Monday, January 18, 2010

Chicken rice, sort of

Of all the wonderful things we ate on our trip to Southeast Asia, perhaps the most luscious was chicken rice, Singapore's national dish. Created by the Hainanese from China, chicken rice seems plain but is actually a little taste of goodness and heaven. The grains of rice are fried in garlic, sesame and chicken oil, then steamed in the chicken's broth. The sliced chicken is served atop the rice with a fiery chilli-ginger-garlic sauce, as well as cucumbers and a bowl of broth to quell the heat. The dish pictured below is about $2 USD at the country's most highly regarded vendor, Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice.

I figured this was one dish I wouldn't be reproducing at home, as the traditional preparation calls for slowly boiling a whole chicken, frying rice grains in the chicken's oil, then steaming the rice in the stock generated from the chicken. Even if I wanted to do that, there's the matter of finding the luscious, high-quality chickens used in Singapore. I had never tasted chicken like that in the U.S. I figured I'd look for a good version in some North American Chinatown, or take another 26-hour flight to Singapore.

So I was interested when I spotted this recipe for Hainanese chicken in the NYT. It was buried in a column about stuff you can do with boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The author had gotten the recipe from Zak Pelaccio, owner of a West Village Malaysian fusion place called Fatty Crab, and it looked far from authentic. You poach the breasts in commercial broth seasoned with ginger and garlic, then simply pour the broth over steamed rice. Additionally, the 30-minute NYT recipe adds all sorts of tasty but nontraditional garnishes, like chopped basil, cilantro and scallions. It looked like it could be an acceptable cheat.

Well, it was pretty delicious, especially considering the laziness of this approach. The savory broth flavored the rice nicely and the tangy ginger sauce was super. I garnished the bowl with scallions and cilantro as the recipe directs, but it wasn't necessary for flavor, and I will probably skip it next time if only because they don't do that in Singapore. My husband said the biggest shortcoming was in the consistency of the chicken, which came out tender from poaching, but didn't approach the silkiness of the chicken we had at Tian Tian. Here's my version of the recipe, for four:

1. Whack an inch-long piece of skin-on ginger root with the blade of a chef's knife to crush it, then slice it into coins. Crush four cloves of garlic and pull off the skins. Cut a Thai chilli in half. Put the ginger, garlic and chilli in a large pot, add a quart of chicken broth, and simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Add four boneless, skinless chicken breasts to the pot in a single layer. Make sure you have enough liquid to cover the chicken. Bring the broth back up to a simmer, then turn off the heat, cover the pot and leave for 12 minutes. Slice into the thickest part of one breast to check for doneness. If not done, bring the broth just to a simmer again, turn off the heat, and cook for a couple more minutes. Remove chicken from broth and slice.

3. While the chicken is poaching, peel a 3-inch section of ginger and cut it into chunks. Put the ginger, 6 peeled garlic cloves, and 2-6 Thai chillis in the food processor. Add dashes of fish sauce, vinegar and lime juice and 1/4 cup of broth from the pot, pulse fine, and pour off into a bowl.

4. Whisk 3 T. soy sauce with 2 T. brown sugar in a small bowl. Slice a cucumber thinly.

5. To serve, heap rice into four shallow bowls and arrange the sliced chicken and cucumbers on top. Spoon some broth over the chicken and rice, then drizzle with half the sweet soy sauce and a bit of sesame oil. Pass the remaining soy sauce and ginger-garlic-chilli sauce at the table.

Emboldened by this relative success, I may even take it a step further next time and fry the rice grains in garlic and sesame oil, then put it in my rice cooker with chicken broth. Stay tuned!

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