Chengdu Challenge #7: Golden Chicken Stew (Huang Men Ji)
Caramel, Wine and Ginger Make Stew Sexy~~
Recently we had a Chinese friend stay with us for a week who doesn’t eat spicy food. Not even a little. And this was a real challenge for me, since almost everything I make has at least a hint of spice. But we adapted that week and still ate well. I just had to call on all the dishes I make that aren’t spicy, starting with this one for Shoaxing wine and ginger chicken stew, more poetically called golden chicken stew, which has intense chicken flavor punctuated by the slightly sweet nuttiness of yellow wine from Shaoxing and the slightly sweet heat of ginger with an undertone of caramelized sugar. It is comforting in the extreme but not dull in the least.
Though you wouldn’t know it from American-Chinese restaurants, not all Chinese food is stir-fried. In fact, a great deal of it is braised, boiled or steamed. A home cook will almost always prepare a braised dish to go along with stir-fries, not only because it varies the tastes in the meal but also because it can be made in advance. So this dish satisfied both those goals that week, since I had not one but two hungry-for-Chinese girls on my hands.
Yulian is an old friend of Fong Chong’s from her village in rural Guangzhou, and she eats like a normal Cantonese; it’s FC who’s got the unusual palate for a Cantonese, with a constant craving for spicy food. Yulian was adopted by a wonderful family in Chicago about six months before Fong Chong joined our family, and they have remained good friends through FaceTime, QQ and text. But this was the first time they’d seen each other in almost four years. Yulian was eager not only to eat but to learn, since her family of 16 people doesn’t often cook Chinese. So I put them to work chopping, the greater part of the cooking effort with any Chinese dish.
For this dish it was really only celery, shitake mushrooms and ginger. The recipe calls for asparagus lettuce, but that’s hard to come by in the U.S. even in international markets. So I substitute celery. I also added the shitake mushrooms to the recipe—reconstituted from dry—because it makes a fuller one-pot meal.
The recipe relies for flavoring and coloring on Shaoxing wine, caramelized sugar and ginger. It’s important to use the Shaoxing—though the best substitution of all substitutions frequently made for Chinese ingredients is using pale or golden sherry in place of Shaoxing. Taylor even makes a sherry for cooking, available at all liquor stores, which, though inexpensive, is a huge step up from grocery-store cooking sherry. But real Shaoxing wine is best and is easily found at Chinese markets.
The caramel was a surprise to me. I know Vietnamese cooks use a caramel base in their clay-pot pork and fish dishes. I learned that in a cooking class in Saigon, where it was featured in one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes. But I had never run across it in Chinese cooking. However it’s used in several dishes in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, so evidently it is not unusual there. I went ahead and made a big batch of caramel syrup to have on hand, simmering equal parts Chinese yellow rock sugar and water until it turned a deep brown (it’s also good in mint juleps!). But with this recipe I’ve devised a way to make only as much caramelized sugar as you need for the dish, following the method I learned in Vietnam.
In the recipe, the chicken pieces are quickly deep-fried before they are added to the broth. This is standard Sichuan operating procedure, to seal in the juices and maintain moisture. But while I normally find this step to be necessary, especially in stir-fries, in this case I do not. Instead, I’ve used the method of the Vietnamese caramel braise, cooking the chicken pieces in the hot caramel before adding the broth. The chicken is still moist and velvety, particularly if you use dark-meat chicken. Another thing that turns this dish from soup into more of a stew is adding a cornstarch slurry at the end to thicken the broth. You can make this in a clay pot, as they would in China (and Vietnam) or a wok or any pot you’d use for a small amount of stew.
Golden chicken stew may not be spicy, but Fong Chong happily drowns her rice in it and feels like she’s back in homey, familiar Guangzhou. Especially when she’s sharing it, as she was that week, with a friend who shares her past and remembers her China home.
- 6 to 8 fresh or dried shitake mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons sugar (white, brown or Chinese rock sugar)
- 1 to 1½ pounds chicken (skinless thigh meat, preferably), cut in 1-inch pieces
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, then cut in half
- 4 stalks peeled celery, cut in ½-inch pieces
- 3 scallions, cut in 1-inch lengths
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
- If using dried shitake mushroom, cover them in boiling water and allow to soak while you prep other ingredients.
- Add 3 tablespoons sugar and 3 tablespoons oil to a cold wok or pan and heat over medium-low heat until it caramelizes and turns a deep brown. Add the chicken pieces, stirring and cooking in the caramel until they lose their pink color.
- Add the chicken broth, Shaoxing wine, salt and ginger and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover the pan and let cook at a simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- While the chicken is cooking, slice the shitake mushrooms thinly and cut the celery and scallions. Add the vegetables to the wok after the first 20 minutes of cooking. Return to boil, cover and continue to simmer on low heat another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the cornstarch mixture to the wok. Stir until the broth thickens. Serve in a bowl, accompanied by rice.