Friday, April 07, 2006

Rice Cooker, Rice Cooker, Make Me a Chicken ...

You know, an email or just common courtesy would have been nice …

This recipe review was originally meant for another platform which I was supposed to write for. Since you guys are more deserving (it's nice to have my existence acknowledged and to be shown some courtesy so thanks all for visiting, commenting and emailing!), I re-wrote my review of to make it more appropriate to this blog.

I noticed a new magazine at the newsstands during the pre-Chinese New Year period when the words “Festive Cooking – Traditional New Year Dishes” jumped off the covers and caught my eye. This magazine appeared fairly credible at first sight. It was probably the use of both English and Chinese words on the cover. It gave me hope that I could actually read it and the recipes must be authentic since real Chinese people wrote it! I know … I have daft notions sometimes.

Perusing the magazine was a bit like watching a young budding dancer. You enjoy the potential but are left wanting a richer experience. The writing was a trifle unsophisticated in most parts and the photos rather amateurish, especially compared to the immaculately artistic culinary dreamscapes from the likes of
Ilva, Bea, J of Kuidaore, Keiko and Chubby Hubby, among others.

Kitchen Culture Food & Travel is interestingly schizophrenic. On one hand, it is very Asian and advocates the use of locally available products. On the other, the magazine covers restaurant reviews of Australia and features Australian-based or Australian food writers. I was left with the impression that while the magazine has aspirations to be a food and travel magazine, it only has resources in Australia.

It just seems an odd confluence to have such a local focus and tone and aspirational features on and from Australia. It is even odder when you consider that the last 12 pages or so are entirely in Chinese!

That is criminally sadistic and diabolical. To tempt me with food porn of exotic and wondrous Chinese food and not translate it – is that some kind of new Chinese torture?

Kitchen Culture Food & Travel (look, even the name tells you that they are confused) strikes me as a wannabe with immense potential to set itself apart with its very local content. While the monthly publication attempts to portray an upmarket image, they really struggle for the right tone.

They would do better to focus on what they do well, creating a niche for themselves. The restaurant reviews are a little dull and gauche, the travel segments twee and the Chinese section just totally unforgivable (OK, if they translated the Chinese bits, I may forgive them), But their recipes are quite alluring. I was especially caught up in the peeks into the personal history and lives of the writers - learning to cook their own version of beloved local fare (something I can identify with) during the years away from home; and how work, marriage and children led to the evolution of fast and tasty food.

It is obvious that Kitchen Culture Food & Travel is not and may never be a Vanity Fair of the food magazine world. Instead they are the Readers’ Digest version. Small, slightly provincial but extremely relevant to the masses. While there are Chinese-language food magazines which serve the so-called heartlanders, there is currently no English-language food magazine that has captured this market. Why? Because the existing magazines exude a sometimes incongruously posh and yuppy-ish look, tone and feel that ultimately alienates their core audience. You use language like “exuberant libation” in a magazine priced at $2.50, which is sold at the 7-11s, and wonder why your readership is low?

But back to Kitchen Culture Food & Travel … While I found myself cringing or just bemused at some of the writing, I admit I rather liked the recipes in this magazine. One recipe in particular caught my attention.

The publisher, Pauline Loh, penned an article for the Masterclass section about her homesickness during the years away from Singapore. Finances were tight and wallets were light but comfort food in the form of chicken rice was always right. She tweaked the traditional Hainanese chicken rice into a fast and easy recipe, utilising the ubiquitous (in Asia, anyway) rice cooker, that could be recreated anywhere in the world.

I was intrigued. I’d learnt how to cook Hainanese chicken rice from my grandfather but had never heard of making it in a rice cooker. The idea was so novel it was almost … naughty. Yes, I am sad and need to get out more.

I knew I had a rice cooker somewhere in the house. Seldom used only because I was taught to cook rice the old fashioned way. Even though my grandmother is not here to see me, I still dread her ire if she ever found out I used a rice cooker. That has sent the poor, neglected appliance to the far reaches of the cupboards. Time to dust it off and put the Rice Cooker Chicken Rice to the test.

The step-by-step photo essay for this Masterclass recipe made reading and following the instructions tremendously easy. However, the written recipe was vague and alarmingly inconsistent with the photo captions. I had to refer to the written recipe and the photo captions many times to verify and decipher the true instructions as if I was looking for the Da Vinci Code. There were so many mistakes and mismatching of instructions that you would be lost if you were an inexperienced cook. It is obvious that they did not test the recipe. On the plus side, the ingredients were manageable in quantity and accessibility.

My notes are in green.

Rice Cooker Chicken Rice
From Kitchen Culture Food & Travel

1 large chicken (1.5 kg to 2 kg)
– I used a smaller chicken which was about 1.2kg as I cook only for one

1 small bunch pandan leaves – also called screwpine leaves (I will be featuring this for Weekend Herb Blogging later)

1 large piece ginger – bit vague but I used a 3-inch sized knob of ginger
10 cloves of garlic – the recipe did not ask for it but I lightly crushed them in order to get the juices out to do their mojo; the recipe is not clear but you are going to need about 12 large cloves actually because half of that goes to the chicken stuffing and the other half to the chilli sauce

1 large bunch spring onions

– I removed the roots and cut into 3-inch long pieces
1 tbsp sea salt or rough salt

10 large red chillies
2 cm piece young ginger
– I used a 2 inch sized normal old ginger because I wanted extra heat and pungency; this is for the chilli sauce
Salt – the ingredients did not list this but you would need a little of this for the chilli sauce
2 cups of rice, washed – this was not mentioned in the ingredients which I think is fecked up. I put this here so you are prepared
1 lime – sliced into wedges so you can squeeze it into the chilli sauce. It’s not listed as part of the ingredients again but you'll need it

Written recipe:
1. Knot pandan leaves into two bundles. Cut spring onions into 10cm lengths. Peel ginger and cut into large pieces. Skin garlic, leave cloves whole

Photo essay:
1. Clean and dry a nice, meaty chicken weighing at least 1.5kg. Massage a tbsp of seal salt (or rough salt) inside and outside the bird. Trim off the chicken claws.

Eh? The instructions differ right off the bat … I decided to prepare the chicken first as per the photo essay so I can give the chicken more time to “season”. My chicken had head and all so I spent some time trimming not only the claws but all the other eeeuwwy parts, before seasoning the internal cavity and the skin with the salt. I removed the fat from just inside the cavity beforehand, reserving it for later – you would not know this at this point unless you read the entire recipe and the photo essay but you’re gonna need the fat for your chilli sauce

Written recipe:
2. Clean chicken and dry. Remove the two pieces of fat inside the abdomen cavity. Rub chicken inside and out with salt.

Photo essay:
2. Skin a handful of garlic cloves, cut up some segments of spring onion tops and greens, cut a generous piece of ginger and knot up two pandan leaves

Again, the written recipe and photo essay do not match … And what’s a handful? I have small hands but a huge appetite for spice. I crushed 6 garlic cloves slightly without losing their shape and structure and removed the skin. I topped the spring onions and cut into 3-inch lengths. I skinned the 2-inch knob of ginger and cut it into 3 pieces because I wanted it to seep into every nook and crevice of the chicken. I placed three stalks of pandan leaves together, knotted them in the middle and repeated with another three to make two knotted bundles.

Written recipe:
3. Put spring onions, garlic and ginger inside the chicken. Stuff in one pandan knot

Photo essay:
3. Place prepared garlic, spring onions, ginger and pandan leaves into the cavity of the chicken. Stuff pandan leaves last so they block the cavity to prevent the garlic cloves from falling out

Finally, the two concur! I do not know about the garlic cloves falling out because honestly, just stick your whole hand in and stuff the garlic cloves, ginger and spring onions right up the chicken. Nothing will fall out if you do a good job of it. Layer them such that all the stuffing ingredients commingle harmoniously. I stuffed the pandan leaves last only because they were so bulky

Written recipe:
4. Place chicken in the rice cooker and add two bowls of water. Cover lid and cook

Photo essay:
4. Tuck in chicken wings and drumsticks and place bird breast-side down into the rice cooker pot. Neaten it so that there is maximum contact with the sides of the pot

Now why does the written recipe not have the useful tips of the photo essay? I tucked the chicken gently into itself and placed it breast-down. The “bowls of water” was a little vague. I went with the typical Chinese rice bowl and poured in two bowls of water into the pot. Covering the cooker, I set it to “Cook”.

Written recipe:
5. When steam rises, set timer to 10 minutes. Switch off the cooker when time is up and leave to cook covered for 20 minutes.

Photo essay:
5. Add two Chinese rice bowls of water to the pot and start rice cooker. When steam is seen rising up, continue cooking for 10 minutes, then switch off the cooker completely. Rest the chicken covered for 20 minutes

Honestly, reading the recipe and photo essay is like watching those movies where the audio and visual do not sync! I was smug I figured out the Chinese rice bowl measurements before this – talk about cryptic instructions! I watched the pot like a hawk, proving that a watched pot does boil … and steam. At the first languid plumes of sultry steam, I set an alarm clock for 10 mins and pottered around during my laundry. When it went off, I switched the cooker off without uncovering it and reset the alarm for 20 mins.

Written recipe:
6. Remove chicken, set aside. Add two cups of washed rice to stock left in rice cooker. Place another knot of pandan leaves on top. Cook as usual.

Photo essay:
6. While the chicken is cooking, prepare the chilli sauce. Place chillies, garlic, ginger, salt and a pinch of sugar in blender and whiz. Set aside.

Jaysus … Did two different people write the recipe and the photo essay without showing it to each other? Was the sub-editor drunk or sleeping on the job? Removing the chicken without tearing the skin was a challenge. I meant my skin as my knobbly wrists brushed the hot sides of the rice cooker while trying to remove the chicken. The chicken is dead ... it feels no pain. I’m not. A chicken. Or dead. I felt the pain I can assure you. I rapidly washed two cups of rice and added it to the stock. That’s a lot of rice of one girl. I also quickly knotted up another three stalks of pandan leaves together and cast that on top.

I went old school with the chilli sauce and pounded the lot in the mortar & pestle. You can take the kitchen serf out of her grandmother’s fief but you can’t take the fear of Grandmother out of the serf – I still look over my shoulder to see if she is breathing down my neck. Actually, pounding it allows you to control the texture of your sauce. I like it rustic. 2/3 of the chillies should be pounded to a smooth, fine puree with the garlic and ginger but the rest of the chillies should still be a little chunky so you get a nice bite and chew to your chilli sauce. You can’t really get in a blender. Tip: Chop the garlic and ginger up before pounding to make your job easier and faster.

Hint: there’s a major screw up here so go to my notes on Step 8 if you want to save your chicken rice!

Written recipe:
7. There was no Step 7 in the recipe! What a mess! Someone wake up the sub!

Photo essay:
7. Render trimmed chicken fat in a pan and drizzle chicken fat over chilli sauce mixture. This cooks and flavours the sauce

Remember the chicken fat I asked you to save? Well, here’s why. Heat the fat in a pan on low to medium low heat till all the oil seeps out of the globules of wobbly fat. Keep on doing this till the fat shrivels, browns and wrinkles in defeat. Drizzle the fragrant chicken fat oil into the chilli sauce and watch it sizzle. Try not to salivate at the wonderful aroma.

Written recipe:
8. When the rice is cooked, serve with cut chicken and chilli sauce.

Photo essay:
8. Remove chicken from rice cooker and set aside. Shake out garlic and ginger from the cavity and leave it in the chicken stock in the rice cooker.

Captain, the time shift continuance is nae working! *Putting my best Shatner voice and dramatic smirk into the camera* Aye Scottie, we ken that. Sweet Mother of … if I had not read the recipe in advance, I would be well fecked by now. Because if you had removed the chicken as per Step 6 of the written recipe, you would not have known to shake out the wonderful stuffing into the rice and would end up with a fairly anaemic rice by now. Luckily, I did and had done that at Step 6. The sub-editor should be barred from chicken rice for life. Here mate, they have this thingy called the 12 step programme …

I intrepidly began chopping up my chicken with my trusty cleaver. I’m not the best carver in the world, being more a hack-and-dismember-in-wanton-abandon- descendent-of-Genghis type, but I think I did a fairly credible job

Written recipe:
9. The recipe moved to the Chilli Sauce stage whereby it states - Whizz 10 red chillies, 5 cloves of garlic and 2cm piece young ginger in a blender. Add hot chicken oil and salt to season. Serve with a squeeze of lime.

Photo essay:
9. Add the two cups of washed rice to the chicken stock and drop in a fresh knot of pandan leaves. Start rice cooker to finish off rice.

I decided to hell with the recipe. Notice how patient and low-suffering I am? I waited till Step 9! Always taste and adjust as you go. You can safely ignore most recipes if you do this and the results will still be fabulous because it is literally to your taste. Anyway, if you have been following the steps diligently, your rice should be about cooked now. Stir it up to get all the flavours well incorporated. Cover to keep warm.

Written recipe:
10. Are you kidding me??? There is no Step 10 … just a note that a timer is useful so you do not keep looking at the clock. Mate, eyes are useful too so you can check your recipe! Wake up, sub!

Photo essay:
10. Cut up the chicken to serve with steaming hot bowls of fragrant rice. Serve the chilli sauce with a squeeze of local limes.

Well, it’s academic at this stage as I began ravaging the rice and chicken. I shredded a bunch of coriander and threw these on top of the chicken. It was delicious. Not as fragrant as the normal Hainanese chicken rice but a really good substitute nonetheless.

The chicken was cooked to perfectly moist doneness. I must say I was initially a little worried that it might be overcooked but it was just right. Pauline Loh knows her chicken. The rice was flavourful but the intensity was not as pronounced as what I am used to in the traditional Hainanese chicken rice. The difference is in how the chicken is cooked. Also, this cooking style did not allow for extra chicken stock for the customary chicken soup to complement the rice. I really missed that.

The chilli sauce was wonderful but I must admit I did add more garlic and ginger than asked for as I tasted the mixture as I pounded and found it wanting. I could have happily intensified the mixture but I thought I should at least attempt to follow the recipe if I was testing it.

Rice Cooker Chicken Rice does fulfill its promise as a substitute to Hainanese Chicken Rice without the lengthy and careful preparation of the latter. The fact that it essentially cooks up a scrumptious chicken rice in one rice cooker is a boon to many busy housewives, young executives or struggling students. I can imagine the heart easing a little at the smell of home emanating from the humble rice cooker. So yes, while I still prefer my moreish, traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice, this dish is a success in evoking the warmth and comforts of home. The taste is fairly authentic even if the cooking technique is not. I give it a 8/10 for taste.

However, I give a very poor 3/10 for the dismal recipe writing. I really think Kitchen Culture Food & Travel should take a good long look at this. It’s a good thing they have good recipes or I would not buy another issue. It is just way too painful and annoying trying to decipher the confused meanderings of the recipes.

Notice I am trying to avoid giving this a health rating? Because this is bloody unhealthy, that’s why! I choose to enjoy small portions of this delectable treat so I do not become a candidate for cardiac arrest. You can enjoy rich food … just in moderation.

I had so much chicken and rice leftover, I was able to make my
Chicken, Mint and Glass Noodle Salad with Pine Nuts and Chicken Rice Pining in Red Pepper. I ate the rice a little at a time over the week with my Chicken Cafrael (recipe to follow) and my Pork Balls with Watercress Soup (also to follow).

Despite the dismal recipe writing, I would make this dish again - using my notes instead. Maybe one day when I have time, I will do a show down between Rice Cooker Chicken Rice and me Grandpa's Hainanese Chicken Rice. Hmmm ...


Anonymous bea at La tartine gourmande said...

You are so funny! (but I said this so many times already)
A new Chinese torture ahahah!
And wow, what a recipe story indeed. After reading your story, it is almost like I could see you become red and swear at the magazine! Did you call them to tell them? ;-) Because you should!

10:58 pm  
Blogger ilva said...

Steph-Thanks for the beautiful compliment!

12:30 am  
Blogger michelle said...

You're hilarious! I was laughing out loud, Stephanie! I just had a sort of similar experience with roasting a chicken, but right now I'm just thanking my lucky stars that I didn't have to deal with heads or claws on my bird!! Thanks for making my day!

3:57 am  
Anonymous sher said...

Beautiful pictures I must say!! I've never gotten a rice cooker because my family cooks rice the old fashioned way---and I would have to find room for one more appliance!!!!

6:22 am  
Blogger ejm said...

I love the sound of that chili sauce!! It looks gorgeous too!

Great post. I can't stop laughing.

You are brave brave brave! I wouldn't even consider using a rice cooker to cook a chicken (but then, I don't have a rice cooker at all - unless you can call "a large stainless steel pot with a tight-fitting lid and an electric stove" a rice cooker)


12:59 pm  
Blogger MM said...

Bea - Thanks so much. I do think I am funny .. even when I am not trying to be! I was cussing a fair bit making this. Also because I got my wrist burnt!

I do not know if I should write to the publication as I think they might not have a sense of humour and I just realised one of my ex-staff is one of the freelance writers there. She would be very upset as she used to get all angry when I edited her work. Unfortunately, instead of improving, she still writes as poorly as before. Sigh ... no one ever listens to me. Sob.

Ilva - Meant every word!

Michelle - Glad I made your day. We all need a pick me up on bad days! Hope you are having a better one today.

Sher - I so know what you mean. My current apt came with a rice cooker and this was the first time I used it. And like you, I have way too little space in my kitchen!

Elizabeth - I still have the chilli sauce leftover. It is soooo good. Glad you enjoyed laughing at my post!

2:29 pm  
Anonymous mae said...

Steph, you're so funny! I was getting so frustrated for you... what patience you have. I might try this 10 and 20 minutes chicken rice. [but of course following your notes].

5:46 pm  
Blogger MM said...

Mae - sometimes I surprise even myself! Do let me know when you try making this! Happy Easter!

9:24 pm  

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