Hainanese Chicken Curry

For the past few months, my darling wife S and I have been taking turns writing a rather short column for the Asian edition of Reader’s Digest. For this month’s piece (June 2010), S wrote about how she and I often prepare some of our favourite foods on weekends, freeze them in small portions and then consume them over the following week. It’s our own little way of ensuring that even when we need a fast meal, we can have something wholesome and homemade.

One of our all-time favourite freezer foods is Hainanese Chicken Curry. This is a variation of chicken curry preferred (or most often prepared) by Chinese-Singaporeans. The taste is quite different from most Indian curries or even Malay, Indonesian or Thai versions. And while I said it was wholesome, it’s not really all that healthy. A lot of the flavour in the curry comes from copious amounts of coconut milk. Nonetheless, it’s really delicious and very, very comforting. Which is exactly what one wants after a long day of work.

Making this curry is actually really easy. All you need are the right ingredients and a little bit of time. Here’s the recipe.

Hainanese Chicken Curry
Serves 8 as part of a multi-course meal

10 pieces of boneless chicken drumsticks cut into large cubes
4tbs curry powder
2tbs cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
5 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
2inch length of ginger, peeled and bruised
1 lemongrass, cut into thirds and bruised
6 whole cloves
3 star anise
2 cups coconut milk (ideally fresh)
2 potatoes, cubed (optional)
¼ cup loosely packed curry leaves
Salt to taste

Marinate the chicken pieces with 1tbs of curry powder and set aside.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and add the garlic, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, cloves and star anise.

Combine the remaining 3tbs of curry powder with just enough water to create a thick paste. Add the paste to the pot and saute until the mixture is aromatic. Add the chicken pieces and continue to cook until the chicken is evenly browned. Add the coconut milk and lower to a simmer. Add between ½ to ¾ cup of water (this depends on your taste preference), and bring it back to a simmer before adding the curry leaves. Continue to simmer until the chicken is cooked, then season with salt to taste.

Now, if you are going to eat this curry right away, feel free to toss in your potato cubes when you add in your water. If, however, you (like me) want to pack the curry away to be eaten on another day, I’d recommend against adding in the potatoes at this stage. Basically, if (like most Singaporeans) you like potatoes in your curry, add them in when you reheat your curry. Just give your cubed potato pieces at least a good 15 minutes or so of cooking in the hot curry.

I pack the chicken away into bags (that I seal with my vacuum packer), weighing each one so that they are fairly equal. Each bag usually weighs in around 500g-600g.

In the Reader’s Digest story, S also let slip one of my own favourite ways to use my chicken curry, which is to cook it up as part of a rather Modern Singaporean curried chicken risotto. I’m a big fan of experimenting with “Mod Sin” (as Chef Willin Low calls it) dishes. I’m particularly proud of several of the dishes S and I have come up with, including a cold “chicken rice” udon salad that we’ve become a bit addicted to of late (but that’s another post). Anyway, the curried chicken risotto was really just something I threw together one night because, well, I had a packet of the chicken in the freezer and I had a wierd craving for risotto. Happily, it came together really nicely and we’ve even started serving it to dinner guests — with rave reviews all around so far. I even served it, rather trepidatiously, to a famously fussy Italian restaurateur (and real Italian food traditionalist). I totally expected him to poo-poo my modern fusion creation. But to my surprise, he didn’t say anything about the dish during the meal. Perhaps he was being polite, I thought. But to my even greater surprise, his wife told me later that the risotto was his favourite dish of the night.

Mod Sin Curry Chicken Risotto
feeds 6

500g-600g of the chicken curry (one bag)
2tbs olive oil
1 small white onion, diced
300g risotto rice
50ml vermouth or white wine or cooking sake
1l vegetable or chicken stock
1.5tbs butter
2tbs parmesan, grated
salt and pepper

Defrost the chicken curry and reheat it in a saucepan. When heated through, try and shred the curry as much as possible using two wooden spoons or two forks, or whatever works best for you.

Put the stock into a pot or saucepan and keep warm.

In another saucepan or pot–essentially your favourite thing for cooking risotto–heat up the olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute the onions, stirring them frequently. Then add the rice. Stir the rice for about a minute so that it can get slightly toasted. Then pour in the vermouth/wine/sake. Let this bubble and cook for a few seconds until all the alcohol has burnt off. Stir during this.

Add 2 ladles of the stock into the rice. Lower the heat to medium-low. Stir and cook until the liquid has been mostly absorbed by the rice. Then, using a big slotted spoon, try and scoop up as much of the shredded chicken as you can and transfer it into the pot with the risotto rice. Transfer all the chicken over. Discard any remaining curry gravy; you won’t need it.

Then add another 2 ladles of stock into the risotto. Keep repeating this process until almost all the liquid has been used up. When you have just a few ladles left, you should taste the rice. The perfect consistency is a little firm on the surface but creamy inside. If it is already close to this, then you know you can add less stock. If too hard, you will need to add more. You can also then add a bit more salt to taste. But not too much because you’ll be adding cheese at the end.

When you feel the rice is the right texture and you have just a bit of liquid in the pot, turn off the heat, stir in the butter and the parmesan. Taste again and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

To fancy up this dish when I serve it to friends, I have started plating it topped with a touch of coconut foam. Which is much easier to make than you might imagine. You’ll need a blender, ideally a stick blender. For the foam, use coconut water–the lovely refreshing liquid in a young coconut. You’ll need maybe half of what’s in one coconut (drink the rest, it’s really good for you). Add a pinch of salt and maybe a quarter teaspoon of lecithin powder. Then beat/aerate the liquid. The foam bubbles will appear on top. With a wide spoon, lift off the foam and ladle it over the risotto. Instant sexed-up Mod Sin dish!

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his three kids!