Perfecting Hainanese Chicken Rice at home using the Sous Vide method

Monday, October 01, 2012



When my Malaysian relatives visit me here, they are a very difficult lot to please when it comes to our street food.

However, there is one dish which leaves them stumped in silence and reluctant, quiet praise: Singapore's famous Hainanese Chicken Rice (HCR).

Poached to perfection, the best versions in the world are found here on this little island.
The meat is flavourful, succulent and taste even better when served chilled on a plate of steaming fluffy Thai Jasmine rice flavored in chicken stock. The delicate skin with gelatin underneath glide smoothly into your mouth with every bite. Accompanied by a good plate of fresh garlic chilli, ginger sauce, thick black sauce and coriander leaves, it is a local and sublime experience.

It is an office lunch staple and no food court can go without at least one HCR stall. Some versions come deboned, which enhances the eating experience as you bite right through the layers of skin, gelatin and succulent meat in one go, releasing the subtle textures and flavours together.  

Singapura Oh Singapura. Sunny island set in the sea, this dish is made for you and me. (*Cringe*)

Now, if good HCR can be found everywhere, why bother to cook it at home?

I wonder too.

Cost? Perhaps. It is cheaper to cook it at home. If you are feeding more than a few heads, it may make sense to cook a bird or two for them. Some popular stalls can charge as much as four times for this. 

Far from home? You are living in the cold of winter New York. You dream of Loy Kee, Wee Nam Kee and Boon Tong Kee, uttering their names even in your sleep. You struggle to explain to your adoring American husband that these are not your ex Chinese boyfriends. Sigh, you know you miss this sunny island and you just have to recreate this piece of Singapura.

Or perhaps you prefer your own version. Less fat in the rice, which happens to be one of my regular complaints of HCRs here. Good for the first few monthful of rice but leaves you feeling heavy post-meal.

Why would I cook it? For a start, the joy of cooking of course. However, when it came to this, I almost chickened out. I will briefly explain why.

Assuming you are starting with a good bird, there are only two key steps to good HCR:

Step 1: Cooking the meat just right.
Step 2: Shock the meat in ice after cooking to smoothen and "jellify" the skin and for the gelatin (if any) underneath to form.
Step 1 is where the challenge is: heat control. 

I have read some good detailed recipes and all will recommend some sort of in-out, hot-cold, fire on-off, chicken-pot action. You need to hook up the chicken as you keep pulling it out and dunking it again. You will need at least three pots - hot water, room temp and cold water.

In, out. In, out. This, that, that, this that and that this again.

It's funny. Good thing the chicken is long dead before you HCR it. I can visualise the image of a gasping chicken, struggling for air and coping with extreme bath water temperatures, ranging from steaming hot to freezing.

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To run away from the Hainanese cook.

I get a headache reading recipes like these. Even if you follow the recipe religiously, your chicken may not come out right depending on its size, breed and age. My mum did not cook it regularly except for festive occasions and even then, often I find it a tad overcooked (as no one likes to see red in their chicken). It was etched in my mind that this dish does not allow for much margin of error. Overcook your HCR and it is ruined.

The Sous Vide Magic controls the temperature by
controlling the rice cooker
Sous Vide tipped the scale for me.

Heston Blumental (the famous Fat Duck chef), while explaining a recipe on Youtube, once made a side remarks on our version of Hainanese Chicken Rice, saying that the poaching method is akin to using Sous Vide. He is right. This "slow and low" method of cooking is an ancient culinary technique in Chinese cooking i.e, the ceramic double boilers for soups.

All the traditional pot-chicken action aims for one thing: controlling the cooking heat transfer as it works through the whole chicken. Unless you cook this regularly with the same utensils and chicken breed/size, it can be difficult. And chicken comes with parts which respond differently to cooking (= heat and time). Larger birds poses the challenge of ensuring even cooking throughout.

Here is where SV comes in very handy. It improves the temperature control, adding greater precision to the process. There is also significantly less cooking attention time as you leave the SV to do the work. This method also ensures that the whole bird - i.e. every part - is cooked optimally or perfectly.

I sum up the recipe this way:
  1. Sous Vide poach the the chicken for 90 minutes at 76°C. Note: You do not need to vacuum-pack the chicken. Let it poach in the stock. If you are using Sous Vide Magic, the sensor is food-safe. The temp and time can vary according to the size and age of chicken.     
  2. Ice-shock the poached meat. 
  3. Slice and serve.   
If you are squeamish about pink meat (nothing wrong with some pink at the thigh meat), make incisions at the thigh areas to ensure greater cooking penetration.

You want to cook the thigh meat just right without over-cooking the breast parts. You need to experiment yourself to work out your own preferred method. I find separating it into parts makes for easier handling and easier fit in the pot. But it will also work if you prefer to cook the chicken whole. Here is the detailed recipe, with some added steps (e.g. brining) if you want to work at perfecting it. 

Sous Vide Hainanese Chicken Rice Recipe

Ingredients
1 med- large size chicken

For the stock:
6 litres of water
1 large white onion - sliced
2 cloves of garlic
2 inches of ginger - sliced
Coriander root and stem - crushed
Pandanus Leaves
2 stalks of lemon grass
1 tsp of salt
1 tsp of fish sauce
3 pieces of star aniseed
1 roll of cinnamon

Note: the herbs and spices here are optional. Lemon grass, bay leafs and other herbs will work too.

Garnishing
Scallions (Spring Onions)
Coriander leaves

Chicken Sauce:
2 stalks of coriander roots/stem
2 stalks of scallion
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp Soy Sauce
1 tsp Fish Sauce
1 tsp pure Oyster Sauce 
A few Crystal Sugar

Chilli Sauce
Fresh chillies
Ginger, grated
Garlic, chopped
Thai Lime Juice, squeezed (duh!)
Sugar

Additional Sauces (optional)

Dark Soy Sauce
Ginger sauce: Ginger - grated, Coriander stems - finely chopped, Sesame Oil, Scallions, some chicken Sauce

Method

Preparing the chicken
  1. Prepare the poaching stock. Simmer for 20 minutes.
  2. Let the stock cool to warmer temp and poach the chicken using Sous Vide. 90 minutes at 76°C. 
  3. Prepare a pot with iced water. Ice-shock the chicken.
  4. Use the stock to cook your rice (1:1 proportion), leaving the rest (if any) to serve as soup. Add more pandan leaves into the rice pot.
  5. To prepare the soup, you can simmer it further and adjust the taste.  
  6. When the chicken is cold, slice, pour some "chicken sauce" over it and serve. 
The flavourful rice 
Preparing the Sauces
  1. Chicken Sauce: This is worth the effort to make as it is delicious not just for the chicken, but the rice as well. Heat up some sesame oil and fry the chopped coriander stem/roots and scallions for 2-3 minutes. Add soy sauce, crystal sugar, 2 cups of the chicken stock, fish sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside. While this may seem like another list of ingredients, just use whatever you have. Taste to adjust.
  2. Chilli Sauce: You can buy some good bottled ones from the store. For the joy of cooking, making it yourself is a no-brainer. Blend chillies. Add the spicier variety (small chilli padi) if you prefer. Add garlic, grated ginger, sugar and lime juice. Taste and adjust. Don't cook the chilli sauce. Keep it "fresh."
  3. Special Ginger sauce: This is very nice option to serve and great with both meat and rice. My mum makes this often. Heat up some sesame oil. Fry the Coriander stems, scallions (white and green) and ginger for 2-3 mins. Add some 'chicken sauce.'
  4. Dark sauce: I love Kwong Woh Hing dark sauce. If you want to make this in your home, then I will say that the joy of cooking may have drove you insane. :)
Condiments, clock-wise from left: Fresh Chilli Sauce, Coriander Leaves, Scallions,
"Chicken Sauce", Ginger Sauce and Cucumber
 Additional Notes
  1. If you do not have a Sous Vide appliance, then roll up your sleeves and use the traditional method. Just google and you will see some good recipes around (I like this one). You can also try "ghetto" Sous Vide methods, i.e use a cooking thermometer and device ways to keep the water at the range of 70-75°C. If not, just spend US$160 and order the Sous Vide Magic controller. I have some info here
  2. You can add the additional step of brining the chicken. I have written post on the benefits of brining meat here. It will add flavour (some saltiness) to the meat and mositen it. Use enough water to ensure the chicken is submerge. Use 5-10% salt solution (10%= 100 gms to 1 litre). Now some salt are saltier and you have to experiment. Leave it in the pot to brine for about 2-4 hours. If you are rush for time, you can skip this as for this dish, the poaching phase is already akin to brining. 
  3. As you are using the SV water bath to poach the chicken, flavour the stock well. The best is to use fresh chicken parts to make the stock with some additional stock concentrates. Do the stock well, not just to ensure that the chicken flavour is good, but that the rice turns out fragrant.  
  4. As for the breed of chicken to use, of course you have to decide what you like. The larger ones will taste better. It is best to buy from the wet market. I have been researching on our chicken supply and will let you know on some of the better breeds to use.
  5. Improve your skills at chicken slicing and it is not difficult to debone it. 
The breasts meat were very tender and moist. I knew my family liked them because these parts were gone in a jiffy. The rice was awesome: flavourful but not "fatty." Overall, my family enjoyed it very much and this will be a regular fam favourite.

It is not difficult to make this, especially if you are using Sous Vide. Even if you don't, I hope you find these tips helpful. It is all about temperature control, whatever method you may use. I will be blogging some additional posts on this recipe from my further experiments and using different temps and chicken breed.

Additional notes: Some readers have recommended heating up the pot, put chicken in, close lid and close off the fire. After an hour or more, the chicken will be done. This is worth noting. However, if you have SV, it just means that you have greater control over the cooking process and can vary size of your pot, no. of chicken with some confidence that the outcome will be similar. 

 

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21 comments

  1. A friend gave me a tip for cooking the chicken. I have tried that a few times and the results were pretty constant.
    - Bring water to boil and add a teaspoon of salt
    - Fully submerged mid size chicken
    - Cover pot with lid and turn off the fire
    - Chicken is nicely cooked in 2 hrs.

    Thanks for your post, love it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm using a SV Supreme, and will definitely give this method a go. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do give me feedback on how the temperatures and timing work for you. I think the chicken can be cooked whole at one go.

      Delete
    2. Better use vacuum bag method because unlike rice cooker/SVM method, SVS's pot is built-in and very hard To clean after.

      Delete
  3. Sounds great, I've always wondered how sousvide chicken rice would turn out and I'll probably trying this when my svm comes. One question though, is your chicken poached straight out of the fridge?

    ReplyDelete
  4. One key benefit of sous vide is repeatability.
    Once you have worked out your preferred temperature and time, you can duplicate the desired results every time. That's consistency! Restaurant owners anyone?
    Another key benefit: safety.
    Right now, people judge safety by sight and taste: color and texture of the meat.
    You can cook chicken at 60 degeree C for 1 hour (10 mm thickness according to douglasbalwin's pasteurization T/T table for poultry). It may look raw and taste raw but perfectly safe to eat.

    Now this is a new application everyone can use:
    Pasteurize and tenderize your meats (pork, chicken, beef)first and use them in recipes like grilling and wok stir-frying without worrying whether they are cooked through or not.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I tried it out via diy sous vide, it was good! Thanks for the recipe!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Love your method.

    I make my sous vide chicken rice slightly different. I break down the chicken and use the bones for the stock. (Stock is pressure cooked for 1 hour with similar ingredients, although i go slightly heavier on the oniony type aromatics. )

    I sous vide the chicken separately. The breast at 60C for 1 hour, dark meat at 65C. I'm still toying around with the dark meat temperatures.

    Rationale for my method - I can work the different components (stock, chicken, rice) at different times. In other words, I can make the stock in advance and worry about the rest of the items during service. I also feel it would allow for more precise control over the done-ness of the white and dark meats.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I try your recipe and it was great chicken rice. I miss the Ipoh chicken rice and this is so much better because it taste great and healthy.
    Thank you so much for the recipe.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi,
    Can u please advise what's the size of the rice pot u used? What size do u recommend tht i should buy?
    I'm going to order online a SV MAGIC - cos I want to try out ur SV recipes!! They look so awesome delicious!

    Chelsea

    ReplyDelete
  9. Chelsea

    A simple 5-litre pot should work. Depends on what u intend to cook.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi FoodCanon,
    For starters - I want to try cooking ur SV Hainanese chicken rice / Soya sauce chicken / SV char siew. ( Needs to fit a 1.8kg whole chicken for my family of four )
    Btw - did u COVER the rice pot with rice pot lid during the entire 1 hr cooking process?

    Thanks n regards,
    Chels

    ReplyDelete
  11. This is by far the best looking hainanese chicken I've seen! Thanks for sharing the recipe. Definitely worth a try :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great info, but just one comment...

    If you are squeamish about pink meat (nothing wrong with some pink at the thigh meat), make incisions at the thigh areas to ensure greater cooking penetration.

    I am new to sous vide, but I thought the point of slow cooking is to make sure the whole thing (outside as well as inside) has reached a certain temperature AND for a certain amount of time so enough bacteria, etc. has been minimized so the food is considered safe to eat. As such, if you are playing around with greater cooking penetration, that means the inside has not reached the set temperature (0 sec hold at the safe temp) so it is unsafe to eat.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "If you are squeamish about pink meat (nothing wrong with some pink at the thigh meat), make incisions at the thigh areas to ensure greater cooking penetration."

    I mentioned this as locally (S'pore and M'sia), many are ok with having some pink in their thigh meat for this dish. If the chicken is already infected with salmonella bacteria, I think you have to overcook the chicken to be completely safe, which of course destroy this dish.

    ReplyDelete
  14. "If the chicken is already infected with salmonella bacteria, I think you have to overcook the chicken to be completely safe, which of course destroy this dish."

    That's actually not true. Salmonella is probably present in every raw piece of chicken you cook, it's the heat that destroys it (hence why there is a minimum time for every different temperature). Douglas Baldwin is an excellent resource for pasteurization times. http://www.douglasbaldwin.com/sous-vide.html#Poultry_and_Eggs

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thanks, Nexus. Let me recheck my sources of info.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi just a clarification for the chicken sauce. In your recipe you said to add 2 cups of chicken stock? Isn't that a lot since this is just a sauce?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Darren - Hi. Up to you actually, re how much sauce you want to make. Taste & adjust along the way...

    ReplyDelete
  18. Maybe I’m blind, but I can’t see how much water to use with the poaching stock ingredients. I hope you see this and answer because I am anxious to replicate this wonderful dish that I had in Singapore.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Thanks for adding the water!

    ReplyDelete

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