During Chinese New Year last week, the intoxicating smell of beer and the simmer of soy sauce brought me back to my childhood in Taiyuan, China. To celebrate the holiday, my grandma would make chicken in beer, a traditional dish originating from Jiangsu, China. Last week, she shared her recipe with me for a taste of home from 7,000 miles away.
1 Chinese yellow chicken
2 pieces of ginger
1 clove of garlic
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon salt
Rock crystal sugar
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
3 cans of beer, any kind
Cut the chicken. Wash the basil leaves and cut the ginger, garlic and scallion. Remove the ends of the cilantro.
When my grandma makes this dish, she cuts up the whole chicken and then pieces the chunks back together. The result is a jigsaw puzzle of a chicken, ready to be cooked. But when I attempted this dish, I just bought around one and a half pounds of boneless chicken thighs, which saved me the trouble of cutting the meat off the bone.
Fun fact: When my grandma was little, doctors following traditional practices used basil leaves to treat snake bites and bruises.
Another fun fact: Ginger, garlic and scallion are considered the “big three” of Chinese cooking, all to be kept within arm’s reach.
In a wok, start heating the vegetable oil. Add the Sichuan peppercorn and, when the oil is hot, sautée the garlic.
Fun fact: The spiciness of Sichuan peppercorn is actually not a taste, but a tactile sensation acting on a nerve fiber on your tongue. The tingling amounts to around 50 Hz of vibration, according to a recent study. Be sure not to add too much peppercorn — it’ll make your tongue burn.
In my apartment, I tried in vain to raise the temperature of my electric cooking top to the heat needed for this dish. You can picture me fiddling with the buttons, trying to crank up my home burner to the effect of a grill. Take this into consideration before trying this recipe!
Add scallion, chili pepper and basil. Stir until the smell comes out. Add chunks of chicken and continue stirring until it turns golden yellow.
This step is what makes me love this recipe. It’s the epitome of coming home, taking a whif of the smell coming from the kitchen and knowing your mom is cooking something good.
For this recipe in particular, the little splash of oil simmering above the red glow of the chili pepper and the white scallion is truly a sight.
The chicken my grandma buys fresh from the market has a tough texture, so it takes more than three hours to fully cook and develop its smoky taste. I couldn’t find yellow chicken anywhere in Ithaca, though, and the chicken thighs I bought were very tender, so It didn’t take as long to cook —but it also lacked the distinct flavor.
Add the hoisin sauce. Stir and let the chicken absorb the sauce.
Hoisin sauce is a specialty soy sauce that combines the salty thinness of soy sauce with essence extracted from sea food. Aside from flavor, it also adds a delightfully bright color to the dish. But since I didn’t have hoisin sauce, I had to make do with regular soy sauce.
It is fascinating to watch the color of the sauce slowly seep into the chicken. As with other Chinese dishes, the color of the sauce is crucial to the eater’s appetite.
Add enough beer to completely immerse the chicken. Close the lid and braise the chicken for 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat. When the jsauce has nearly evaporated, add some rock crystal sugar and the salt.
The rock crystal sugar is another highlight of this dish. It adds glow to the juice and makes the dish sweet. For beer, I used Ithaca Beer Co.’s Creeker because, as my friend pointed out, it pairs well with spicy food.
Add the cilantro. When the cilantro is soft, the dish is ready.
My grandma’s recipe did not disappoint me. The chicken took on the delicious aroma of the spices and the beer. With a little art and a food-lover’s heart, she managed to bring about the unique flavor of beer without the bitterness. Do you want to try it?