Bak Jam GaiFebruary 5th, 2009 by Tony Dun
“A chicken in every pot!”
That was always a truism in my parent’s Victoria, B. C. home. Every Sunday, my mother poached a five pound chicken, good enough to feed two adults, my four sisters, one brother and me. It was a special day for all because this was the only evening that the family sat down together for the first and last meal of the week. Being Sunday, my father didn’t work as the night cook at the family-owned Panama Café.
Before the meal at six p.m. sharp, my mother chopped the poached chicken into bite-size pieces, stuff it with sliced green onions and prepared a dipping sauce of light soya sauce. Combined with hot steaming rice and a plate of bak choy, life at the Queens Avenue home could not have been any better.
Even at four when I could barely reach the dinner table, my aim was always to snatch that elusive drum stick from my four older siblings. Since chicken was so difficult to buy during the Great Depression, it became a special prize for my parents at the evening dinner table. Having a chicken on Sunday when the entire family was present represented the best of all Chinese traditions.
In Chinese folk culture, the chicken represents the phoenix which epitomizes happiness, life and revitalization. No wonder chicken soup has its own magical and recuperative powers, especially when served during times of sickness. The male dragon is the dialectic of the chicken. As the female symbol, the chicken and dragon envelop the image of marriage that is on-going.
The ancient Chinese were among the first to domesticate chicken. Over 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, the people of the Yangshao culture of the neolithic period along the Yellow River in China raised chicken. Chicken was also mentioned in the oracle bones of the Shang dynasty that lasted from 1766 to 1122 B.C. Evidence of the chicken as a prominent meal was unearthed from Han dynasty tombs in Hunan. Feast days in China and overseas Chinese communities always had the chicken as a special dish.
Among the many ways of preparing chicken, my mother always poached her chicken. She’s rinse the chicken and set it aside. Then, she’d filled a large soup pot with clear water. About a dozen thinly sliced ginger pieces were then added. Once the pot roared to a boil, she’d dispatch the whole chicken with the legs and thighs first into the pot. Once boiled, she’d turn off the heat and leave the slow process of poaching take its place for more than two hours.
A variation of this cooking process was to simmer the chicken, after the water came to a boil, on the lowest heat for an hour. Once poaching was completed, the chicken is taken out and place in a large pyrex dish with a cover slightly ajar to prevent hardening of the skin. Two hours later the chicken is ready to be chopped. I usually prepare a dipping sauce of Dijon mustard and dark soya sauce. Eating it lightly salted is another delicious way of preserving the flavor of the chicken. A couple of beers helps augment the immense pleasures of feasting on bak jam gai.
See recipe at http://faculty.washington.edu/chanant/recipe.html