When it comes to cooking chicken, few techniques can truly surprise us anymore. We’ve fried, grilled, and steamed chicken, stuck them into rotisseries, braised them in stews, pan-fried them under bricks, even roasted them with a beer can stuck up their nether ends. All in all, it seems like we’ve figuratively cooked the commonest of poultries to death.
Enter: salt-baked chicken. Otherwise known as yim guk gai, a traditional albeit unconventional Chinese dish.
Sure, salt-baking might not seem like an entirely foreign concept. There’s the European technique, where whole fish is encased and then roasted in a thick layer of salt. There’s also the trick of salt-crusting pork belly to get the skin extra crispy.
But distinct from these methods, yim guk gai takes the term “salt-baking” to a whole new level. The amount of salt alone would make even the most overzealous salt lover choke. Because, to make yim guk gai, the chicken is first seasoned and wrapped in parchment. Similar to cooking en papillote or al cartoccio, wrapping the chicken in a tight parcel ensures that all the moisture will be contained throughout the cooking process. After it’s wrapped, the chicken is then completely smothered and buried under a ton of scorching hot salt, and left to bake. The hot salt creates an extremely high—and most crucially—even temperature around the chicken, and unlike oven-roasting, has little risk of burning or charring. As a result, the chicken ends up steaming in its own juices, concentrating the flavour and essence of the bird, resulting in an extremely succulent and (for lack of a better word) moist meat.
Yim guk gai has origins in Chinese Hakka culture. But like many Chinese dishes, it gained a new lease on life after being brought over to Malaysia in the earth 20th century. In the Malaysian city of Ipoh, in particular, it’s gained an almost cult-like status, with dozens of shops and businesses that have, for decades, relied solely on selling salt-baked chicken for income. Even now, their hype has not waned, as people all over the country (myself included) would flock all the way to Ipoh and brave the long lines just to get their hands on these salty, intensely savory birds.
To cope with the sheer volume of chickens they bake off every day, many of these yim guk gai shops have specially-made woks or earthenware vats the size of a small car, capable of burying and baking off dozens of chickens at any one time. But when baking yim guk gai at home, such clunky equipment is not necessary, as a deep pot or Dutch oven would do the trick for a single chicken. Furthermore, when it comes to taste, to accentuate the flavour of the chicken itself, additional flavourings are kept to a minimum: Just a bit of rice wine and powdered sand ginger (one of four types of galangal) is traditionally employed to give the chicken a slight herbal tinge. While sand ginger powder isn’t the easiest find even in Malaysia, I’ve often turned to regular ginger powder and a touch of turmeric, which are more than worthy substitutions.
To serve, yim guk gai can be chopped up or hand-torn into chunks, and served alongside a whole spread of other dishes. But to fully experience the deeply satisfying flavor of the chicken itself, I’d recommend having it on top of a steaming bowl of white rice, with its chickeny juices (the best part, in my opinion) drizzled all over. This, to me, is the epitome of Chinese comfort food in a bowl.
- 1 whole chicken, 3-4 pounds
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons ginger powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced
- 3 scallion stems
- 4 pounds coarse salt
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Have you ever had salt-baked chicken? Let us know in the comments below.