Pickles and Tea Adventures in Asian American Cooking

42-Minute Poached Chicken

The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival has kicked off and runs from June 25 to 29, July 2 to 6 on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The spotlight this year is on China (and Kenya).

Every year, the festival’s highlights include food booths and cooking demos (at least for a food-lover like me!). While the food concessions are selling popular items like dumplings, lo mein and mapo tofu, the cooking demos are going off-the-beaten-path with regional fare: potato rice cakes from the Qiang ethnic community in West Sichuan, Miao-style poached sour beef and duck blood glass noodles. Hmm.

As it so happens, I was skimming my stack of old Gourmet (RIP) magazines and came across a travel article on Yunnan, a province in Southwest China. In the same vein, Yunnan cuisine is also relatively unknown in the U.S.

A partial stack of my collection of Gourmet magazines from 2007 and 2008

A short stack of my collection of Gourmet magazines from 2007 and 2008

In the article, Chef Li Yun sums it up quite well. “Yunnan food has four characteristics. First is the sour flavor—mostly from vinegar, but also from local plants like sour pears and apples. Second is the chile flavor, la jiao, the hot red-pepper taste. Third is the pepper flavor (ma-la from Sichuan peppercorns). Fourth is the sweet flavor, mostly from sugar. What sets Yunnan apart is the melding of the four. In other provinces, one flavor leads. In Shanghai, for example, it’s the sweet taste.”

The accompanying recipe for gui ji or “ghost chicken” is a good example of this balance (although the sweet flavor is very subtle).

The Dais–a Yunnan minority group–as well as many other Chinese ethnic groups, offer boiled chicken to their ancestors as a sign of respect. After the ceremony, the chicken is shredded and tossed with a cornucopia of aromatics, herbs, spices, chilies, and a surprise sour ingredient (in Chinese cooking, that is)—lime juice. Yunnan borders Vietnam, Laos and Burma, which explains the use of this Southeast Asian staple.

I was intrigued.

Plus, I wanted to try out the poached chicken method my friend Ivy Chan told me about. Ivy was vacationing in Hong Kong several years ago when she happened to watch a TV cooking show. The chef was demonstrating how to make Hainanese chicken rice which involves poaching a whole chicken. He was adamant that the chicken be poached for 42 minutes–no more, no less.

I was skeptical but when I tried it, the chicken was cooked to perfection, even the breast meat was moist and tender.

Poaching an entire chicken may seem like overkill but you could do so much with all the meat that comes off the bones: sandwiches, taco filling, soups, salads, etc. (That’s lunch and/or dinner for several days!)

And of course, you could try your hand at the sprightly Dai dish I adapted below. It’s the next best thing to expanding your knowledge of regional Chinese cuisine at the Folklife Festival!


42-Minute Poached Chicken

whole chickenWhen making Hainanese chicken rice, the chicken cavity is stuffed with aromatics like ginger, garlic, green onions and sometimes even pandan leaves. Feel free to do so. Since the only ingredient in this “recipe” is the chicken, try and find the best quality bird you can, whether it’s organic, free-range, or raised in your/your neighbor’s backyard. And closer to 3-1/2 pounds is better but no more than 4 pounds, please!

Time: 1 hour

1 tablespoon kosher salt or coarse sea salt
3-1/2 to 4-pound chicken

  1. Trim the chicken of excess fat and rub the salt all over, inside and out. Place in a large pot breast-side up. Fill with cold water until the chicken is covered by about an inch.
  2. Cover and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Turn off the heat and let the chicken sit in the pot, covered, for 42 minutes–no more, no less. Don’t peek!
  3. Prepare an ice bath (basically half ice cubes and half cold water) in a bowl large enough to fit the chicken without the water flowing over.
  4. When time’s up, take the lid off. The chicken should be cooked. To test for doneness, you can use any/all of the following ways:
    • Poke a chopstick into the thigh. If the juices run clear (i.e. no red), the chicken is done.
    • Grab hold of a thigh and wiggle it. If the joint moves easily, the chicken is done.
    • Insert an instant red thermometer into a thigh, avoiding the bone. If it reads at least 165 degrees F, it’s done!
  5. If the chicken isn’t cooked all the way through, bring the chicken and stock to a gentle boil and test for doneness every 5 minutes until done.
  6. Lift the chicken carefully out of the pot (you can use your hands, two large spoons, tongs) and drain as much stock as possible back into the pot. Save the stock for another use. Place the chicken into the ice bath and leave for about 10 minutes or until it’s cool.
  7. Drain the water. Pick the meat off the bone and shred or cube to use in stews, sandwich fillings, salads etc.


Shredded Chicken with Ginger, Garlic and Green Onions (Ghost Chicken)

Adapted from Gourmet, June 2007 

I’ve made quite a few liberal adaptations to the original recipe. I didn’t use the red chili or Sichuan peppercorn oils the recipe called for and I used a method from my cookbook to help the flavors of the aromatics bloom (pg. 248 if you have it). I also used Japanese miso instead of Chinese bean paste/sauce. Some may argue they’re not the same, but they’re both made with soybeans and I have yet to find Chinese bean pastes/sauces made with non-GMO or organic soybeans.

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 2 to 4 servings

1 large clove garlic, grated or minced (1/2 teaspoon)
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (1 teaspoon)
2 tablespoons green onions
3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon white miso
1 teaspoon fresh red chili such as Holland or finger pounded to a paste in a mortar, or chili paste such as sambal oelek
Juice from 1 large lime (2 teaspoons)
1-1/2 cups shredded chicken (from recipe above)shredded poached chickenPlace the garlic, ginger and green onions in a large heatproof bowl.

  1. Heat the oil in a small pot over medium heat until it starts to shimmer, 2 to 3 minutes, and before it starts to smoke.
  2. Pour the oil slowly and carefully over the aromatics in the bowl. It will sputter even if there’s just one drop of water clinging to the ingredients. Once all is calm, add the soy sauce. Stir gently and enjoy the lovely aromas released into your kitchen.
  3. Add the miso, chili and lime juice and mix until a smooth dressing is formed. Add the chicken and toss merrily. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Enjoy warm, chilled or at room temperature as an appetizer or over greens, rice or glass noodles (my pick!).

Note: If you don’t want to poach a whole chicken, poach 2 breasts (1-1/2 pounds) to make an equivalent of 1-1/2 cups of shredded chicken.