Author Andrea Chesman shares her adaptation of a traditional Chinese recipe that has stayed with her from her days as a restaurant worker, and that still tastes just as good.
Some of my fondest food memories stem from the time I worked in a Chinese restaurant in upstate New York. The chef-owner, Mr. Wong, had completed a post-doc in nuclear physics but had no job in sight. So while his wife continued to teach Chinese as an ad hoc professor at the university, Mr. Wong opened a restaurant and hired students as waitresses.
I was not motivated by a desire to serve. The money wasn’t great, but I started each shift cheerfully after fortifying myself with a snack of egg rolls.
Because Mr. Wong cooked by himself on a two-burner hot plate and sent dishes out of the kitchen one at a time, expecting each table to share each dish as it came out, orders often backed up. And backed up. And backed up further. It turned out the frat boys, who usually ordered pork fried rice, didn’t like to share, so every table had some people who were unhappy — and hungry.
It also turned out that I wasn’t very skillful at mollifying disgruntled patrons — unless you consider dumping a pitcher of water in someone’s lap mollifying. I was banished from the dining room and spent the rest of my time in the kitchen, until the restaurant went out of business.
The kitchen was where I loved to be. I made dumplings and eggrolls, I prepped soups and vegetables. And waited for the place to clear out so we could eat a late dinner. One of my favorite staff meals was what Mr. Wong called “hacked chicken.” This was chicken slowly braised in a soy broth until it was a deep mahogany brown and unbelievably flavorful.
Years later, I was thumbing through Nina Simond’s wonderful book, Classic Chinese Cuisine, when I came across her recipe for Red-Cooked Chicken, or Hong Shao Ji. As soon as I read it, I knew this was the same as Mr. Wong’s hacked chicken.
Red-cooking is now part of my cooking repertoire. It could be become part of yours, if you are looking for something quick, comforting, and delicious. Each time you make it, save the broth for the next batch. Strain it, then freeze it. The next time you make the dish, halve the ingredients and replenish the spices. This same broth can be used for pork (especially pork belly, which is incredibly tasty cooked this way), lamb, beef, chicken gizzards, tofu, and duck. It is the home-style Chinese cooking you never get to experience in today’s Americanized small-town Chinese restaurants, where General Tzao’s chicken reigns supreme.
Here’s my adaptation of the recipe. Serve with a stir-fry of vegetables or steamed greens.
Red-Cooked Chicken (Hong Shao Ji, adapted)
Serves 4 to 6
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup soy sauce
- ½ cup Chinese rice wine or sake
- ⅓ cup honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
- 6 cloves garlic
- 6 thin ginger root slices
- 1 orange or tangerine peel
- 1 whole chicken
- Dark sesame oil
- Finely chopped cilantro, to serve
- Finely chopped scallions, white and green parts, to serve
- Hot cooked rice
- Combine the water, soy sauce, rice wine, honey, five-spice powder, garlic, ginger, and orange peel in a large Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer for 5 minutes.
- While the liquid simmers, rinse the chicken and remove any fat from the cavity and neck. Place the chicken in the red-cooking liquid, breast-side down, and simmer for about 1½ hours, turning the chicken occasionally.
- Turn off the heat and let the chicken cool in the liquid for 15 minutes.
- Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid and set aside. Preheat the oven to 400° F.
- Cut the chicken into small pieces, cutting through the bone. Arrange in a single layer, skin side up, on a baking sheet. Drizzle the chicken with sesame oil and place in the hot oven for 10 minutes to make the skin crispy.
- Skim the fat from the cooking liquid and bring to a boil.
- To serve, place the chicken on a platter and sprinkle with cilantro and scallions. Pour the cooking liquid into a pitcher to pass at the table. Spoon the rice into individual bowls, passing the chicken, and cooking liquid at the table.