Monday, May 25, 2009

Malaysian-Chinese Braised ("Red-Cooked") Chicken

A dish I learned and loved during our days in Malaysia, many years ago, is the braised chicken popular in Chinese home cooking there. This subtly fragrant treat is one for which I worked out my recipe in the 70s and taught it when we first got back to the US. It never fails to please on those infrequent occasions I remember to make it. I don't recall who I learned the cooking technique from. Certainly it was someone who neither used nor wrote down precise recipes. It was probably either Ah Ping or Yi Lien, who worked for us while we were in Kuala Lumpur raising our children.

Rarely a restaurant dish, "red-cooked" chicken is highly economical. It requires only a whole chicken -- typically cheap here, some dried black mushrooms, several sauces and seasonings, a cleaver to cut the chicken with, and a little time to simmer the dish.

"Red cooking" is a traditional Chinese style of braising meat, or meat and firm vegetables. The gravy is not actually red, but more of a tan-brown color. "Red cooking" refers to simmering in water to which soy sauce and seasonings are added before the meat. It shows up in various Chinese-influenced dishes throughout Southeast Asia.

I standardized my recipe in order to teach it. I came across a copy of that recipe recently. It still produces an amazing dinner centerpiece. It needs to be served with good, unsalted white rice, with a preference for Thai Jasmine (see my blog posting of 1/26/08). An appropriate accompaniment is a stir-fried green vegetable (see my blog posting of 5/26/09).

In Malaysia we would have drunk unsweetened iced Chinese tea with this for dinner. Or for a fancier dinner it would have been Malaysian beer.

Malaysian-Chinese Braised ("Red-Cooked") Chicken

12 dried black (shiitake) mushrooms*
1 chicken, 2-1/2 to 3 pounds
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled
3 small shallots, peeled, or 3 large scallions (green onions)
3 (1/8-inch thick) slices fresh ginger, unpeeled
1-2 segments star anise* (optional)
1-1/2 cups water from soaking the mushrooms
2 tablespoons ordinary soy sauce*
2 teaspoons rice wine*, sake, or dry sherry
1 teaspoon black soy sauce*
1 teaspoon oyster sauce*
1/4 teaspoon sugar

* available at Asian groceries

Soak dry mushrooms in 2 cups warm water 20 minutes or more. Save 1-1/2 cups of the soaking water for cooking chicken. Discard mushroom stems. Keep mushrooms whole, or if large, cut in half.

With heavy knife or cleaver, cut chicken (bones, skin and all) into small pieces: drumsticks in half, thighs in half, breast into half then each half into 3 pieces, separate wing segments. Reserve bony back, neck, and wing tips for soup stock.

Bruise garlic and shallots or scallions.

Heat oil to medium hot in wok or heavy pot. Briefly fry (15 seconds) garlic, shallots or scallions, ginger, and star anise, if used. Stir as they fry. As soon as fragrant, add the mushroom-soaking water, sauces and wine. Bring back to a boil.

Add chicken pieces a few at a time, starting with the tougher parts first (leg, thigh). After each addition, bring broth back to a boil. When chicken is all in, add mushrooms. Stir, cover, and reduce heat.

Braise, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender, 25-30 minutes. Taste sauce, and add salt, if needed, so sauce is faintly salty since more will be soaked up by the chicken and the dish will be served with unsalted rice.

Add sugar, and with lid off, let simmer, stirring occasionally, a few minutes to thicken the sauce down. If too dry, add a little water. Taste sauce, and add salt if needed. Discard ginger, star anise, and any remaining garlic or onion.

Serve with rice. Accompany with a simple stir-fried green vegetable.

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