My family’s fragrant hongshao chicken stew delivers rich flavour and lovely memories

Cathy Erway

THE WASHINGTON POST – Sometimes, chasing comfort food nostalgia can lead us down complicated paths. Instead of channelling the instinctive baking wisdom of a beloved aunt, we hunt for out-of-season blueberries and leaf lard to try to replicate the exact way our forebears crimped a pastry.

Conjuring the past with the precision of a forensic scientist might be fun for a weekend project, but the process is hardly comforting – or practical.

When I was growing up, my mother’s hongshao chicken stew was a hallowed institution for me. But these days, instead of deferring to The Way It Was, I like to take inspiration from the resourceful spirit of the dish – how you can maximise the output of a single pot of delicious chicken by adding plenty of ingredients to cook with it. And it’s transformed the dish further and further from my early memories of it.

Maybe that’s because hongshao, a Chinese braising technique that translates to red-cooking or red-braising, invites variation.

You can simmer any cut of beef or poultry hongshao-style, as well as tofu and vegetables, infusing them with soy sauce and five-spice. The unifying attribute to hongshao stews is more about the outcome than the technique: Everything in the pot acquires a deep, mahogany sheen and resounding savouriness.

Hongshao chicken stew with shiitakes and winter vegetables. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

My mother began by browning chicken parts in a large pot with thick slices of ginger, whole garlic cloves and large midsections of scallions. This wildly aromatic sizzle was then snuffed out with a few glugs of rice wine and both light and dark soy sauces – the latter largely responsible for that reddish-brown stain – all cupboard staples in my mother’s kitchen.

Five-spice – usually in the form of a satchel containing the whole spices: star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, fennel seeds and clove – was added. Dried shiitakes were tossed in like umami bath bombs. Then, a rotating assortment of hongshao add-ins that usually included hard-boiled, peeled eggs and firm tofu cubes, and maybe tofu skin and kelp knots.

In the end, the cafe au lait-coloured eggs, tofu and other morsels that absorbed the flavour (and colour) of the stew could be enjoyed with the meal, or fished out as a delicious byproduct to enjoy separately. Besides the chicken and shiitakes, those soy sauce-stewed eggs are the only solid addition that’s imperative to me. Having a batch of them on hand can even inspire the whole endeavour.

Though we always called it hongshao at home, this tendency for braising extras is akin to lu wei braising, a method popular with street vendors in Taiwan who submerge the customer’s choice of ingredients in their aromatic broth; it’s said that their braising liquid is never discarded and so only gets better the more it’s used, like a happy sourdough starter. Perhaps my version today is also inspired by family hot pot meals, where chunks of napa cabbage and taro root were left to simmer in the bubbling pot while other delicacies were quickly dipped.

Because I often have stores of cabbage and root vegetables such as daikon and rutabaga from my CSA share in the winter, I’ll add these to my hongshao chicken, letting them practically melt in the same fashion. I’m sure red-braised potatoes and carrots would be delicious as well.

The chicken should be falling off the bone and become quite tan as well. The silken texture of a stewed wing is a highlight for me – though it doesn’t need to be yours. I learned recently that my mother only used chicken so often because it was a more accessible protein in typical American grocery stores. And rather than going out of her way to an Asian grocery, where a butcher might hack up a whole bird for stewing, she settled for picking out the smallest drumsticks and wings from the nearby grocery – and maybe grew to favour cooking with them.

A lot of home cooking might follow a similar formula: Cook an accessible protein in a pot along with seasonally available ingredients, liquids and spices that add flavour until it all melds into one deeply satisfying meal to slurp up with a starch. It might not always look Instagram-worthy.

A key thrill here might be just olfactory. If our noses could be our eyes, I think they would guide us toward “liking” these kinds of dishes by the millions.

Though a longtime favourite, it has taken me a while to write this dish in recipe format because it seemed antithetical to its flexible virtues.

While it’s important to preserve our culinary inheritance, I find myself looking to the purpose of a dish over the final product more and more. My kitchen in Brooklyn has a different set of staples and seasonal ingredients than my mother’s did in New Jersey, her parents’ before that in Taiwan, their parents’ in Hunan province, and so on. And so will yours. Finding the quintessence of a dish meant for everyday comfort doesn’t have to entail a thorough excavation.

So if you want a stew generous enough to encompass your favourite ingredients – transforming them into a soothing, if monochrome, medley – this one’s for you. Yes, you can add that to it, too.

HONGSHAO CHICKEN STEW WITH SHIITAKES AND WINTER VEGETABLES

This homestyle recipe is perfect for winter months, when food writer Cathy Erway has an abundance of root vegetables and cabbage from her CSA. It’s based on her mother’s hongshao (or “red-cooked”) chicken or beef, a long-simmered stew, infused with soy sauce and five spice, that she would pepper with additions such as firm tofu, kelp knots and hard-boiled eggs. Once stewed in the broth, these tan-coloured lu dan (‘stew eggs’) make a great snack.

If you don’t have the star anise, cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, cloves or Sichuan peppercorns, or just prefer not to have large pieces of aromatics in your stew, you can substitute one tablespoon of five-spice powder instead.

If you can’t find dark soy sauce, increase the regular soy sauce measurement to three-quarter cup total.

Be sure to use dried shiitakes in this recipe, as fresh ones are not a good substitute, and cut the vegetables in large chunks so that they don’t fall apart as they soften.

INGREDIENTS

One-and-a-half pounds chicken drumsticks

One-and-a-half pounds chicken wings

Quarter cup toasted sesame oil

One piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into eight discs

Four cloves garlic, slightly smashed with the side of a knife

Four scallions, white and light green parts cut into two-inch long pieces, and dark green tops chopped and reserved for garnish

Half cup chicken broth

Eight cups water

Half cup soy sauce (also known as light soy sauce)

Quarter cup dark soy sauce

12 dried shiitake mushrooms

Four whole star anise

One small cinnamon stick

One teaspoon whole cloves

One teaspoon fennel seeds

One teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns

Four large eggs, hard-boiled and peeled

One pound daikon radish, turnip and/or rutabaga, peeled and cut to Three-inch long wedges

One pound green or napa cabbage, cut into four-inch long chunks

One block firm tofu, cut into two-inch cubes

Steamed white rice, for serving

DIRECTIONS

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the sesame oil until shimmering.

Add the ginger, garlic and light-coloured scallion pieces and cook, stirring, until very fragrant, about 10 seconds.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the aromatics to a small dish.

Working in batches if necessary, place the chicken pieces in a single layer in the oil, ensuring that each piece is in contact with the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium and cook the chicken, without moving it, until lightly browned, about two minutes.

Carefully flip the chicken pieces to lightly brown on the other side, another two to three minutes.

Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.

Return the aromatics to the pan, then add the water, light and dark soy sauces, shiitakes, star anise, cinnamon, cloves (if using), fennel seeds (if using) and Sichuan peppercorns and return to a boil. Add the eggs, radish (or turnip or rutabaga), cabbage and tofu and return to a boil.

Reduce the heat so that the liquid is at a gentle simmer, cover and cook until the chicken is falling off the bone, the vegetables are very soft and the eggs are the colour of chocolate milk, about one hour.

Serve hot, over rice and with plenty of broth and garnished with the reserved chopped scallions.