Poultry

Japanese fried chicken (karaage) w/ salmon caviar (ikura)

”  Ikura’s intensity lies in its sticky and viscous brininess that liquifies and oozes around the tongue after each pops.  When you think about it, a sauce, almost.  “

We came home from a long weekend in Kyoto and, if I may, I want to talk about me and karaage for a bit.

For those who aren’t familiar, karaage, aka Japanese fried chicken, is and should be regarded as a league of its own, standing far apart from the classic American fried chickens or the recently popularized Korea-style fried chickens.  It is none of those.  Karaage is boneless, cut into medium to large-size chunks, without sauce, and almost always, as gods intended, uses dark meats only.  Flavor-wise, due to its mildly sweetened brine, its juice runs almost nectar-like, secreting from its firm and bouncy muscles following the crunch of karaage’s trademark white-speckled crusts.  Served simply with lemon wedges and Japanese-style mayonnaise called Kewpie — also a distinction from American/European mayonnaise but that’s another story — such formula has become an establishment in the Japanese diet, celebrated everywhere from restaurants, department stores, convenience stores and even train stations.  Clearly as popular opinions suggest, there’s nothing wrong with it for sure.

I used to adore karaage.  I still do, I guess, but in a different way now.  Our relationship, which used to demand an intimate reunion whenever opportunity presents itself, had taken a shift since last weekend.

During this trip in Kyoto, strangely stalled in front of the frequent offerings of impeccably fried karaage behind spotless glass windows, I was feeling a general lagging enthusiasm which, unregrettingly, led to zero purchases.  What’s wrong with me?  I used to love karaage!  I should want this stuff, right?  I should not be able to get enough of it, no?  It’s a great piece of fried chicken for god’s sake so how do I explain myself?  I bit into an onigiri over-filled with mentaiko on my returning flight, aching over my betrayal.

I came home plunged into an intense couple-therapy session between me and karaage.  We shut the door, we shouted, we whispered, we cried, we left nothing unsaid and nothing unfelt we even skyped Kewpie.  After boxes of Kleenex tissues, we walked slowly out of the room, hand in hand, and are ready to make a public statement.  It isn’t easy.  Possibly appalling.  But we’ve both decided that at this specific juncture, what is best for our relationship to move forward with is — a threesome.

Look, karaage, on its own, is good.  But over time, I find karaage’s sweetness and garlicky undertone somewhat binding and tiresome.  It needs a sharp piercing beyond the general zing of lemon or mustard.  It needs a spanking.  Somewhere between reasons and insanity and Momofuku, ikura comes to mind.

Ikura is Japanese cured salmon roe, much like Russian caviar, but seasoned with soy sauce, sweet rice wine and dashi.  Its intensity lies in its sticky and viscous brininess that liquifies and oozes around the tongue after each jewel-like pops.  When you think about it, a sauce, almost.  If you think that the idea of pairing a vehemently briny fish eggs with fried chicken is strange, you’r not wrong, but in a way that feels very right, if that makes sense.  The faintly fishy saltiness does not protrude and speaks over everyone else, as it only flows through the ambience like strings of vividly played jazz, infusing vitality into the conversation, especially with its edge smoothed around by the creaminess of Kewpie mayonnaise.  It doesn’t change karaage.  It just makes it fun.

Sometimes a relationship needs a third party.

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Boneless “turkey purse” w/ stuffings and peppercorn gravy

”  An completely boneless, flabby, perfect roasting pouch engineered by nature that is 360 degrees encased in skins, ripe for any stuffings and cooks in one hour only  “

Be hold, the answer is here.

If you are one who is unreasonably attached to the grunt and unpredictability of the Thanksgiving turkey tradition, look away.  For this post could and will impose onto you, the liberation from the struggle.

For this point on, you will no longer look at turkey in the same light; you will no longer see it as a rigid object that takes an enormous space in the fridge to brine, a conductor of anxiety that takes forever to cook in the oven, a pending obstacle course that requires professional skills to carve.  No you will no longer.

From this point on, you will witness the way of turning turkey into an utterly boneless, malleable, flabby sack of skin and meat; deflated, deconstructed, a perfect roasting pouch engineered by nature that is 360 degrees encased in skins; a floppy blob that takes up little space in the fridge; a miraculous poultry-pocket ripe for any stuffings of your choosing and cook gloriously and evenly in the oven, if you can believe it, in one hour only; an epic center piece that is as easy to carve — for it has no bones! — as a loaf of sourdough bread.  And if you have chosen to honor it with my pick of the trade, it will open up to a wild rice stuffing that is diabolically jam-packed with fried garlics and whole soft-boiled eggs, paired with an incredibly floral and peppery gravy tinged with Sichuan peppercorns.  Best of all, mostly done the day before.

I call it, the turkey purse.  And it will put your next talk-of-the-town Thanksgiving in the bag.

But no thanks needed.  You’re very welcome.

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How to make perfectly butterflied and crispy skillet chicken

While I try to concentrate on cookbook post-editing…

Let’s talk simple geometry here.

A bird is a three-dimensional object.  The surface of a skillet is a two-dimensional plane.

How do we warp a three-dimensional object for it to make perfectly parallel contact with a two-dimensional plane, in the explicit interest of a chicken, creating that impeccably even, blistered and crispy skin?  Aside from the fact that it’s super fun, of course (it is).

Here’s how.

Plus a five-minutes pan sauce too delicious for its simplicity.

Ate this two days in a row and counting.

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KHAO SOI NEUA/BEEF

KHAO SOI HAPPENS TO HAVE THE RIGHT BALANCE OF BOTH EXOTICISM AND SAFETY IN THE EYE OF A CAUTIOUSLY CURIOUS BACKPACKER.

Scad has been said about khao soi on the internet — some well-informed and some, not so much — so I think I will not bother.  It’s possibly the most famous dish from Northern Thailand, a somehow debatable status in my view.  Being back from a quick trip in Chiangmai Thailand, the capital of khao soi, I’m attempted to assume that its popularity among foreigners is contributed to its relatively benign characteristics if compared to the other more “adventurous” yet far more stunning dishes the region has to offer.  Khao soi, being chicken or beef in coconut curry with egg noodles, happens to have the right balance of both exoticism and safety in the eye of a cautiously curious backpacker.  It certainly isn’t, by far, the best thing we’ve tasted on this trip.  But I’ve always wanted to formulate a khao soi recipe after I’ve actually tried it at its source, so here it is.

Pushing it further on its muslim Chinese origin, I’m replacing dried chilis with Sichuan douban chili paste for a more complexed flavor, as well as inviting the mild tinge of numbness and floral quality from Sichuan peppercorns.  Another trick is to dial down on the amount of coconut milk in the broth itself so it can be reintroduced again right before serving, increasing depth and layers of flavors as how it is done in some of the better khao soi restaurants we’ve encountered.  In a bit of a disagreement with the blunt, under-processed pickled mustard greens that are often mindlessly chopped and scattered in the noodle as a failing contrasting agent, I’m replacing it with pan-fried pickled caperberries that provides sharp pops of sourness and complexity.  Then last but not least, a reminder of Sichuan peppercorns in the topical chili paste to bring it all together.

Enjoy.

 

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Singapore hawker marathon: Coconut rice part two, lemongrass fried chicken and fragrant salmon cake

 

THE CRUST IS THE HERBS, THE HERBS ARE THE CRUST, ONE AND INSEPARABLE, CRUNCHING TOWARDS A COMMON, GLORIOUS PURPOSE

WHAT:  The overkill toppings for my nasi lemak, none other than the jacked up lemongrass fried chickens, and a salmon shrimp mousse fused with herb pastes and grilled inside aromatic leaves.

WHY:  Nasi lemak wants toppings.

HOW:  I was once floored by a fried chicken I came across in Kuala Lumpur during the Ramadan, and it took me several years and at least six attempts to get it as close to what I remembered as possible.  Instead of heavy flour-based breadings, these chickens are suited in a delicate, crispy, nest-like formation of blazing lemongrass, ginger and spices.  The crust is the herbs, and the herbs are the crust, one and inseparable, crunching towards a common, glorious purpose.  And that is to be the best damn fried chicken you’ll ever taste.  A few of my past mistakes that you should take note from, is that the chicken needs to be marinated inside the herb-puree for at least six hours in order to reach its true calling.  Then instead of a breading, a minimal amount of potato starch or cornstarch is added at the end to form a very loose, very watery “batter”, which acts more as threading than breading, pulling all these dispersed pomace of aromatics into a thin weaving of crispy crust.

Then let’s talk about this thing called otah.  Truth is I’ve only had it once at the airport of Singapore, hardly a credential that qualifies me to speak on its behalf.  But that single encounter was more than enough persuasion to make me believe that my life is no longer complete without it.   It is essentially a fish mousse, made predominantly of mackerels, that is heavily seasoned with a condensation of southeast Asian herbs, nut butter (most likely candlenuts, but you could use cashew, walnuts or macadamia nuts) and coconut milk.  The mousse itself is relatively easy to make.  And I made concessions where I can bear, replacing the act of deboning and skinning mackerels with easily accessible skinless salmon fillets and shrimps.  But the laborious part, like a Mexican tamale, is stuffing it individually inside aromatic leaves which gives the fish cake a significant boost of aroma once it’s grilled.  I’d love to tell you that you can simply cook the mousse inside one big ramekin and call it a home kitchen-friendly rendition, but that would be a sore mistake as you miss out on a simple, best-kept secret.  That nowadays, just because an ingredient is unfamiliar, doesn’t mean it’s hard to come by.  Aromatic leaves such as banana leaves can be easily purchased online.  And once you’ve worked with it, overcoming the fear of the unknown, you’d be wondering where it has been all your life.

 

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 1

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 2

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 3

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIMP CAKE 4

FRAGRANT SALMON SHRIP CAKE 5

LEMONGRASS FRIED CHICKEN 1

LEMONGRASS FRIED CHICKEN 2

LEMONGRASS FRIED CHICKEN 3

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Singapore hawker marathon: Coconut rice part one, tomato chili sambal and lemongrass ricotta

 

An incredibly fragrant coconut rice cooked in pandan extraction, a tomato-based chili sambal boosted with Italian anchovies, and a lemongrass-infused coconut milk ricotta crumbled with thinly sliced shallots and bird’s eye chili marinated in fish sauce

WHAT:  Nasi Lemak, Malay’s signature fragrant coconut rice cooked in coconut milk and served with a spicy and sweet chili sambal.

WHY:  You haven’t really had rice until you’ve tasted nasi lemak.  And if you have tasted nasi lemak and consider this statement grossly exaggerated – as I once was – then it’s highly probable that it’s because you haven’t had this nasi lemak.  Best yet, most components can be made days ahead of time.

HOW:  Let’s face it.  There are a lot of underwhelming nasi lemak out there.  And I say this with the full acknowledgement that it’s an explicitly personal opinion resulting from my deeply rooted disagreement with more than one of its traditional, possibly beloved, practices.  The coconut rice, without any dispute, is the heroine of the entire dish.  We should all agree that if this part isn’t done right, then none of the others shall matter.  But in my three to four encounters of nasi lemak in Malaysia and Singapore, more often than not, the rice appears fragrance-less and purpose-defeating, a crime that even if I could overlook, is sentenced to death with an aggressively sweet chili sambal slapped over the top where the scattered insult of dried anchovies and roasted peanuts lurks nearby.  I don’t care for whole dried anchovies and/or roasted peanuts.  Two ingredients that, in its entirely intact, crude and un-manipulated form, is only acceptable as cat snacks and dive bar nuts.

So here I’m setting out, if for no one else but myself, to make things right.  In order to inject my desired level of fragrance into what is truly coconut rice in my mind, the cooking liquid is blended with pandan leaf and lemongrass before brewing for a short while over heat.  The result is a jade-like green extraction that in conjunction with coconut milk and coconut oil, nursed the most incredibly fragrant pot of jasmine rice that I’d be happy eating with just a sprinkle of sea salt.  Then in exchange of the overdue removal of whole dried anchovies, I went for a tomato-based chili sambal flavored with Italian anchovies in olive oil and dried shrimps, which provide a deeply nutty, seafood-y backdrop as the tangy sweetness of tomatoes and apricot jam forms an addictive conflict with fiery and condensed red chilis.  It is a general wisdom – and happens to be true – that amongst two rich and intently juggernauts, a refreshing and preferably sharp medium is duly warranted.  In rejection of the common trifling of sliced cucumbers, I say a lemongrass-infused coconut milk ricotta crumbled with thinly sliced shallots and bird’s eye chili marinated in fish sauce, is just the creamy yet laser-sharp liaison to bring this epic coalition to focus.

These few components without much else (or at least how they are traditionally made), together inside cleverly folded wrappers, are little pouches of portable delights grabbed on the go by busy Malaysians and Singaporeans alike.  But for the most insatiable amongst us all, there are also some much available overkills.  For lemongrass fried chickens, and fragrant fish cake they call otah, please proceed to Part Two.

 

TOMATO CHILI SAMBAL 1

TOMATO CHILI SAMBAL 2

TOMATO CHILI SAMBAL 3

COCONUT RICOTTA 1

COCONUT RICOTTA 2

COCONUT RICE 1

COCONUT RICE 2

COCONUT RICE 3

COCONUT RICE 4

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THE PHYSICALLY AND FLAVOR-MASSIVE, BEIJING SUPERMARKET FRIED CHICKEN

SAVORY JUICES GREASED WITH RENDERED FAT RUSHED ARDENTLY OUT OF THE MEAT… A NOSTRIL FULL OF AROMA AS A MIXTURE OF CUMIN, CHILI, GARLIC, AND THE IRRESISTABLE SMELL OF CRISPED CHICKEN SKINS SENT ME INTO AN ANGRY SPIRAL OF REGRETS AND RESENTMENTS

In AA they say, there are twelve steps to recovery.  Well, this fried chicken is my Step Nine. 

Specifically, if you (hopefully) aren’t familiar, this is a stage where the recoveree make direct amends to people whom they had harmed, wherever possible, as a part of the process to obtain emotional balance and closure.

So here I stand, almost two years into my recovery from six traumatic years in Beijing, I am ready to talk about this fried chicken.

To start from the beginning, I first saw these fried chickens inside a supermarket a few blocks away from our apartment in Beijing.  Calling that place a supermarket is a gross exaggeration whereas a glorified convenience store would be more appropriate, but for six long years, I passed by that supermarket about once a week on a conservative average, and I consistently dismissed the peculiar stall that was tucked in a dingy corner by the entrance with a sign that read, “Meixiang Fried Chicken“.

Peculiar indeed, not because there was a random fried chicken stall inside a suspicious convenience store, but that as ambiguous as it was, almost everyday around 3pm, there would be a line cued up at its greasy window, as long and meandering as my bafflement.  Typically, a line exceeding 15% of the total crowd-size stretching the entire block, is a mathematic proof good enough to send me into investigation, but feeling prejudice towards this entire city in general, I thought either this fried chicken was an understated treasure, or these people were out of their minds.

For six years, I went firmly with the latter.

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THE INCREDIBLE CHICKEN TOFU – FROM THE MIND OF A CHEF

TENDER EDIBLE CLOUDS MADE WITH CHICKEN BREASTS?!!  WHAT IS THIS WIZARDRY, DANNY?!

Holy shit, did you watch Season Six of Mind of a Chef with Danny Bowien from Mission Chinese Food?

Did you see where his mentor Yu Bo, in episode two, turned a puddle of pink chicken-slush into pillows of fluffy-looking curds, something they call, chicken tofu?!

Did you gush outloud, tender edible clouds made with chicken breasts?!!  No special curd-forming acid or salt required, virtually fat-free, and answers the prayers of millions of suffering souls of how to triple the volume of two pieces of chicken breasts without adding much more calories, but more importantly, transforming its woodsy nature into custardy, melt-in-your-mouth, weightless pillows of savory delights?!!!

Did you close your eyes and imagine exhaustively of what it’s like to cuddle the impossibly light and quilted bodies in between your tongues, a dream that feels unreal but known to be true?!!

Did you marvel?!

Did you cry?!

Did you say oh please baby Jesus dear Lordy, can someone please tell me how this wizardry is performed?!!

Well, guess what, you’re welcome.

And the spicy version drenched in chili oil, you’re double welcome.

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