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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
Cold ginger chicken — poached chicken dressed in a sort of Chinese salsa of minced ginger, green onion and garlic — is kau kau comfort food.
It's easy to make. It holds well. And it's both filling and refreshing in hot weather, perfect for potlucks, beach meals and entertaining, when you don't want to be stuck in the kitchen.
But how is it made?
Depends on who you ask.
This quickly became clear a few weeks ago when my Chinese cooking muse, 91-year-old Elsie Ching, and her friend Onna Liang invited a group of friends over just before Chinese New Year to learn how to make a few simple dishes.
Liang, whose son owns the new Aloha Barbecue restaurant on Kapahulu, was the official demonstrator.
But Ching — who used to give cooking demonstrations to Isle housewives, has written books on Chinese cultural matters and is known to her friends as a great cook — couldn't just stand and watch.
She had made her version of cold ginger chicken the night before to show us an alternative.
As 11 women crowded into her kitchen — talking, taking notes, helping with the chopping and cleanup in a chaotic but pleasurable babble — we soon learned that everyone has a different idea of how to prepare this seemingly straightforward dish.
The only thing everyone agreed on was how to start the dish (remove the giblets and rinse the chicken with cold water in and out) and how to finish it (cool the chicken in tap water, dry it and refrigerate it). Oh, and the water in the large soup pot has to cover the chicken completely by about 2-3 inches.
Beyond that, there were many differences of opinion:
• Salt. Onna shocked us by adding half a cup of salt to the poaching water. Later, Marylene Chun and I speculated that this is really a form of hot brining. Brining, immersing raw meats in salted water, unscrambles the protein chains and tenderizes.
Onna assured us the meat wouldn't be too salty — "salt does not go in," she said. Surprisingly, she was right.
Others use a great deal less salt — a tablespoon or so. In his "Aloha Hawaii" cookbook, teacher and chef Titus Chan doesn't recommend using any salt.
My own recipe calls for 2 star anise, no salt.
One note: If you add less salt, you can make use of the poaching water in soups or sauces. But with 1/4 cup salt, the poaching water is inedible.
• Cooking time. Onna simmers her chicken for 45 minutes. Elsie insists on half an hour; no more. "I like the bloooood," she said, mimicking a movie vampire. "Chinese people like the blood."
"I'm Chinese," Onna retorted, smiling widely, "and I don't like the blood."
What Elsie meant was that she and others prefer the meat slightly pink, with traces of crimson around the bone. It's not the taste of the blood they're seeking but the very moist texture that comes with slight undercooking.
Onna's chicken emerged white to the bone, but still succulent.
Several others said the route to succulent ginger chicken is to bring the bird just to a boil, then turn off the heat and let the chicken sit in the cooling broth for an hour. This is the way I make it, too.
Yet another guest described chef Chan's technique for keeping the skin from sloughing off the chicken, demonstrating with her hands how he holds the raw, whole chicken by a wing or the neck and dips it into the simmering water, pulls it out, dips it, pulls it out, repeating the dunking until the skin has shrunk and tightened.
In "Aloha China," Chan explains that he then immerses the chicken, brings the water to a boil, turns the heat down and simmers the chicken for 20-25 minutes. The chicken is done, he says, when it floats and the juices run clear when you poke a toothpick in the thickest part of the thigh.
• Post-cooking techniques. Like Onna, he then cools the chicken under tap water and dries it. But he goes a step further, rubbing the chicken with vegetable oil before chilling it. My habit is to use a little sesame oil along with vegetable oil.
Chan employs chicken poached this way for other dishes, including an oyster sauce chicken and a Hong Kong-style dish in which the chicken pieces are wrapped in thin-sliced ham and dressed in an oyster sauce-based mixture spiked with brandy.
• Cutting the chicken. Once the chicken is cooked to your liking, rinsed and dried, there's the cutting up. The Chinese way is to section the chicken (wings, breast, thighs, drumsticks) and hack the cuts into crosswise pieces about 2 inches in width right across the bone. This pieces are then arranged on a platter in the approximate position from which they originated.
However, some people like to bone the chicken in the Western style, so as to avoid dealing with bones and cartilage. If you're cooking just for two, you could use 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken quarters. However, it's important to use bone-in cuts; meat is more tender when cooked on the bone, and more flavorful because of the flavor that leaches from the bone marrow.
The chicken is usually chilled after cutting and served cold but it can be served at room temperature.
• The sauce. Here, we all saw something we'd never seen before: a cooked sauce. Most sauces for cold ginger chicken are prepared raw, but Onna likes to gently saute the sauce ingredients, which for her are just garlic, ginger and flat green chives with a little oil.
She sautes the aromatics in hot oil just until the garlic softens and turns a golden color. Afterward, Marylene and I agreed that this was a technique we would adopt in future; the heat really releases the flavors.
Sauce ingredients do vary. Cookbook writer Chan uses green onion, ginger, salt, a little wine and a lot of vegetable oil.
My recipe includes Chinese parsley (cilantro), salt and pepper in addition to green onion and ginger and ground sesame seeds as well as whole toasted sesame seeds.
Some cooks use a lot of oil in the sauce, floating the ingredients in oil; they may even infuse the oil, heating it gently (do not boil) with the ginger and green onions or chives.
To finish, the chicken pieces are arranged on a platter, often on a bed of cilantro leaves, then coated with the sauce. Leftover sauce can be passed on the side.
And no matter how you prepare it, what comes next is heaven: Eating it all up.
ONNA'S COLD GINGER CHICKEN
• 1 whole chicken, with neck, gizzards and other organs removed
• 1/4 cup Hawaiian salt
• 1 1/4-inch finger of peeled fresh ginger
• 2 cloves garlic
• 5 stalks green onion or chives, about 1 cup, finely chopped
• Peanut oil
• Sesame oil (if desired)
Rinse the chicken in cold running water. Pat dry. In a large soup pot, combine salt and enough water to immerse the chicken by 2-3 inches. Bring to a boil, turn heat down to medium-low and simmer 45 minutes, until juices run clear when a toothpick is plunged into the thickest part of the thigh.
Pour off cooking water. Rinse chicken in cold, running water. Pat dry.
Remove to cutting board and section, then cut, using a heavy, sharp Chinese cleaver. To section: Cut wing off at second joint. Cut wing in half across first joint. Cut chicken in half lengthwise, cutting just to one side of the backbone. Cut off hindquarters and thigh crosswise. Cut off leg. Cut all pieces crosswise across the bone in 3/4- to 1-inch slices. Arrange on platter. Chill.
Make sauce: Process ginger and garlic in food processor until pureed. Add and puree green onion or chives. In a medium frying pan, heat some vegetable oil, peanut oil or a mixture (a few drops sesame oil may be added, if desired). Saute ginger, garlic and green onion just until garlic softens and becomes golden, 1-2 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Taste and add salt, if desired. Pour sauce evenly over chicken and serve.
Nutritional analysis was not available for this recipe due to a lack of specific measurements.
Alternative techniques: Place chicken in water, add salt to taste, bring to a boil, turn off heat and allow to sit, covered, for 1 hour.
OR Place chicken in water, add salt to taste, bring to a boil and simmer 30 minutes. Meat will still be slightly pink.
And you may make a fresh sauce by pulsing ingredients until ground; place in a bowl and add vegetable or peanut oil to taste.