When I was in college I spent a summer in Thailand. I was there on a research fellowship, but when I wasn’t observing microfinance projects, I was eating. Although I showed up with no language skills, I was really lucky – I shared an apartment with a Thai girl about my age, and a family friend had recently married a Thai woman and they were living in Bangkok. This was a huge advantage, as it meant I always had someone who was willing to have me tag along, so I got to do a lot of things that weren’t in the Lonely Planet guidebook. It also meant I was able to try foods I never would have found on my own. Instead of pad thai, tom yum, mango sticky rice, and other dishes readily available in the U.S., I quickly fell in love with fermented sausages and sticky rice from the vendor near the bus station, rice noodles with vegetables and fish sauce for breakfast, and fruits the likes of which I’d never seen before. I spent the three months I was in Thailand eating constantly (yet somehow managed to come home skinnier than I’d been since middle school!), and ever since then I’ve been trying to re-create the foods I enjoyed there.
As soon as I saw Hainanese Chicken Rice in my list of Gourmet recipes for June, I knew I’d be making it for this month’s Gourmet, Unbound project. A few weeks ago, I learned about a khao man gai – the Thai version of chicken rice – cart in Portland and ever since then I’ve had it on the brain. As a road-trip to Portland isn’t in my immediate future and a trip to Thailand definitely isn’t in the budget right now, giving this recipe a try was the only solution to satisfy my intense chicken rice craving.
Although the basic components of this dish seem like they could be pretty bland, the combination is really delicious. The chile paste (and the Thai sweet chile sauce that didn’t make it in to any of the pictures) provide the most obvious seasoning, but the ginger in the broth and the shallots aren’t exactly wallflowers. For a rainy Seattle day (I know the calendar says it’s nearly June, but I’m starting to fear I blinked and it’s actually November), it’s hard to beat a meal that temporarily took me back to warmer days in Thailand.
Khao Man Gai
Slightly adapted from Hainanese Chicken Rice, Gourmet, June 2000
The chicken and broth
- 1 chicken
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 10-15 slices fresh ginger, smashed
In a large pot (I used my 7+ quart Le Creuset), bring enough water to cover the chicken, ginger, and 2 tsp. salt to a boil. Meanwhile, remove fat from the cavity of the chicken and reserve it for the rice. Rub the chicken inside and out with 1 tsp. of salt. When the water is boiling, add the chicken, breast down, and return to a boil. Simmer chicken, partially covered, for 20 minutes, then turn off heat. Leave the chicken in the hot broth with the lid on for 15-20 minutes, or until the breast temperature measures 160-165F on an instant read thermometer, then transfer chicken to a large bowl of ice water to cool. At this point you can reserve the broth for the soup and rice, or simmer it a bit longer. I continued to simmer the broth (with the wings and back, which I cut from the chicken using kitchen shears) for another hour to concentrate the flavors. Once the chicken is cool, cut it into serving pieces. If you’re not eating right away, put the chicken in the fridge.
- 6-8 Thai chiles (I buy these at an Asian market in Seattle or Tacoma and store them in the freezer. Probably not ideal, but my local grocery store definitely isn’t carrying Thai chile peppers)
- 1 medium shallot, chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped peeled fresh ginger
- 2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
While the chicken cooks, make the chile paste. Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Or, get distracted, leave the food processor running, and end up with a smooth paste, which is what I did.
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 4 medium shallots, thinly sliced
- 4-6 large garlic cloves, minced
Wash rice under cold running water until water runs clear (I’ve found a fine-mesh strainer to be the best tool for this job), then drain well.
Cook reserved chicken fat over moderate heat in a heavy sauce pan, stirring until rendered. Add vegetable oil (or some rendered chicken fat from the freezer, if you’re the kind of person who has that kind of thing in their freezer) if needed to make 2 tablespoons of fat. Discard any solids, then add shallots and cook, stirring frequently, until browned. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add rice and cook, stirring gently, 1-2 minutes. Add 3 cups of the reserved chicken broth and bring to a boil. Boil until liquid on surface has evaporated, approximately 3-5 minutes, then cover and cook at the lowest heat setting until the rice is tender and all of the liquid is absorbed. This will take about 15 minutes. Remove rice from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
For the toppings
- 1 English cucumber, peeled and sliced into rounds 1/4 inch thick
- 2-3 medium shallots, thinly sliced and fried until crispy (this requires less oil than you might think – 1/2 an inch of oil in a pan will do the trick, just don’t get distracted or the shallots may burn. 2-3 minutes is all it takes if the oil is hot.)
If your broth has cooled, return it to a boil. Meanwhile, stir together 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and 2 teaspoons of Asian sesame oil, then pour over the chicken pieces. Serve the chicken on top of the rice, with a cup of broth, the sweet chile sauce, the chile paste you made, cucumber rounds, and the shallots on the side.
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