Chicken and rice is the universal comfort food (sorry, vegetarians). From basic homey chicken and rice soup to explosive chicken and rice cooked at halal carts in New York, there's no combination that humankind has embraced more. Hainanese chicken rice falls somewhere in the middle of the two extremes: nutritious enough to eat when sick in bed, but with just the right amount of spicy heartiness to be a super satisfying drunk food. I decided to make my HCR portable, and turned them into rice balls wrapped in crisp nori - a little nod to Japanese onigiri. They were the perfect snacks for my pre half-marathon carb load!
Track and cross country defined my high school life, but I needed a mental break from the stress of racing when I got to college. So began four sedentary years, during which I ate like I was running 50 miles a week... when in reality I was passively letting my muscle mass evaporate. Races in high school were a non-stop weekly coin toss of success or failure, and I couldn't think of adding that kind of anxiety to my college experience. A year after graduation, I remained well en route to becoming an amorphous blob, until I made some questionable culinary choices and finally decided I had hit rock bottom. Specifically, I woke up one morning, found half a leftover Domino's Pizza in my fridge, cooked up a batch of Southern sausage gravy - you know, the milk / butter / flour based monstrosity that typically goes with flaky biscuits - and combined it all with runny fried eggs. Brunch...for one. The next day, I reflected on this particular life choice and decided to join a gym.
Picking up running again was punishing at first, but slowly became addicting. As a surprising side effect, I started to actually crave healthy food on a daily basis (a total shock for someone who had not long ago consumed a gravy-topped pizza). These Hainanese chicken rice balls are my favorite kind of meal: completely guiltless, without compromising taste. The chicken is poached in a gently simmering, gingery bath and then dunked in ice water so the skin stretches taut across the meat. Traditionally this is sliced and served with chili sauce, cucumbers, and plenty of rice cooked in the intensely flavored stock; I packed it all together in rice-ball form so I could have my HCR on the go. These motivated me through 13.1 miles on a chilly 35 degree morning - if that's not a strong enough endorsement, I don't know what is!
Hainanese Chicken Rice Balls Recipe (makes 16-20, serves 4)
Ingredients: chicken filling
- 1 small chicken, around 3 lbs, cut into 8 pieces (ask your butcher)
- Coarse sea salt
- 3 inches of ginger, sliced
- 2 scallions, chopped roughly
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 tbsp of Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tbsp of soy sauce
- Ice water
- Sesame oil
Ingredients: to serve
- 3 cups of brown rice (or white rice)
- 3 cups of low sodium chicken stock (or reserved broth from poaching chicken)
- 1 cup of water
- 1.5 tsp of fresh ginger, chopped very fine
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped very fine
- Sesame seeds (optional)
- 2 nori sheets, cut into 16-20 strips
- 1 cucumber, sliced into cubes
- Chili sauce (I used sambal oelek)
Prep the chicken: Cut the chicken into 8 pieces, and rub the skin with coarse sea salt.
Cook the chicken: Place the chicken pieces with the ginger, scallions, garlic, rice wine, and soy sauce; add just enough water to cover the chicken pieces. Bring to a boil for about 5 minutes and skim the scum off the top of the water. Lower the heat to low/medium-low and bring to a gentle simmer. Continue simmering, covered, for 30-40 minutes. The smaller pieces will require less cook time than the large pieces. As the pieces cook fully and to desired tenderness, remove from the bath and place into an ice water bath. This will tauten the skin. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, rub with sesame oil and shred, including the skin.
Cook the rice: Fry the ginger and garlic over high heat until fragrant; blot with paper towels to remove excess oil. Combine with the uncooked rice. In a rice cooker, cook the rice in either reserved chicken broth from the poached chicken, or chicken stock if you don't want to wait. Add however much stock/water is on package directions (err on the side of more rather than less liquid); I used a combination of stock and water because my chicken stock is homemade with a lot of gelatin and fat, so I was worried the rice balls wouldn't stick together. When the rice is finished cooking, mix in the sesame seeds (optional).
Assemble the rice balls: Place a few tbsp of warm rice into a double sheet of plastic wrap; add chicken and cucumber cubes. Twist the plastic wrap shut and use your hands to shape into a ball or a triangle shape. You will need to pack quite firmly; if the rice is too dry then it won't work well. Set aside to cool and firm up. When ready to serve, toast the nori strips and place them around the rice balls.