White chopped chicken, the most common way to cook a good chicken, Cantonese-style.
(Update: I had an interesting conversation with a Chinese cook 9/3/10 on cooking white chopped chicken and he insisted that the boiled chicken must be fully dunked into a bucket of room temp water until it sinks--apparently the chicken floats after it is boiled--which takes about 10 minues. This method is widely practised in Malaysia and Singapore and I'm not sure if they do this in Hong Kong and southern China. My mom, who's from southern China and had lived in Hong Kong for years never dunked her boiled chicken in water.)
I am almost embarassed to post this but I know there is a handful of mostly young people who have no idea how to cook this most popular and common Chinese chicken home dish. White chopped chicken is just boiled chicken--looks white*--that's chopped, not cut, not sliced, to pieces. Easy. And yet not. The easy part is in the boiling but the hard part is getting a chicken good enough to cook this way. The chicken has to be mature (at least 4 months old) and fed on a diet of corn and not processed commercial feed.
The younger generation (to me, that's anyone under 35) has a very different standard for white chopped chicken. Because of Hainan chicken rice, which is made with cheap farmed broilers that are about 8 weeks old, many younger people who have never eaten home-reared mature chickens prefer farmed chicken. They have grown up eating tender, slippery-smooth meat and skin and they don't mind the bland taste and mushy texture of farmed chickens. They don't realise that the savory taste of the chicken comes from the chicken rice sauce and not the chicken. Chicken rice sauce is a blend of soy sauce, oil and msg.
Those of us who grew up eating home-reared chicken search and long for the taste of a home-grown broiler fed on corn. Some may even remember the rare capon (yim gai), a castrated rooster reared specially for CNY. A capon is another class above the mature home-reared broilers. Castrated roosters need to be reared for as long as 7 to 9 months but because they are castrated, they grow big without growing tough and fat deposit is minimal compared to a hen of that age. It is rare to find a castrated rooster now because the skills in castrating a rooster is lost and it is uneconomical to raise a capon because it takes 7 to 9 months, compared to 4 months for a home-reared broiler and 56 days for farmed broilers.
Mature corn-fed chicken is utterly different from the chickens fed on processed feed. Even the color of the meat and skin is different, the home-reared chickens having a shiny yellow skin and pink healthy meat while farmed chickens have white flesh and meat. I would never cook white chopped chicken with a farmed chicken. I go to the ends of the town in search of home-reared chicken if I want to cook white chopped chicken. Home-reared chicken is so special that if you ask the seller how to cook the chicken, she'll without hesitation tell you to boil it. She'll protest in horror if you mention that you'll roast or braise her home-grown chicken. The point is, as any cook will tell you, the better and fresher the quality of an ingredient, the less fuss should be made in cooking it.
In Hong Kong (and the southern part of China, I think), white chopped chicken is served with a ginger and spring onion dip. My parents have always added soy sauce to this ginger-spring onion dip. I used to wonder why my friends' moms and the restaurants in Hong Kong don't serve their ginger-spring onion dips with soy sauce too. I still don't know anyone who does the dip my parents' way. I prefer the dip with soy sauce because it does taste better than with plain salt. In the last few years, I've learnt to add 'sand ginger' to the dip too, a tip from my friend L who gave me a sand ginger plant. Sand ginger has a stronger, different scent than ordinary ginger and perks up the dip beautifully. Two other dips I tend to like eating my plain boiled chicken with are oyster sauce and chili-lime sauce.
Sand ginger grows well in sandy soils and my soil isn't sandy so the ginger is knotty instead of bulbous.
Ginger spring onion dip with salt.
Ginger spring onion dip with soy sauces.
Forget about soaking your home-reared boiled chicken in cold water, as done with Hainan chicken rice chicken. Plain boiled chicken is NOT Hainan chicken. I've learnt that with a 4 or 5 month-old chicken, no matter how long you soak the chicken in, it'll never have the slippery smooth texture of a farmed chicken. It shouldn't. You are to enjoy the sweet, flavorful, wonderful aromatic taste of mature corn-fed chicken in all its meaty, oily, tough glory. You are to chew on the meat, even eat the thick slippery skin and sip the soup the chicken was boiled in and be reminded that the Chinese sure know how to cook well, even if it's just boiled chicken. And if you haven't eaten a real home-reared mature chicken, in my opinion, you have no idea what you are missing.
Don't serve boiled chicken like you would roasted chicken. It needs to be chopped, bones and all, and served with rice. Just in case you have leftovers, sprinkle the chicken with plenty of coarse salt and if like, you can add some Chinese sao xin wine or even brandy. Cover with cling film and store in the fridge. The next day, you can re-heat by steaming or leave it to room temperature. That would be xen ji, salted chicken. I am drooling.
*If you haven't been in the sun and your skin is pale, you'll very likely be labelled a "white chopped chicken".
White Chopped Chicken (feeds 6-8)
1 whole home-reared chicken, at least 2.5 kg with skin on
1. Boil a pot of water. It's good to get a pot that the chicken can just fit into. If the pot's too big, you need a lot of water and the stock will be too diluted for soup.
2. When the water boils, put the chicken in breast-side down. The water should just about cover the chicken. Cover pot. When the water comes to a boil again, lower the heat until the water just simmers gently with low bubbles (boiling the chicken will make it tough). For a chicken of 2 kg, boil for about 10 to 15 minutes, for a 2.5 kg, about 12 to 20 minutes. If, unfortunately, your chicken is younger, then reduce the time by 5 minutes. Switch the fire off and let chicken sit, covered, in the water for about 45 minutes. I use a glass pot so the heat is retained for a long time.
3. Remove the chicken and either a) soak it in a large bowl of ice cold water for 10 minutes to tighten the skin so that it has a nice firm bite b) let cool unsoaked. Chop by first jointing the legs, the wings and the breast, then chop these into smaller pieces. You need a very sharp heavy Chinese cleaver to do a good job.
Serve chopped chicken with this dip:
Ginger Spring Onion Dip
fresh ginger, about 30 to 40 g
a small piece of sand ginger, if available
2-3 stalks of spring onions
1 t salt or 2 T light soy sauce (I like Maggi's) + 1 T dark soy sauce
3 T oil
a few drops of sesame oil if like
1. Scrape the skin off the ginger. The traditional way to mince ginger is to smash it with the flat side of the cleaver and then use the thick blade of the cleaver (the upper side) to mince the ginger finely. This way, the ginger gets minced and smashed at the same time. If you use the sharp side of the cleaver, you'll get minced but hard bits of ginger.
You can use the mortar and pestle but the juice will be pounded out from the ginger.
Cut the spring onions finely. Put ginger and spring onions into a small bowl. Add the salt if using. Some restaurants sneakily add msg too.
2. Heat the oil up until very hot. Drop a small piece of ginger into the oil and if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready. Pour the hot oil over the spring onions and ginger. If not using salt, add the soy sauces now. Add sesame oil if using. Stir well.