Chef Mei Lin, an owner of Nightshade restaurant in Los Angeles and a Top Chef winner, shares her favorite family recipe

By As told to Laura Reg
August 10, 2019
Courtesy of Mei Lin

Growing up outside Detroit, I learned to cook by watching my grandfather and father in the restaurant my family owned. My favorite dish is one my grandpa used to prepare for me: Hainan chicken.

He’d make homemade broth using chicken necks and aromatics like lemongrass, onion, garlic, and scallions. Then he’d simmer a whole chicken in the fragrant broth while a pot of rice steamed alongside. The final burst of flavor came from his signature dipping sauce, a Chinese scallion-and-ginger relish that we spooned over the meal at the table. (Also try 'Top Chef' Host Padma Lakshmi's Favorite Cheap, Healthy Meal.)

Over the years I’ve put my own touches on this recipe, and it has become the dish my friends request most often. My grandpa’s Chinese relish is still a mainstay, but I’ve added other dipping sauces as well. My favorites are a spicy red Singaporean chili sauce and a sweet and savory Thai-style sauce made with salted soybeans, oyster sauce, galangal, ginger, scallions, and garlic. After my friends and I are done eating, I save the extra broth to drink when I’m sick, as we did when I was a kid. I’ll add freshly grated turmeric and ginger and sip it warm in a mug. (Related: This Ginger Broth Soup Will Soothe Your Stomach and Your Cravings)

I’m tinkering with a version of Hainan chicken for the menu at Nightshade, so I can share it with my customers. I love the way food like this helps us connect.

Chef Mei Lin's Hainan Chicken Recipe

Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Serves: 4 to 6

Ingredients

Chicken:

  • Kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 whole chicken, about 4½ pounds
  • 8 cups low-sodium chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 10 white scallion bottoms, from 2 bunches
  • 1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
  • 1 stick of lemongrass, halved and smashed with the back of a knife

Rice:

  • 2 cups jasmine rice
  • 1 teaspoon chicken fat or grapeseed oil

Directions

  1. Make the chicken, in a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of salt with the white pepper. Place the chicken in the bottom of a large pot and rub the chicken all over and inside the cavity with the salt and pepper mixture. Let the chicken sit at room temperature, about 30 minutes.
  2. Pour the stock over the chicken and add the onion, scallion bottoms, garlic, and lemongrass. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, skimming foam from the surface occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and an instant read thermometer reads 160 inserted into the thickest part of the breasts and thighs, about 45 minutes. Carefully, remove the chicken to a work surface and let rest while the rice cooks
  3. Strain the broth through a fine mesh sieve and discard solids. Transfer 2 ¼ cups broth to a small saucepan and reserve remaining broth for another use.
  4. Make the rice. Place the rice in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse, until the water runs clear. Transfer the rice to the saucepan with the stock and add the chicken fat and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and fluff with a fork.
  5. To serve, remove the chicken from bones and thinly slice, serve warm with the rice and sauces (see recipes below) on the side.

Note: Mei Lin makes a homemade stock for this dish by simmering chicken necks with onions, scallions, garlic, and lemongrass for 6 hours. You can use store-bought chicken broth.

Ginger Scallion Relish

Ingredients

  • 3 cups roughly chopped scallion greens, from 2 bunches
  • 5-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped (1/2 cup chopped)
  • 3 tablespoons grapeseed oil

Directions

  1. Pulse all ingredients in a food processor until finely chopped.
  2. Scrape into a small skillet and place over medium-high heat.
  3. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture and oil turn vibrant green, about 4 minutes.
  4. Scrape into a small heatproof bowl and let cool slightly.

Thai Khao Man Gai Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup oyster sauce
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons ginger scallion sauce, see ginger scallion sauce recipe
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons water

Directions

  1. In a food processor, pulse all ingredients except for the water until pureed.
  2. Scrape into a small bowl and add water by the teaspoonful if necessary to thin the sauce if it’s too thick.

Singaporean Chili Sauce

Ingredients

  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped (1/3 cup chopped)
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons low-sodium chicken stock, preferably homemade
  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons sambal olek

Directions

  1. Add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse until pureed.
  2. Scrape into a small bowl.
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