I just learned a new Japanese word today, kawan kawan – Shoga. It has such a cute sound, almost mellifluous . Now if you think of languages as just a series of sounds, the world we live in becomes a musical. People living their lives, communicating and bonding through songs. Afterall, Shakespeare did pen that the world is a stage. Why not consider it a musical stage?
SS recently told me about something that she’d learnt at school to do with a type of communication amongst shepherds in Spain. In La Gomera, an island in the Spanish Canary isles, a type of whistled language called silbo gomera is still being taught in schools. This musical language consists of at least 4000 words which allows the people of this island, especially the shepherds, to communicate over ravines, narrow valleys and long distances in the island by whistling. Silbo Gomera has been declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009, making this one of the many protected languages in the world.
Shoga, my friends, is the Japanese name for ginger. This medicinal root features predominantly in Asian cuisines. The Chinese use the ginger root to ward off the fishy smell in seafood and to ease bloatedness. The Japanese use pickled ginger as an accompaniment for sushi. Sashimi is never eaten with ginger, by the way. In India, ginger is used to spice up curry sauces and added to tea to help digestion. I love a sauce made of minced or sliced ginger, scallions and salted oil. This was the delicious topping that sat atop one of my sushi pieces in Akasaka. When Debbie K read of this in my post, she immediately told me that this is really a faux pas in Japanese fine dining. Only Les Americaines eat sushi with shoga, she said. She would know, being American herself. Well, in this case, the shoga was mixed with scallions. Double faux pas, I would say!
Well, I do love the stuff as some of you already know. I came across this ginger/scallion sauce in Hong Kong eons ago when I was a slight young girl on my tour to conquer the world. Oh, this brings back tons of beautiful eating memories, kawan kawan. This shoga/scallion/salted oil mixture I encountered in HK sat atop the chicken of the Chicken Rice that I’d ordered. It was in a crowded in-door hawker centre – the air conditioned type that one can find with ease in every corner of Singapore. I wanted some chicken rice – this was served with the chicken on top of a bowl of rice and sitting so poised atop the chicken chunks was the shoga sauce. The Cantonese name for this is Kiong Chong meaning “Ginger Spring Onion”, literally translated. It was a discovery of pure and utter joy.
Inspired by this memory, I decided to cook some Chicken Rice on Monday night. I thought I’d make some Hainanese Chicken Rice, a favourite dish in ma famille. RN loves the rice and boiled chicken drizzled with a sesame oil/soya sauce mix and SS loves this with the special Dark Soya Sauce that accompanies this Singaporean favourite.
Although Hainanese Chicken Rice is eaten throughout Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, where it is known as Khao Man Kai, in Singapore, this dish really originated amongst the Hainanese immigrants who came to the city state at the turn of the century. This dish is based on WenChang Chicken, a type of chicken akin to the Bresse chicken in France and the chicken dish cooked with this chicken that is eaten in WenChang, a major city in Hainan.
The Hainanese language is a very good example of a musical language. Hainanese is a Min-nan language (a family of Chinese language spoken in Southern Fujian and Taiwan) spoken as the mother tongue amongst these islanders.
Back to the business of food. I boiled the chicken in a pot of water together with a head of garlic, a whole rhizome of ginger (meaning, the whole knobbly thing) for 30 minutes. Then I turned off the heat and left the chicken in the broth for an hour to cook in its own heat (lid on pot helps keep the heat in the pot). I read somewhere that this makes the chicken meat tender and moist.
At the end of the hour, I lifted the chicken out and promptly soaked it in cold water. This is suppose to separate the fat from the skin, again moistening the chicken meat. When the chicken was cool enough, I proceeded to debone and chop it up. In Singapore, the chicken rice vendor would have a block of wood where he chops the chicken with a cleaver. He lifts the hand holding the cleaver and brings it down with precision onto the piece of chicken requiring chopping before you can even say ‘Jack Robinson’! It is really fun to watch the man at work, if you’ve never seen anyone use a cleaver before. I think that’s where the phrase ‘chop chop’ came from because it is really an onomatopoeic word denoting quick quick. That’s how the chicken rice man cuts up his chicken – very fast with his cleaver. I couldn’t chop chop my chicken. That would be an accident waiting to happen, besides, I don’t own a cleaver, never having learnt to use one. I just sliced it up and tore some pieces up with my hands, as you’ll probably detect from the oddly shaped chunks on the plate.
Whilst the chicken was cooking, I made ze sauce. It is more salad than sauce, actually. I shredded a piece of ginger with a mandolin, sliced some scallions and mixed the two in oil before finally adding the right amount of salt to taste. Yummms! I tasted it to make sure the combination was perfect before spooning a generous amount on my chicken chunks. More yummms! Look:
This is really not the traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice recipe. I tweaked it a little with this gingery scallion salad. The real one is served with a ginger sauce on the side that is made of minced ginger and oil that has been slightly salted. Because the boiled chicken is rather bland sans sauce, a sesame oil/soya sauce mixture diluted with chicken broth is poured over the meat. That’s the brown sauce you’re seeing in the photo.
The rice in the chicken rice is really the piéce de la résistance. Raw rice is cooked with the chicken broth and a piece of fatty chicken skin. It is supposedly the oil from the chicken that gives the rice its taste. But I always vote for the healthier option. I only used the broth which already has some chicken fat anyway. Here, look:
Of course, the accomplices of flavour are also the ginger, garlic and a couple of pinches of salt.
This is my favourite part of the dish – the rice. I can eat it on its own with chilli, dark soya sauce and of course, the Kiong Chong.
These are the usual suspects in making the Hainanese Chicken Rice such a flavoursome National dish in Singapore:
A note: the chilli is daddy’s secret recipe.
Kawan kawan, if you ever come across a restaurant in Paris that serves Hainanese Chicken Rice, I want to know about it. This will give me something to sing about.
Share your Hainanese Chicken Rice finds around the world. Tell me where you’ve eaten this dish outside of Singapore.