Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Portuguese chicken of Macau

I never heard much about Macau before I went there. 

Back in the mid-70's, when I first went to check it out during a short Hong Kong vacation, this little city was still very much a colonial backwater, one of the last bastions of Portugal's far flung empire. All I'd ever heard about the place was that it was where you went for gambling, spies, and all sorts of nefarious goings-on.

What hadn't reached my ears yet was news about the local chicken dish, a bubbling casserole of curry, coconut milk, and potatoes that has never left my brain since the first mouthful.

What happened was, I had been dropped off at an itty bitty restaurant while my guide went off to care of some business. Knowing how much I like to eat, this was a responsible and rather inspired decision. The only thing I remember hearing as I was pushed in the door was, "Order the Portuguese chicken." And then the car roared off and I was left to my own devices.
Toss the chicken with cornstarch

It was a little shack with an elderly Eurasian gentleman mopping down the bar. He gave me a welcoming smile, and so I sauntered in and said with casual authority, "The Portuguese chicken, please."

A short while later, the same gent emerged from the back and placed a bubbling casserole in front of me along with a bowl of rice. And life has never been the same. The rest of Macau suddenly lost most of its allure, as far as I was concerned, because if there was one thing for a person like me to do in this little outpost of sin and espionage, it was to order the local dish, devour it with utter pleasure, take a walk around to look at the crumbling Portuguese architecture, and then head back for another round of chicken.

That's my idea of a perfect Macau vacation.

Fry until golden
At first I was a bit confused as to why it was called "Portuguese chicken," but years later as I figured out that this recipe must have arrived on China's southern coast via Goa, Portugal's colony on the Indian coast, and maybe even picked up a few ideas in another colony called East Timor, which lies next to Indonesia. And then this dish made complete sense.

I've played around with this a bit, using Japanese curry cubes instead of curry powder because it gives a controllable flavor. Curry powders vary in intensity and ingredients to such an extent that I wanted to make this something that it could be easily replicated. The cubes also add just the right amount of salt and thickeners, so I'm sold on this. Of course, feel free to use curry powder or canned curry paste, if that is something you prefer, but be sure to adjust the seasoning and the thickeners, too.

My secret ingredients
What you will end up here is a truly subtle sauce. When I first ate it at that little shack, I wasn't sure at all what the flavors were, and most likely your guests won't, either. That's because it's a really low level of spice here that just sort of hums in the background. The color is more like Dijon than ballpark mustard, a visual slight of hand that tends to trip people up. And the coconut milk is not assertive, either, pretending to be a cream sauce more than anything else.

The ingredients can be played around with, too. Some people like tomatoes and raisins and carrots in this. Others like shredded coconut or even Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. I don't, but that's a personal choice. I also prefer boneless chicken in here, some potatoes and onions, and that's pretty much it.

You can almost see from this that I'm searching for gentle textures and smooth flavors with nothing sharp or sweet to wake me out of my reverie.

Hush. I'm eating.

Portuguese chicken 
Puguo ji 葡國雞 
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, or 4 as a main course

Half a chicken, or two half breasts
2 tablespoons (or so) cornstarch
½ onion, peeled
2 small or 1 large potato (Yukon golds are great)
3 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 cups filtered water
2 squares Japanese curry paste (see Tips)
13.5 ounce can good coconut milk (see Tips)

1. Rinse the chicken and pat dry with a paper towel. Cut up the chicken into 1-inch or so pieces. (You can do this with the bones and skin or without; up to you.) Toss the chicken with the cornstarch so that each piece is fully coated. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok over high heat and add the chicken; stir-fry the chicken until browned, and then remove to a work bowl.

Add coconut milk
2. Cut the onion into 1-inch cubes and then separate it into the single layers. Peel the potatoes, cut them into 1-inch cubes, and if you want the dish to be ready faster, either microwave or boil the potatoes until soft. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a wok over high heat and add the onion pieces. Stir-fry them for a few minutes, and once they are soft, add the rice wine, stir quickly to evaporate the alcohol, and then add the water. Toss in the curry cubes and bring the sauce to a boil. Add the potatoes -- either cooked or raw -- and bring the sauce to a boil again. Reduce the heat to low and cook the potatoes until they are tender and have absolutely no rawness in them. Add the whole can of coconut milk plus the fried chicken. Bring the sauce to a boil, taste, and adjust seasoning, if necessary. (The dish can be made ahead of time and refrigerated.)

The velvety sauce
3. About 15 minutes before you want to serve this, heat your oven broiler to high and place the rack about 4 inches below the heat. Have a 10-inch round casserole that is around 2 inches deep ready. Bring the Portuguese chicken to a boil (in the wok or a saucepan), and then pour it into the casserole. Place the casserole under the broiler and brown the Portuguese chicken; it is ready when it has lovely leopard spots all over it. Serve piping hot with a vegetable and either some rice or baguettes.


I like the brand called Golden Curry, which comes in various degrees of heat, and prefer the one marked "medium hot," which has green on the box. This is great for making all sorts of curry dishes, including things like winter squash soup; just throw a cube into the soup, puree it, and enjoy.

Full cream coconut milk is best here, as it is that richness that makes this dish so luscious. Chaokoh brand from Thailand is the best.