Mas­ter­class

This sur­pris­ingly sim­ple dish re­wards a lit­tle at­ten­tion to de­tail with a lot of flavour, writes Tony Tan.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

Hakka salt-baked chicken.

It’s not a dish

you come across in many Chi­nese restau­rants, but if you haven’t tasted salt-baked chicken (yan ju ji, in Man­darin), you’re in for a treat.

It has had a fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney around the world. It all be­gan with a group of Chi­nese who fled their homes in cen­tral China al­most 2,000 years ago and, over cen­turies and af­ter waves of mi­gra­tion, fi­nally set­tled in the high­lands around Meizhou in Guang­dong prov­ince and Yongding in Fu­jian prov­ince.

Viewed by the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion with sus­pi­cion and at times hos­til­ity, these no­mads were known as the Hakka, mean­ing guest fam­i­lies. Im­bued with a hardy spirit and gritty tenac­ity, they cul­ti­vated lands no one wanted, and a cer­tain fru­gal­ity de­fines their cook­ing. Salt, pick­les, pre­served greens and soy sauce fea­ture ex­ten­sively in their home-spun dishes. Over the cen­turies, the Hakka peo­ple have mi­grated over­seas, too, mostly to South East Asia, but as far as Ja­maica and Peru.

While they’ve adapted their food with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents in the coun­tries where they’ve set­tled, one dish has re­mained faith­ful to the Hakka spirit: salt-baked chicken. Leg­end has it that it was in­vented in the homes of salt mer­chants. Buried in hot salt to bake, the bird has a clar­ity of flavour that’s pure magic. But, as with many straight­for­ward dishes, suc­cess re­lies on some es­sen­tial con­sid­er­a­tions. For starters, the dish has few em­bel­lish­ments so a good or­ganic, truly free-range chicken is es­sen­tial

Tra­di­tion­ally coarse rock salt is heated in a hot wok un­til it takes on the char­ac­ter­is­tic smoky fra­grance, or wok hei, for the chicken to ab­sorb when it’s baked (I’ve skipped this step here and heated the salt in an oven).

To en­hance the flavour of the chicken, it’s typ­i­cally mar­i­nated with spring onions, good five-spice pow­der, Shaox­ing rice wine and the all-im­por­tant fresh sand gin­ger ( Kaempfe­ria galanga). The fra­grance of this mem­ber of the gin­ger fam­ily is like a cross be­tween white pep­per and gin­ger. Called sha jiang in Man­darin and ken­cur in In­done­sian, it’s hard to find fresh, but it’s sold dried in pieces or ground in good Asian gro­cers.

I first learnt how to make this dish years ago from my brother-in-law, who

was taught by a Hakka neigh­bour. Along with the usual spices, he also placed dang gui, Chi­nese an­gel­ica root, in the cav­ity, and wrapped the chicken with lo­tus leaves to add their fra­grance. He then baked the bird in a mas­sive clay pot over a char­coal bra­zier. He’d shred the cooked chicken and serve it with a few dip­ping sauces such as the gin­ger and spring onion sauce here.

Since then, I’ve kept faith­ful to the tra­di­tional tech­nique, though here I bake the chook in an oven. It may not be as soul­ful and au­then­tic, as some purists would ar­gue, but I’ve re­tained the sand gin­ger. I also usu­ally heat some of the salt in a wok for the fra­grance (if I’m not do­ing it all in the wok) and bake the rest in a hot oven. Then I wrap the mar­i­nated chicken with non-stick kitchen pa­per and co­coon it in the hot salt to bake.

While the chicken is bak­ing, I make the gin­ger and spring onion sauce with a mor­tar and pes­tle. I also squeeze some lemons for juice, which I of­fer sep­a­rately as an­other dip­ping sauce.

Once the chook is cooked, rest it and al­low the salt to cool a lit­tle, then brush it off care­fully, un­wrap the lay­ers of pa­per and savour the mouth-wa­ter­ing fra­grance of this buried trea­sure.

Bak­ing in a salt crust is a culi­nary tra­di­tion that spans many cul­tures. What in­ter­ests me is how the Hakka peo­ple came to learn this cook­ing method, and why it has stood the test of time. The sec­ond part of the ques­tion is eas­ier to an­swer: it works so well. The salt crust in­su­lates the chicken from di­rect heat, thus yield­ing the most evenly cooked, juicy bird.

In­ter­est­ingly, few Chi­nese restau­rants fea­ture this de­lec­ta­ble dish. Those that do tend to take a short­cut and steam or poach a brined chicken, which is not the real thing. Once you’ve made this recipe, I’m cer­tain you’ll re­turn to it again and again.

STEP BY STEP

1 For gin­ger mari­nade, squeeze the juice from gin­ger through muslin into a large bowl (dis­card solids). Add re­main­ing in­gre­di­ents and ½ tsp salt and stir to com­bine. 2 Re­move and dis­card the fat from the chicken cav­ity. Rinse chicken in­side and out and pat dry with pa­per tow­els. Place spring onion in­side the cav­ity, then place chicken in the bowl or on a plate and brush all over wtih mari­nade and spoon some into the cav­ity. Re­frig­er­ate un­cov­ered for 2-3 hours.

3 Two hours be­fore cook­ing, re­move the chicken from the re­frig­er­a­tor to bring it back to room tem­per­a­ture. Place two 30cm x 60cm sheets of bak­ing pa­per on a bench to form a cross and place the chicken in the cen­tre. Rub oil all over the bird and spoon mari­nade into the cav­ity. Wrap it in pa­per to form a par­cel, en­sur­ing there are no gaps, and se­cure with kitchen string. 4 Pre­heat oven to 220C. Spread salt on a bak­ing tray and bake un­til very hot (30 min­utes). Test heat by in­sert­ing a knife into the salt for a few sec­onds, then re­move. If the blade is hot to touch, the salt is ready.

5 Care­fully trans­fer a quar­ter of the hot salt to a large Chi­nese clay­pot or casse­role, push­ing some up the sides. Place chicken breast-side up in the cen­tre and cover com­pletely with re­main­ing hot salt. Spray warm wa­ter over the top, cover with a lid and bake for 1 hour 15 min­utes. Rest chicken in the casse­role for 10 min­utes.

6 Mean­while, for gin­ger-spring onion dip­ping sauce, pound gin­ger and spring onion to a coarse paste with a mor­tar and pes­tle. Stir in oil and sea­son to taste with su­gar and salt.

7 Care­fully tip out the salt cov­er­ing the chicken and un­wrap it. Pierce the thigh with a skewer to check the bird is cooked; the juices should run clear.

8 Trans­fer chicken to a chop­ping board, tip bak­ing juices from pa­per into a bowl and keep warm. Split the chicken with a cleaver down the mid­dle through the breast­plate and back­bone to halve. Re­move legs and halve through the joint. Cut each breast through the bone into 2 pieces. You’ll have 8 pieces. Pile the chicken onto a plat­ter, la­dle over its juices and serve with steamed rice, gin­ger-spring onion dip­ping sauce and lemon juice.

Note Sand gin­ger, also known as ken­cur, is avail­able from Asian su­per­mar­kets.

Hakka salt-baked chicken

CHICKEN

Black plates (sec­ond and bot­tom in stack), cut­lery and chop­sticks, plat­ter and dish (with sauce) all from Ma­jor & Tom. White-rimmed bowl from Prop Stop. Pat­terned plate from Wonki Ware. Nap­kins from Pure Linen. All other props stylist’s own. Stock­ists p175.

STEPS Felice apron from Pure Linen. Glass pour­ers (steps 1 & 3), small salt jar (steps 1, 2 & 6), jar (step 4), black dish (step 1), dish with fresh gin­ger (step 1), board (steps 2, 6 & 8), bak­ing tray (steps 4 & 5), brass spoon (steps 5, 6 & 7), dish (with gin­ger; step 6), bowl (step 7), skewer and cleaver all from Ma­jor & Tom. Black dish (with

ground gin­ger; step 1) and bowl with white rim (steps 1 & 2) from Prop Stop. Remmi nap­kin (steps

1 & 7) from Coun­try Road. Char­coal nap­kin (steps

6 & 7) from Pure Linen. Casse­role from Le Creuset. Bowl (with spring onions; step 6) from Wonki Ware. All other props stylist’s own. Stock­ists p175.

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