BILL: My mom was a generous woman, known for giving out $20 red envelopes on Chinese New Year (this was the 1970s, when you could buy a loaf of bread for 25 cents!). So when she hosted her friends for mah-jong on weekends, true to form, she went all out, cooking a dinner as extravagant as a Chinese New Year meal. There would always be a baak chit gai (Cantonese for “white cut chicken”), a dish that amplifies chicken to its purest form. A poached chicken may not sound like much, but it’s Cantonese home cooking at its best, featuring silky meat (described as waat, meaning “slippery” in Cantonese) that gets dipped into a ginger-scallion oil. The quality of the chicken matters here, so buy the best you can find. We buy fresh Buddhist style chickens at our local Chinese market, which still have the head and feet on. A whole chicken sym- symbolizes family unity and prosperity, and because none of the skin has been torn or removed, the meat is protected from drying out during cooking.
Serves 4 to 6
1 (4-pound) whole chicken (optionally, head and feet still on)
2 scallions, trimmed
5 (⅛-inch-thick) slices fresh ginger
Raw Ginger-Scallion Oil
Remove any giblets from the chicken and rinse the cavity to thoroughly clean it out (depending on how your chicken was processed, it may still contain some organ tissue in the cavity). Set the chicken on a large plate and leave out at room temperature for 1 hour. Be sure to disinfect your sink and work surface after handling the raw chicken.
Carefully place the chicken in a tall, narrow stockpot (tall and narrow is ideal, as less water is then required, which yields a more concentrated stock, though any deep stockpot will work). Be careful not to rip any of the chicken skin—you don’t want the meat exposed to the boiling water as it cooks. Fill the pot with just enough water to submerge the chicken completely. Remove the chicken from the pot and set back on the plate.
To the water, add the whole scallions and ginger, and bring to a boil over high heat. Slowly lower the chicken into the pot, legs down. (It’s okay if the breast is peeking out of the water
a bit.) The water will cool down and stop boiling when you add the chicken, so bring it up to a boil once again. Don’t step away from the stove.
As soon as the water comes back to a boil, immediately lift the chicken out of the water. You can do this by carefully sliding two wooden spoons under the wings or using a roasting fork stuck in the underside of the wing joint. Allow any water inside the cavity to pour back into the pot, then lower the chicken back into the boiling water. This step is key, as it ensures there are no cold spots that could result in uneven cooking.
Bring the water to a boil once again, keeping a close eye on the pot. Once boiling, immediately reduce the heat to the lowest setting, keeping the water at barely a simmer (there should be barely any movement in the water). Cover the pot and cook the chicken for 40 to 45 minutes (10 to 11 minutes per pound).
When the chicken is almost done, prepare a large bowl of ice water. To check for doneness, poke a chopstick or skewer into the thickest part of the thigh. If the juices run clear, it’s done.
Carefully lift the chicken out of the pot (using the same method as before), and transfer the chicken to the ice bath, carefully flipping it a few times to ensure the whole chicken gets cooled and the texture of the skin becomes snappy. (Save the stock in the pot and refrigerate or freeze for other uses.)
When the chicken has cooled, remove it from the ice bath. (For extra wow factor, brush the chicken lightly with neutral oil or some of the chicken grease floating at the top of the poaching liquid for an extra enticing, shiny look.)
Using a sharp cleaver or chef’s knife, cut the chicken in half lengthwise, from the top of the breast down through to one side of the backbone. Next, take the half of the chicken with the backbone still attached, and make a lengthwise cut along the other side of the backbone to remove it. You can cut it into bite-size pieces to serve, or use it for chicken stock. Cut off the leg quarters and wings, chop the wings in half at the joint, chop each drumstick into two pieces, and chop each thigh into three pieces. Then chop the chicken breasts into bite- size pieces, using your cleaver to drive through the soft bones. Serve with the ginger-scallion oil.
Reprinted with permission from The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love from a Chinese American Family: A Cookbook. Copyright © 2022 by William Leung, Judy Leung, Sarah Leung, and Kaitlin Leung. Photographs copyright © 2022 Sarah Leung (food), Christine Han (lifestyle). Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
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