煲仔鸡饭 Cantonese Claypot Chicken Rice
We used to have an eathern stove at home when I was young, fueled by charcoal that could be kept warm for hours, as the hardened chunks of ebony slowly wasted away to become a crumbly ivory, until all that’s left was a disintegrated heap of cinder and ash. But using it could be quite a hassle to use, especially to kickstart the burning. But me ain’t no boy scout, so it was usually my father who “did the honours” to get the fire started. Once started, it served for a myriad of purposes, i.e. toasting belachan (fermentted shrimp paste) to make sambal, maintaining a large pot of broth for steamboat refills, or simply transferring out the charcoal pieces from that stove into a longish rectangular metal trough which was used to prepare kueh belandah (nyonya egg rolls) for chinese new year . In fact, steamboats in the past where fueled by charcoal which were “preheated” using the earthern stove as well! While some of the uses of an earthen stove were somewhat ritualistic, others remained very practical, and for me, the most practical and personal favorite “use” of the earthern stove has to be cooking 煲仔鸡饭 Cantonese Claypot Chicken Rice!
In fact, 煲仔鸡饭 Cantonese Claypot Chicken Rice served in several reputable shops still is being prepared the old way, i.e. cooking everything over a charcoal flame. But it is a rather “slow and steady” process, having to wait for at least 20-30 min at ends before one could enjoy it. But most certainly did not deter food connoisseurs and claypot rice afficianados from the considerable wait, as they swear by the “power” of the charcoal flame which lends the dish its characteristic smokey flavours amongst other “magical” qualities. But it is somewhat unrealistic to replicate this at home, especially in “hazy days” like these. The kitchen gas stove found in modern homes would be much much easier, but no induction cookers please! That’s a tad to “modern” already. And despite the invasion of Corningware into our kitchens couple of decades ago, and more recently, the craze over “Happy Call Pans” from Korea, claypots remain at the very heart of Asian cooking, especially in Chinese cuisine. It is an excellent means to ensure even thermal distribution throughout the dish, as well as piping hot food served from stove directly onto dining table that could be kept warm for a long time. And for its wonderful heat retention property, many have improvised the use of claypots into other signature dishes, e.g. bak kut teh, laksa etc, just to name a few. For Claypot Chicken Rice, the cooking vessel also adds a “special touch” to the dish, i.e. creating the much coveted crusty layer of slightly charred rice at the bottom which provides yet another dimension to the textural profile. When we were young, my sister and I used to bicker over who gets to eat that layer, and often had to resort to an impromptu finger guessing challenge to decide its rightful winner, much to the disgruntlement of our mother of course! So using claypots to cook this dish is a sure must for all. How else would this dish be called if claypots weren’t used?
Our “family recipe” for cooking 煲仔鸡饭 Cantonese Claypot Chicken Rice is a rather ad hoc one. Apart from the standard “quartet” of ingredients, i.e. chicken, chinese sausages, mushrooms and salted fish, other stuff “lingering” in our fridge at the point of cooking had also found their way into the claypots as well! The usual culprits were fishcakes, leftover marinated minced pork from the previous day’s ngoh hiang making, can of braised pork ribs etc. I remembered that bean sprouts were generously used as a “topping” once, added just minutes before the dish was completed, using the remnants of steam and residual heat to just soften the bean sprouts, thus allowing them to retain much of their crunch. It became a somewhat twisted, but wonderfully enriched claypot version of another classic dish 咸鱼银芽炒饭 Salted Fish and Bean Sprouts Fried Rice! Whatever that works right?
So the recipe I’m sharing here is the “standard version” used at home. Feel free to improvise it to suit the palate of your family and friends!
煲仔鸡饭 Cantonese Claypot Chicken Rice (2-3 servings)
5 chicken wings
1-2 lup cheong chinese sausages 腊肠
1 piece salted fish, about index finger length and preferably from ikan kurau (threadfin) 午鱼
6-8 dried chinese mushrooms 香菇
2 cups of rice, Jasmine or any long-grain variety
2 cups of chicken stock (I made this ad hoc with 2 tbsp of shallot oil, 1 cube of Knorr Chicken Bouillon and 2 cups of mushroom soaking water)
2 tbsp oyster sauce 蚝油
1 tbsp dark soy sauce 酱油/老抽
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp pepper
3 cloves of garlic, minced
A small knob of ginger, sliced
2 tbsp of chinese cooking wine, e.g. yellow rice wine 料理黄酒 or shaoxing wine 绍兴酒
A dash of sesame oil 麻油/香油
1 heap tbsp cornstarch 玉蜀黍粉
2 tbsp of dark soya sauce 酱油 or dark caramel sauce 晒油
A stalk of spring onions, jullienned
Mise en Place
Chop chicken wings along the joints into 3 pieces. Retain the drumlet and mid-wing section for marinating. The end tip can be set aside for soups.
Place drumlets and mid-wings into a mixing bowl and add all the ingredients under “marinade”. Give everything a good toss to ensure even coating and set aside for a couple of hours.Periodically give the chicken a quick stir.
Soak chinese mushrooms with water at room temperature. When the mushrooms have softened considerably, remove stalk and squeeze to remove as much soaking water as possible. Halve or quarter the mushrooms depending on size. Retain soaking water for “chicken stock”
Place lup cheong into a bowl of warm water. Soak for a couple of minutes. Make a lengthwise slit just on the surface just to slice open the membrane casing and not to cut the sasauge right through. . Pull the membrane along the length of the sausage to remove and discard. Slice the sausages diagonally. Set aside.
Rinse salted fish to remove excess salt crystals on it. Dice into small pieces. Set aside
Rinse rice and set aside.
Add rice and chicken stock into claypot.
Turn on flame, bring mixture to a fast boil and lower flame to low, lid on and allow to simmer. Stir the mixture once in a while to make sure that the bouillon cube is well dissolved and incorporated.
When the rice is about half-cooked (appro. 5-7 min later), quickly but carefully lay the chicken pieces and ginger slices from the marinade over the rice, followed by salted fish, mushrooms and chinese sausages.
Turn to the lowest flame possible and allow it to continue to simmer. By now, the smoky flavours would start to become apparent.
When the steaming through the vent on the lid has somewhat subsided. Remove lid and drizzle in half of the chicken wing marinade over the top. Cover with lid again rapidly. It would begin to produce more steam from the marinade.
When the steaming has once again subsided, turn off flame. Remove lid and check that the chicken pieces have just cooked through. If not, simply cover and let the claypot sit for another 5-7 min allowing the residual heat to cook everything through.
Just before serving, garnish with spring onions and a generous drizzling of dark soya sauce and give everything a good toss.
Like mentioned earlier, there could be many variations to this simple one-pot dish. One of my personal favorites is using 润肠 yuen cheong, i.e. liver sausage . Its flavours are much more robust than the regular lup cheong but alas, I ran out of them and didn’t get any during my recent trip to Hong Kong. Next time probably.
Unlike some other recipes I’d read, the chicken amongst other ingredients were not “semi-cooked” in a wok prior to being added over the claypot rice as it has never been a habit for my mum to do so. Hence, timing is of utmost crucial pertinence to get it right. Add the chicken pieces too late and they would not be able to cook through fully. Increasing cooking time would burn the rice too much, instead of the slight charring we are after for thr crusty effect. So its quite a delicate balance we are looking at here. Turn down the lowest flame possible after the rice has come to its initial boil. This allows more control over the cooking. And maintain a watchful eye over the pot to make sure that there is sufficient water left when the rice is cooking, as this is the gauge of how much cooking time is left for the chicken and sausages. One litte trick one could employ is to embed the chicken pieces into the rice by nudging them in with the back of a spoon. But this risks squashing the rice grains beneath making them slightly mushy. The chinese sausages must stay right on the top of everything as they are merely steamed and not parboiled. This allows any fat and juices that seep out from the sausage pieces to drip onto the imgredients below, imparting all those wonderful flavours.
The rice grains should be just still be separated and not mushy. This is why jasmine, or other long-grain varieties are used. short-grains or pearl-grains tend to be too starchy and would become too sticky when cooked and affect the overall texture.
Chinese greens like bak choy or kai lan (and of course the bean sprouts I’d mentioned earlier!) can also be laid over the top of all the ingredients to be steamed but the cooking time can vary quite a bit with bean sprouts the shortest and kailan the longest. All these can be adjusted with experience!
This is a truely enjoyable dish for the whole family over the dinner table. An excelllent soup pairing would be watercress and pork rib soup, to clear the palate a bit after a hearty meal.