Har Cheong Gai (Prawn Paste Chicken) (I)

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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

Phwoar! 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.

17 July 2012 Update

If there's a favourite fried chicken in Singapore, my guess is it's HCG, not KFC. Here's how I make HCG:

Source: Adapted from All About Ci Char Cuisine
(Recipe for 4 persons)

1 tbsp sugar
½ tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp 虾酱 (har cheong; Chinese fermented prawn paste)
2 chicken legs, about 400 g, wash, drain, and chop chunky
¼ cup tapioca starch
vegetable oil for deep-frying

🌹 The most important ingredient for prawn paste chicken is, other than prawn paste and chicken, water. The tapioca starch is also crucial. That's what Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji uses for its very popular har cheong gai, as shown in the video here. It's pretty good, better than cornflour.

Add sugar, oyster sauce, water and har cheong to chicken. Stir thoroughly. Marinate 3-4 hours, turning over once mid-way.
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.

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.


Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

why are most zi-char stalls' har-cheong chickies in reddish color while your's normal fried chickie color? is it bcos of the brand of the prawn paste or they added extra stuff into the marinate etc?

KT said...


'is it bcos of the brand of the prawn paste or they added extra stuff into the marinate etc?'

Both, according to a Zaobao article. Loy Sum Juan invented HCG, and theirs is red because of their special red/pink har cheong which is made in Hainan. The colour has become the 'signature look' of HCG, so copycats also make their HCG red. If they don't have the right har cheong, they'd add red colouring.

The har cheong I used was distinctly grey. If you use LKK har cheong, which is pink, the HCG might be more red.

Good question – thanks!

KT said...

Sometimes, belachan and har cheong have sultan red added so that they look pink, which is more appealing than grey. Beware! To get the pink colour naturally, the right type of prawns must be used.

Shu Han said...

hello! I followed your link to the makansutra article and this was in the article:
The secret to 黎三元酒家 famous prawn paste chicken, is to first use wine to get rid of the smell in fresh chicken, and coat it with egg and frying flour.

have you tried that?

that looks yummy btw!

can you use belachan and har cheong interchangeably then?? also confused about tau cheo that's in yellow cubes vs brown beans(sometimes mashed up)?? thought you'd be thebest person to consult ! ;)

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

*applause* u is really the food detective! swee ah!

KT said...

The coat of flour on HCG should be quite thin, so I don't use any egg, which would make too much flour stick to the chicken. (I use flour + egg for sweet & sour pork and orange glazed ribs.)

The recipe I followed actually has 1 egg in the marinade. The book says the egg helps stop the meat from losing liquid. I don't believe that's true 'cause I can't see why it should be, scientifically.

I use wine to add a nice aroma, not get rid of any bad smell. If the chicken doesn't taste good or at least decent when it's completely plain, with absolutely nothing added, then I don't buy it. Fresh chicken from wet markets has started to taste bad recently. I think chicken feed prices have escalated, so farmers try to cut costs by using poor quality stuff. I've stopped buying wet market chicken, and I think I'm not the only one. The supermarket I shop at was out of chicken on three occasions recently! A run on chicken?

Would adding wine to HCG make it more fragrant? The cookbook I used is quite reliable, and there's no wine in the recipe. Maybe the har cheong is so strong it would have overwhelmed the wine? I will try adding some wine next time to see if it makes a difference.

Use belachan (pulverized with some water, presumably) and har cheong interchangeably? Yes and no. They are similar yet distinctly different, if you know what I mean. I guess there must be a good reason why Loy Sum Juan and other restaurants/stalls use har cheong rather than belachan? Some people wouldn't even change one har cheong for another har cheong!

The yellow cubes are pieces of fermented beancurd, immersed in a liquid with beans, which is the taucheo. Mashed up taucheo is convenient when you need pounded taucheo.


Shu Han said...

thanks a lot!! I learn so much from your blog! (:

Anonymous said...


I love this dish!!! May I know where did u get your bottle of har cheong paste? I wanna get one too. :) can I have the brand & name? Thank you!


KT said...

Hi Pat

I bought mine at Kwong Cheong Thye. Some Chinese grocery stalls at wet markets have it too. The manufacturer is Yan Kee Oyster Sauce & Shrimp Sauce Factory; the brand is 龍嘜. It's the bottle on the right in the first photo.


Anonymous said...

Hi KT,

I found the prawn paste & last week I tried your recipe & the har cheong gar was delicious!! Thank you for sharing this fabulous recipe!


KT said...

Hi Pat

Congratulations, now all you (and I) have to do is finish up the whole bottle of very salty har cheong! *groan* I'm thinking blanched or stir-fried kang kong with har cheong; ditto with sweet potato leaves. Or har cheong ribs, steamed or deep-fried.

Anonymous said...

hi KT,
Have you tried the har cheong paste with a logo of "butterfly"? It is also made in Hong Kong. The market grocer told me it is popular with his customers. I thought of checking with you first before buying cos i could not find the "dragon" brand which you used. Thks alot for your help. Belle

KT said...

Hi Belle

Sorry, I haven't tried 'butterfly brand'. If you try it, let me know if it's good? TIA. :)

mtd said...

I love your take on recipes and how you take time to explain the intricacies of asian cooking. With solid bricks of prawn paste, what is the water to solid prawn paste ratio that you would recommend for the chicken marinade?

KT said...

I've never used solid prawn paste for making har cheong gai. Sorry!

amanda said...

hi if i were to make this using Lee Kum Kee's har cheong? how much shld i put since u mentioned it was quite salty

kt said...

The brand used in the recipe is made with 15% salt. Please check the salt content of LKK and adjust accordingly. Cheers.

Violet said...

The recipe is perfect. I tried it and it works. The skin is so crunchy and light. Thank you so much for posting. All the taste balance so well. I use the Penang belacan and mix with hot water to make it into paste, Since I have it lying around I thought no need to buy the Chinese version. Again, thank you for the wonderful recipe.



christina said...

Hi, why do you use tapioca flour? Can other flours be used and what is the difference in texture?

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