Forget the downer days with a heady bowl of this ‘flower carving wine chicken’

·5-min read
Nothing like a big pot of 'fa tiu zao gai' (flower carving wine chicken) to ward off the downer days. – Pictures by CK Lim
Nothing like a big pot of 'fa tiu zao gai' (flower carving wine chicken) to ward off the downer days. – Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, June 26 – What I wouldn’t give for a hot, steaming bowl of “flower carving wine chicken” now.

Better known by its Cantonese name of fa tiu zao gai, this is the perfect dish for rainy days and rainy nights. The way our mothers would make it is the best, of course, but there are good versions everywhere.

The last time I had a really decent rendition of this was at my favourite daichow last year, back when dining in at restaurants was still allowed. The claypot arrived filled to the brim with chunks of succulent chicken, morsels of crunchy black fungus, thick slivers of ginger and juicy caps of shiitake mushrooms.

The aroma alone would make us forget the downer days and wet, soggy nights.

Naturally, the key ingredient is the redoubtable Shaoxing wine or what we call fa tiu zao in Cantonese. Its literal translation would be “flower carving wine” and perhaps this isn’t merely lyrical hyperbole; there is some notion of carving floral notes upon our jaded taste buds with every drop of this sweet liquid.

For the fa tiu zao does add a fragrant sweetness to our simmered chicken broth. A type of wong zao (“yellow wine”), the fa tiu zao is made from fermented rice, which results in a complex balance of flavour notes. Expect heat and sweetness, pungency and even some mild sharpness.

There’s no “flower carving wine chicken” without the wine, it goes without saying.

It will be some time before I can return to my favourite daichow. Missing their fa tiu zao gai, I decided, why not make it at home?

The ingredients are certainly easy enough to procure; and no challenging cooking techniques are needed. Some sautéing, some simmering, and that’s pretty much it.

All we need is some patience. Waiting is not a vice but a virtue, after all. The better to anticipate the heady notes of sweet and sour, warming and pungent.

Every sip a taste of manna and the cure for any rainy day blues.

‘FLOWER CARVING WINE’ CHICKEN

The fa tiu zao or Shaoxing wine is considered one of the more well known types of yellow wine. (Thus some would also call this dish wong zao gai or yellow wine chicken.)

What if you don’t have Shaoxing wine ready in your pantry? What would make a decent substitute?

You’d want to look for a slightly sweet wine that can be used for cooking; perhaps a sweet saké rather than port, which is too sweet and meant to be a dessert wine.

A dry sherry could work too, but expect slight differences in the end result. There really isn’t anything quite as fragrant as fa tiu zao; you can almost imagine the floral notes being "carved" into every drop of this dish...

Treat the amount of fa tiu zao listed here as more of a suggestion and starting point rather than an absolute decree. We all have different palates; some of us might prefer a more delicate spoonful whilst others have stronger constitutions. You do you.

Another ingredient to watch out for is the black fungus. You’d sometimes find wood ear fungus in the supermarket or Chinese herbal shop and wonder if it’s the same thing; they certainly look the same.

Not quite. Black fungus (Auricularia polytricha) is slightly different from the wood ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae), though both names are used interchangeably and can be used for the same dishes due to similar nutrient content.

To prepare black fungus or wood ear fungus, first soak the dried pieces in water to rehydrate.
To prepare black fungus or wood ear fungus, first soak the dried pieces in water to rehydrate.

The black fungus is typically smaller; in its dried form, can be used right after rehydration by soaking in some water. The wood ear fungus is larger but often requires some trimming, even after rehydrating, to remove any tougher bits.

Shiitake mushrooms also need to be rehydrated before slicing.
Shiitake mushrooms also need to be rehydrated before slicing.

Both are fine to use in this dish; they offer the same crunch and jelly-like consistency.

Perhaps the secret to a more flavourful bowl is the addition of sliced liver, be it chicken or pork. Added towards the end of cooking, these tender morsels add deep, savoury notes, not to mention plenty of iron which boosts blood production and prevents fatigue.

Which is to say, don’t let rainy day blues get you down!

Ingredients

500 gm bone-in, skin-on chicken drummets

5 tablespoons Shaoxing wine

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 large pieces of fresh ginger, julienned

4-5 pieces dried black fungus, soaked and drained before coarsely sliced

2-3 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and drained before coarsely sliced

100 ml water

1 tablespoon sugar

Salt and ground white pepper to taste

100 gm pork liver, sliced

Method

Place the pieces of bone-in chicken in a large mixing bowl. Add the Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce, soy sauce and white pepper. Mix well so every chicken piece is well coated with the seasoning. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and allow it to marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Ginger is a must for its heat.
Ginger is a must for its heat.

Place a large pot over high heat. Add the sesame oil and ginger. Sauté until fragrant, typically less than a minute. You may lower the heat to medium or medium high if it gets too smoky.

Have all your ingredients prepared ahead of time for ease of cooking.
Have all your ingredients prepared ahead of time for ease of cooking.

Next, add the chicken pieces and continue the stir fry. Once the chicken meat has turned whitish (i.e. partially cooked), add the black fungus, shiitake mushrooms, water, sugar and the leftover seasoning from the marinating.

Stir well to incorporate all the ingredients and bring to a boil. Once the liquid has begun to boil, lower the heat and gently simmer for about 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, the chicken broth would have reduced. Now is the time for the final seasoning: taste the broth and season with salt and white pepper accordingly.

A few minutes before turning off the heat, add the slices of pork liver and allow to cook to preferred doneness. You may also add a dash of more Shaoxing wine if you like it to have more of a kick.

A heady bowl of goodness.
A heady bowl of goodness.

Once the slices of liver are cooked to your liking, turn off the heat and serve immediately.

For more Weekend Kitchen and other slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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