Sunday, August 26, 2012

Roast Sambal-Chili Chicken

Several years ago, when I roasted a chicken for a dinner party, organic poultry was nowhere near as available in Manila as it was today. I had developed a taste for organic, free-range or kosher chickens when I lived in New York, which, in addition to being better for you, also tasted way better than the supermarket kind.

So, after poking every single chicken in the supermarket's poultry aisle, I finally found a local free-range clucker in the freezer and decided to go with that. After close to three hours of cooking, my chicken was  golden brown but still rock-hard, leading me to doubt my oven, my cooking skills and my sanity.

As my poor guests gamely hacked at the bird with their knives,  made polite noises about how tasty it was, and then promptly headed for the salad, pasta and everything else on the table, I realized I had bought myself a stewing chicken instead of a roaster.

"Free-range means the chickens are allowed to forage freely for food instead of being caged," my mom said, when I told her what happened.  "But here, the food isn't as plentiful and they have to work a lot harder at the foraging, so the chickens will almost certainly be more...muscular."

Stupid, fit, free-range chicken. It's not like I needed him to pose in a bikini. Lesson learned: Never buy a chicken that works out more than you do. Over the years, however, organic produce has become much more popular locally and thus, widely available.  And if you're just now dipping your toe in the organic food pool, poultry and eggs are a great place to start so you're not ingesting all the growth hormones, antibiotics and other nasty stuff associated with supermarket poultry.

With that said, however, I'm hardly a fanatic.  In a pinch, I'll not only buy a supermarket chicken and eggs, I'll even buy pre-grilled rotisserie chicken.  But I do find that organic chicken and eggs taste much better (i.e., more chicken-y tasting chicken, more brightly colored and flavorful yolks), and well, homemade always trumps store-bought. So, no judgement here, do whatever floats your boat and buy what's accessible. Just get yourself a chicken and start roasting.

As for me, I wandered over to 80 Breakfasts and found myself drooling over her photo of Sambal Roasted Chicken, perfectly golden brown, flecked with tantalizing little bits of chili. I knew I had to make this.

There was just one serious obstacle. The main ingredient  in ChichaJo's recipe was NOT sambal oelek, which was fairly easy to find in Manila, but something called sambal asli, which I did NOT have, could NOT find, and in fact, had NEVER tried.  But damn, that chicken looked good. so if you are lucky enough to have sambal asli lying around or know where to get it, I urge you to try this recipe.

Me, I needed to improvise, given my lack of sambal oelek, the limited choice of herbs at the store (probably because it was a long weekend), and the fact that my giant organic chicken just happened to weigh in at a little over 5 lbs (2.3 kilos).  So here's what I did:

Roasted Chili Chicken 
adapted from 80 Breakfasts' recipe for Sambal Roasted Chicken

1 roaster chicken, preferably organic, about 2 kilos (5 pounds)
1/4-1/3 cup sambal oelek (adjust to taste; use less if you prefer a milder dish)
1/3 cup sweet chili sauce
4 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons ginger, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 bunch lemongrass
canola oil
coarse salt

1. Mix sambal oelek, sweet chili sauce, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, cilantro, and the juice from the lemons in a small bowl until thoroughly blended.  Reserve the lemon halves. Set 1/4 cup of the mixture aside for basting.

2. Put a few spoonfuls of the sambal mix into the cavity of the chicken and rub throughout the cavity. Pound your lemongrass and stuff together with the lemon halves into the cavity, as much as your poor, hapless chicken can possibly handle.

3. Rub the whole outside of the chicken with the sambal mix generously. Marvel at the fact that your mutant organic chicken comes with a looong neck, the likes of which you've never seen before, and wonder what the heck you're going to do with that. Realize it actually gets in the way of your putting chili mix in between the skin and meat of your chicken so chop it off as you roar, "Off with his head!" Cackle evilly as you throw the guillotined neck into your stockpot.

4. Feel sorry for yourself because your oven can't fit a decent-sized roasting pan or rack. Get over it. Make little tin foil balls, each one roughly the size of a plum or a chico, and put those in a smaller pan that fits your oven. You should have enough so that the chicken can rest on the foil balls without touching the pan. Gaze at your makeshift miniature roasting rack and pan with delight, and give your awesome McGyver self a pat on the back.

5. Place the chicken in the pan breast side down.  Pour some water onto the base of the pan, making sure it doesn’t touch the chicken. Cover the whole thing with foil and place in a pre-heated 400F oven. Roast the chicken for 1 hour and 20 minutes covered.

6. Remove the foil and baste the chicken with your reserved sambal mix and a little canola oil and coarse salt.  Roast for 40 minutes to 1 hour more, or until chicken is cooked (when the juices run clear when pierced in the meatiest part), basting with the sambal mix a few more times in between. If your oven has hot spots, like mine, rotate your pan every time you baste to ensure the chicken cooks evenly. Turn your chicken breast side up in the last 30-40 minutes of cooking.

7. When the chicken is done, let it rest about 20 minutes before carving.

Chickens vary in size so for cooking times, I do around 20 minutes for each pound of chicken plus another 20-40 minutes, depending on the size of the bird.

I also start roasting my chicken breast side down because that's the part that dries out easily. This way, the meat doesn't cook as fast and the juices from the dark meat also drip down and  baste the breast so it stays moist.

Behold my ALMOST perfectly browned chicken.

And the only reason it wasn't perfect was because instead of listening to ChichaJo, I turned up my oven to 450F towards the end, which probably wasn't the best idea with such a heavily spiced and sweetened marinade.  But I rescued the chicken just in time, so the end result was perfectly juicy and moist inside with crispy, crackly skin. Each succulent bite of chicken yielded a burst of tart, herby, Oriental flavors with just a tinge of sweetness and heat that crept up on me so gradually by the time I noticed, I figured, what the hell. It was that good.


  1. Yum! Great variations!! I got the sambal asli from C's brother who's based in Jakarta so sorry about the availability, or lack of! But I am sure this came out fantastic regardless :) And 100 mega points for your Mcgyver roaster pan!!

    1. It's my first time here and my initial reaction was: That Sambal Chicken sounds familiar... My next reaction, after seeing the comments, was: How cool -- the two Jos know each other! :-D Not to mention, I've also had the pleasure of tasting both your cooking, and now, I find that I very much enjoy both your writing styles, too! :-) Okay, admittedly, RealGirlJo, this is your first post that I've read, while I've been reading ChichaJo's blog for many years. But I can easily fix that by browsing through the rest of your blog ASAP. And I'll go ahead and point out that I've also savored ChichaJo's kitchen masterpieces many times, but yours, only once. Rectifying THAT, though, is not under my control. *wink*

    2. Katrina, very high praise coming from a great writer like you, thank you! And yes, I do know ChichaJo who is not only a wonderful writer, photographer and cook, but also incredibly gorgeous. I hate her. If she weren't such an incredibly nice person to boot, I'd probably run her over and then find a way to steal all her blog entries (and her adorable daughter). And as for rectifying the issue you mentioned, I am MORE than happy to do so! I am always excited to welcome willing guinea pigs to the Toy Kitchen. Let's plan something very soon!

    3. Oh, my...thank YOU for the compliment! I honestly don't think I'm a great writer, but I do try to make *some* sense. ;-) And I know I can't write as evocatively as Joey or as funnily as you. Your writing sounds just like how you are in person, and I love that! I haven't had time yet to go through all your posts, but the little I've skimmed confirmed that this is definitely a blog I will be visiting often.

      As for me, I am always an eager guinea pig when it comes to food! I don't cook, myself (though I wish I could), so I veritably leap at the opportunity to have delicious home-cooked food. Joey will attest to my voracious appetite! The best part, of course, is sharing the feast with good company. I had a fab time at your place before, and would be thrilled to be invited back. (Even though I know I sort of wrangled that invitation out of you. ;-))

    4. How you can not think you're a great writer? You could make the phone book interesting! And as for dinner, I was a more than eager wranglee. Let's schedule as soon as I get back from my vacation. Thanks for the encouragement! :)

  2. Thanks! Borrowed your sambal chicken spread recipe for the leftovers, too! Stay tuned for the results. :)