Monday, April 12, 2010

Easy Hainan Chicken Rice (海南雞飯) Recipe For Home Cooks

Hainan Chicken Rice is a simple and very satisfying dish. Tender, juicy pieces of savory chicken paired with aromatic chicken stock-infused rice is a comfort food for many Asians, specifically the Singaporeans, Malaysians, Vietnamese and of course, the Chinese where this dish originated in Hainan Island. Done right, this dish will inspire content sighs of "Mmmm" and "Ahhhh" and many rubbings of a full belly at the dinner table.

It's easy to find this dish in Chinese cafes and Southeast Asian restaurants but it's very hard to find a place that will serve a tasty version. Savoy Kitchen and Dong Nguyen (both in Alhambra) are very popular and famous for their Hainan Chicken Rice. However, I'm probably in the minority in saying that their Hainan Chicken Rice is just okay. It may be carelessness that comes with success but I often find their Hainan Chicken to be bland and the white meat too dry for what is supposed to be fresh chicken. Their rice is good but that doesn't cut if for me.

Frustrated by the lack of quality Hainan Chicken Rice, I started making it at home and a friend recently asked me how I make this dish at home. Like most people, I juggle a busy schedule between work, a gym routine (I exercise to eat and drink!) and the many fun activities that the lovely city of Los Angeles offers so I'd like to share an easy recipe I modified for cooking Hainan Chicken for the busy home cook. My way does require overnight marinating so prep today and feast tomorrow!

First, do yourself a big favor and buy a fresh chicken from the Farmers Market or a poultry shop; the Fosters 3000-mile frozen (and then defrosted) chicken will be a waste of your time and an insult to your taste buds. Being on the Westside, I prefer the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market or Superior Poultry in Chinatown. Try to cook the chicken the same day you buy it. You'll also need 2 bunches of green onions, a head of fresh ginger, a head of garlic and kosher or sea salt.

Wash the chicken inside and out and pat dry. The chicken gizzards, liver and heart can be discarded or saved for cooking later. Chinese poultry shops tend to leave the chicken head on so you can either ask them to chop it off for you at the shop or you can just suck it up and chop it off yourself (I do it myself). Cut 4 to 5 stalks of green onions in half - do cut the onion ends off and discard. Peel 4 cloves of garlic and cut 3 to 4 thick slices of fresh ginger.

Prep a large stockpot with water (eyeball the water level but it has to be enough to cover the whole chicken entirely) and add the green onions, garlic and ginger. Bring the water to a boil.

When the water is boiling, carefully add the whole chicken into the pot. It's very important that you have enough water to cover the chicken entirely. If you saved the gizzards, etc., now is the time to put it into the water with the chicken. Put the pot lid on and TURN OFF the fire. Let the chicken slow-cook this way for about 40 to 50 minutes (the bigger your chicken, the longer the time) and resist the temptation to constantly lift the lid. Slow-cooking ensures your chicken will be extra tender and juicy and if you use a fresh chicken, you'll really be able to taste the real essence of the chicken meat. You can check for doneness by inserting a chopstick or knife into the thigh of the chicken to see if blood runs out.

When the chicken is done, the water should still be pretty hot so be careful in removing the chicken from the pot. Let the chicken cool and sprinkle kosher or sea salt in the cavity. Then put the chicken in a ziplock bag and liberally sprinkle salt into the bag (the gizzards, etc. go into the bag too if you cooked it). Don't be shy with the salt and don't be afraid to stick your hand into the bag to make sure the salt is spread evenly all over the chicken. Seal the bag and place it in your refrigerator to marinate overnight. Tip: Some prefer a "crunchy" chicken skin so they'll bath the chicken in an ice bath for a few minutes upon removing it from the hot water. I don't eat chicken skin often so I usually skip this step out of laziness.

Do not toss the water you used to boil the chicken; that is valuable stock! Remove the green onions, ginger and garlic and save the stock, including that nice film of chicken oil on the top, and save it to cook rice the next day. Invest in a rice cooker; I cannot live without mine.

The finale!

The next day, instead of using regular water to cook your jasmine rice, use the chicken stock, add a little more salt to taste and then just press the cook button on the rice cooker. It should take about 20 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, prep the chicken and the condiments. Remove the chicken from the ziplock bag and wipe off the excess salt. Depending on your preference, you can serve the chicken cold or bring it back to room temperature before serving. I prefer my chicken slightly warm so I split the chicken in half and I boil water in a double-boiler and quick steam it for a few minutes before I chop it into smaller serving pieces. Note that lovely liver and gizzard in my picture - rich and delicious!

For the condiment, fine chop some green onions and fine-grate some fresh ginger (see my picture above) and mix in a bowl with a little kosher salt. In a small pan, heat a few tablespoons of canola oil and when hot, carefully pour the hot oil over the ginger-onion mixture. Alternatively, you can prep a garlic chili sauce by mincing some fresh garlic and chili and adding lime juice to it. Slices of cucumber and tomatoes are often served on the side as well.

There you have it. The HungryKat's easy overnight version of Hainan Chicken. With just a little planning, you can have moist, tender dark and white meat chicken with tasty, tasty chicken rice for dinner. The beauty of this dish is the simple preparation and the use of only a few flavoring ingredients to allow the essence and sweetness of the chicken meat to shine through.

There has been some debate amongst my friends and colleagues recently that Frog Claypot Rice is disgusting. I completely disagree. Next project: Cook Frog Claypot Rice the way my dad taught me when I was a child (using fresh frog of course) so look out for that post...coming soon.

It's a free country so if you don't want to cook and would rather drive, go ahead and check out Savoy and Dong Nguyen.

Savoy Kitchen
138 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, 91801
(626) 308-9535

Dong Nguyen
1433 E. Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, 91801
(626) 300-8618


SinoSoul said...

I love posts with Chinese characters in 'em. O yes...

Shocking the chicken in cold water is really necessary to stop all cooking process, it makes a huge difference, ditto to the type of chicken used (Savoy uses Vikon) Also, the majority of difference between Vietnamese/Malaysian/Singaporean/Chinese/Thai Hainan Chicken Rice is in the sauce, so one can definitely can wild with the dippings.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your post! I've recently moved to Nor. Cal and no longer have access to Savoy. =( Question: When you put the chicken into the boiling pot, should you bring the water back up to a boil again before shutting it off? Or will the residual heat do the job? and how big of a chicken do you usually use?

chochochip said...

Nice job. I wish you have an area just for ingredients and methods so it's easy to read. Nonetheless, it's very thoughtful and I'm sure many people will find good use of your recipe! Cheers!!!

Hungry Kat said...

@Anonymous - After putting the chicken into the boiling water, immediately turn off the heat and cover the pot. Let the chicken slowly cook in the residual heat. I like using 3-4 lb fresh chickens from the Chinese butcher shops. I find that the "foster farms" variety is too big and lacking in flavor.