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A classic Hong Kong/ Cantonese dish, this Best Poached One Pot Chinatown Soy Sauce Chicken Recipe is the result of trying several different recipes. It's an easy Chinese chicken dish that can be served with rice or noodles and is actually very simple to make at home!
- What is it?
- Recipes I tried
- Which part of the bird?
- Ingredients & Substitutes
- Poaching method
- How to tell when the chicken is done?
- To marinate or not?
- Dipping Sauce?
- How to turn the bird without the skin breaking
- What to do with leftovers
- Best Poached One Pot Chinatown Soy Sauce Chicken Recipe
I made soy sauce chicken for several weeks whilst working on this recipe, experimenting with 4 different recipes (listed below). There are a lot of similar recipes out there, so I consciously chose recipes which had significant differences (e.g. in the poaching method or ingredients) in order to put together the best poached one pot chinatown soy sauce chicken with rice recipe. (FYI the rice is cooked separately and not in the same pot as the chicken!)
Of course, I also bought various soy sauce chickens from Singaporean food stalls to try, including Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Chinatown, which was the 1st hawker (street food) stall in the world to get a Michelin star in 2016. (Sadly Hawker Chan lost his star but I must say I'm impressed by his mastery of poaching as it is a very tender chicken and the skin is super soft and smooth!)
If you love this dish but don't have 2.5 hours to spare, try my easy version which is made in ⅓ the time and yet super fragrant! Also, no fiddling with the stove required- you just leave the chinese soy sauce chicken on the stove to simmer away!
What is it?
It's a Hong Kong or Cantonese dish which involves poaching chicken in a mixture of soy sauce (dark and light), aromatics and other spices. Due to the low fire, the end result is a very smooth, melt in your mouth chicken, and it's usually served with white rice or thin yellow egg noodles. So don't be impatient and try to expedite cooking by boiling the chicken in the sauce, instead of simmering/ poaching it!
Recipes I tried
- Red House Spice: 41 5-star reviews -> Only recipe that uses Chicken thighs.
- Woks of Life: 4.8 stars average of 39 reviews -> Only needs 1 spice (star anise)
- The Burning Kitchen: 11 reviews of 4.8 stars -> Dunk The Chicken (More on this below)
- SCMP: 4.7 starred review -> Most tender chicken on this list- it literally fell apart at the touch of the knife!
Coming soon: Omnivore's Kitchen as it calls for marinating beforehand and I want to see if that makes a difference!
Which part of the bird?
Traditionally we poach the whole chicken, but it can be a bit difficult to flip. You worry about splashing the hot liquid on yourself or tearing the skin- not the end of the world, but soy sauce chicken looks so much better with the skin in 1 piece! (If you're making this dish for Chinese New Year, remember to serve the chicken in its entirety for a good New Year! Yes, that includes the feet and neck!)
Red House Spice was the only recipe that took a different route and used chicken thighs. Personally I like Chicken Leg Quarters - not a fan of chicken breast which is dry and tasteless in comparison- so this works for me. It also makes for more convenient weekday dinners, and the thighs are SO much easier to flip in the sauce. However, for special occasions, I find serving the whole bird looks better. (This might only be for Asians, as I understand some cultures find the sight of the neck and feet shocking!)
Ingredients & Substitutes
The 4 recipes use a combination of the following: ginger, garlic, shallots/ onions and spring onions. Adding or subtracting 1 or 2 of the above didn't seem to make a huge difference, according to all the testers, and I'd say the key ones are ginger and spring onions.
Spices used ranged from as simple as just star anise to adding bay leaves, cinnamon/ cassia, Sichuan peppercorn and black cardamom.
Personally, I find that adding the black cardamoms gave the soy sauce chicken a bit of a herbal flavour, which is an acquired taste, so I'm skipping them. As no one could actually taste the Sichuan peppercorns in the final sauce- might need fresher stock as spices lose their potency with time- giving those a miss too.
Most of the recipes use a combination of light and dark soy (with a higher quantity of light soy than dark). Red House Spice does say you can skip the dark if you don't have it and Burning Kitchen only uses dark soy sauce (and no light soya) which results in an almost molasses-y taste.
For other recipes with soy sauce, try these soy butter shrooms.
It's a toss up between white sugar, dark brown sugar and rock sugar. Rock sugar is the most traditional but not everyone has it, and it's also a pain to use- it comes in huge chunks so you need to pound it down to the quantity you want. Use rock sugar if you can, if not white granulated works well too.
Some recipes call for regular Chinese Shaoxing wine and others for Chinese rose wine (meikweilu), which is a little harder to find. Chinese Rose wine makes for the most fragrant sauce- the whiff of the simmering sauce is heavenly after adding the rose wine.
However, after poaching for so long with so much dark soy sauce, there isn't much difference in the final sauce so don't stress if you can't get it. (Sake and dry sherry are also good substitutes.) Nonetheless, I still use rose wine whenever I have it as it smells so addictive!
Frozen vs fresh poulty
Fresh always tastes better but don't worry if you only have frozen- that's usually what I use too but keep in mind the final soy sauce chicken won't be quite as smooth.
This soya sauce chicken recipe should be the most authentic as it's by a Hong Kong newspaper. (It was also the favourite of all the testers (not all were Chinese)!) It calls for bringing the sauce (with the chicken in it) to the boil then switching off the fire, covering and letting the bird poach in hot liquid for 15-20 minutes- a process which is repeated several times depending on the size of the bird, with it being flipped halfway though. After that, the chicken is left in the hot sauce (with the fire off) for an hour, so the total cooking time is 2h-2h20minutes (and not the 1.5 hour stated on the recipe- if it feels, like I'm being picky by pointing this out, this doest affect your meal time so I wanted to bring it to your attention. When I 1st made it, lunch ended up being at almost 3 because of the discrepancy in cooking times!)
The SCMP method promises a "silky texture" and this was by far the tenderest chicken. Although the liquid only comes up to ¾ of the chicken, it was perfectly cooked at the end. It's not a hands-off method as you need to go back to the pot every 15-20 minutes, but it's really quite an easy process- easier than the other recipes, I'd say as there's no debate about whether the liquid is simmering (should it bubble? how many bubbles? etc) (Just go about your day and set a 15-minute timer- remember to note the time you started, or you may lose track of how many 15-minutes have passed!) Unlike some of the other recipes here, you don't have to lift the chicken out of the boiling sauce and risk scalding yourself, which is a plus to me.
Red House Spice
The poaching process here was the simplest: you simply add the chicken to the wok, bring everything to a boil then simmer for 45 minutes, flipping the thighs at the 35-minute mark. Despite the easy cooking process, this produced a silky chicken, so I'll definitely use this method when I want a hassle-free chicken with soy sauce meal.
The recipe also states: "Adjust the water if necessary. The liquid should cover most parts of the chicken." -> I think this is the key reason why my chicken needed extra seasoning. I had added too much water and the sauce was too watered down! If I re-cooked this, I would not add extra water to the sauce- if too much of the chicken is exposed above the sauce (i.e. more than ¼ of the chicken), I'd make more sauce- using the same ratio of ingredients in the recipe- instead of adding more water. (And baste the chicken.)
Woks Of Life
The lead-up to adding the chicken was the most lengthy here: after caramelizing the aromatics and spices, the sauce has to be simmered for 20 minutes before adding the chicken. In contrast, Burning Kitchen and Red House Spice simply add the chicken immediately after the soy sauce mixture boils. (SCMP has the most straightforward approach in which there is no frying of the aromatics and spices: instead they're directly boiled with all the sauce ingredients, and simmered till the sugar has dissolved (under 5 min if you use granulated sugar).)
After the 20 minutes, the chicken is added for 5 minutes, then lifted and lowered back into the pot, simmered for approx 35 minutes more before being left in the hot liquid (i.e. fire off) for 15 minutes. Whilst the Woks of Life's final soy sauce chicken was delicious, I'd skip the extra details of simmering and lifting as I didn't feel that they made a big change to the final product and it was a hassle.
The Burning Kitchen
After the sauce starts boiling, the raw chicken is actually dunked into the hot liquid thrice. (You need to leave the feet or neck on so that you have something to hold onto- this will probably be an issue outside of Asia, as I've never seen a chicken with the feet and neck on in UK!) Apparently, doing this makes the skin expand and contract quickly, thus sealing the juices inside. I have seen this done for some Singapore Hainanese Chicken recipes and I think it's quite a traditional Asian approach to poaching.)
Unfortunately, I didn't notice a difference in the meat at the end which I believe is due to the fact that the chicken wasn't fully cooked at the end (juices were pink) so I had to bring the sauce back to the boil again, thus leading to the meat being less tender than it should have been. (You basically simmer for 20 minutes, bringing the heat up every 10 minutes -> however, I wasn't sure how high the heat should be. Do I wait till the sauce is boiling then start the clock or not? After the 20 minutes have passed, you cook on high for 10 min then steep for 15.)
Note: I'll make soya sauce chicken in the slow-cooker one day and update on whether there's any difference in texture.
How to tell when the chicken is done?
Although cooking times are specified, there's always a bit of variation depending on the temperature your chicken was at before cooking- always bring to room temperature and don't cook straight out of the fridge!- the size of your chicken etc. An easy test is that a thermometer inserted near the bone should measure 74C (165F) or, alternatively, slice through the thickest part- the juices should be clear and not pink. If not, cook the chicken a bit longer as you don't want food poisoning!
The Burning Kitchen and SCMP both called for glazing the chicken once it was fully cooked and it definitely did make the chicken look more attractive. Although not obvious in the photos below (which show ½ the chicken glazed and the other ½ unglazed), the chickens sans glaze can look a bit dry. Brushing over the chicken made it look glossier, plumper and altogether more appealing.
They differed, however, in their choice of ingredients for the glaze- with The Burning Kitchen going for maltose+hot water+wine and SCMP for oil. Since both produced an equally attractive result, I prefer the oil glaze as not everyone keeps maltose in the kitchen. It's also faster as you don't have to wait for the maltose to dissolve!
To marinate or not?
3 recipes didn't require the raw chicken to be marinated and they were perfectly flavourful. Because of the way the chicken is cooked (poaching), the meat is tender despite not being brined. The 1 recipe that required marinating (TBK) only did so for 30 minutes, so it was pretty much marinating as it was being brought back to room temperature (after coming out of the fridge.) This extra step didn't really add extra flavour, so I'll skip it!
Personally, I think the whole point of this easy soy sauce chicken recipe is that you don't need to marinate it- anytime you feel like having some Hong Kong-style chicken, you can make it on the spot as long as you have the ingredients! No advance prep needed!
Note: Omnivore's kitchen's recipe did factor in marinating overnight- I'll try it next time and update this post accordingly to see if it's worth the hassle
Only SCMP's recipe had a dipping sauce, which as a mix of salt, oil and spring onions. In some restaurant in Singapore, soy sauce chicken is served with a similar sauce, but those chickens are usually very light-flavoured. The SCMP one was fully flavoured so I found that the dipping sauce was superfluous- less salt in the diet is better so let's skip it!
How to turn the bird without the skin breaking
Insert a fork or long chopsticks into the cavity- you may need a wooden spatula to support the underside of the bird- then carefully flip it. There will be some very hot liquid in the chicken cavity so make sure you don't spill it on yourself!
Alternatively, use chicken thighs as Red House Spice does and save yourself the hassle! (Chicken thighs also mean there's no need to cut/ carve the meat.)
- The key to the soft and tender chicken is mastering the temperature and timing for poaching- make sure the chicken is at room temperature and NOT FRIDGE COLD before cooking- take it out from the chiller 30min-1hr beforehand.
- If you find lifting the whole chicken out of the pot/wok difficult, you can use a pasta pot- just place the chicken in the bit with the holes where you usually put the pasta- you'll probably have to make more sauce to accommodate the space beneath the colander. (So maybe multiply the sauce ingredients by 1.25x.)
- Taste your dark soy sauce first- different brands have different sweetness levels and we're adding a lot of sugar to the sauce, so we don't want the final result to be cloyingly sweet! The SCMP version, though everyone's fave, did taste a little sweet probably because of this reason.
- If you don't have dark soy sauce, which is less common than regular light soy, here are some dark soy sauce substitutes as well as a 2-ingredient, 2-minute DIY recip
- This is non-traditional and my purist Cantonese friends from Hong Kong may not agree, but to make my sauce work harder, I usually add in some hard boiled eggs or tofu into the pot to poach along with the chicken. Just note that if your pot is too full, it can be difficult to turn the chicken and the skin may tear. As the eggs have been cooking for so long, they'll be "overcooked"- you'll see the telltale green-grey rim around the yolk- but the white has an almost bouncy texture. Chinese people actually like this texture, and we even have a street snack (tie dan) that is cooked by boiling the eggs for hours to get that texture!
- Don't throw the leftover sauce (see below)
- Soy Sauce is obviously the star of the dish so make sure to use a good quality one. I use Lee Kum Kee on regular days and a Singaporean-made version that has been naturally fermented for 1 year when I have guests.
- If you don't finish it and need to re-heat, steam it to preserve the texture.
What to do with leftovers
Don't throw the soy sauce chicken poaching liquid! It can be frozen and later used as:
- gravy for potatoes
- sauce over noodles or rice
- to re-poach a 2nd chicken (serves as a master stock- sieve it first)
- use it to stir-fry vegetables (like you would oyster sauce)
(Some of the above may require the soy sauce mixture to be thickened- you can do that naturally by adding lots of chicken feet/ wings to the sauce which, after cooking, will make the sauce more gelatinous or the fast method is to use a bit of cornstarch/ potato starch. Just remember to dissolve the powder well- if not you get a gloopy sauce which doesn't taste good!)
Chinatown Soy Sauce Chicken leftover-ideas:
- The chicken carcass can be boiled to make soup stock
- Any bits of meat on the bones can be stripped and used to make chicken jook
- or added to chicken fajitas
- or chicken quesadillas
- or fried rice
- why not fried noodles?
Best Poached One Pot Chinatown Soy Sauce Chicken Recipe
- Pot with Lid/ Wok with lid Use something that isn't much bigger than your chicken as you want the sauce to cover at least ¾ of the chicken. If your pot is too big, you'll need to make more sauce. Optional: pasta pot if you want to lift the chicken out of the sauce easily
- Long chopsticks
- 2 teaspoon neutral vegetable oil
- 2-3 thumb sized Ginger, peeled and bruised with the back of a knife If you like exact measurements, use at least 30g and up to 60g max.
- 2 Spring Onions/ Scallions, knotted and bunched
- 3 star anise
- 2-3 dried bay leaves
- 2 cinnamon/ cassia sticks, 3 black cardamoms, cloves etc Optional: for those who prefer a slight herbal flavour
- ¾ Cup Rose wine Can be substituted with regular shaoxing or sake
- 2⅔ Cup Light soy sauce
- ¼ Cup Dark soy sauce
- 1½ C White granulated sugar Use rock sugar if you can get it- you may need to add a bit more sugar if so as rock sugar is less sweet than white
- 3 C Water The sauce should reach up to ¾ of the chicken- if not, DO NOT ADD MORE WATER. Instead make more sauce (from light soy, dark soy, rose wine, sugar and water as per this recipe). If you use a pasta pot, the sauce may be insufficient, as there is some empty space below the strainer- make about 1.25-1.5x the quantity of sauce in this recipe.
- 3.09 lbs whole chicken, 1.4 kg Innards removed. Optional: use salt to gently rub the chicken skin (don't tear it) then rinse well. Asians like to wash their meat - we often shop at outdoor markets where the produce might be dirtier- although the USDA recommends not doing so.
- 5 t neutral vegetal oil, optional For glazing the cooked chicken to make it look more attractive
- 3 Hard boiled eggs, optional Don't add too many or it'll clutter the pot and make it difficult to turn the chicken
- 1 block Firm tofu, cut into ½ inch strips, optional Don't add too many or it'll clutter the pot and make it difficult to turn the chicken
To serve with
- 4-6 bowls Cooked white rice, depending on how hungry you are Cook as per normal
Making the sauce
- Heat your pot or wok on medium. When the oil is hot add the ginger, stir-fry for 30 sec, then add the scallions and stir fry till fragrant (shouldn't take more than a minute).
- Add the spices to the pan, stir for 30 sec then add the wine. (It wil sizzle and smell amazing)
- Immediately add the light soya, dark soya and sugar, bringing everything to the boil, then lowering the heat and simmering till the sugar is dissolved. (Took me about 5 minutes)
Poaching the chicken
- Now it's time to add the chicken, breast-side up! If you're using a pasta pot, place the chicken in the strainer then slowly lower into the pot. If not using, lower the chicken carefully as you don't want the hot sauce to splash onto you. (The liquid should cover at least ¾ the chicken, if not you need to make more sauce)
- Bring to the boil. Once boiling, switch off the flame and cover. Start the timer for 15 minutes and go do something else. Make a note of your starting time in case you lose track of which cycle you're on.
- When the timer rings after 15 minutes, uncover, baste the chicken, then bring the sauce back to the boil again, switch off, cover and poach for 15 minutes again. Repeat this 4 more times (i.e. you do the boil then steep 15-minute cycle 6 times in total, flipping the chicken carefully after the 3rd cycle.)
- After the 6th 15-min cycle, uncover the pot, and leave the chicken in the hot sauce for 1 more hour.
- At the end of the hour, remove the chicken from the pot, making sure the liquid in its cavity has drained back into the pot and not onto you, and put it on a plate.
- Use your fingers or a brush to rub the neutral oil all over the chicken skin.
- Serve with white rice, pouring some of the poaching liquid (reheated) around the chicken (or on the side)! The chicken is really tender, so it's super easy to carve up, but you could also use a cleaver to cut into smaller pieces first if you prefer.)
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