“Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral.”
~ Frank Lloyd Wright
Today we had a birthday celebration for Nick’s grandma, and everyone brought a dish. Nick’s grandma is a self-taught master chef – last year, Nick was lucky enough to learn how to make her famous naw mai fawn (sticky rice) – but since it was her birthday, we didn’t want her to cook. She requested Chinese food, so it was fun for everyone to make a Chinese dish, and try to live up to Grandma’s quality of cooking.
Although Bok Jum Gai is one of my favorites, I had never made it before. It’s supposed to be pretty easy – if you ask any Chinese mother, she’ll say something like, “Oh, you just boil water with some salt, put the chicken in, turn it off and let it sit for an hour”. As for the sauce, “You cut up some ginger, add salt, green onion, and hot oil, and mix it all up.” A lot of Chinese home cooking is this way. “Cut up one green onion stalk” as opposed to “1 tbsp scallion, thinly sliced”. “About a palmful of salt” instead of “two tablespoons of salt”. As with all cooking, once you’re comfortable making a dish, you get a feel for it and don’t have to measure, and don’t need a recipe.
Well, since this was my first time making this dish, I wanted a recipe. I found one here:
1 whole chicken, 4-5 pounds
3-4 big chunks of ginger (1-inch thick), peeled and smashed
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 tablespoons Kosher salt, plus more to season the chicken
1 tablespoon sesame oil
4 tablespoons scallion, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, grated
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable oil
The ingredients were easy to get, and not complicated. I picked up the chicken, some ginger, and a bunch of green onions and I was set.
To start, I rinsed the chicken inside and out and patted it dry. I rubbed the inside and outside with salt, and let that sit in the fridge for an hour while I prepped the other ingredients.
The recipe calls for half of the ginger minced, and the other half grated, and notes a Microplane is a great tool for this job. After peeling the knob of ginger I was going to use (a little trick: to peel ginger easily without waste, use a spoon!), I minced part and grated part. Then I washed, dried, and thinly sliced the green onions. The ginger, green onions, and salt all went into a heatproof dish.
I put enough water in a pot to cover the chicken, turned the heat on high, and added the smashed ginger pieces, garlic cloves, and salt. When the water was boiling, I put the chicken in, breast side up, and covered the pot. When the water returned to a boil, I turned the heat down to low and set the timer for 45 minutes. When the timer went off, I flipped the chicken over and set the timer for another 45 minutes. After that, it was done!
I took the chicken out (lifting it with two wooden spoons under the wings so the cooking broth would drain out of the cavity) and placed it on a platter to rest. Then, I heated the oil for the sauce in a small saucepan. When that just started to smoke, I put the dish of ginger, green onions, and salt on the range as well, and poured the hot oil into the dish, releasing and melding the flavors of the other ingredients together and creating this magical topping that I love so much.
We were running late to the dinner, so we brought everything over as it was, and one of Nick’s aunties cut the whole chicken up for us, Chinese style. I have yet to do that (it’s really cool, but somewhat intimidating – you basically use a cleaver and chop straight through, bones, cartilage and all – it takes precision not to make a mess of an otherwise beautiful dish).
The finished product:
*Side note: In my haste to get to dinner, I forgot to rub sesame oil on the chicken after taking it out of its bath, as the recipe called for. I love the flavor of sesame oil and I think it would have made this even better. Next time I make it, I won’t forget that step. I’ll probably add just at touch more salt to the cooking water.
As I said before, I love this dish. It’s comfort food. It is made from simple ingredients, but they come together to form something fantastic. The tenderness of the chicken, the bite of the ginger, the freshness of the green onions, and of course the salt and oil enhancing it all – it’s just … good.