Viet-inspired Chicken Rice

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I was so inspired by the Viet chicken rice in Hoi An that I absolutely had to make my own. I started off on a typical Hainanese chicken rice base. Not having access to the type of chicken (most likely cornfed) that coloured the rice yellow, I improvised by adding turmeric to the rice base. For the chicken, I poached it the Hainanese way. However, the toppings were very much improved with plenty of typically Vietnamese herbage. Even in the absence of Hainanese chilli sauce, I thought this was a winner. It also passed the family test: every grain of rice was gobbled up even though I deliberately cooked more in the hope of leftovers. I can imagine it being even more magical with Hainanese chilli sauce.

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Ingredients:

2 cups rice

1 chicken
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sesame oil

2 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 thumb-length ginger, chopped
4 cloves, optional
1 star anise, optional
1 thumb-length turmeric, pounded

½ carrot, shredded
Thai basil
mint
daun kesom (laksa) leaves
kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
big limes, cut into wedges

Method:

  1. Wash rice and put in rice cooker pot. Measure out how much water you’d put in and keep that amount in mind for the stock to use, about 450ml. (I use the “equal finger” method: stick your finger in the rice, and add water to the same level above the rice.) Now drain the rice and set aside.
  2. Put chicken in pot and cover with water. Heat gently till just boiling and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off fire and leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove chicken and set aside. Keep all stock and juices from chicken. When cool, rub with salt and sesame oil.
  4. Fry garlic, shallot and ginger in oil till fragrant, then add cloves, star anise, cinnamon and fry for a few seconds more. Add rice and fry till it’s dry and glistening.
  5. Transfer to rice cooker and and chicken stock. Squeeze the pounded turmeric over, discarding the dry turmeric pulp. Season with a pinch or so of salt. Cook as normal.
  6. Chop chicken and prepare herbage for serving.
  7. Before eating, arrange chicken on top of rice and top with carrot shreds and herbs. Squeeze the lime over and tuck in.

Serves 4.

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August in China: Xian the Grey

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The overnight train journey to Xian was rather uneventful. I took a middle bunk in a hard sleeper carriage and went to sleep after slurping up the pot of instant noodles I bought at the train station. When I awoke, Xian greeted me in an embrace of grey smog.

I met up with my parents who’d flown in from Shanghai. We started out viewing the few sights in the drab city. The first was the Big Goose Pagoda, apparently built by Journey to the West’s Xuan Zhang for the precious sutras he brought back.

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Next, we cabbed it to the Small Goose Pagoda where we climbed up an endless flight of stairs to reach the top. The 15 storeys seemed like they would never end as we circled up and up. Unfortunately, the view was so awful and underwhelming that I didn’t even bother snapping a photo.

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The rest of the grounds made up for it. There was a lovely garden with ivy-covered archways and a rather impressive museum too. It made a pleasant diversion for the parents in the afternoon and a good break from my usual frenetic pace.

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One thing that perked up the greyness of Xian was how domestic tourists loved to play dress up in the squares. At first I thought there was lots of bridal photography happening that day, but it turned out to be Victorian damsels and Tang dynasty maidens on a fun day out in Xian.

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The main thing that made up for the drabness of the city was its food. Xian, being at the beginning of the ancient Silk Route, has lots of Muslim and Central Asian influence in its food. Here, the cuisine is dominated more by wheat and bread than rice and noodles. There is a large Muslim population and pork is far less common in this area.

I apologise for the poor quality pictures as I was too taken by the food to take any shots of the really good stuff. Below you’ll see the stall selling what looked like pulled pork burgers. The filling is made of waxed beef, wind-dried in lots of fat and similar to how Cantonese lup cheong (sausage) and lup ngap (waxed duck) are made. It’s then stewed and pulled, then slapped into white disks of dense wheat bread. It’s greasy and salty and I’m sure it’ll hit the spot just right as a late night snack.

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There were also some misses of course. Something I just couldn’t understand was the ma hua porridge locals seemed to love for breakfast. Now I really dig the ma hua in Tianjin and Chongqing: the curls of sweet deep-fried sesame dough are so addictive because they are so crunchy and moreish. When they soak it in water and boil it into a kind of salty porridge with starch, I really don’t understand. Note that the picture below shows me before I tried it.

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I just didn’t get the lumps of soggy greasy dough sitting in a starchy goo topped with crispy fried bits and lots of pepper. It seemed like an exercise in incorporating as many types of wheat as possible into the dish without resorting to bread or noodles. Bizarre. Even more bizarre is how they save on washing up by wrapping the bowls in plastic bags first, then slopping the brew into it.

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If you’re at the Muslim Quarter, do try out the fabulous barbecue restaurants. You can either order from the menu of pick from the spread outside. I loved the perfectly charred bits of anise-flavoured lamb skewers and the same done with whole fish.

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I loved the various types of rose-flavoured desserts. There was one called jing zi gao (mirror cake) made of steamed rice flour with rose and red bean filling. It’s a bit like kueh tutu, except miles better. Another one is like a cross between a tangyuan and a donut: glutinous rice dough filled with rose-flavoured red bean paste and then deep-fried. Amazing stuff. No pictures because I gobbled it all up before remembering I had a camera. Next trip maybe.

Low-Fuss Slow-Food Dinner: Pork Pot-Roast in Red Wine Sauce

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There are some lazy days you’re in the whole day and want something good to eat but with minimal fuss. This dish takes a while to make, but the actual kitchen work is almost negligible. It’s the answer to your lazy prayers!

I was inspired by something vaguely German: sausages cooked in red wine and caraway seeds. Being too broke to buy good sausages and too posh to venture anything too downmarket in the sausage department, I went for good ol’ pork shoulder instead. It helped that it was on sale too. Feel free to use sausages, in which case you can cut down the cooking time to 20 minutes instead of 3 hours! Don’t go running out to buy a whole tin of caraway seeds if you don’t have them. Substitute anything with anise flavour like star anise or fennel seeds. You can even use Chinese five-spice  (wuxiang/mm hiong) powder.

Staying on the lazy theme, I couldn’t be bothered to boil the potatoes for mash, so I baked them instead. I like to mash them skin and all because the roasted skin gives a lot of nice texture and I don’t like the hassle of picking the skins out anyway!

The only boiling you’ll need to do is the greens. I use kailan here for its mustardy flavour. It goes amazingly well with the pork. Just give them a quick one-minute scald in boiling water and it’s good to go.

And the wine. I normally use whatever leftover stuff I have in my freezer. But for drinking, try a pinotage. Mine was by Two Oceans (2006) in South Africa. Being very young, it’s a bright red purple with cherry and strawberry in the nose. It’s very juicy with soft tannins and just enough astringency for balance. It’s very easy drinking and quite agreeable with this pot-roast.

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Ingredients:
300 g pork shoulder, cut into large cubes
1 tbsp oil
3 small purple onions, sliced
10 button mushrooms, halved
2 tbsp flour
1-2 cups red wine
2 tsp caraway seeds
salt and pepper

3 floury potatoes (try Russets or King Edwards if you can), scrubbed
1 knob butter

kailan, boiled

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 150ºC and slip a casserole dish in to preheat.
  2. Prick the potatoes with a fork to prevent explosions. You can omit this step if you’re brave or foolish like me.
  3. Brown the meat on all sides in a non-stick pan. Use the highest heat possible. Transfer to preheated casserole dish.
  4. In the same pan, add the oil and fry the onions till a bit burnt in places. Add the mushrooms and let them brown or even burn slightly at the edges.
  5. Then add the flour and stir vigorously till onions and mushrooms are well coated. Do not let burn! Turn down the heat if you need to and stir for about one minute. It’s good if the flour browns.
  6. Add the wine, caraway seeds, lots of ground pepper and a bit of salt. Scrape the bottom of the pan so all goes into the sauce. Pour onto pork and stir to coat. Ensure that the liquid covers at least half the pork.
  7. Cover the casserole dish with the lid and put in the oven for 3 hours. At the same time, put the potatoes directly onto the oven bars.
  8. Check after half an hour that the mixture is bubbling gently, not boiling. Turn down the heat if it’s boiling too vigorously. Stir occasionally if you’re up for it.
  9. Two hours later, retrieve the potatoes. Squeeze them to check that they’re cooked. They should squish slightly. Remember to use an oven mitt.
  10. Immediately transfer to a bowl and squish hard so they fall out and mash a bit with a fork. Add the knob of butter and stir. Cover.
  11. When the pot-roast is ready, take out and serve with the mash and boiled kailan. Try to look civilised as you fall upon your food.

Serves 2.