Monday, 25 February 2013

Chicken Rice -- You say Cantonese, I say Hainanese

Chicken was a luxury in the 1960s. At a time when a bowl of mee pok tah was all of just 20 cents, the 70-cent cost of a plate of chicken rice was princely. And no surprise then, that chicken drumstick was a special treat reserved for birthdays. Therefore choosing the right chicken rice stall on which to ‘splurge’ one’s hard-earned cash truly mattered!

My gold standard, back then, for chicken rice was a stall parked inside Great Wall Kopitiam along Keong Saik Street, where the popular porridge stall, Tiong Shian Porridge Centre, now stands. Run by two young guys, their Cantonese-style chicken and rice were the best: the meat succulent and cooked just right, leaving the marrow still pinkish; and the rice and chili sauce good enough to wolf down on their own.

My amah never failed to remind me (and everyone else!) of an incident. The 70-cent portion was served on a single plate – sliced chicken on a mound of rice -- just like today. The $1.50 ‘deluxe’ set would get you a plate of rice, with much more chicken on a separate plate. However, spoiled and broke as I was, I insisted on having the ‘deluxe’  style -- but at 70 cents. The stall owner naturally refused; whereupon I threw such a big tantrum that he relented. Being all of ten years old at the time, I got away with it!

These days, most diners, and even stallholders themselves, often confuse the Hainanese for Cantonese chicken rice. Signboards or menus say ‘Hainanese’ but what you actually get is Cantonese. The difference? The Hainanese do not soak their chicken in icy cold water after boiling it, hence there is no jelly-like layer of gelatin developing just beneath the skin.

The chicken is soaked in room-temperature water for 30 minutes or so, then dripped dry and placed on a tray, covered with a piece of towel. The Cantonese, on the other hand, plunge the chicken in icy water then hang it to drip dry, leaving theirs with the thin gelatinous layer below the skin.

Cooking chicken and its rice is simple. Everyone seems to have his or her own little trick for a good version; here’s mine.

Hainanese Chicken Rice

Chicken                      1
Ginger juice                2 tbsp
Chinese wine              1 tbsp
Salt                              3 tbsp
Spring onion               2 stalks
Ginger                         3 slices, thickly sliced
Pandan leaves             1 stalk, bruised
Water                          7 litres
Chicken stock             2 litres
Oil                               2 tbsp

Rice                             3 cups
Chicken stock             3 cups
Ginger                         2 slices, thickly sliced
Pandan leaves             4, bruised
Salt                              1½ tsp
Chicken oil                  4 tbsp

Chili Sauce:
Red chili                      5, minced
Chili padi                     2, minced
Ginger                         4 mm, bashed and minced
Garlic                           5 cloves, bashed and minced
Calamansi juice           5 tbsp
Chicken broth             3 tbsp
Salt                              ½ tsp
Sugar                           1 tbsp

  1. Marinate chicken with ginger juice and Chinese wine for 30 minutes. Rinse and drain.
  2. Boil a pot of water (2 litres) and chicken stock. Add spring onion (1 stalk), 2 slices of ginger, pandan leaves, and boil for 5 minutes in high heat. Add 1 tbsp of salt and turn off the heat. Let it rest and cool to room temperature. This is to ‘cool’ the chicken immediately after being boiled.
  3. Boil another pot of water (5 litres) with the remaining spring onion and ginger. Add 2 tbsp of salt. Holding chicken by the neck, plunge it into the boiling water. When the water starts to boil, remove the chicken. Wait for the water to boil rapidly again, then plunge the chicken in and repeat the step two more times. On the third plunge, leave the chicken submerged in the water. Let the water boil for 1 minute. Cover with lid and turn off the heat. Leave the chicken for 40 minutes.
  4. Remove the chicken and plunge it into the pot of room-temperature chicken stock and leave it submerged for 30 minutes.
  5. Remove chicken, drain and lay flat on a plate, cover with a wet towel until it is ready to be chopped and served.

Chicken Rice:
  1. Wash and drain rice in a colander for 30 minutes.
  2. Saute ginger with 1 tbsp of oil until it turns slightly brown. Add chicken stock and boil.
  3. Add rice and pandan leaves to boiling stock. Boil until the water subsides to the level of the rice.
  4. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
  5. Add the remaining oil, salt, and stir thoroughly, continue to simmer for another 10 minutes.
  6. Mix the rice thoroughly again. Close the lid and turn off the heat.
  7. Let it rest for another 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Chili Sauce:
  1. Mince chilies and ginger finely.
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.
  3. The sauce should be sour and a tad sweet.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Going Nuts!

Those who grew up before 1975 would remember -- life was so much simpler then. Color television was then a rare luxury; in fact the majority of households didn’t even own a ‘black-and-white’ television!

Much of my childhood was spent in Chinatown. The hill where Kreta Ayer Theatre now stands was the centre of activity for my neighborhood. Back then there was no theatre; in its place, instead, were a small community centre and a crèche, and a huge empty plot of land.

Come nightfall, a professional storyteller – an old man -- would set up his stall, which consisted of a small wooden box, a kerosene lamp, and 20 or so wooden stools. Night after night on the hill, his voice would echo. He would narrate tales from the Chinese classics – the cases of Justice Bao, the exploits of warriors of The Three Kingdoms...

People would drop him coins as a donation, or as rental for the stools, and these would be his earnings.  While the adults listened to the stories, the youngsters would play on the nearby seesaw or the community centre’s basketball court. The cool evening air would also draw out courting couples and strollers to the open grounds.

Hawkers would set up food stalls: ice kachang, fruits, drinks, and one particular snack that I loved dearly -- steamed peanuts. This hawker would ride his trishaw-cart, which held a huge basket of peanuts kept warm by a pot of simmering water below it. Five cents would buy one a tiny paper bag full. The peanuts would be too hot to handle, making splitting the shell open a challenge -- but the reward would be soft, steaming, succulent peanuts!

Sadly, this simple treat is not as ubiquitous as it once was, so I’ve decided to recreate it, adding some spices to enliven it!

Since, this is the eve of Lunar New Year 2013. I would like to wish everyone

花开福贵 ** 生意兴隆

Spicy Boiled Peanuts

Peanuts (with husks)               1 kg
Cinnamon                                 2 sticks
Star anise                                  2
Fennel seeds                            ½ tsp
Sichuan peppercorn                1 tsp
Salt                                           1 tbsp
Water                                       1½ litres

  1. Fry spices in a clean pan until it emits a strong fragrance. Pour it into the water and boil.
  2. Add peanuts and simmer for 3 hours.
  3. Strain the peanuts and serve immediately.
  4. Peanuts taste best when it is warm; simply reheat it in the microwave when it gets cold.

Note: By using a pressure cooker, cooking time could be shortened to 30 minutes.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Secrets of Pen Cai

Although Pen Cai (盆菜)is new to Singapore, this dish actually originated some eight hundred years ago, in the Southern Song Dynasty (A.D. 1132 – 1279). There are two stories to how it was born: one which told of the escape of the Emperor to the southern part of China; and the other in which the scholar-general Wen Tianxiang (文天祥) led his soldiers to Dong Guan (东莞), now known as Shenzhen to escape from Mongol invaders. I would like to believe the latter version, as I was made to memorize General Wen’s poems when I was young, and so grew up to love his work. (My favorite poem from him appears below; it was believed this poem was written during the General's exile in Dong Guan.)

The story goes that when the fleeing army of General Wen reached Dong Guan, they were hungry and exhausted. The residents of the city, who were mostly Hakkas, fed the soldiers with whatever they had at home, but as they were poor they soon ran out of crockery and serving pots. So food was collected in huge wooden basins, and served to the general and his men. Since then, the practice has been preserved and passed down to posterity to commemorate the patriotism of General Wen, who was eventually executed on the orders of the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan, in 1283.

As the Hakka were a frugal people, Pen Cai was a “peasant” dish that used ingredients drawn mostly from the farm. It was normally served during Chinese New Year when Hakka families returned to their ancestral houses to pay respects to their elders. Such visits would last a whole day; and as it seemed only appropriate for the visiting family to contribute to the festive feast, they would bring a pot of Pen Cai.

Pen Cai looks simple and straightforward to prepare, but that is deceptive. Authentic Pen Cai embodies the spirit of Hakka cooking, in which complex cooking techniques are brought to bear on “poor man’s” ingredients. The soul of the dish lies in the number “8” -- there are eight main seasonings, eight key cooking techniques, and eight layers of “dishes” stacked on top of each other.

红糟 . 南乳 . 蚝油 . 头抽 . 大茴 . 罗汉果 . 肉桂 . 丁香

The eight seasonings are red wine lees, preserved bean curd, oyster sauce, superior light soy sauce, fennel seeds, dried Lohan, cinnamon, and clove. Unlike the Pen Cai that is available in restaurants these days, with their abalone, sea cucumber and oyster, the original meats and vegetables used in the dish were modest produce of the farm such as pork, fried pig’s skin, chicken, prawn, radish, yam, bean curd sticks, and dried mushrooms.

煨 . 烩 . 炒 . 炸 . 焖 . 煎 . 煮 . 

The eight techniques found in Pen Cai are simmering, thickening, quick-frying, deep-frying, braising, pan-frying, boiling, and pot-stewing.  These techniques are not only found in Hakka cooking, but are central to Chinese cuisine in general.

煨萝卜 . 烩冬茹腐皮 . 炒猪皮竽头 . 炸鱼饼 . 焖柴鱼烧腩 . 煎虾碌 . 白切鸡 . 卤猪蹄

The eight “dishes” that make up Pen Cai would be cooked using these techniques, singly or in combination. They would then be stacked in this order beginning from the bottom: simmered radish; dried mushroom and bean curd skin; quick-fried pig’s skin and yam; deep-fried fish paste; braised roast pork belly and dried cod; pan-fried prawns; boiled chicken; and caramelized pork trotter pot stew.

Pen Cai etiquette prescribes eating your way down – that is, starting from the top, and finishing it before starting on the next lower layer. In fact, the bottom layers are generally considered the most tasty and “prized”, as they consist of absorbent radishes, mushrooms, and bean curd skins that have been “soaked” for a long period of time in the juices and seasonings of the upper layers!

Today, the Hakka who live in the New Territories in Hong Kong still practice and celebrate Chinese New Year with a massive Pen Cai feast at their village. Not only have they preserved the dish and its traditions, they have also turned it into a cultural event that has received much publicity in the press and television. In fact, these annual Peng Cai gatherings attract hordes of tourists and outsiders eager to witness, and hopefully taste, this great communal dish. Tickets are even sold to these events.

In Singapore, restaurants usually offer the “deluxe” version of Pen Cai as a Chinese New Year celebratory dish. Personally, I much prefer the original version in which the old saying of “the family that eats together, stays together” seems to shine through more powerfully without the frills and fanfare.

You can enjoy the dish at restaurants such as Old Hong Kong Legend, Quan Xin Yuan, Plum Village Restaurant, and Zai Shun Curry Fish Head, which offer their own versions of Pen Cai, without burning a hole in your pocket.

252 North Bridge Road
#02-18/19 Raffles City Shopping Centre
Telephone: 65- 6336 3038

16 Jalan Leban
Telephone: 65-6458 9005

252 Jalan Besar
Telephone: 65-6294 6254

253 Jurong East Street 24
#01-205 First Cooked Food Point
Telephone: 65-6560 8594