling and sometimes surpassing, the oldest and finest aceto balsamico. All the best chicken rice stalls in Singapore treat their stock with great care and respect. Although variable in style and quality, the Chicken rice of the sweltering city-state is all the better for its molly-coddled stocks. Obviously, genuine vintage superior stock is out of the realms of possibility and safe kitchen hygiene practices for most of us, but I have worked out a pretty passable [I think] substitute.
My Chicken Rice recipe is entirely reverse-engineered from the very best examples I’ve eaten in both Singapore and Malaysia. It’s a recipe that, once familiar is far better made by feel than exact quantities, and you will notice that I’m deliberately vague in places below. Traditionally, whole chickens are used. I don’t find this particularly practical, nor do I really enjoy dealing with all the bones, so I use boned, free range, corn-fed, skin-on, breast. Although an often boring, dry part of the bird, it works very well here.
Hainanese Chicken rice
You will need:
1 Free-range corn-fed chicken breast per person
For the ‘Superior’ Stock
1-2 litres of very good, preferably home-made chicken stock
2 or 3 celery sticks. No leaves attached
Crushed fresh ginger -1-3 tbs
Star anise 5-10 stars
Five-spice powder 1-2 tsp
Whole pepper corns
Sesame oil- a good slug
Soy sauce- to taste
½ cup long-grain rice per person. I prefer Jasmine.
For the sauces
Sweet chili sauce and/or Indonesian chili sauce
Crushed fresh ginger
Light Soy sauce
Rice vinegar or very mild white wine vinegar
Brown Sugar [optional]
Bring the stock to the boil, add the onion, celery and dry spices. Cover and simmer for 1-2 hours. Add the ginger, sesame oil and season to taste with the soy sauce. Ginger and sesame oil both become bitter when over cooked and only an idiot would season (ie add salt or in this case soy suace) a stock before it’s done
Bring to the boil uncovered for about 5 minutes. Reduce to a low simmer.
Cook the rice in a separate pot. Use 1.5 cups of strained stock per cup of rice. Cover, bring to boil and reduce to a medium simmer. Do not wash the rice, do not stir the rice, and do not lift the lid. It will be perfectly cooked in about 10-15 minutes. Try to learn how to cook rice by sound- if its done it will quietly hiss. If it’s sizzling you’ve gone a bit far but all is not lost and if it’s crackling call the fire brigade.
Set aside [covered] when done. Cooked rice will remain hot for hours if covered.
Bring the stock back to the boil. Add the chicken breast. Cover and bring to a decent boil. Cook for 15-20 minutes.
Remove the breasts from the stock and plunge into a bowl of cold water [room temperature is fine] this will cause the flesh to quickly tighten, halting the cooking process and improving the texture dramatically. Remove from the water after about 1-2 minutes. Pat- dry and allow them to rest for about 10 minutes. I know this all sounds a bit fussy, but it’s really no trouble in practise.
Usually 2-3 dipping sauces are offered. Most importantly, one salty and soy-based, and one fiery and chilli-based.
The chili sauce particularly is taken very seriously by aficionados. Recipes are jealously guarded and are passed down from parent to child. So obviously, my version is only a best guess.
In a small ramekin or condiment bowl mix together 1-3 Tbs of sweet and/or Indonesian chili sauce, about 1 tsp crushed ginger, a few drops of light soy sauce and about ¼ cup of strained stock. Taste [carefully, it can pack a hefty punch]. Add more of whatever you think it needs.
In another small ramekin, condiment bowl (or whatever else you have in the way of tiny receptacles) mix about ¼ cup light soy sauce, 1 Tbs sesame oil, a little brown sugar and a splash of fish sauce.
Once again, adjust as you see fit and omit the fish sauce if you really must. A sauce is a very personal thing, I know.
To each plate add a generous mound of rice. Slice the chicken thinly, across the grain and arrange neatly on the plates, along with some sliced cucumber. Sprinkle a little chopped fresh coriander and spring onion over the chicken.
Alternatively, you can serve the chicken on a communal platter and allow people to help themselves.
Serve a small bowl of the [strained][ stock for each person. A few of the better bits of celery or onion from the stock and some fresh coriander leaves are always welcome too
There are various [and often rather anal] theories about how this dish should be eaten, but basically all agree that you should try to get a bit of everything- chicken, rice, sauces and cucumber in each mouth full. The broth is used as both a chaser and to moisten the rice as you go.
However, it’s your meal so eat it however you like, just promise me you won’t set your table with chop-sticks [unless you are Chinese]. Even the thought of it makes me cringe.
Don’t make this dish if you want big, brassy flavors. It’s not a curry, its not sweet and sour pork. Do make this dish if you want to taste chicken.