The story goes that a Chinese chef working at a major Waikiki hotel in the 1960s wanted to create a dish that was reminiscent of his homeland but with a new twist. So he poached a chicken and created a ginger-scallion dipping sauce, and the dish became so popular that it was copied all over the state and is now a standard offering on Chinese menus.
The dish, which my Mom calls “choong yau gai” (literally translated to mean “scallion oil chicken”) but is also sometimes called “gurn choong gai” (ginger-scallion chicken), is a dish we ate almost every weekend when we went out to the restaurant for Saturday night dinner. We kids sided with the pedestrian soy sauce chicken, but my Mom would sometimes put her foot down and insist on ordering choong yau gai. It must have been her love for ginger; I just thought the dipping oil was too much oil. (Even then I had an aversion to oil.)
Funny how when you get older and you think about your childhood, you start craving food that you weren’t necessarily fond of but it just brings back warm memories. For me it was our family dinners on Saturday nights and my Mom ordering her favorite chicken dish.
Now I appreciate this chicken dish because of its simplicity and clean flavor. At its basic level, it’s a poached chicken. In other parts of the world it’s more famously known as Hainan chicken or bah ji gai. But they all have the basic technique of poaching a whole chicken resulting in tender, moist morsels.
For my version, I used the poaching technique from “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” now a standard cookbook for any Chinese kitchen. But I played with the poaching liquid by adding a few extra ingredients. And I used a suggestion from popular blogger Steamy Kitchen, who recommends for the modern-day kitchen to use chicken breasts instead of a whole chicken.
Using chicken breasts means you don’t spend a lot of time poaching the chicken. You can also keep the poaching liquid as chicken stock to cook rice and give it more flavor. Never waste, right?
Ginger Scallion Chicken
Makes 2 to 3 servings
2 chicken breasts on bone with skin (about 1.5 pounds)
2 T finely chopped fresh ginger (skin removed)
2 T finely chopped scallions or green onions
4 T cup vegetable oil or other light-tasting oil
1 t sesame oil
2 t salt
For poaching liquid
Enough water to cover chicken
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
3 slices of fresh ginger
1 t grounded galanga
5 Szechuan peppercorns
2 t salt
Start by rubbing each chicken breast with 1 teaspoon of salt, being sure to get some salt under the skin. Let sit for 5 minutes and then rinse and let dry on a rack.
Boil water in a pot and add the garlic, ginger, galanga, peppercorns, and salt. Then add the chicken (add more water if needed to cover the chicken breasts). Cook for about five minutes at a boil, skimming the scum from the top. Turn off heat, cover pot, and let sit for 20 minutes (you may need to adjust the time depending how thick your chicken breasts are). Remove chicken from pot and check internal temperature to see if it’s 170 degrees. If not, put chicken back in the poaching liquid and turn on the heat and simmer for a few minutes more.
When chicken is done, put chicken breasts briefly in a cold water bath and then drain in colander. Pat dry and leave at room temperature or refrigerate.
Make the dipping sauce by warming the oil in a small sauté pan or sauce pan, remove pan from heat and add the ginger and scallion and stir to blend and warm. Place in a small dish and serve with your chicken.
When chopping your chicken, it’s best to use a butcher’s knife or cleaver so you can chop through the meat and bone in one swoop. If you’re nervous like me about getting the right sizing, start by cutting down the top edge at an angle and then push down on the handle to cut through the entire breast. As always, safety first so make sure your fingers are away from the knife or cleaver.
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