Why I Think of My Grandmother When I See a Chicken Head
My opponent and I are engaged in a staring contest. Our eyes locked, steadfast, neither of us willing to blink first in this game of chicken. Perhaps one of us has already lost, though, considering my competitor is an actual chicken, cooked and laid out, from head to toe, on the platter before me. I reach out to change the bird's direction, but my grandmother, Mei Ying, grasps my hand before I can move an inch.
I slump down in my chair, defeated, but not surprised. It's a maneuver I try whenever Hainanese chicken and rice is served, and my grandmother has since anticipated my actions. Tonight, my unsuccessful attempt occurs during dinner for Chinese New Year, a holiday where the dish is a staple, close to my family's roots—and stomachs.
Originating on Hainan Island, the island province in China where my maternal grandparents emigrated from, the dish consists of a whole chicken, rice and dipping sauces. First known as Wenchang chicken, the dish is thought to have originated during the Ming Dynasty, when an official gifted the emperor with chickens from his hometown, Wenchang. After residents of the island immigrated to modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, the recipe evolved with influences of the region.
Today, the chicken lies on the platter, tender and moist after being boiled whole and brushed with sesame oil and soy sauce. The inclusion of the head and feet is a symbolic one for the new year, signifying the wholeness of the bird. Although I sit at the table wishing for the removal of the head, I know I'm on the losing side of the case. To start the new year with a part of the bird missing or injured would be bad luck, and I am uneager to press mine.
Next to the chicken, slivers of ginger and scallion sit in individual vessels, ready to be used in a dipping sauce made from chicken broth and kumquat juice. (In other versions of the dish, the dipping sauce is often chile-based.) I douse my chicken in soy sauce, and the dark liquid seeps onto my plate, staining the other food surrounding it. Luckily, my favorite part of the dish remains unblemished, the rice's safety guaranteed thanks to its position in a separate bowl.
A heaping scoop of rice rests in the bowl, fragrant and inviting. The grains are sautéed with garlic before being cooked in salted chicken broth, yielding a deliciously savory rice. Each granule glistens, tinged a pale yellow from the broth, and is perfectly fluffy, thanks to my grandmother's foolproof trick for making rice. Rather than using a measuring cup, the amount of liquid added to the pot is judged with the line of one's index finger as the guideline. The result is expertly cooked rice every time.
As I eat my way through the chicken, rice and other New Year's staples like noodles and dumplings, I remain acutely aware of the chicken head. Simply resituating myself away from the platter is not an option. The chicken is always placed in front of my grandmother, and I am always to her left. While my siblings and cousins elbow their way into chairs, my place is reserved, a chair I claimed during childhood and will only relinquish years later, after my grandmother has passed.
The coveted location is ideal in many scenarios, from "accidentally" seeing others' cards during a game of rummy to being shielded from my siblings' errant feet, but especially during dinnertime. My prime seat is a chopstick-length away from my grandmother, who uses her pair now to add more food onto my plate at the first sign of empty space. Despite my feeble protests that I am full, I know the gesture is from a place of love (a gesture I miss dearly).
While I can remember moments from these dinners, I can no longer share a meal with my grandmother. After countless gatherings, plates full of Hainanese chicken or char siu, birthday cake or dan tat, the plastic-covered table from my childhood has been tossed, my chair nonexistent. We have transitioned to the sleek, wooden table at my uncle's house, now that both of my grandparents are gone. New dishes appear on the dinner table, but one remains constant: a platter of Hainanese chicken, from head to toe. I no longer look away.