Thursday, February 17, 2011
With a blink of an eye Chap Goh Meh (元宵節) has arrived. Two weeks into Chinese New Year I'm down with a nasty flu and bad throat. Blah feeling aside, today is still auspicious and I think timely to share with you this dish my mother made when she came over to Singapore to spend the New Year with me. I know many Chinese are vegetarian today to observe Chor Yat Sap Em (初一 十五, vegetarian on the first and fifteenth day of each month) but you can always cook this tomorrow should I succeed to entice you with the sins of salt, wine and meat (I apologize in advance).
I don't relate much to my Hakka origin aside from occasionally having to speak the dialect when conversing with my aunts and many years ago with my late grandparents. My parents speak Mandarin between themselves and with me they use Cantonese. However, in the gourmet aspect, I'm very much aware that my mother has a few traditional Hakka dishes under her belt, her territory which my late father never dared to meddle with. Mum constantly made Hakka Char Yoke (客家炸肉, fried pork belly with fermented tofu), Tau Fu Song (fluffy fried tofu with salted fish, pork and fish paste) and this Ham Kai (salted steamed chicken). She didn't have a chance to pick up her favorite Kau Yoke (扣肉, slices of pork belly layered with sliced yams in between, served in sweet, dark soy sauce) before my grandmother passed away. Mum also enjoyed eating Lui Cha (擂茶, an extremely healthy tea infused rice with finely diced vegetarian sides) and Suen Pun Tze (算盘子, abacus-shaped tapioca and yam dough fried with mushroom, dried shrimp, preserved vegetable and pork) very much although she doesn't know how to cook these.
Hakka salted steamed chicken (客家盐鸡) is really a housewife version of the original Hakka Dung Gong Yim Guk Kai (東江鹽焗雞), which is baked covered in a heap of salt, a dish which is still served in many Hakka restaurants around Asia. At home, this method is rarely used as is requires so much salt and a long cooking time while equally good results can be achieved by just brining and steaming. I went through a lot of chicken and rice as a kid with this dish although I love the more typical Chinese chicken rice - which my parents rarely prepared as it requires much more work and I secretly think they actually preferred the Hakka version. Dad would get the freshest free-range chicken he could from his weekly marketing, get Mum to brine it and then he would do the cooking bit. He never did the whole thing himself, fearing he would mess up the seasoning. While my father was also a Hakka and a great cook, my mother definitely held the reins in the traditional dishes area.
Ridiculously easy to prepare, you start with a butterflied chicken - you can get your butcher to do it for you or if you feel particularly industrious, check out these very good instructions. Flavoring is more evenly dispersed around the chicken and cooking time can be reduced when the bird is butterflied. After that it's just a matter of giving it a good massage with some salt, oil and cooking wine. The steaming bit only takes half an hour, after which you let it relax and sit nicely for a good few hours, if you can help it.
Your kitchen (and flat, if you, like me, live in a box) will be filled with an incredibly inviting aroma but refrain from going at the chicken too early. Towards the end of the - possibly excruciating - waiting time, cook some rice and while it's resting in 'keep warm', cut up the chicken. The sauce from the chicken goodness and marinate will likely cause repeated visits your rice cooker for refills, no matter how hard you'd try to reason with yourself in your head to stop eating. Don't say I didn't warn you. The only way to avoid eating too much is to cook just enough rice for one serving. This, of course, didn't work with Vijay, who loved this dish tasting it for the first time ever. He ate my bowl of rice.
If you're curious about the parcel and baking dish business in these photos, we shot these when reheating our leftover half bird. Mum's instruction to reheat without watering down the dish was to bake (versus steam) covered with foil but I was inspired by one of Donna Hay's spring 2010 magazine issue featuring beautiful recipes cooked in parcels. Use good quality parchment paper and some kitchen twine, bundle up the bird into the oven at 200°C for half an hour and voila! The leftover meat was even more flavorful after days of 'marinating' in the fridge.
With this I debut (an albeit simplified) traditional Hakka dish and may just offer a few more in future. Happy Chap Goh Meh to those who celebrate!
Hakka Salted Steamed Chicken (客家盐鸡)
Serves 6 to 8
Note: My mother's recipe is incredibly simple, without ginger or scallions, which you can add during steaming for more flavor. For a halal version, replace the wine with a mixture of 2 tablespoons water, 2 tablespoons vinegar and 1 tablespoon brown sugar. If you cannot finish the entire chicken in one sitting, only portion what you need and keep the rest intact to keep the meat juicy while in storage.
- 1 (1.8 to 2 kilograms) free range chicken, butterflied
- about 2 tablespoons salt (I used Morton's kosher but you can use regular or sea salt, adjust to taste)
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 5 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine (紹興花雕酒, Shao Hsing Hua Diao Jiu)*
- some sliced spring onions for garnish
Marinate the chicken: Pat dry the prepared and cleaned chicken with paper towels. Add the salt bit by bit around the chicken and rub it in by gently massaging the bird. Ensure to coat the whole chicken evenly and completely, including the folds and joints. Add in 4 tablespoons of the wine (or wine replacement mixture) and coat evenly. Rub in the cooking oil last and let the bird rest uncovered at room temperature for about an hour.
Steam the chicken: When ready to steam, prepare your steamer and bring the water to boil (I use a Chinese wok with a wire rack and cover). Meanwhile, place the chicken onto a large tapered dish (to collect juices), minus the liquid from the marinate. Evenly pour the leftover tablespoon of wine (or replacement mixture) on the chicken. Steam on low heat for 15 minutes (my chicken is around 1.8 kilos, if yours is bigger add another 5 minutes for each 200 grams). Off the heat and wait for another 15 minutes, all the while keeping the chicken covered in the steamer.
Remove from the steamer and at this point, you can choose to test a small slice of breast meat to adjust the salt if necessary, while the chicken is still hot. Let stand uncovered at room temperature for at least 4 hours, up to 6 hours.
Portion chicken and return the meat to a serving platter with the drippings from the steaming. Garnish with spring onions and serve warm with rice.
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