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Salt-baked Hakka chicken in a rice cooker 电饭煲焗鸡

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Chinese kitchens usually don't have an oven, but everybody has a rice cooker 电饭煲。Even bachelors and newly-weds have a rice cooker; it's as essential as a wok 炒锅。Here's a simple chicken dish inspired by a more complex Hakka 客家人 favorite. Not much to it and the taste is surprisingly delicious. 

 

You will need one small, relatively young chicken, about 2 kg cleaned weight. If you've shopped for chicken lately, you realize the process does have a few small wrinkles. Avoid the big, fat, tough stewing hens 老母鸡 that make such splendid soup. Also, steer clear of the prized free-range chickens 土鸡 that are so flavorful in stir-fry dishes. Both of those require too much heat to become well done. And there's no need to spring for an expensive ultra-tender 三黄鸡 even though they are great for poaching. What's called a "fryer" in the US is just fine; this is a younger, smaller bird. 

 

Sometimes I make this dish with a whole chicken, sometimes with a couple of thigh quarters. A whole chicken has the disadvantage of the white meat (breast) cooking faster than the dark meat (legs.) Today I made it with the rear half of a small chicken. Note that it didn't have much fat. 

 

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Washed it well and cut it up, removing the backbone (saving it for soup.) I separated the drumstick 琵琶腿 from the thigh 大腿 by slicing through the joint. My chicken parts weighed 0.6 kg, about 1.3 pounds. Fresh chicken works best for this. Avoid the "weekly bargain special" frozen legs often found in the supermarket; they contain too much water. Rub the cut chicken pieces liberally with coarse salt and let them stand undisturbed for 30 minutes or an hour in the refrigerator. No need to cover them; just put them on a plate. This partially "dry-brines" the meat. It's OK to leave it two or three hours if you'd like, but not overnight. (Chinese table salt is very fine; best to use a coarse-grained salt such as sea salt or Kosher salt.) 

 

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Cut two large spring onions 大葱 into segments 切段。Slice a thumb-sized piece of ginger生姜 into coin-shaped rounds. Two or three dried chilies 干辣椒 optional. Set these aside. Mix two tablespoons of light soy sauce 生抽 together with half a teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。Slip on a disposable plastic glove 一次性手头 and rub the soy sauce mix into the chicken well. Do it two or three times, massaging thoroughly 按摩。

 

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Add a tablespoon of cooking oil to the rice cooker bowl; use your fingers to rub it all around. (Don't let it just pool in the middle.) Arrange most of the spring onions and sliced ginger (and dry hot pepper if you are using it) in the bottom of your 电饭煲 and set the chicken on top. Use the rest of the 葱姜 on top. Add two tablespoons of Shaoxing wine 绍兴酒 or yellow cooking wine 黄酒/料酒。

 

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Turn on the heat. Select the program that is designed to cook ordinary rice. On mine, it's the orange button, top right ("灶烧饭。) That cycle usually takes between 20 and 30 minutes, but is controlled automatically. No need to fuss around with it. Go put your feet up and read a book. Enjoy some music and a glass of wine. 

 

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When the rice cooking program ends and the machine beeps and switches to "keep warm/standby" mode 保温, open the lid and turn the chicken over. (That's the photo below left.) Then close it and press the same "cook rice" button a second time. This time it may finish a little quicker. When that cycle is done, don't open it up immediately. Let it stand closed and unplugged between 5 and 10 minutes. This lets the chicken re-absorb some of its cooking juices. If you have made a whole bird instead of just legs, stick a chopstick into a thigh joint to make sure it goes in easily and the juices run clear (not bloody) as a final check for done-ness. 

 

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Take it out and serve it as you wish. The meat is tender and juicy. Balanced flavor, crispy skin. Can be picked up and eaten straight off the bone, can be sliced, or it can be torn into long shreds. Today I sliced it and served it on a platter with some just-cooked noodles and a raw cucumber. Not much labor; no fancy technique; easy clean up. Decent, tasty meal. 

 

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This cooking method originated in Fujian, but spread to neighboring Guangdong. Today it's popular not only in China, but in every country where there is a significant Chinese diaspora. The original way of doing this uses a kilogram or two of salt, with the chicken double wrapped in parchment paper and cooked very slow in a covered wok for a long time. (The "kilogram or two" is not a misprint.)

 

The rice cooker simplifies the process immensely. If you like chicken, might want to give this simple dish a try. If you have not yet bought a rice cooker, this is another good reason to take the plunge. Every Chinese household, no matter how small or large, no matter how rich or poor, has two small electric appliances: a rice cooker and an electric water kettle for boiling water to brew tea. 

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