Why This Recipe Works
- Adding cornstarch to the marinade coats the chicken in a layer of starch, resulting in tender, succulent meat.
- Steaming the chicken on top of the rice allows the juices and rendered fats to drip down below, permeating the grains with flavor.
There are a few things to consider when deciding what to cook on top of Cantonese clay pot rice, a popular dish of rice that’s steamed then crisped in a clay pot. Because the toppings cook directly on top of the rice, the ideal dishes are ones that are able to retain their moisture even after 20 minutes of steaming—the time it usually takes clay pot rice to cook. (Even at a gentle heat, this is significantly longer than the cooking time required for most steamed Cantonese dishes.) When properly prepared, the toppings should release their juices onto the rice, permeating the grains with fat and flavor. This, however, means that proteins have to be sufficiently protected from drying out—something this classic recipe for clay pot rice topped with tender and juicy velveted chicken demonstrates well.
One of the brilliant ways to keep meat moist is a method of marinating called velveting. Most commonly, this technique is used to make velveted chicken with shiitake mushrooms (冬菇滑雞), a popular dish for accompanying rice at both dim sum and clay pot rice restaurants. The direct translation of the dish, in fact, is “slippery chicken.” When done properly, velveting can render a relatively lean cut of meat like chicken breast moist and tender—even after extended steaming.
What Is Velveting?
Velveting is a Chinese cooking technique that helps meat develop a silky smooth texture by protecting it in a layer of starch. Typically, proteins are marinated in egg whites and cornstarch, then blanched in hot water or oil to set the protective coating, resulting in incredibly tender meat. Though velveting has been written about extensively in English since it was introduced by Irene Kuo in her 1977 book The Key to Chinese Cooking, most Chinese chefs don’t use the same terminology to describe the technique. Rather than refer to the method as “velveting,” they simply say they are marinating meat in starch.
So in the same vein, there is some leeway to velveting; there are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes water velveting. As long as meat is coated in some form of starch and liquid and the meat is then exposed to heat, there are no other major restrictions to the ingredients or the cooking technique. Different chefs from different regions will have their own approaches to the technique.
In this recipe, the velveting agent is simply cornstarch or potato starch added to a marinade of Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, and oyster sauce. Oil is added as well, which is emulsified into the marinade with the starch, making the chicken more “slippery.” A quick wash of salt and baking soda forms a quick wet brine, helping the chicken retain its moisture.
Blanching the chicken before steaming it over rice would be excessive, as the meat does not need to be protected in the same way as it would be for a stir-fry. Because the toppings for clay pot rice are steamed directly on top of the rice, they’re cooked more gently than in a stir-fry, which means they don’t need to be blanched separately in water or oil.
Variations on the Classic
As noted above, the chicken topping on this clay pot rice recipe is often served in other ways. Some families will make velveted chicken with shiitake mushrooms directly on top of their rice in a rice cooker to achieve a similar one-pot meal. For most Chinese households, this dish will stand alone without being steamed over rice, presented with an array of family style braises and stir-fries. A similar technique can be applied to boneless slices of chicken, pork, or beef as well.
But of all the variations, there’s no arguing the dish works particularly well on clay pot rice. The chicken truly makes the rice shine, with its tender texture in contrast with the crispy bottom and its delicate seasoning in concert with a robust seasoned soy sauce.
Cantonese Clay Pot Rice With Velveted Chicken and Mushrooms (北菇滑雞煲仔飯)
When done properly, velveting can render a relatively lean cut of meat moist and tender—even after extended steaming.
- For the Seasoned Soy Sauce:
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) lard, schmaltz, or neutral oil
- 1 scallion, root end trimmed, white and green parts cut into 1-inch segments
- 1 small shallot (1 ounce; 30g), thinly sliced
- 1 ounce (30g) cilantro (about 1/2 bunch), cut into 1-inch segments (about 1/3 cup)
- 4 medium cloves garlic (20g), smashed
- One 1-inch knob fresh peeled ginger (10g), sliced thinly
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Shaoxing wine
- 1/3 cup (80ml) water
- 1/3 cup (80ml) light soy sauce
- 1/3 cup (80ml) dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons (30g) granulated sugar
- For the Rice:
- 1 cup jasmine rice or an equal-parts mix of jasmine and short-grain (such as koshihikari) rice (7 ounces; 200g), see notes
- 1 cup (240ml) hot water
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) lard, schmaltz, or neutral oil
- For Washing the Chicken:
- 1 bone-in, skin on chicken leg (200g), chopped into 1-inch pieces with a cleaver
- 1 tablespoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (9g); for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 teaspoon baking sodaFor Marinating the Chicken:
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) Shaoxing wine
- 1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use a pinch
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) vegetable or other neutral oil
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) oyster sauce
- 1 pinch white pepper
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch or potato starch (0.3 ounce; 8g)
- One 1-inch knob fresh peeled ginger (about 3/4 ounce; 20g), peeled, smashed, and sliced thinly
- 3 dried shiitake mushrooms (11g), washed and soaked for at least 1 hour and up to overnight, thinly sliced
For the Seasoned Soy Sauce: In a small saucepan, melt lard over medium heat until shimmering, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low and add scallions, shallot, cilantro, garlic, and ginger, and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the aromatics are fragrant and begin to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add Shaoxing wine, water, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer for 7 minutes, until thickened. The sauce should be dark, smooth, and slightly thicker than bottled light soy sauce. Pour seasoned soy sauce through a fine-mesh strainer set over a medium heatproof bowl. Refrigerate until chilled.
Meanwhile, Wash the Chicken: In a medium-sized bowl, cover the chicken with water and rinse off as much blood as possible. Add 1 cup water, along with salt and baking soda, and massage the chicken, tenderizing it and removing as much residual blood as possible. Drain well, squeeze gently to remove as much moisture as possible, and set aside.
For the Rice: In a large bowl, combine short-grain and jasmine rice and cover by 2 inches with cool water. Using your hands, vigorously swish rice until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain the rice, discarding the cloudy soaking water. (Rinsing the grains just once retains more of the starch and flavors of the rice.) Cover rice with at least double the amount of water and soak for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. When the rice has finished soaking, drain it well through a fine-mesh sieve. (To check if the rice has thoroughly soaked, break a grain in half. There shouldn’t be a visible hard, white center.)
Make the Marinade: In a medium bowl, whisk together Shaoxing wine, salt, oil, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, white pepper, and potato starch. Add the chicken, gently squeezing it to work the marinade into the meat.
Add the ginger and shiitake mushrooms, tossing to coat, then transfer to refrigerator and let marinate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.
Cook the Rice: Set the clay pot over medium-high heat until hot to the touch, about 2 minutes. Add the rice to the pot and top with just enough water to barely cover. Bring the rice and water to a boil, stirring occasionally. When the rice and water begin to bubble, give the rice a final stir to get rid of any clumps, and allow the rice to cook until water is no longer visible above the rice, about 2 minutes.
Reduce heat to low. Using a pair of chopsticks, ventilate the rice by poking a few shallow holes on the surface of the rice. Slide the marinated chicken, ginger, and shiitake mushrooms onto the rice in an even layer.
Cover clay pot with lid and allow rice and chicken to cook on low heat until the rice begins to crackle, about 10 minutes. (Do not open the lid. Listening carefully, you should hear a consistent sizzling crackle; loud, inconsistent pops mean that the heat is too high.)
Drizzle lard, schmaltz, or oil on the rim of the lid and allow it to trickle down into the rice. With the lid still on, angle the clay pot so that a quarter of the bottom of the pot is toasting directly over the flame. Rotate the clay pot every minute, so that another quarter of the pot is being toasted. Repeat this process for another 13 minutes. Be careful not to burn the rice; if the vapor escaping the pot becomes a single, slow wisp or you begin to smell smoke, reduce heat to low. The rice is done when it stops sizzling and the steam slows. Remove clay pot from heat and rest for 2 minutes.
To Serve: Remove the lid and drizzle with the desired amount of seasoned soy sauce, stirring to mix well. Serve in the clay pot itself, dividing portions up into smaller individual bowls. Once most of the rice has been served, use a metal spoon to scrape up the crispy rice on the bottom, optionally crumbling it into the fluffier rice mixture.
Cantonese clay pot (about 1 quart in capacity and 18cm in diameter), gas stove
Using both jasmine and a short- or medium-grain variety produces rice that’s both fluffy and chewy, a texture I particularly enjoy. However, you’re more than welcome to use just one kind of rice instead of a blend.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The seasoned soy sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.