[Note to reader: I'm traveling but have been wanted to post this recipe. I thought I had a photo of this chicken and rice soup but cannot find it for the life of me! So imagine, if you will, a rice bowl filled with hot, velvety white soup, garnished with whisps of cilantro and a few scallion rings. On the side is a plate of poached chicken with a small dipping sauce dish filled with zesty ginger-lime dipping sauce. That's what I would have presented to you. Perhaps these words will feed your senses?]
Despite the calendar saying that it’s spring, I’m feeling like we’re the shoulder season between winter and spring. The air is lightly brisk and I find myself grabbing a light sweater to keep warm. One of the foods that comfort me in this kind of weather is cháo, Vietnam’s version of simple rice soup. In other parts of Asia, this kind of soup can be called jook, juk, and congee. I’ve often seen it described in English as porridge – as if it’s only for the old and infirm. Surely, cháo is a great panacea for all kinds of ills, particularly tummy aches and hangovers, I’ve found, but I also love it when I’m healthy! In fact, cháo rice soup is all-weather fare, and can be enjoyed at all times of the day. In hot, humid climates like that of Saigon (in the 90s these days), I’d eat this kind of congee in the morning, when it’s cooler, as I would pho noodle soup.
All cháo is rice and water or stock simmered until the rice grains release their starches so that the liquid becomes thick and creamy. The finished texture is not pasty, mind you. It’s quite elegant, though made from a handful of humble, homey ingredients. There are many approaches to cooking up congee in Asia, and people have told me that they’ve used medium grain rice, broken jasmine rice, and regular long grain rice. I’ve sometimes thrown leftover cooked rice into a pot of water for a ‘shortcut’ version. The message here is this: use what you’ve got.
There are a number of versions of cháo gà (pronounced "chow gah") in the Vietnamese repertoire. You can just cook up the soup and add a flavorful stirfried chicken mixture at the end. That’s what I typically make at home. There’s also a more complex version, what you’d get at a market stand or joint specializing in cháo. The idea is that you cut up a whole fresh chicken and simmer it for the stock. The solids are strained out and you add rice and cook further until the rice breaks down. The chicken is cut up and served as a side to the soup, with a bracing ginger lime dipping sauce. You dip some chicken into the sauce and eat the rice soup. The rice, chicken, and dip concept is sort of a soupy relative of Hainan chicken and rice, no?
Below is a recipe for the fanciful version of cháo gà. However, to save time, I use homemade stock I have in the freezer and chicken legs as their meat is rich and succulent. In a pinch, you can opt for a shortcut chicken stock, if you like. Or, you could use a couple of duck legs and/or duck stock.
Chicken and Rice Soup with Ginger Dipping Sauce
Makes about 8 cups, to serve 4 as a light lunch or 6 with 2 or 3 other dishes
3/4 cup long-grain rice
10 cups chicken stock, homemade or shortcut version
4 quarter-sized slices unpeeled fresh ginger
2 chicken leg quarters
Chopped cilantro or rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), for garnish
2/3 cup Ginger Lime Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Mam Gung)
1. Put the rice in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan and add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Stir the rice with your hand 8 to 10 times around and then let the rice settle. Carefully pour out the milky water. Repeat this rinsing but without stirring the rice. These two rinsings remove some of the starch from the rice.
2. Remove the white and pale green part from the scallions and set aside. Cut the green part into thin rings and set aside.
3. Add the scallion white parts, stock, ginger, and chicken to the pot containing the rice. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to a vigorous simmer, and then cover partially. To loosen but not lose its starch, the rice should bounce in the bubbling water without the water boiling over the pan sides. Let the soup cook for 5 minutes. Stir the rice to make sure none has stuck to the bottom and lower the heat to a gentle simmer.
4. Re-cover partially and continue cooking for 1 hour. After 15 minutes, the chicken should be done (poke it with a knife tip to test). Remove the chicken from the pot and put into a bowl of ice water. Leave for a few minutes, drain, and set aside to cool.
The soup is done with the soup is thick, creamy white, and there is only a little separation between the rice and liquid. If you stir the soup, the rice should be suspended in the liquid.
5. Discard the ginger and scallion. Taste and add salt as necessary; the amount will depend on what liquid you used to make the soup. You can make the soup several days in advance and reheat it over medium heat with the chicken and a bit of extra water to prevent scorching.
6. To serve, cut the chicken into bite size pieces, keeping the skin intact, if you like. Place on a plate. Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with cilantro and scallion rings, and serve the chicken on the side with the ginger lime dipping dipping sauce. To eat, dip the chicken into the sauce and then eat with some soup.