Paper-Wrapped Chicken

Sunday, 4 September 2011

I hadn't had 纸包鸡 (Paper-Wrapped Chicken) for such a long time I'd forgotten what it was like. I couldn't see the point of wrapping chicken in paper and then deep-frying it. Surely the chicken would steam in its own juices underneath the paper shield? So why not just steam it? Or deep-fry without the paper?

On the other hand, I liked the idea of unwrapping little parcels of food because that would be like unwrapping presents. And I thought maybe the paper served a purpose I couldn't see by theorizing. So I had a practical session and . . . . 'Wow! Hello there, Chee Pow Kai! Where have you been?'

The paper in 纸包鸡 did serve a purpose. It gave the chicken the best of two worlds: steaming and deep-frying. Because the meat juices had nowhere to escape, the chicken was extremely juicy, much juicier than paperless deep-fried chicken could ever be. At the same time, there was the fragrance of browned chicken though it wasn't crisp. In fact, the aroma wasn't just on the outside of the chicken. The wonderful flavour was inside the meat as well because the paper acted like a shield, preventing it from going anywhere else. I couldn't have unwrapped a better present!

I vaguely recall my mother making 纸包鸡 a few times in the 70s, when it was very popular and considered quite posh. Now, it's so rare it's either novel or nostalgic, depending on how old you are. It's a pity something so good has gone out of fashion. I wouldn't have made 纸包鸡, or even thought of it, if a friend hadn't sent me this hilarious Cantonese cartoon (if you prefer Mandarin, click here):

Sylvia Tan, author of Singapore Heritage Food, claims that 纸包鸡 was invented in Singapore in 1953. After reading Sylvia Tan's story, ieat concludes 'There was no doubt . . . Chee Pow Kai was invented by Union Farm [Eating House].' Hmm, really?

If 纸包鸡 were invented in Singapore, why is it one of Guangxi cuisine's most famous dishes? Is it likely a recipe briefly popular in Singapore has 'infiltrated' China's food culture? Some websites say Guangxi's 纸包鸡 was invented in the 1920s in Wuzhou, where 纸包鸡 is considered one of the city's 'must-eats'. In fact, Wuzhou's 纸包鸡 was documented as one of 'China's bests' by the TV programme, 中国一绝. That was in 1985 when China was still quite isolated, and had little contact with Singapore. In 1992, a Guangxi chef won a cooking competition in Hong Kong with 纸包鸡. Surely he didn't use a recipe that was popular in Singapore for a short while in the 1970s?

I've always thought 纸包鸡 is Cantonese because it's usually referred to in Cantonese, chee pow kai. If it's from China, shouldn't it be Guangdong instead of Guangxi? Well, I have a hunch. Let's google 'Wuzhou language', shall we?

*type type type click click click . . .*

Hah, just as I thought! It's Cantonese, and the city is Cantonese in culture and spirit although it's technically in Guangxi. Bingo!

Sylvia Tan's story about Union Farm inventing 纸包鸡 has more holes than a colander. The final nail in her coffin is a 1988 article in The Straits Times which stated that Union House's 纸包鸡 recipe was 'given by a Hong Kong opera actress'. But Sylvia/ieat's twisted version is: 'One fine day, a famous actor from Hong Kong suggested to the [Union House] owner that he should create a dish out of the chicken. Thus, the Chee Pow Kai came into existence.' See the clever twist by leaving out rather than adding something?

Oh well, 纸包鸡 is delicious no matter where it's from. Now that I've dusted the cobwebs from the recipe, I'll definitely be making Paper-Wrapped Chicken now and then. Me being old-fashioned me, I have problems going totally paperless.

25 September 2011 Update

Just got hold of Singapore Heritage Food. This is what Sylvia Tan actually says about paper-wrapped chicken:

'One restaurant in Singapore, Union Farm, single-handedly popularised this dish in Singapore. Originally a chicken farm, it has become a full-time restaurant still serving paper-wrapped chicken decades later.'

There's no mention at all about where paper-wrapped chicken was invented. But, in his post here, ieat says,

'I had just picked up Sylvia Tan's, Singapore Heritage Foods, and came across the origins of Chee Pow Kai and discovered to my surprise, that the restaurant that invented them are still in existence.'

Does the doctor not make a distinction between popularising and inventing something? Gosh, I hope he's a bit more discerning when he's treating his patients!

Source: Adapted from Cooking for the President
(Recipe for 4 persons)

4 small spring chicken legs weighing 600 g, debone to yield 500 g meat
. . . don't use bigger or kampong/organic chicken if you want juicy, silky 纸包鸡
15 g ginger
15 g shallots
20 g garlic
½ tbsp sugar
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp ground white pepper
½ tbsp light soya sauce
1 tsp dark soya sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tsp Cognac

1 tbsp white sesame oil
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp tapioca flour

16 pieces parchment paper, cut 25 x 15 cm
oil for deep-frying

I've tried Sakura chicken vs regular spring chicken, both from Fairprice. For this recipe, the spring chicken is much better. The pounded ginger, garlic and shallot paste is also crucial. It browns during the deep-frying and creates a lovely fragrance. If only the juices are used, minus the pulp, the 纸包鸡 would be like steamed chicken.

To prepare chicken, rinse and cut each leg into 8 pieces. Peel and rinse ginger, shallots and garlic. Cut into small pieces. Pound finely, or blitz in a mini chopper. Mix thoroughly with all other marinade ingredients and chicken. Leave to marinate for 1 hour, or up to 24 hours.

Just before wrapping, drizzle with sesame oil and vegetable oil and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle with tapioca flour and mix again.

To wrap chicken, place parchment paper in a stack facing you horizontally. Fold left ⅓ of paper to the right, then right ⅓ to the left. Turn over, and fold bottom ⅓ upward. You now have fold lines for turning each piece of paper into a pocket.

Form a pocket with parchment paper. Fill with 2 pieces of chicken. Do not include any excess marinade. Fold left and right corner of top flap downward, forming a triangle. Tuck triangle into bottom flap as snugly as possible. Place wrapped chicken on a plate, flap side facing up. Repeat with remaining paper and chicken.

To deep-fry, place wrapped chicken in just smoking oil over medium-high heat till medium brown, about ½ minute each side. Remove from heat and reheat oil. Refry chicken for a few seconds till dark brown. Drain and serve immediately.


Anonymous said...

Yummy delicious!!!

jung said...

I want to thank you for putting up a splendid blog. Been going thru some of your recipes and i must say, I am very entertained some of your very cute posts, and of course, enlightened by some of the research you have put in!! Keep it up!

KT said...

Thanks, Anon and jung. Happy reading.

hello ello said...

hey KT, just wanna say i enjoy reading your blog alot alot! :) and you're really talented in cooking! please keep it up!

PS i love cats tooo

KT said...

'allo 'allo hello ello

Thanks for reading. The kitties say hi too. *purr . . . .*

Diane said...

Dear Kitchen Tigress:
I stumbled on your blog when hunting for a sambal telur recipe. I want to thank you for posting some of these recipes as they are more unusual that the regular stuff posted onthe internet. I also enjoy your rather caustic humour. Please don't ever change!!

KT said...

Thanks, Diane.

Mrs Lee's sambal telur recipe is probably not very authentic, btw. The sambal is mainly tomato paste (!), and it doesn't have any belachan. But the taste ain't too bad, which was why I didn't knock it.

Diane said...

Never mind the sambal isn't too authentic. I was looking for a recipe that was slightly different than the everyday sambal telur. One of these days, I will bribe some friends to pick me up the recipe book as it sounds interesting.

My mama made us some chee pow kai a few yyears back. From what I remembered, it was waay more work than it was worth. Perhaps I will try and convince her we need to revisit this recipe. I have no recollection of ever eating chee pow kai in Malaysia so I will have to rely on my mama's taste buds.

Angie said...

Thank you .. thank you.. thank you..
I found my old time favourite --- CHEE POW KAI!! My mum used to make this for us on special occasions (birthday party, chinese new year etc). I love love this..
Now I need to get the book: Cooking for the President, I hope it's not out of print .. (fingers crossed).
THanks again :)

kt said...

Here you go:

Feroz said...

You are now my favorite Strait food blogger :-)

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