It’s school holiday time down here, and my daughter spent a few days staying with me earlier this week. Wide-eyed and knowledge thirsty pre-teens generally have quickly shifting hobbies and passions. My daughter is no exception, moving from one fad to another in hasty fashion. Thank heavens she is still keen on the hobby of which I can genuinely be of use – cooking. I picked her up late on Monday night, after the restaurant had closed, and although she was sleepy and heavy of eyelid, when I asked her what she wanted to do over the next few days, her answer warmed the often unused regions of my heart; “Let’s cook something really, really yummy”.
I smiled and simply said; “Can do”.
This recipe is family food par-excellence. The ingredients are cheap to procure, yet the effect is stunning when served. The flavours are complex enough to keep adults interested, yet straightforward enough to not scare away younger diners. The inspiration is taken from a famous regional dish called “Hainanese chicken rice” It is a homely, peasant style dish that originated on the Island of Hainan, off South East China. However, this dish is so simple, so elegant and so fabulous, that it has since spread not only throughout China, but also through a large area of South East Asia as well.
We could have bought the ingredients at any suburban supermarket, but to make a day of it and to keep things authentic, we headed down to Chinatown. We visited the rustic, bustling and colourful Thai Kee market, which houses not only a prodigious fruit, vegetable and grocery section, but a sensational butchery and fishmonger as well. We strode right up to the butchery counter, surrounded by ethnic Chinese and other Asian shoppers. Things were looking good – the chickens in the display cabinet still sported their feet and heads. – a sure sign that we are closer to the farm than we would be at the supermarket. We selected our chicken, then the assistant asked if we would like its head and feet removed (obviously a question posed to all western customers). “No Way” my daughter and I exclaimed simultaneously – me because I wanted all the flavour they would provide to the soup, and sneffette because she wanted the ghoulish fun of lugging a head-on chicken around town. The shop assistant had little English – she just smiled at us both, gave us the chicken and sent us on our way.
The idea of Hainan chicken rice is so simple that its renown seems almost a given. Take a good quality, open-range chicken. Remove some of the fat from the cavity, render it and then use the liquid chicken fat to fry the raw rice. Meanwhile, poach the chicken in a liquid delicately scented with Asian spices. Use the resultant stock to cook the rice, then carve the moist chicken. Serve the stunningly flavoursome rice alongside the chicken and simply add some stir fried Asian greens. It sounds so simple, but it is oh so impressive.
In this version, my daughter and I have decided to play around with the idea a little. Our version ends up slightly simpler, a little bit healthier, and with all modesty, quite possibly a tad tastier. This is because we decided to use delicious and complex aromatics such as cinnamon and star anise to accompany the standard ginger and green onion. It doesn’t end there. The leftover broth provides litres of delicious and mysteriously flavoured soup that you can enjoy for many days afterwards.
Oh, and by the way. My daughter loved it. Reason enough as I see it. Let’s get cooking
Cinnamon and star anise poached chicken
Start with the chicken. Wash the chicken well and set aside. Wash the coriander well, then cut the stems and roots away and set the leaves aside. Throw the stems and roots into a very large saucepan or stock pot, along with all the other "chicken" ingredients, except the chicken itself. Add 4 litres (1 gallon-ish) of water and bring to the boil. Add the chicken, legs facing down, checking that the water completely covers the bird. Add more water if it is not so. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 25 minutes (35 minutes for a 1.6 kg chicken), then remove from the heat. Cover the pot and set aside. The chicken will not be fully cooked at this stage, but will gently steep in the liquid as it cools – ensuring that it is fully cooked when the soup cools down and irresistibly moist.
Move onto the rice. Just at the point when you take the chicken off the heat, place a smaller pot on a medium flame. Add the oil and garlic and cook for a minute or so. Don’t brown the garlic. Add the rice and stir to coat each grain. Add the salt and sugar, then stir well. Ladle on some broth from the poached chicken – covering the rice with approximately 1 cm of broth. Cover the rice pot and bring to the boil. As soon as the rice boils, place the pot on the lowest possible heat and cook for 18 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside. The rice will keep hot, covered, for up to half an hour.
Meanwhile, remove the chicken from the broth and drain. Cut the (now very moist) chicken into serving-sized pieces. Pile onto a plater and scatter with the reserved coriander leaves, then pour over a ladle-full of broth.
Stir the rice well, and serve alongside the chicken. All you need to add is some very simply stir-fried Asian greens, plus a few dipping sauces. Try soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoi sin sauce or chilli sauce.
Make sure to strain the stock and keep it for another use, particularly soups. Simply scoop the fat off the surface of the stock once it has sat in the refrigerator over night, reheat, and add a little salt and soy sauce, Place some freshly cooked egg noodles into a bowl and pour over the soup, scattering with some finely sliced green onions. Leftovers never tasted so good.