Shaoxing Drunken Chicken (Zuiji, 醉鸡) | Zoe Yang
Published Sep 17, 2022, Updated Feb 12, 2024
A Classic Jiangnan Cold Dish
It’s a rare occasion that I get to write a Jiangnan recipe with zero familial baggage. Blame the Methodists who converted my family into teetotalers sometime in the late 1800s, but when I called my mother to ask about Drunken Chicken, she asked, “Is it made with 酒糟 (jiǔzāo)?”
Close, but no. Drunken Chicken (醉鸡, zuìjī), a stalwart of the Chinese poached chicken oeuvre, is made by marinating cooked chicken in 黄酒 (huángjiǔ), yellow wine—most famously the huangjiu from Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. Jiuzao refers to the soupy, boozy grains left after straining rice wine, and can also be used as a marinade for chicken or fish.
The main difference between jiuzao and huangjiu is time, and thus alcohol content. Jiuzao typically comes from shorter fermentations and tastes sweet, due to the sugars that have not been converted to alcohol. (If you let fermented sweet rice—酒酿 (jiǔniàng) or 醪糟 (láozāo) as it’s known in Sichuan—sit at room temperature for a month, you’ve made 米酒 (mǐjiǔ), rice wine, and jiuzao, the solids).
Huangjiu, on the other hand, has an ABV similar to Western wines, and can be further aged like Western wines. If you’ve ever cooked with Shaoxing wine, you already know that its flavor profile is savory like soy sauce and slightly oxidized. It’s often compared to sherry, but I think a better Western analogue is the Jura region of France’s vin jaune, which also means… yellow wine.
All of which to say: Drunken Chicken lovers must love the proverbial sauce.
Simplicity Is a Flex
It’s also rare to come across an iconic Chinese dish without an elaborate origin story. Canonically, all we can say is that Drunken Chicken was invented in Shaoxing, which has been producing arguably the best huangjiu in China for at least 3,000 years (more on that later).
I like this blank script. It suggests that Drunken Chicken, prepared simply and eaten cold, is an everywoman dish—something to throw on during the dog days of summer, altogether too easy to warrant mythmaking. But as we know, the simplest things demand the most care. Not counting salt and sugar, there are a scant four ingredients—chicken, Shaoxing wine, ginger, green onion—needed to make excellent Drunken Chicken, so the quality must be high and the technique, tight.
Here’s what we’re looking for:
- Gently cooked chicken flesh and tight skin. For poached chicken recipes, the Chinese look for a firm, bouncy texture with ample juice and no mushiness. We do not balk at a little blood inside the bone and a hint of pinkness in the meat. This is achieved with a brief poaching at the barest simmer, followed by carryover cooking, which is a fancy way of saying “leaving the chicken in the pot.”
- Chickeny taste! Typically, this dish would be made with 土鸡 (tǔjī), free-range country (local/domestic) chickens with yellow skin, taut muscles and great depth of flavor. In the U.S., just try to buy chicken that isn’t waterlogged and bloated.
- Perfectly balanced brine that showcases the delicate aromas of huangjiu with none of the bitter alcohol burn. Salt and sugar both play a key role here, but just as there’s no putting lipstick on a pig, there’s no disguising bad Shaoxing.
Background on Shaoxing Huadiao Wine
What is Shaoxing wine, anyway? As Janet Wang writes in her excellent book The Chinese Wine Renaissance, “Quality huangjiu has an elegant yet complex nose: one moment of incense, another of oolong tea, or sometimes pickled olives, or sourdough bread, or honeyed figs. On the palate it is smooth, mellow but well structured and balanced between its acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and umami dimensions.”
Wang also notes that the earliest archeological record of alcohol—10,000 years old—was found in China, and it was likely made from fermented grains. That early alcohol was the ancestor of huangjiu, which is still essentially just fermented grain (distilled alcohols like baijiu would come later).
What has been perfected since those early days is microbiology: The Chinese, as early as the Shang Dynasty in the second millennium BCE, began experimenting with controlling fermentation using yeasts, molds and bacteria. There are stories in Shaoxing of local winemakers plying their trade based on the strength of their secret 酒曲 (jiǔqū) starter blend. Along with giving huangjiu its characteristic flavors, these microbes, in all their dynamic complexity, are also a big part of why huangjiu is regarded as the most therapeutic alcohol in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
As certified nutritionist and TCM chef Zoey Gong elaborates, “Huangjiu is warming and aromatic, great for removing stagnation from the meridians, warming the stomach, and replenishing Qi and Blood.” In many “drunken” recipes, Chinese herbs such as angelica, jujube dates and goji are added to enhance these properties.
These ancient and proprietary jiuqu blends, along with the fertile soil and clean water of Shaoxing, are what give the city legendary status as the prime terroir for huangjiu. Over time, marketing flourishes have only added to legend: “Huadiao”(花雕, huādiāo) refers to the drawings or engravings that once adorned wine casks, and “nuerhong”/”nuerjiu” (女儿红, nǚ’érhóng/女儿酒, nǚ’érjiǔ) traditionally meant wine cellared when a daughter was born, to be served on her wedding day. In modern usage, neither term is tied to production standards, and so both have become vague signifiers of quality. (To make things more confusing, there is even a Nu Er Hong brand of Shaoxing wine).
Salted vs. Unsalted Shaoxing: Does It Matter?
Shaoxing sold for export to America as cooking wine must have added salt—usually 1.5%-2%—and this salted Shaoxing is what you’ll find in Asian supermarkets. In big-city liquor stores and online, it’s possible to find unsalted Shaoxing, though I think it’s only worth the trouble if it’s aged.
I taste-tested three bottles of Shaoxing plain and in Drunken Chicken brine to determine whether the added salt makes a difference. The first bottle was a grocery store bottle of Golden Pagoda brand (not to be confused with the original Pagoda brand) Shaoxing with 15% ABV and 1.5% salt. It had been sitting on my kitchen counter for at least three months. The second was a new bottle of The Mala Market’s Guyue Longshan Shaoxing, 16% ABV and 1.5% salt. The last was a new bottle of Pagoda brand’s 8 Year Aged Shaoxing, 17% ABV and purchased from Astor Wine & Spirits in New York City (whose online shop will ship it to select states, though some states don’t allow direct wine shipments to consumers).
In a plain tasting:
- Golden Pagoda Salted Shaoxing Huadiao was the least fragrant and most acidic-tasting. It tasted more like a sauce than like wine.
- Guyue Longshan Salted Shaoxing Huadiao tasted the most savory/salty, but it also had much more fragrance on the nose than the first wine.
- Pagoda Brand 8 Year Unsalted Shaoxing Huadiao smelled the most fragrant and almost sweet. It also had the most pronounced rice aroma.
The results of my tasting suggested that freshness and quality really matter—the Golden Pagoda cooking wine had lost almost all of its aroma and developed unpleasant sour notes, while Guyue Longshan, though also salted and not aged, had much more strength and complexity.
I also made batches of Drunken Chicken brine using both salted and unsalted Shaoxing and experimented with adding them to the brine “raw” vs. cooking off a little bit of the alcohol first. From a salt perspective, there is no difference in using salted vs. unsalted Shaoxing, since ultimately, the brine needs to be salty. However, if you’re using an aged unsalted Shaoxing that has a lot of volatile aromas, you have the option of adding the wine completely uncooked to the brine in order to preserve those aromas.
Be warned: the result is a very boozy Drunken Chicken, and though many traditional recipes do call for raw wine, I vastly prefer cooking off the wine a little bit before adding it to the brine. I find the resulting brine more harmonious, which allows you to taste the chicken flavor better, and it’s more kid/religion-friendly! So, unless you know you want your Drunken Chicken to be truly soused, feel free to use high-quality salted Shaoxing—it won’t make as much of a difference once you’ve cooked it off.
No bones About Bone-in Drunken Chicken
A final note: This recipe for Drunken Chicken utilizes bone-in chicken legs. A popular cheffy variation of Drunken Chicken involves deboning the chicken and rolling it up into a foil tube to be poached or steamed. I love that method—slicing into a chicken tube is very satisfying!—but I vouch here for the bone-in version for the simple fact that it’s less fussy. It’s hot. You barely want to turn the stove on, and neither did the nameless ancestors who invented this dish. Unless you can buy chicken legs that have skin but no bones (tell me where), leave the bones in and the foil aside.
I used to be daunted by the task of hacking up bone-in poultry Chinese-style, as I thought incredible precision was required to not lose a finger. If you are like me, position your cleaver right where you want to make a cut and use a mallet to bring it home—super duper easy, though an apron is advised.
Shaoxing Drunken Chicken (Zuiji, 醉鸡)
For the chicken and chicken broth:
- 3 whole bone-in, skin-on chicken legs preferably free-range organic
- 2-3 large slices fresh ginger
- 2 whole fresh scallions
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
For the brine:
- 1½ cups prepared chicken broth from previous step
- 1½ cups Shaoxing Huadiao rice wine salted or unsalted
- 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
- 1 teaspoon sugar or to taste
- 1 tablespoon goji berries optional
- Put 3 whole chicken legs in the smallest pot that you can single-layer them in, and cover with water. Add 2-3 large slices of ginger, 2 whole scallions and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Bring pot to a simmer, then turn heat to lowest setting and poach, covered, for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, turn off the heat and leave everything in the covered pot for another 15 minutes. In the meantime, prepare a large bowl with cold water and ice for shocking the chicken.
- Prick chicken to test for doneness—no blood should run out. (If there is blood, bring the pot to simmer again, then turn off heat and let chicken rest in the covered pot for another 10 minutes.) If chicken is cooked, use tongs to remove the legs from the broth and dunk them in the ice bath for 2 minutes. This step is essential for ensuring bouncy meat and tight skin.
- While the chicken is resting in ice water, strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer and return to the pot. Bring to a simmer again and reduce until you have about 1½ cups of liquid. When the chicken is done with its ice bath, use a cleaver to hack it into bite-sized pieces and lay them in a lidded container (e.g. Pyrex or Tupperware).
- When broth has reduced, turn heat to lowest setting and add 1½ cups of Shaoxing wine to the broth, bring back up to a bare simmer, then turn off the heat. Taste the brine and add more salt and sugar as needed, using the residual heat to dissolve. The brine needs to be powerfully savory in order to penetrate the chicken, and the sugar helps to mask any bitterness in the wine. I find that a teaspoon each of kosher salt and sugar usually works for me, but do taste as you go. If using goji berries, add them to the brine as a last step.
- When brine is fully cooled, pour it over the chicken, cover the container and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. To serve, arrange pieces of chicken on a plate and spoon brine and goji berries over it. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Tried this recipe?