Chashu is the Japanese version of Chinese Char Siu. Unlike its grilled Chinese counterpart, the Japanese version is typically made by rolling pork belly into a log and braising it until tender. It's then unbound and sliced before being used to garnish bowls of ramen. When served on hot rice, or over a bowl of steaming noodle soup, the fat in the pork melts, making the meat literally fall apart in your mouth. It's a sublime experience that 20% of the world's population can't experience because of their religion.
Recently I was working on creating a recipe for chicken ramen for those that can't eat pork and decided it needed a chicken version of chashu to finish it off. It started out as a garnish for the ramen, but it was so good I ended up having most of it on rice and in sandwiches. This recipe makes two good size logs, so make it on a weekend and slice it up and enjoy it during the busy workweek.
The first challenge in making chashu from chicken was the shape. Pork belly is relatively flat and rolls up nicely, but how do you get chicken to look round. Sure you could roll and tie it, but as the separate pieces of meat cooked I was pretty sure it would lose it's shape. To solve this, I wrapped the whole roll in a few layers of foil before tying it with twine. This not only gives it a great cylindrical shape, it holds much of the juice in, helping to keep it moist.
Since pork belly is loaded with fat, you can cook it until it's fall apart tender without rendering out all the fat and making it dry. This presented the second challenge. How do you cook leaner chicken until tender while retaining the collagen and fat that make it moist. For this I took inspiration from a terrine, and steamed it instead of braising it. I also used skin on chicken thigh and wrapped it around leaner strips of breast meat (a.k.a. chicken tenders) to create a contrast of textures and colors to mimic pork belly.
The last quandry was that of flavor. Since my chicken was now going to be wrapped tightly in foil and steamed it didn't leave a lot of opportunity to season the chicken while cooking. That's why I decided to marinate the chicken in advance. This not only ensures the chicken is evenly seasoned, it reduces the water content of the chicken which concentrates its flavor and firms up the texture of the meat.
- Put the soy sauce, sake, sugar and ginger in a large Ziploc bag and mix together. Add the chicken thighs and make sure each piece is coated with the marinade. Press as much air out of the bag as possible, then seal and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, tear off a 3 foot long sheet of aluminum foil with the shiny side up. Lay half the marinated chicken thighs on the foil, skin-side down, to form a rectangle about 6 inches wide. Sprinkle the chicken generously with white pepper. Lay two chicken tenders on the chicken thighs. Since tenders taper on one end, you want to lay them facing in opposite directions so you end up with a core of chicken tenders that is roughly the same thickness of both ends.
- Tightly roll the chicken being careful not to sandwich the foil between the layers of chicken. When the chicken portion is rolled, continue rolling with the rest of the foil to form a tight cylinder. Twist both ends of the foil shut.
- Cut an 8 foot length of twine, fold the twine in half, then tuck the midpoint under one end of the roll. Bring both ends of the twine up either side of the roll, cris-cross the twine, then flip the roll over and bring it back around. Repeat until you've reached the other end of the roll, then tie the twine in a knot. The twine should look like a laced shoe on either side. Make a second roll using the rest of the chicken.
- Bring a steamer to a boil, then add the rolled chicken. Cover with a lid and steam for 1 hour. When it's done, remove the chicken from the steamer and allow it to cool. Place the roll in the refrigerator overnight to let the collagen set.
- When your chicken chashu is ready, unwrap it, slice it and put it on a bowl of chicken ramen, or have it on top of rice as a donburi.