The dog days of August seem to be giving us a miss and I am eternally grateful. Usually, this is a hot and humid month pretty much everywhere, except in the Southern Hemisphere. People desert cities and escape to cooler climes, the mountains, the sea.
In Singapore, there have been rainy days and the sky is overcast a lot of the time.
Not that I am complaining.
The unseasonably cool weather has presented a great opportunity to make a stew I have been wanting to try out for some time – chicken adobo.
Its piquant flavours are perfect for pepping up a grey day.
With so many Filipinos working in Singapore, you’d think there would be a lot more restaurants serving the country’s cuisine. Alas, there are not.
Adobo, where meat is braised with soya sauce and vinegar, is practically a national dish. There are so many versions of it that my head spins looking at recipes. Should the meat be browned before or after braising? Ginger or not? Chilli or not?
By trial and error, plus a pile of chicken and litres of gravy, I have nailed down a recipe I am happy with.
My first stop is Lucky Plaza in Orchard Road, where Filipino grocery shops and mini-marts carry Silver Swan soya sauce and cane vinegar, made with sugar cane.
The soya sauce makes a beautifully dark gravy and its umami richness adds plenty of flavour to the stew. It is, however, on the salty side, so I experiment with reduced salt soya sauce too. I still prefer the version made with Silver Swan, but the less salty sauce has its charms.
The tang from the vinegar is much more apparent and that pleases my palate, which craves tartness.
Cane vinegar, slightly milky, has a sharp flavour, but the braising defangs it somewhat. I try different amounts of vinegar, but equal amounts of soya sauce and vinegar please my tastebuds the most. Reduce the amount of vinegar by 25 to 50ml if you do not like your food too tart.
If a trip to Lucky Plaza is out of the question, use apple cider vinegar instead.
The rest of the ingredients are easily available. I miss the bird’s eye chillies and ginger when I make versions of the stew without them, so have included them.
Some recipes call for browning the chicken before braising, but I prefer grilling or broiling the chicken after braising. The skin stays on better and anything that cuts down on cleaning kitchen messes will find favour with me. The recipe calls for the chicken to be grilled for four to six minutes, but I really prefer it after eight minutes, when patches of skin are charred.
Chicken thighs stand up to long cooking and do not dry out. Drumsticks will make a fine replacement. Both yield quite a bit of chicken fat, so after the braise, I store the stew in the fridge overnight and scrape off the layer of fat that floats to the top of the gravy. Why let oil stand in the way of enjoying that spicy, sharp gravy?
How much gravy you want is up to you. I have tried reducing the braising liquid by three-quarters, half and a quarter. You might even want to go further and end up with a shiny glaze that just coats the chicken.
Half and a quarter work best for me.
One of the pleasures of life is mushing gravy, any gravy, into hot rice.
You cannot do that with a glaze.
8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs, about 1kg 4 to 5 large cloves garlic, peeled
4 to 5 bird's eye chillies
Thumb-sized knob of ginger, skin on
3 to 4 dried bay leaves
1 tsp black peppercorns
200ml Silver Swan soya sauce (pictured right) or reduced-salt soya sauce
200ml cane vinegar (pictured left) or apple cider vinegar
1. Rinse the chicken under running water and pat very dry with paper towels.
2. Roughly chop the garlic into chunks. Slice the chillies in half lengthwise, leaving the stems intact. Slice the ginger into 0.5cm thick pieces. Bash lightly with a pestle. Place these ingredients in a large, resealable plastic bag.
3. Add the bay leaves. Crush half the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle, add to the bag. Add in the remaining whole peppercorns. Pour in the soya sauce. Add the chicken pieces, tossing so that the marinade coats every piece. Seal the bag, place on a large plate and refrigerate overnight, turning once.
4. Place the chicken in a large, non-reactive pot - a claypot, glass or enamelled cast iron pot is ideal. Pour the marinade over the chicken. Add the vinegar and water. There should be enough liquid to just cover the chicken.
5. Bring to a boil and turn the heat down to low. Let simmer for 40 minutes.
6. The stew can be made a day ahead up to this point. Store the chicken and gravy in separate containers in the fridge. Before serving, use a spoon to scrape off the layer of chicken fat that rises to the top of the gravy. Bring the chicken and gravy to a boil over medium heat.
7. In the meantime, turn on the grill or broil setting of the oven. Line a baking tray with foil and place a metal cooling rack in the tray.
8. Place the chicken pieces on the rack and grill for four to six minutes, or until the chicken is browned. Check after four minutes to see that the chicken is not burning.
9. While the chicken is browning, bring the gravy to a boil and reduce it to the thickness you like.
10. Place the chicken in a serving dish, strain the gravy into the dish, discarding the solids. Scatter scallions over the chicken and serve with rice.
Serves four as part of a meal with other dishes