Of all the dishes that you can eat in Singapore, Hakka salt-baked chicken is perhaps one of the most elusive and most commonly misunderstood. When I posted about this dish last week, I received questions on what purpose the salt serves, and if the dish would be the same if you simply seasoned chicken with salt and baked it. The beauty of this dish is that it combines three cooking techniques in one – baking, steaming and smoking. Created in a time where modern ovens had not been invented, burying chicken in smoking hot coarse salt allowed the Hakkas to roast chicken.
By wrapping chicken in parchment, the chicken is not only shielded from the searing direct heat of the salt and prevented from being excessively salty, this method also retains all of the aromas and juices of the chicken. It is, in this sense, a very close cousin of cooking en papillote (French technique of cooking food in a parchment parcel). What makes this dish so unique, however, is that heating the salt causes it to smoke. The wok in which the chicken is cooked in thus functions like a smoker, trapping the smoke and forcing it to permeate the chicken. As the chicken is seasoned with nothing other than sea salt, the flavour of smoked salt is distinct to this dish.
Modern cooks have adapted this dish for the modern oven by roasting the chicken and hot salt in a pot placed in an oven. However, while significantly easier, this method does not produce the smoky flavor that only comes from the direct heat of wok-cooking. Thus, the most challenging part of cooking this dish lies not in the number of ingredients, or even the intricacy of technique, but in simply giving the dish time.
A whole 1.8-2kg chicken (best quality, free-range)
3kg coarse sea salt
Dang gui (optional)
For the sauce:
50g peeled ginger
50g peeled shallots
25g peeled garlic
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons oil
If you’re preparing the dipping sauce, remove the pieces of fat from inside the chicken. Rub the chicken with a generous handful of coarse sea salt, inside and outside. Allow to marinate for 2 hours. Wash the chicken to get rid of any salt, then spatchcock the chicken so that it lays flat. Allow to dry on a wire-rack for 2 hours in a windy place, or overnight in the fridge uncovered. Allow to come up to room temperature before proceeding. Wrap the chicken in 4 layers of parchment with dang gui if desired. Secure with twine. Fry the salt in a wok until fragrant. It should turn brown and reach a temperature of 220C, about 20 minutes or stir-frying. Remove all but one inch of salt from the wok, add the parcel of chicken, breast-side up, and pour the rest of the salt over. Spread the salt out to ensure that the chicken is completely buried, before cooking over medium low heat for 45 minutes, covered. Remove the chicken from the salt and allow to rest until cool enough to handle.
To prepare the sauce, blend the ginger, shallots and garlic. Chop the reserved chicken fat and heat gently until rendered. Add both oils and the ginger mixture. Fry for 3-5 minutes or until the ginger mixture loses its sharp, raw flavour. Transfer to a small bowl. Pour in the chicken juices from the parchment parcel and stir to mix. Shred the chicken flesh and arrange in a mound on a plate. Top with the chicken skin to cover the chicken flesh. Serve with hot steaming rice and the dipping sauce.