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Recipe: The popular Cantonese pak cham gai, ‘white-cut chicken,’ is steamed and served with soy-ginger sauce

Recipe: The popular Cantonese pak cham gai, ‘white-cut chicken,’ is steamed and served with soy-ginger sauce

Serves 4 as part of a larger spread

Pak cham gai (also called pak chit gai) is a traditional chicken dish made throughout Southern China and the Southern Chinese diaspora. These names are Cantonese, but other Chinese communities prize very similar, if not identical, preparations. The name means “white cut chicken,” but if you order the dish in a restaurant, there’s a good chance the skin will be chamomile yellow. Many Chinese communities think yellow skin is an indicator of a chicken that lived well, and hence eats well, and some kitchens will tint the poaching water with a tiny bit of turmeric to oblige their customers. Pre-salting this whole, bone-in chicken breast is not part of the traditional technique, but assures that the chicken will remain juicy when cooked (I personally never cook chicken without pre-salting if I can help it). Salt the meat exactly as you would if you were seasoning it to roast and refrigerate it overnight. While the bird is usually poached for this recipe, steaming allows you to capture and serve the cooking juices. The ginger-scallion sauce can be scaled up — it’s a terrific condiment to have in the fridge — and the chicken can be doubled, too, so you have a main course. It’s intended as part of a larger spread.

CHICKEN

1 bone-in, skin-on whole chicken breast (the entire breast section of a bird) or 2 bone-in split breasts
Salt, to taste
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 scallions, dark green parts only
4 cloves garlic, smashed but not peeled
1 piece (2-inches) fresh ginger, cut into 4 pieces
Handful fresh cilantro leaves (for garnish)

1. The night before serving, rub the chicken breast with salt. When salting the skin side, it’s best to work the salt under the skin rather than just salting the skin. Cover and refrigerate.

2. Prepare a steamer: You need a steamer without a center post, or a metal or bamboo steamer from an Asian market; in a pinch, use a large Dutch oven with a rack in it. You also need a deep heatproof plate (like a pie pan) that will fit inside your steamer. Bring the water to a gentle simmer. You should see an occasional bubble, or use a thermometer to check that the water is between 160 and 180 degrees.

3. If using a whole chicken breast, press down on the wishbone end of the breast to flatten it slightly to make it fit into your steamer, if necessary. If using split breasts, there’s no need to do this. Rub the chicken with sesame oil. Place the scallions, garlic, and ginger on the plate, then place the chicken over them, skin side up.

4. Set the plate in the steamer and cover the pan. Steam for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 165 degrees in the center of a breast.

5. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken breast. Once the chicken is done, transfer the chicken to the ice bath and let it rest there for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it is cool on the outside.

6. Remove the chicken from the water and let it rest on the plate until ready to serve. Strain the juices from the steamer plate.

7. To serve, use your hands to remove the meat on each side of the breast, or on each breast, in one large piece. Cut the breasts into finger-thick slices with a cleaver or chef’s knife. Pour the reserved cooking juices over the chicken, and garnish with cilantro. Serve at room temperature or slightly cool from the fridge with ginger-scallion sauce.

SAUCE

6 tablespoons canola, corn, or peanut oil
2 pieces (2-inches each) fresh ginger, finely chopped
6 scallions, white and light green parts only, finely chopped
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Salt, to taste

1. In a wok or saucepan over high heat, heat the oil until it almost starts to smoke. Add the ginger and immediately turn the heat down. Cook, stirring often, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the ginger is very fragrant.

2. Add the scallions and cook, stirring, for 30 to 60 seconds, or until they are fragrant and translucent. Transfer to a heatproof bowl.

3. Let the sauce cool for a few minutes. Stir in the soy sauce and sesame oil. Taste for seasoning and add a pinch of salt.

Tse Wei Lim

Serves 4 as part of a larger spread

Pak cham gai (also called pak chit gai) is a traditional chicken dish made throughout Southern China and the Southern Chinese diaspora. These names are Cantonese, but other Chinese communities prize very similar, if not identical, preparations. The name means “white cut chicken,” but if you order the dish in a restaurant, there’s a good chance the skin will be chamomile yellow. Many Chinese communities think yellow skin is an indicator of a chicken that lived well, and hence eats well, and some kitchens will tint the poaching water with a tiny bit of turmeric to oblige their customers. Pre-salting this whole, bone-in chicken breast is not part of the traditional technique, but assures that the chicken will remain juicy when cooked (I personally never cook chicken without pre-salting if I can help it). Salt the meat exactly as you would if you were seasoning it to roast and refrigerate it overnight. While the bird is usually poached for this recipe, steaming allows you to capture and serve the cooking juices. The ginger-scallion sauce can be scaled up — it’s a terrific condiment to have in the fridge — and the chicken can be doubled, too, so you have a main course. It’s intended as part of a larger spread.

CHICKEN

1 bone-in, skin-on whole chicken breast (the entire breast section of a bird) or 2 bone-in split breasts
Salt, to taste
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 scallions, dark green parts only
4 cloves garlic, smashed but not peeled
1 piece (2-inches) fresh ginger, cut into 4 pieces
Handful fresh cilantro leaves (for garnish)

1. The night before serving, rub the chicken breast with salt. When salting the skin side, it’s best to work the salt under the skin rather than just salting the skin. Cover and refrigerate.

2. Prepare a steamer: You need a steamer without a center post, or a metal or bamboo steamer from an Asian market; in a pinch, use a large Dutch oven with a rack in it. You also need a deep heatproof plate (like a pie pan) that will fit inside your steamer. Bring the water to a gentle simmer. You should see an occasional bubble, or use a thermometer to check that the water is between 160 and 180 degrees.

3. If using a whole chicken breast, press down on the wishbone end of the breast to flatten it slightly to make it fit into your steamer, if necessary. If using split breasts, there’s no need to do this. Rub the chicken with sesame oil. Place the scallions, garlic, and ginger on the plate, then place the chicken over them, skin side up.

4. Set the plate in the steamer and cover the pan. Steam for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers 165 degrees in the center of a breast.

5. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken breast. Once the chicken is done, transfer the chicken to the ice bath and let it rest there for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it is cool on the outside.

6. Remove the chicken from the water and let it rest on the plate until ready to serve. Strain the juices from the steamer plate.

7. To serve, use your hands to remove the meat on each side of the breast, or on each breast, in one large piece. Cut the breasts into finger-thick slices with a cleaver or chef’s knife. Pour the reserved cooking juices over the chicken, and garnish with cilantro. Serve at room temperature or slightly cool from the fridge with ginger-scallion sauce.

SAUCE

6 tablespoons canola, corn, or peanut oil
2 pieces (2-inches each) fresh ginger, finely chopped
6 scallions, white and light green parts only, finely chopped
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Salt, to taste

1. In a wok or saucepan over high heat, heat the oil until it almost starts to smoke. Add the ginger and immediately turn the heat down. Cook, stirring often, for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the ginger is very fragrant.

2. Add the scallions and cook, stirring, for 30 to 60 seconds, or until they are fragrant and translucent. Transfer to a heatproof bowl.

3. Let the sauce cool for a few minutes. Stir in the soy sauce and sesame oil. Taste for seasoning and add a pinch of salt.Tse Wei Lim