I bet at least once in your life you’ve eaten scrambled eggs for dinner, or maybe even a whole stack of pancakes with sausage and eggs, right? You may ask, what am I leading you to? How does this relate to the rice thing in the picture above?
I was just trying to give you a rationale for eating this dish, Khao Man Gai or Chicken Rice, that appeared to most Westerners as a dinner course, (with less intensity), as a morning meal. Yes, we eat Khao Man Gai for breakfast, with garlic and all! (No one is French kissing during the day, right?)
What you see in the above picture has many different names, but it is best known among Westerners by the name “Hainanese chicken rice”. The name Khao Man Gai wasn’t well-known by the chicken rice name until “Nong’s Khao Man Gai” food cart opened in Portland, Oregon. I’ve heard that nowadays she has three locations around the city, proving how popular this dish is.
It of course originates from China, from the smallest province of the PRC, Hainan island. But don’t look at the island as tiny. Hainan province is a big island about the size of Maryland, still 5-6 times larger than Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US. They’re famous for their chickens: the coconut-fed, small but fleshy, free-range chicken with oily skin called Wenchang chicken.
Hainanese cuisine in general isn’t as popular as other mainland or other tribe cuisines, but just this chicken rice dish alone makes the island well-known among Southeast Asians. You will find this dish in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong, too. If you know any other country that also serves this dish, please let me know.
Since it’s served in so many countries, of course each cuisine will add their own twist to it. Most of the twist will be in the sauce, because the chicken itself is already delicious on its own. The dressing is what makes it perfect. The Thais would add (Couldn’t you guess?)…chilies to the sauce. (And yes, we eat chilies for breakfast! That’s why I had to leave the country, before my digestive system collapsed!)
The sauce for Khao Man Gai in Thailand has very strong Teochew influence and uses salted soy bean, or เต้าเจี้ยว, in the ingredients, together with many others, instead of just ginger, garlic, salt and sesame oil, like the original.
This is a simple dish, but you need some time to prep the chicken. I used half a chicken breast with the bones and skin, because I want all the chicken essence and flavor. This is a portion for two people. If you want to cook half or a whole chicken, just follow the whole process with a bigger piece of bird. I would roughly estimate a whole chicken (4-5lb.) is enough for 6 people, but you can save it for the next meal, too.
Ingredients (for 2)
Organic chicken breast with bones and skin on, or quarter leg if you want dark meat (see note #1)
Coarse salt 2 teaspoons
Garlic 3-4 cloves
Ginger (optional) peeled and sliced 1 tablespoon or more (I didn’t use it)
Ingredients for rice
Chicken fat, cut from the piece of chicken above
Olive oil 1 tablespoon
Ginger, peeled and chopped 1 tablespoon
Garlic, chopped 1-1/2 teaspoons
Long grain jasmine rice 1 cup (see note #2)
chicken stock 1 cup, from the water that we used to boil the chicken
Ingredients for sauce (approximate)
Ginger, peeled and chopped 2 tablespoons
Garlic, chopped 1 tablespoon
Salted soy bean paste (or whole) 1 teaspoon, preferably dark in color, but I didn’t have it so I used the light (called yellow) one
Sweet soy sauce 1-2 tablespoons
Soy sauce 1 tablespoon
Black vinegar 1 tablespoon
Lime juice 1 tablespoon
Cilantro, chopped 2 tablespoons
Jalapeno or Serrano chilies, sliced 1 pod (see note #3)
Green onion slices
Method for Chicken (Do this the very first thing)
1) Give the chicken a good spa day by rinsing it quickly and then rubbing the skin with coarse salt. Rub all the dirty stuff off, plucking the hairs out if you see them. Rub every square inch of the chicken that you can touch, inside and outside. If the chicken knew that it would get this good a spa treatment in the afterlife, it would have made a beeline to get an appointment with the butcher.
2) Trim the fat out of the chicken. You can find them under the skin mostly, and a big chunk here and there.
3) Put the chicken in a pot the size of the chicken piece–not too big, because you need all the essence. You don’t want it to be diluted with too much water.
Cover the chicken with water, just enough to cover it, then take the chicken out of the pot. Smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of a knife and add to the water, and bring to a high boil. I happened to have the bones from another piece of chicken breast so I left it in the pot while I boiled the water. I did it just to get extra flavor.
4) Once the water is at rolling boil, put the chicken in, wait until the water is back to a rolling boil again, then close the lid. Now we have two different methods for you to choose.
4.1) My favorite method: After closing the lid, I let it boil at high heat for another 1-2 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the chicken in the hot water for another 40-45 minutes. The hot water still continues cooking the chicken until it is perfectly done inside. This way I will never overcook the chicken.
After 40 minutes, take the chicken out of the pot and use a sharp knife to pierce the thickest part of the chicken, pull the knife out and watch the juice that runs out. If the juice runs clear, the chicken is cooked. Maybe the inside is slightly pink, but it’s ok. If the chicken isn’t completely cooked, the juice will be pink (If it is bloody, you need to let it boil a little longer before turning off the heat next time). If this happens, bring the water back to a boil, drop the chicken in, wait until it boils again, then turn off the heat and leave the chicken in for another 10 minutes.
4.2) If you are afraid to use the first method due to a fear of Salmonella contamination, use this method. After it boiling and closing the lid, lower the heat to medium low and simmer the chicken for another 20-30 minutes. Make sure that the water isn’t bubbling.
Put ice in a bowl that’s big enough to fit the whole piece of chicken with the ice, then add water just to cover the ice.
You can measure the temperature of the chicken breast. Federal food safety information says the safe temperature to make sure that the chicken is cooked is 165ºF. Once the chicken reaches that temperature, take it out of the pot and give it an ice water bath right away to stop the cooking process, so the chicken will not be overcooked.
This method give the chicken skin a gel-like texture. The chicken surely didn’t expect an exfoliating spa, hot jacuzzi bath then cold plunge to tighten the skin…proving that being a dead chicken is better than being a live one.
5) DO NOT DISCARD THE CHICKEN STOCK. We will be using all of it.
Method for the Rice
1) Remember the chicken fat I told you to cut out? Put it in a pot. (This is optional. If you want to opt out from the chicken fat and extra flavor, you can just use vegetable oil.)
and add olive oil and fry over medium high heat until the fat releases all its oil and shrinks down. This will take a few minutes. Then scoop out the crispy fat pieces once it’s drained of all its liquid oil. The pieces are a yummy treat to the cook.
2) Add the rice to the oil contents in the pot and stir-fry.
3) Once all the rice grains are hot, add chopped garlic and ginger, then stir-fry until half of the grains change from translucent to opaque and the garlic and ginger release their fragrance.
4) Add one cup of chicken stock to the rice. Let it reach a boil.
5) Close the lid and reduce the heat to the lowest level. I simmer it for 15 more minutes, or until the rice is cooked.
Method for the sauce
1) I use a mini food processor. I add everything except the chopped cilantro and sliced chilies to the food processor, processing it until well-blended. It doesn’t need to be fine or smooth. If you want it to be extra hot, then add the chilies to the food processor now too.
2) Taste it to see if you like the balance of everything. If not, adjust it. All the ingredient levels are just guidelines.
3) Mix the cilantro and sliced Jalapeno chilies in.
Breakfast is ready! Or you can have it for lunch. When I was living in Bangkok we never ate this for dinner but I’ve start seeing vendors selling Khao Man Gai for dinner now.
1) I would prefer to use a non-previously-frozen chicken, which you can find in the Chinatown in your city, but I’m afraid of the antibiotics and hormones they used in the chickens, so I opt for organic free-range chicken instead.
This dish relies heavily on the chicken, so get the best-tasting chicken you can find in your area. If you ever taste a chicken that was just “killed” (Ewwwww, cruelty talk!) that morning, that would be a good gauge for the taste of the chicken required for this dish. WARNING: If fresh chicken like that isn’t easily accessible to you, then DON’T drive 30 miles to get it. It’s addictive!
I used to have a client in Pasadena that I had to provide consulting to for three months. The trip from my house in West Los Angeles required me to drive past Chinatown. So when I wanted to eat chicken, I just stopped there and bought fresh chicken. The net result was I couldn’t eat chicken from the regular market for months after that. The previously-frozen chicken seems to have no taste left in it.
Truly fresh chicken tastes the best. I wish the Chinese would eat organic chicken someday. You can use whatever is the best choice for you but YOU NEED THE BONES ATTACHED AND THE SKIN.
WHY? (husband drama—he hates chicken skin) This dish needs the essence of chicken. The rice is supposed to smell like the farmer had used chicken soup to grow it instead of water. So you need to extract ALL of the chicken flavors. How can you do that with the chicken breast alone?
To tell you the truth, if I have to use the chicken breast meat without bones or skin, just give me a block of tofu instead!
2) You can use short grain rice if you don’t have long grain rice, but fry it with oil a little longer to eliminate the stickiness of the short grain. You can also use the basmati rice and fry it slightly less time, because basmati is already loose.
3) The original chilies in Khao Man Gai are the spicy Phrik Chee Fah AND Phrik Kee Noo. If you’ve been following me long enough, you know that I can’t eat chilies, especially Thai chilies! So I change the chili in the recipe to the milder degree. If I make it just for myself, I wouldn’t even put them in.
Originally the chilies would be CHOPPED just to get all the heat in the sauce. (Just writing about it gives me goosebumps…Aiya…full heat…) So, this is all up to you. If you like your dishes hot, add more chilies, switch the Jalapeno slice to chopped Serrano or, if you can find the bird eyes chilies (Phrik Kee Noo), go for it
You can also eliminate them completely, too. I put them in because my big boy husband loves chilies. He was probably Thai in a past life. He eats much spicier foods than me these days. He also spices his food with chilies so I can’t touch them!