FOR HALF A CENTURY, Malaysians and Singaporeans have been fighting over the ownership rights to a dish called Hainan chicken rice, the star element of which is chicken lightly poached in a way that makes the flesh very white and tender. And of course the people of Hainan also stake a claim to it, noting that it’s based on their bird, the wenchang chicken.
But without wanting to turn a three-way battle into a four-way fight, we need to add some more history to this story: and another location!
ROOTS IN CHINA
The dish clearly has its roots in China. All sides will agree on that. Food historians say a breed of chicken called the wenchang, common on Hainan Island, was the ideal meat for the dish, and people who emigrated to Singapore or Malaysia took the recipe with them, where it become popular. Some scholars trace it to a specific Singapore food stall who served in from 1949 onwards, while others point to Malaysian equivalents. Government ministers and high level people in those countries have staked claims on the matter.
For our part, we can certainly agree that Singapore and Malaysia can own the modern incarnation of the dish, served with its soup-cooked rice and sides of ginger and lime.
A RELATED DISH
But we dare to mention that there is a very, very similar way of cooking chicken–also soft poached and also dipped in ice water–that dates back to the Qing Dynasty, and is still popular in southern China, especially Hong Kong.
The very popular dish called “white cut chicken” (白切雞) in Hong Kong and much of Southern China is lightly cooked and cooled before being chopped into pieces just before being served. The meat is very tender and the skin somewhat chewy.
Today, many people in Hong Kong probably assume it is a local dish – you see it any siu mei (cooked meats) shop.
However, the original home of this wide-known dish was not this bustling city.
BLACK SPOTTED CHICKEN
Qingyuan (清遠), a small town located in the north of Guangdong Province, is the place that scholars say was where white cut chicken first appeared. Nestling in the Pearl River Basin, Qingyuan has a unique local species, the black-spotted chicken (清遠麻雞), which is used for the dish – it is smaller and the meat is more tender than other types of bird.
The earliest record of black-spotted chicken consumption emerged in the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279), which suggests Qingyuan has a breeding history of more than a thousand years.
A matured chicken essence soup is used as a base for the dish. As soon as the chicken soup is boiled, you throw some mashed ginger and chopped scallion into it till some “shrimp eye” bubbles appear, sticking to the bottom of the pot. This is considered the sign that water has reached the best temperature for cooking meats, 70 to 80 degrees Celcius (and also for preparing tea).
While boiling the chicken soup, the chef removes the lungs and pours out the blood of the black-spotted chicken and puts them aside. Then it is time to make a special condiment sauce. Chop some ginger into a sauce dish, pour a big spoon of hot peanut oil into it, and add half a teaspoon of refined salt into the mixture. This light condiment will upgrade the flavor while preserving the original texture of the meat.
Noting the presence of the shrimp eye bubbles, the chef will hold the head of the cleaned chicken in one hand and soak the body in the hot soup for two minutes. Then he pours the soup out of the chicken cavity while scooping the liquid onto the chicken skin to baste it. Repeat this procedure three or four times, and then replace the chicken again into the soup again until just cooked. Lift it out and put it into ice water as quickly as possible to make the meat and skin retain the best texture and firm up the jelly in between.
Timing is a vital factor that will largely influence the texture of meat. Authentic white cut chicken must be cooked just before serving. Thus the chef has to pay attention to the moment he or she sees the chicken leg make an upward contraction—and that marks the right level of cooking, which could be said to be medium-well-done, to borrow the language of steak.
POET’S FAST FOOD
Yuan Mei (袁枚), a poet and gastronome in the 1700s, said: “The white cut chicken is the perfect match for various Chinese white liquors. When I go hiking in the countryside, eating some tender chicken in the inns beside the road is quite delightful. For inn-owners, white cut chicken is also an efficient dish that only needs a few minutes to cut into pieces after ordering.”
Because it is relatively lightly cooked, it’s a quick dish to prepare.
HONG KONG TRADITION
Meanwhile, white cut chicken remains highly popular today in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. It plays an irreplaceable role among the Cantonese meat dishes which normally favor barbecued or roasted meats such as duck, pork and goose. White cut chicken adds an unusual element, because it has a tender, steamed feel to it.
Along the streets and even in the college canteens of Hong Kong, lines of whole chickens are hung behind the glass windows of siu mei stores, shining in a mouth-watering light-yellow color.
Listening to the sound of sharp knives chopping the meat on the bamboo board, customers in the waiting line feel their appetite whetted. The natural flavor of the tender chicken has become a taste of home for Cantonese people. But it also remains a cultural symbol of the small town of Qingyuan and the whole of the Lingnan region of southern China.
As for the similarity between this dish and Hainan chicken, well, let’s just say that Malaysia, Singapore, Hainan and Qingyuan have all produced varieties of tender poached chicken, and they’re all good eating!
Image at the top by Zosia Korcz on Unsplash