Some dishes get lost in translation.
They’re so connected to a particular place or a moment in time that conjuring up what you ate at that Singapore hawker stall one steamy afternoon 17 years ago is an exercise in futility.
I’m thinking, for instance, of Hainanese chicken rice, practically Singapore’s national dish: It begins with a tasty, “mature” bird poached in rich chicken stock that has deepened and become more flavorful with repetitive use. The skin is removed, the meat is sliced and then served with white rice, which itself has been simmered in a different batch of stock. The fillip: fiery homemade chili-garlic sauce and some grated ginger.
Go right ahead. Try this at home. It’s not that you can’t make a reasonable facsimile. It’s just that it won’t taste nearly as good as the same dish made day in and day out by a Malaysian chef at a barebones joint under a freeway interchange. (And just try finding an old chicken.)
But sometimes the reverse is true. Here’s a curried chicken and rice dish that’s as memorable now as it was in Bangkok, eaten on a hot and humid November morning as I watched barges and other river boats ply the oily brown waters of the mighty Chao Phraya.
What’s more, I ate it for breakfast…
I was starving, just back from Bhutan the night before, my body tied in knots from days of jouncing over deeply rutted roads. My last meal aboard Druk Air, as we rose above Himalayas, was a distant memory. I was especially hungry for the kind of light, zingy flavors that characterize Thai cooking, but I also needed real sustenance.
Khao mok gai winked at me from the The Siam Hotel’s breakfast menu.
It was, putting it mildly, the right choice. A succulent chicken thigh, delicately flavored with sweet curry and cinnamon, was tender to the fork and a perfect foil for fragrant jasmine rice cooked with sautéed shallots and fresh turmeric. A trio of condiments hit all the high notes: hot, sour, salty and sweet.
When Blair Mathieson, the Siam’s Executive Chef, gave me the recipe, I was astonished to see condensed milk on the list of ingredients. In Asian cooking, I think of sweetened condensed milk as a luscious addition to iced Vietnamese coffee, or as a gooey topping for roti, a thin flat pancake often served with sliced bananas or chicken curry. But as a marinade?
I actually woke up in the middle of the night, thinking, “This can’t possibly work.”
But the next day the chicken emerged from the oven as moist and flavorful as I remembered it. The sweetened milk seemed to create a slightly caramelized coating that sealed in the bird’s natural flavor and balanced the savory taste of the spices. In the process, the chicken acquired a beautiful golden glow. And while B never tasted the original, he raved over the dish I served him for breakfast—twice.
Of course, this may have been a happy accident: When I looked back at the recipe yesterday, I noticed that it called for plain condensed milk. After a flurry of research, I’ve concluded that the ingredient in question may actually be what we know as evaporated milk, which is not nearly as sweet or thick as the condensed stuff but has the same pleasantly caramelized flavor. Using evaporated milk would certainly make a more liquid marinade—and if you’re concerned about sugar consumption, it would be a reasonable alternative.
But even if I used it in error, I like the way the dish turned out with condensed milk, so I’m sticking to that in the recipe.
There are a couple of ways to make the rice. Blair’s recipe calls for jasmine rice simply steamed with a knob of fresh turmeric. If you like your rice fairly plain, this is the way to go. The turmeric will turn the rice bright yellow, but it will retain its natural aroma. (Blair notes that you could add a little ginger, if desired.)For more oomph, try cooking jasmine rice in chicken broth with fresh turmeric and shallots sautéed until they turn golden brown. The rice will have a much heartier flavor, closer to the way I remember the original dish.
In season you may be able to find fresh whole turmeric at your local Asian market or even at Whole Foods—or try ordering it from Import Foods which carries many ingredients for Thai cooking. The turmeric I bought here is different from what I’ve used in India and Singapore—it’s bright orange, for starters—but it has a deliciously spicy taste and will lend the same golden hue to the rice.
If it’s not available, you can substitute ¼ teaspoon powdered turmeric per cup of raw rice.
This is a great dish for a substantial breakfast, especially if you’ve got a rough winter weekend ahead, cleaning out closets and watching old movies while a cold rain falls. It’s especially nice that so much can be done the day before: marinating the chicken, making the rice and now that I think of it, quickly preparing the sauces.
The next morning, just allow 25 to 30 minutes for the chicken to bake. While it’s cooking, heat up the rice and bring the sauces out of the fridge so they can come to room temperature.
Sssshhhh….don’t tell anyone, but it’s equally delicious for supper.
Curried Chicken with Turmeric Rice
(Adapted from The Siam in Bangkok, Thailand)
Serves 2 hungry people, or 4 as a main dish
Ingredients for the chicken:
3-1/2 tablespoons yellow curry powder (I used D & D Gold Madras Curry Powder)
4 tablespoons, plus 1 teaspoon powdered turmeric
2 tablespoons coriander seed, crushed in a mortar and pestle
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon salt or to taste
2 cups condensed milk (or for less sugar, evaporated milk)
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Method for the chicken:
1. In a large bowl, combine the spices and the milk, and mix well. Add the chicken thighs to the bowl, taking care to completely submerge them in the marinade. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2. In the morning, set the oven to 350 degrees.
3. Line a baking dish with aluminum foil. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place it in the dish. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from the oven, but keep warm.
Ingredients for simple turmeric rice:
1 cup jasmine rice
1-3/4 cups water
1 small piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and lightly crushed, or ¼ teaspoon powdered turmeric
Pinch of salt
Or, for more flavorful rice:
1 cup jasmine rice
1 tablespoon canola oil
¾ cup finely chopped shallots
1 small piece fresh turmeric, peeled and lightly crushed, or ¼ teaspoon powdered turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
1-3/4 cup chicken broth
1. For plain turmeric rice: Swish the rice in several changes of cold water until fairly clear. Drain well. Bring 1-3/4 cups fresh water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the rice, turmeric and salt. Return to a boil, cover and turn the heat to low. Cook for 15 minutes or until the water is completely absorbed. Fluff the rice, then cover and let it sit for at least 5 minutes before serving. If necessary, reheat the rice on the lowest flame.
2. For more flavorful rice: Rinse the rice in several changes of cold water until fairly clear. Drain and set aside. Saute the chopped shallots in the canola oil until they have turned golden brown. Add the rice and fresh or powdered turmeric, and stir until all the grains are lightly coated with the oil. Add salt and pepper, and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 15 minutes or until the broth is absorbed. Fluff the rice, cover again and let it sit for at least five minutes before serving. If necessary, reheat over the lowest flame.
For the dipping sauces:
For the achar, or fresh pickle:
¼ cup red onion, very thinly sliced
½ cup cucumber, seeded and cut into ¼-inch dice
3-1/2 tablespoons white sugar
2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 or more thinly sliced Thai chiles (optional)
Fresh coriander sprigs for garnish
Combine the onion and cucumber in a bowl. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and vinegar, and heat over a medium flame, stirring until the sugar has dissolved . Set aside to cool, then pour over the vegetables. Add the chilies if using, and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, mix well and set aside so the flavors can blend.
For the Sweet Red Chili Sauce, use a bottled condiment such as Mae Pranon Sweet Dipping Sauce for Chicken.
Scoop a scant 3/4-cup turmeric rice into a small round bowl and press firmly. Invert onto a plate–you will have a perfect round scoop of rice–and top with one chicken thigh, cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Repeat with the rest of the chicken and rice. Serve with small bowls of the dipping sauces.