KitchenTigress: Har Cheong Gai (Prawn Paste Chicken) (I)

Har Cheong Gai (Prawn Paste Chicken) (I)

There're many types of fermented prawn paste. I could smell this one once the bottle was open.

OMG, this is potent stuff!

It wasn't belachan, which is quite harmless until it's toasted or fried.

Nor was it Penang hae ko, which is absolutely benign because it has lots of sugar.
What I had was har cheong, a liquid prawn paste made in Hong Kong. It was a very appetizing grey – oh yum! – and the label on the bottle said, so reassuringly, "Cooked [sic] Before Eating".

Thanks for the warning! You bet I will!

Your first whiff of har cheong might make you think of rotting rats, or a mortuary with no power supply. But once you take a deep breath – be brave! – you'll get the aroma that explains why fermented prawn paste is cherished in Singapore, Malaysia, the Phillipines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and some parts of China.

The first time I made har cheong gai was several years ago with a recipe from Lee Kum Kee. Marinated with just har cheong and a wee bit of sugar, the chicken was way too salty. After the flop, the bottle of LKK Fine Shrimp Sauce sat untouched in the fridge for a few years! It was eventually binned when I moved house.

Today, I made another stab at HCG. Giving LKK a wide berth, I armed myself with a different brand of har cheong that's far superior.

I also had a different recipe.  The massively salty har cheong was tamed with way more sugar than my first attempt. There's also a good amount of water, and a bit of oyster sauce. The first recipe didn't have these at all.

Today's HCG was a huge success. There wasn't a single piece of chicken left.

If there's a favourite fried chicken in Singapore, my guess is it's HCG, not KFC.

How to make har cheong gai (虾酱鸡)

Step-by-step guide

The most important ingredient for prawn paste chicken is – other than prawn paste and chicken – water. Tapioca starch is also crucial. That's what Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji uses for its very popular har cheong gai. It's way better than cornflour.

har cheong gai
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • ½ tbsp oyster sauce
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 2 tbsp har cheong (虾酱, fermented prawn paste)
  • 2 chicken legs, about 400 g – wash, drain, chop chunky
  • ¼ cup tapioca starch
  • vegetable oil for deep-frying
  1. Add sugar, oyster sauce, water and har cheong to chicken. Stir thoroughly. Marinate 3-4 hours, turning over once mid-way.

  2. Bring chicken to room temperature. Shake off excess marinade from chicken. Dredge in tapioca starch till thinly coated. Pat lightly to get rid of excess starch.

  3. Deep-fry chicken in moderately hot oil over medium heat till cooked through and lightly golden brown. Remove chicken to a sieve. Increase heat to high. Heat oil till just smoking. Refry chicken till golden brown. Drain in a sieve lined with paper towels. Serve immediately.