Hakka classic: chicken and mushrooms

Dark, savory, and sweet describes this ginger-scented stew of chicken and mushrooms. It’s a Hakka classic with many variations. My mom braised big bone-in pieces of chicken and earthy shiitake mushrooms in soy sauce and sugar until dark and glossy.

In this quick and easy version, Fah Liong, originally from Indonesia, uses a sweet soy sauce known as kecap manis and boneless chunks of chicken thigh (page 204 of The Hakka Cookbook for original recipe). Look for the Indonesian soy sauce in Southeast Asian sections of Asian supermarkets. For a quick alternative to kecap manis mix 2 tablespoons dark (aka black) soy sauce and 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar. Or make my recipe for Sweet Soy Sauce on page 269 of The Hakka Cookbook.

Soy-braised Chicken and Mushrooms

Makes 4 servings as a main dish or 6 to 8 servings as part of a multicourse meal

12 dried shiitake mushrooms

3 1/2 cups hot water, or as needed

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 tablespoons thinly slivered fresh ginger

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3 tablespoons kecap manis (or 2 tablespoons each dark (or black) soy sauce and packed brown sugar)

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

3 greens onions, including green tops, cut in 2-inch lengths


1. Rinse the mushrooms and soak in the hot water until soft, 20 minutes to 2 hours. Squeeze excess water out of mushrooms and reserve soaking water. Remove and discard mushroom stems. Cut caps in half.

2. Trim excess fat off chicken. Cut chicken into about 1-inch chunks.

3. Set a 14-inch wok or 5- to 6-quart pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the oil, ginger, and garlic. Stir-fry until garlic begins to brown. Add the chicken and stir often until it begins to brown 4 to 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and 1 1/2 cups of mushroom-soaking water, pouring carefully so sediment stays behind. Add sweet soy sauce and bring to boil.

4. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender when pierced, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer meat and mushrooms with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl. Skim off and discard fat from pan juices. If pan juices measure more than 1 1/4 cups, boil, uncovered, until reduced to that amount. If juices measure less than 1 1/4 cups, add water to make that amount and bring to a boil. Stir in salt to taste, pepper, and green onions. Pour over chicken.

Sweet soy chow mein (aka red noodles)

Sweet soy chow meinWhile in Toronto, I had heard about Hakka red noodles. It was a special dish that the Hakka from India made. The name is a bit misleading, because they don’t look red, the color is closer to black-brown. The taste is sweet and savory. Although no one could explain the origin of the name, the noodles were seductively delicious.

In India, Hakka cooks stash a bottle of a special sweet soy sauce (hung mee or red sauce) in their refrigerator to make a sweet noodle dish known as hung mee chow mein. It is basically chow mein–stir-fried noodles with vegetables and meat. What distinguishes it from the common variety is a thick syrupy  sauce that is dark, aromatic, sweet, and salty. The sauce is similar to the Indonesian kecap manis which can be used as an alternative. kecap manis

To make this Sweet Soy Chow Mein (recipe on page 178 in The Hakka Cookbook), stir-fry slivers of meat and vegetables, then add cooked noodles and sweet soy sauce (recipe follows) or purchased kecap manis. The sauce will coat the noodles with a dark, glossy sheen.

Sweet Soy Sauce

This sauce is easy to make. Simply boil soy sauce with brown sugar and aromatics until thick and syrupy, almost like honey or pancake syrup. Measuring the sauce will help you attain the right consistency. The salty soy sauce balances the sweetness of the sugar so the results taste savory rather than like dessert.

1 piece dried tangerine peel (2 in. wide)

1 stalk fresh lemongrass

3 thin slices fresh ginger

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup dark soy sauce (also called black soy sauce)

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

1. Soak the tangerine peel in hot water until soft, about 15 minutes; drain. Trim off and discard leafy tops of lemon grass. Cut the stalk in about 3-inch sections. Lightly crush lemongrass and ginger with the flat side of a knife blade.

2. In a 3-quart pan over high heat, bring tangerine peel, lemongrass, ginger, water, soy sauce, sugar, cinnamon, and star anise to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil gently until the liquid is greatly reduced and slightly syrupy, about 20 minutes. Pour through a wire strainer set over a 1-quart glass measure. Discard solids. The sauce should measure about 1 1/3 cups. If greater than 1 1/3 cups, return to pan and boil, uncovered, until reduced to the amount. Or if the amount is less than 1 1/3 cups, add water to make that amount. Use or store in refrigerator up to 6 months.



A lesson in soy sauce

Power to women! A few days ago, I gave a master class on Hakka Cuisine at the WCR (Women Chefs and Restauranteurs) National Conference in San Francisco.  This group of professional women in the restaurant business celebrated their 20th anniversary. It was an honor to meet such smart, strong, and supportive women. They reminded me of Hakka women, known for their hard-working characteristics and strength.

In my class, I provided a short tasting on different types of soy sauce, a primary ingredient in Hakka dishes. I thought I would share this information with you. Soy sauce is a seasoning liquid brewed from naturally fermented soy beans and wheat. It gives a deep flavor and rich color. The basic types are:

Soy sauce types: all-purpose soy sauce: Kikkoman or Pearl River Bridge Light Superior Soy Sauce; Koon Chun Black Soy Sauce; ABC Sweet Soy Sauce (kecap manis)

1. All-purpose soy sauce.  I simply call it soy sauce in the book. The Japanese soy sauce, such as Kikkoman has a higher percentage of wheat which mellows the sauce. Chinese soy sauce, such as Pearl River Bridge Light Superior Soy Sauce, contains a higher percentage of soy beans which produces a stronger flavor.  In Asia, this type may also be called light (not referring to sodium), white, or thin soy sauce.

2. Dark or black soy sauce. This soy sauce ages longer and is blended with a little molasses which lends a slight caramelized sweet finish. It is darker and has a stronger flavor which enhances the color of stews and braises. For a quick substitute, use 2 parts all-purpose soy sauce and 1 part molasses.

3. Sweet soy sauce. Often used in Southeast Asia. This dark, thick, syrupy sweet soy sauce is blended with palm syrup. The Indonesian version is called kecap manis. The Hakkas in India make a similar sauce and call it red sauce. They boil soy sauce, sugar, and fragrant seasonings such as ginger, lemon grass, tangerine peel, star anise, and cinnamon until the sauce is thick and glossy (recipe on page 269). Add the dark, intense, sweet sauce to noodles, stews, meats, and stir-fries, or use as a dipping sauce. For an quick alternative for cooking, mix equal parts dark (preferable) or all-purpose soy sauce and packed brown sugar.