The Chinese lunar new year has just begun. Each lunar year is represented by an emblem of a living creature in a cycle which repeats every twelve years. This year, it is the rooster’s turn.
A rooster’s handsome plumage and heroic air as it struts about makes it the logical choice as an emblem for the year. But the chicken gives us far more practical enjoyment. It seems appropriate to use the occasion of this new year to appreciate not only the rooster but also the chicken.
Chicken occupies a special place in Cantonese culinary culture – a whole chicken is traditionally a must-have for celebration meals. The practice originated from a less prosperous time when most people lived off the land and the daily diet included little protein. A chicken for dinner from the family plot was a luxury. In some Cantonese families, at new year, on feast days or when the family wants to show gratitude for special blessings, a whole chicken is placed on a small alter, with some rice wine and a few sticks of incense, as offerings for ancestors and various deities. When the thanksgiving ceremony is over, the chicken would be taken into the kitchen and cut up into bite-sized pieces, assembled neatly on a platter and served at room temperature as part of the family dinner.
If I had to nominate an emblem for Cantonese food, poached whole chicken 白切雞 would be my choice. This is because when the chicken is poached to perfection, it exemplifies the two defining characteristics of Cantonese cuisine: 鮮嫰 – food that is fresh and cooked just-right.
The pursuit of freshness can seem extreme. If you have been in places where Cantonese restaurants compete to attract price-insensitive foodies, you might have seen prominently displayed tanks of live fish, shrimp, and lobster, sometimes also Alaskan king crab and eel. To sensitive palates so culturally attuned, the loss of fresh flavour over time is the quickest and most obvious in seafood. Discerning Cantonese diners want their seafood to be still swimming 20 minutes before it is put in front of them to be enjoyed.
Fish tank in a Cantonese restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. The tank on the right holds live shrimp.
For chickens, and especially those destined to be poached, the highest freshness standard is somewhat less challenging: same-day, if it could be managed.
When I was growing up in Hong Kong, where the population was mainly Cantonese, live chickens were sold from stacks of wooden cages in the market. A cook would point out a bright-eyed and lively one. The seller would take the chicken out of the cage and offer the cook an opportunity to verify that it is young, as it would be more tender. The inspection would first involve pressing the chicken’s breastbone, which should not be hard, then proceed to turning the chicken upside-down and parting the tail feathers to examine its bottom, the appearance of which could apparently confirm that the bird has not yet laid a single egg. An adequate exam might require the cook to blow aside remaining small feathers on the chicken’s bottom that obstruct the full view. The transaction agreed, the cook would return after doing the rest of the shopping to collect the slaughtered, plucked and eviscerated chicken for the day’s meal. Most people make do these days with chilled chicken from the supermarket for poaching, but a frozen one is definitely considered to have lost too much flavour to be worth the effort.
Chicken must not be ‘overcooked’ by Cantonese standards. Long before sous-vide experts advised that 65°C is the optimal and safe internal temperature for succulent chicken thighs, Cantonese cooks had already figured out pretty much the same. The just-right poached whole chicken has thigh meat that is still ever so slightly pink and the bone marrow still red. Only restaurants with a primarily Cantonese clientele would serve chicken this way, as most people regard it as dangerous to eat ‘undercooked’ chicken.
Perfectly poached whole chicken in New York’s Chinatown. There is a layer of jellied meat juice under a layer of melt-in-the-mouth skin.
Recipes for poaching whole chicken can only be generally descriptive, because achieving an even, optimal internal temperature of 65°C requires experience in controlling three variables: mass, temperature and time. Poaching a whole chicken without overcooking it means having to take into account the size of the chicken and its internal temperature at the start of the process, the volume of water and the heat-retention properties of the pot.
Achieving perfection requires some more know-how. When the chicken has been cooked, it needs to be immediately submerged in a large pot of ice water until it has cooled completely. There are two reasons for this step: to use the low temperature to set the meat juices into a jelly beneath the skin, and to preserve the skin’s melt-in-the-mouth texture. If the chicken is not immediately submerged, steam will carry away moisture from the skin and make it chewy.
Poached whole chicken is traditionally accompanied by a dip made from spring onion and ginger, two staples in Cantonese cuisine. The dip has to be freshly made, of course, and making it cannot be simpler – just mix ginger, spring onion, salt and oil. Served with plain boiled jasmine rice, it makes a lovely complete meal with some cooked leafy greens on the side.
How to Poach a Whole Chicken
- a whole chicken , up to 1.5kg in weight
Buy the freshest organic free-range chicken you can find. It should weigh under 1.5 kilos. A corn-fed chicken is preferred for its colour.
Equipment: Large stockpot to hold the whole chicken + 6 litres of water and a second pot or a bowl large enough for the chicken plus water and ice.
Take the chicken out of the fridge for about an hour to reach room temperature.
Loop a length of kitchen string under the wings and tie both ends to form a harness.
Bring 6 litres of water to a rolling boil in a large stockpot and turn off the heat. Hold the chicken by the loop harness, and lower it carefully into to the water.
Using silicone-covered tongs or a wooden spoon, move the chicken about gently so that hot water gets into the cavity to cook it also from the inside. Be careful not to tear the skin. Cover the stockpot and let stand for 30 minutes.
Take the string harness and carefully lift the chicken completely out of the water. Let water drain from the cavity. Put the chicken back in the pot, and move it about gently again. Cover and let stand 30 more minutes.
Do not poke the chicken with a skewer to see if the juices run clear, or probe it with an instant-read thermometer. Puncturing the skin will cause the flavourful juices to escape into the water.
Lift the chicken from the water and let the hot water drain quickly from the cavity.
Immediately put the chicken into a large pan filled with enough ice water to cover it completely. Move the chicken about so the ice water gets into the cavity. Leave the chicken undisturbed for 20 minutes.
Lift the chicken out of the ice bath and pat dry.
Cut into pieces and serve.
Spring Onion & Ginger Dip
40 grams ginger, grated (a microplane is the best tool for grating ginger)
40 grams spring onions, finely chopped
1.5 tsp sea salt with no additives, or kosher salt
1 tbs flavourless vegetable oil
Note: Do not reduce the amount of salt. The key to an utterly delicious dip is to make it very salty.
- Mix ginger, spring onions and salt in a deep heat-proof bowl. The heap of spring onions will collapse into a more manageable volume on contact with the salt.
- In a small pan, or a stainless steel one-cup measure with a long handle if you can be very careful, heat the oil to near-smoking and immediately pour it all at once over the ginger mixture. The oil will foam. The purpose of this step is not to cook the spring onion and ginger but to allow the oil to heat a sufficient amount of the mixture to acquire, carry and intensify the flavour of the dip.
- Stir the dip a few times to distribute the oil, and put in a small dish to serve alongside the chicken.
Save for later on Pinterest:
For more on popular Chinese New Year celebration dishes, and to understand what meanings are associated with them, read this post also by Diana.
You may also enjoy these recipes:
- Chinese Red-Cooked Pork Brioche Sandwich
- Chinese Stir Fry
- Chinese-Style Braised Ox Cheek
- King prawn and salmon crispy wontons
- Stir Fried Sichuan Chicken Recipe
I’m submitting this recipe to the Inheritance Recipes blogger challenge run by my friends Solange and Margot.
Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!43 Comments to "Year of the Rooster | Perfectly Poached Chicken Cantonese-Style + Spring Onion & Ginger Dip"
Interesting! I learned a lot about Chinese New year traditions and chicken. The spring onion and ginger dip recipe sounds amazing. I love the unique flavor that ginger gives. Thanks for sharing!
Yes me too, spring onion and ginger together are just so good!
Sounds very interesting Kavey. I don’t think I have ever tried anything poached except for the egg. Definitely something to try very soon. Thank you for sharing with the Inheritance Recipes .
I loved reading about Diana’s memories of Hong Kong and how they tie into this recipe so it seemed a good fit!
What a great post Kavey 🙂
It’s the first time I see poached chicken and it looks delicious, must try it if I wander through Chinatown someday (not sure if they make it there?).
Thank you for sharing.
I would imagine only the China Town areas that have a lot of Chinese customers may serve it this way, as both the texture and the fact there is a little pinkness visible may be off-putting to those not used to it. It’s worth looking though, but it’s also a common home-cooked dish.
Sounds delicious! My mum used to make us poached chicken as kids (even sausages!!). Not sure I have quite the skills for this but it looks fantastic! Gary x
I make poached chicken in the slow cooker, but it’s a very different beast to this method – the chicken is poached for so long you can barely lift it whole out of the liquid as the collagen holding everything together has melted away!
This was so interesting to read. I wandered through Chinatown in London over the weekend and the smell of food was amazing.
That’s always such a pleasure during CNY especially.
This looks rather too complicated for me but my husband will love it! Hoping he will make it this weekend ?
It’s actually quite straightforward, though you need to get used to lowering and lifting the chicken in this way. You could always use the sauce alongside chicken cooked your regular way?
This is so informative! I never knew how to poach a chicken and you gave instructions beautifully. Now I want to try this recipe!!! Thanks for the fabulous tips.
Thanks are all to Diana for her wonderful guest post! ?
I’m always looking for new ways to prepare chicken and this one has caused me to be completely intrigued! Thanks for sharing!
It’s a very simple and classic way, and it’s all about the texture and then that dip!
What a fascinating post – it must be amazing to eat things that are so fresh! I bet the chicken is so tender and the dip sounds so delicious too!
I’ve definitely found that freshness of ingredients is much revered in those places in East Asia that I’ve visited so far.
Very interesting recipe, instructions and facts. Beautiful!
Yes, I really enjoyed reading Diana’s introduction and the recipe.
I’ve never poached a whole chicken in my foodie life! That’s an interesting technique that I’ll have to try myself. Thank you for sharing your experience at the Hong Kong market, I would have never thought they sell live chickens!
I’ve only poached whole ones in a slow cooker, a very different kind of cooking and result to this technique from Diana. I found her Hong Kong market memories fascinating too!
How interesting! It looks like this method keeps the meat incredibly juicy, and love the sound of the dipping sauce, as well.
I have never poached a whole chicken either. This post was very informative. Thanks for sharing.
I have only tried it slow cooker style myself, so I’m looking forward to trying Diana’s way too!
I keep meaning to learn how to poach a whole chicken, and now I finally have 🙂 . It looks really delicious Kavey.
It’s a straightforward method I think, and I figure that those who prefer the meat cooked a touch more than Cantonese tastes could leave it in longer if they like.
Love this! I’ve been looking for recipes to celebrate the New Year and the spring onion and ginger dip looks amazing.
Let us know how you like it!
What a thorough tutorial. Very much appreciated.
You are welcome.
Sounds like a delicious recipe! ‘Kung hei fat choy’ / ‘gong xi fa cai’ to you too! 🙂
I’ve always wanted to know how to make this so I appreciate the time you took to share all this information
You are welcome.
I love reading about food preparation in other countries! I don’t get to travel abroad, but if I could, food markets like the one you described would be the first thing I’d want to visit.
They give such a wonderful insight into cuisine, plus I find them visually overwhelming, in a good way!
This was a really interesting read, thanks. I like reading about how other countries cook, celebrate, and even believe. I think many times Americans tend to overcook things, chicken included. Your poached chicken looks so moist and delicious. Happy year of the rooster to you as well, and thanks for the recipe!
Yes, there’s definitely cultural differences in how much we cook meat. When I was a kid, the norm for pork in the UK was well cooked. I believe this was because of the possibility of tapeworm, killed by sufficient heat. But these days British pork is tapeworm free, and there’s certainly a slow movement towards serving pork pink, like we do with lamb and beef. There’s a lot of resistance to it, that comes from a lifetime habit for most of us of believing pork needs to be well cooked, and finding the site of pink a bit weird, but when I’ve tried it I have always really enjoyed it.
I’ve never tried poaching chicken. This looks fab though and I think it would fit in the pressure cooker (without pressure cooking! lol) as it’s the biggest pan I have. Thanks Kavey
Oh, I never remember my pressure cooker as also being a large pan, for non-pressure cooking!
Amazing website and Delicious recipes