Soy sauce chicken is a Chinese dish most often associated with the beautifully marinated whole chickens you might see hanging in a Cantonese restaurant’s window. Like fried rice, various versions of the dish are also staples of home cooking in many Chinese and Chinese-American homes.
Since it takes relatively few ingredients to create soy sauce chicken’s mouthwatering depth of flavor, it’s a go-to meal for many families—and everyone has their own version.
The Story Behind My Mom’s Recipe
This dish is particularly meaningful to me because it’s one of the first my parents made together. My dad likes to reminisce about how, before they had kids, they tried to perfect the recipe. Being a scientist, he’d get technical, trying things like boiling down the sauce completely until it concentrated around the chicken, then adding more broth. My mom on the other hand was an artist, and she had a looser approach.
Then, after she gave birth to me and my sisters, time was limited, so she streamlined the recipe further. She made this dish with such ease, it did almost seem like she could charm the chicken into preparing itself.
I haven’t been able to eat my mom’s cooking for a long time, but I’ll always associate this recipe with her. It’s been over 10 years now since she passed away. Every time I cook soy sauce chicken, though, I’m comforted by memories of helping her make it. I feel her warmth as I turn on the stove. I hear her laughter in the ringing of the pan as I tap my wooden spatula against it to shake off the excess sauce. I feel her presence when my kitchen smells like her kitchen when a bite of food tastes like she made it for me.
How to Make Soy Sauce Chicken
My mom never made anything exactly the same way twice. Often, she’d select a whole chicken and ask the butcher to cut it into 20 pieces. Sometimes she used all wings. Sometimes she cooked it whole. The easiest version to cook and eat (and tastiest, in my opinion) uses all thighs. So that’s the recipe I’ll provide here.
I prefer thighs with the bone in and skin on, but you can use any cut of chicken that you like. This recipe serves four.
4-6 chicken thighs
5-7 slices fresh ginger
1 whole scallion
⅓ cup cooking wine
⅓ cup soy sauce
½ cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
Optional: 12 dried shiitake mushrooms soaked in hot water for at least 30 minutes
Tools You’ll Need
Step 1: Prep the ginger and chicken
Slice ginger lengthwise into thin, large pieces. Cut chicken into large chunks.
Step 2: Saute the ginger and chicken
Pour enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of your pan. You can use any kind of pan with high sides: a saute pan, Dutch oven, stockpot, etc.
Turn the heat to medium-high and add ginger slices to the pan, stirring and cooking for 1-2 minutes. It should already smell fragrant in your kitchen!
Add chicken pieces and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes.
Step 3: Add the remaining ingredients
Turn the heat down to medium-low.
Add wine, soy sauce, sugar, water and any extra ingredients you desire. I like to add dried shiitake mushrooms that have been soaked, and I use the water they were soaking in for even more umami flavor.
Stir until the liquid is bubbling slightly.
Step 4: Simmer
Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally so all parts of the chicken get coated with the sauce.
Serve over steamed rice with a generous portion of sauce and a side of vegetables. Follow with a dessert like tanghulu.
Tips for Making Soy Sauce Chicken
You can use any kind of sugar, or even a substitute like honey or maple syrup. I like to use turbinado, brown or rock sugar to give the taste more dimension.
If you have dark soy sauce, use half regular and half dark soy sauce to get a deeper color and another layer of flavor. To make this dish gluten-free, you can substitute tamari for soy sauce.
The scallion and ginger are there for depth of flavor, not to be eaten themselves. For this reason, I put the scallion in whole and cut the ginger large enough so you can easily avoid eating—unless you want to! My partner, who claimed he didn’t like ginger when we first met, now loves to chomp on the ginger pieces with rice.
Many soy sauce chicken recipes also use star anise, which you can certainly add. Since this recipe cooks rather quickly, the star anise’s full flavor might not have time to come out, so while I love star anise, I usually save it for beef noodle soup.
Ideas for Toppings and Add-Ins
I added dried shiitake mushrooms to this version, but you can also add whatever you think will pair well. My mom often stirred in dried tofu sticks and bamboo shoots. Sometimes she also included hard-boiled eggs, peeled and marinated in the flavorful sauce.
I encourage you to customize this recipe to your tastes. Make it a family recipe of your own, and create memories with your loved ones by teaching them how to cook it with you. Gathered around your bowls, you’ll be continuing both my mom’s legacy and your own.
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