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. —Yi Jun Loh
Mix the salt, ginger powder, turmeric powder, and Shaoxing wine together to form a paste. Rub this paste all over the chicken, including the cavity, to season it. Leave it uncovered in the refrigerator for 2 hours, or up to overnight.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator an hour before cooking to get it to room temperature. Then, stuff the fresh ginger slices and scallion stems into the cavity of the chicken. (Note: If your chicken doesn’t quite fit into the pot/Dutch oven it’ll be baked in, halve or quarter your chicken at this point and bake them in two or more batches later on.)
Wrap the chicken in two layers of parchment paper, fold it into a parcel and tie it up with string or kitchen twine. Make sure the chicken is fully wrapped inside the parchment. (Optional: Before wrapping in parchment, truss up the chicken with kitchen twine.)
In a large pan or wok, fry the coarse salt on medium heat for about 10-15 minutes. As the salt gets hot, it’ll dry out even more and you start to get a whiff of a smoky, salty smell. Stop at this point.
Transfer about 1/3 of the hot salt to a large, deep pot or Dutch oven, making sure to spread it evenly on the bottom of the pot. (Be careful, the salt is really hot!) Now place the wrapped chicken into the cooking vessel, nestle it on the bed of salt, and cover it completely with the rest of the salt.
Place a lid on the pot/Dutch oven, and cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Then, turn off the heat and let it sit, covered, for another 30 minutes. The residual heat in the salt should continue to cook the chicken.
When the salt is warm(ish) the touch, scrape off the top layer of salt and carefully dig out the chicken. Most of the salt, as long as they’re not tainted by the cooking juices of the chicken, can be reused for your next batch of salt-baking!
Unwrap the chicken from the parchment, and serve it chopped up into chunks. Or if you’re going down the more traditional route, roughly shred it with your hands. There will be some baking juices in the bottom of your parcel (in Chinese culture we call this ji jing or chicken essence). Pour this nectar over the chicken as you serve it.