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