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.
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.
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.
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- King prawn and salmon crispy wontons
- Stir Fried Sichuan Chicken Recipe