Asian Heritage Month: Cantonese soy sauce chicken

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A plate of medium-brown soy sauce chicken drumsticks. Green onion pieces are sprinkled on top, and a silver pair of tongs rests on the plate. A red floral placemat can be seen under the white plate.

With Asian Heritage Month underway, I have been reflecting on the joys and struggles that come with being a second-generation Asian-Canadian. For anybody who grew up straddling both the popular culture of Canada and the traditions and languages of their immigrant parents or grandparents, my experiences might sound familiar. For example, my grasp of Cantonese is a far cry from fluent, but at least I can order my favourite dishes at a restaurant. As a teenager, my grandparents and I had as good a time going for McDonald’s as we did spending an afternoon making dumplings. When it came to honouring the lives of the deceased, my younger self didn’t quite understand “where” our loved ones went, but I did embrace reflective moments at their graves — where my family and I would visit to offer flowers, incense, and prayers in Taoist fashion.

Growing up with these experiences often left me wondering if I was somehow ‘missing’ a part of me, or if I was not rooted ‘enough’ in my heritage. Part of this questioning was influenced by older relatives, who were concerned that not being fluent in Cantonese would hinder my ability to communicate with my grandparents. As a teenager, this manifested in shame about my value in relation to my cultural identity, and it took me some time to introspect and regain a sense of security in myself.

Without a doubt, I’m grateful for and celebratory of the connections to heritage that I do hold, however small, but as an adult I’m also glad to be unlearning valuations of worth based on cultural knowledge. Instead, I’m finding joy in exploring and reaffirming my heritage on my own terms.

One way that I’ve been exploring is through food. As a form of cultural knowledge, food has always been a strong tether to my heritage. Lately, I’ve been branching out and trying new recipes — thanks in part to the wonderful Youtube channel, Made With Lau. At the same time, I also find myself returning to food and recipes I am familiar with and hold dear, perhaps due to all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Today, I’d like to share one of my “near and dear” recipes with you: Cantonese soy sauce chicken. This is one of the first Chinese dishes I learned how to cook. It is straightforward, comforting, and more or less foolproof…a perfect combination to make any home cook feel accomplished. I suspect it’s for those qualities that my mother chose this as the first recipe she taught me when I was younger. As a latchkey kid sometimes tasked with making dinner for the family — and later as a busy university student — I enjoyed how easily this recipe comes together for a hearty and delicious meal. I also appreciate that this recipe was taught to my mother by her own mother — my Por Por — and has been tweaked over time to suit the tastes of the maker. Here it is in my mother’s style.

A close-up of a plate of medium-brown soy sauce chicken drumsticks. Green onion pieces are sprinkled on top, and a silver pair of tongs rests on the plate. A red floral placemat can be seen under the white plate.

Cantonese soy sauce chicken

Ingredients

  • ½ cup light or regular soy sauce
  • ½ cup dark soy sauce¹
  • 1 cup water
  • 3-inch (40 g) piece of rock sugar (or substitute 3 tbsp brown sugar)
  • 2 pieces star anise (3 for a slightly stronger flavour)
  • 3 pounds (1.5 kg) chicken drumsticks, wings, or thighs – bone in, skin on²
  • 1 coin (2 mm thick) of ginger (optional)

¹The dark soy sauce is a key ingredient in this dish as it adds flavour and colour to the chicken the light or regular sauce alone cannot.

²Dark cuts of chicken work best for this recipe. Boneless, skinless chicken breast is a healthier option but will not result in the same soft, fall-off-the-bone texture that makes this dish special. 

Method

  1. In a large pot over medium heat, combine both types of soy sauce, water, sugar, anise, and ginger (if using).
  2. Heat for a few minutes, until the sugar dissolves completely. Breaking it into pieces as it heats will help speed up this process. 
  3. When the sugar is dissolved, add the chicken. Flip each piece so both sides are coated in the sauce.
  4. Cover pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 20-25 minutes, flipping the chicken pieces after 10 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when you can see the skin peeling back from the joints.
  5. Serve hot with steamed rice and your choice of vegetable. A small amount of the simmering sauce may be drizzled over, to taste.

Yields: 3-4 servings.

Note: In the true spirit of my Chinese mother, I must add that any leftover sauce can be reused. Pour into a container and let cool, then keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. To reuse with fresh raw chicken, scrape off any fat from the surface of the sauce and transfer to a large pot over medium heat. Allow the sauce to melt back to liquid form, then carry on from step 3. Alternatively, melt sauce back to liquid form, add water to taste and simmer with vegetables like chopped carrot or napa cabbage to form a broth for noodle soup. 

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Bridjet Lee

Bridjet Lee is the User Experience Specialist at Ingenium, where she designs and evaluates features for virtual and physical spaces, and thinks a lot about accessibility.