Chinese Golden Chicken Stew (Huangmenji, 黄焖鸡)
Chengdu Challenge #7: 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 Fongchong’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 Fongchong 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 (celtuce), 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 cook off the impurities and fat and seal in the juices. But while I normally find this step to be necessary, 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 until they start to brown and all the watery fat cooks off before adding the broth. I’ve also found that if you make the caramel with oil instead of water it is much easier to cook the chicken without the caramel hardening or burning. The chicken is still moist, 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 Fongchong 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.
Chinese Golden Chicken Stew (Huangmenji, 黄焖鸡)
- 6 to 8 fresh or dried shitake mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons sugar (white, brown or Chinese rock sugar)
- 1 pound chicken (skinless thigh meat, preferably), cut in 1-inch pieces
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons peeled and slivered ginger
- 4 stalks peeled celery (or equivalent amount of celtuce), cut in ½-inch pieces
- 4 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, pan or clay pot and heat over medium-low heat until it caramelizes and turns light golden brown. Turn up the fire and add the chicken pieces, stirring and cooking in the caramel until they lose their pink color and all the watery fat cooks off.
- 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 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- While the chicken is cooking, slice the shitake mushrooms thinly and cut the celery and scallions. Add the mushrooms, celery and scallion whites to the wok after the first 10 minutes of cooking. Return to boil, cover and continue to simmer on low heat another 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- When the vegetables are done to your liking, add the scallion greens to the pot and then the cornstarch mixture. Stir until the broth thickens. Serve in a bowl, accompanied by rice.
The caramel frying technique is also common for Hong Shao Rou. Recipes are divided over whether to caramelize the sugar or not but I’m personally a fan of it.
Ooh, I like that idea. I will try next time I make a hong shao recipe. Thanks for the tip!
By the way, I want to say how glad I am to have found this blog! Like you, I’m also the proud owner of Delfs, Chiang and Dunlop books but I’m jealous that you have access to Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English.
Like your daughter, I was also born in another region of China but fell in love with Sichuan food. The recipes you’re posting are amazing and I hope you continue!
Thank you! I’m happy to meet another Sichuan fanatic and flattered that you are enjoying the site. Thanks for letting me know that, and do keep me posted with any further thoughts or suggestions you might have. I’m also always interested in knowing where people are finding the Sichuan-made ingredients.
Made this last night – really delicious. Thanks for the recipe!
Thanks for letting me know, Alex! I think this recipe is an overlooked gem.
Made this yesterday and it came out great. The mushrooms add a ton of flavor to the stew and the dish turned out well even though my pan was a bit small to fry all the chicken properly. Great recipe!
Thank you! This may not be a spicy dish, but it does have intense flavor. So glad you enjoyed it.
Another great article. Loved this dish
Thank you, Mike! This one gets overlooked.