Monday, June 5, 2017

Vinegar chicken that's not in the least bit sour

Whenever the family was around, my late father-in-law was most at home in the kitchen and in the yard. Like me, he loved places where he could be alone with his thoughts and where he didn’t have to take part in any arguments, and ideally this was also a place no one else was interested in visiting.

He was a retired fighter pilot and ladies’ man, but the years hung heavily on him by the time I showed up. He had turned into a shy and retiring gentleman who just wished to be left alone with the things he loved, and this mostly included rose bushes and the dishes of his childhood.

I described him and the way he changed my attitude toward many things in a short story from about two years ago called “Monkey Eve,” the first of a series of stories I’ve been writing about my life as a Chinese daughter-in-law. Writing about him woke up lots of memories, and many of them were very good, and a particular few were especially delicious. This is one of them: Vinegar Chicken.

Lovely green onions in the market
One of his favorite ingredients was chicken wings. I think he ate them just about every day, if he had the chance, for they were cheap, they were flavorful, and he knew how to make them sing.

Despite its name, this is not at all tart. In fact, the way that the vinegar is added – at the end, so that it forms just a wisp of aroma around the simply braised wings – turns it into more of a suggestion than a main ingredient. But it is enough to elevate the flavors here into something quite elegant yet homey.

I’ve wondered over the years whether this was a Hakka or Cantonese invention, but the truth has eluded me. I am guessing that this is something simple that his own family treasured, and I like to imagine that his mother and his grandmother taught him how to make it back when he was a boy.

This recipe is one of his prizes. My husband longs for it on occasion, so it is a dish I haul out when I want to particularly make him happy.

I’ve never found this recipe anywhere else, so this must have been a family heirloom, and therefore it’s the type of dish that most Chinese families would guard jealously as their clan’s sìfángcài 私房菜, or “private dishes.” But since no one in my in-laws’ extended family likes to cook other than me, I’m going to pass it on to you so that the wonderful cooking talents of my husband’s father continue to live on and can be enjoyed.

Brown the wings and aromatics
This dish is great served just after it’s made, when the scent of the vinegar still hovers over the chicken. But it’s also good the next day, by which time the scent of vinegar will have dissipated, leaving behind a vague perfume.

Serve this with lots of plain rice to soak up the sauce, plus a simple vegetable or two. And in his memory please offer something sweet for dessert – he always loved things from the local Chinatown bakery, or even a bag of cookies or sesame candy – with a cup of hot jasmine tea, his other must-have.

Vinegar chicken chez Huang
Huángjiā cù jī  黃家醋雞
Homestyle cuisine
Serves 4

About 1½ pounds (675 g) free-range chicken wings
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons sliced ginger (more or less)
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch (5 cm) lengths
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon pale rice vinegar

1. Pat the wings dry, remove any feathers, and cut them up along the joints. You can use the wingtips or save them for stock – my husband loves to nibble on them, so into the pot they go.

First add the salt to the hot oil
2. Set a wok over medium-high heat and swirl in the oil. Add the salt and let it bubble and melt for a few seconds before adding the ginger and green onions. Stir these around for a minute to release their fragrance, and then toss in the chicken wings. Toss these with aromatics until the chicken is nicely browned. Sprinkle the rice wine in around the edge to make its flavor explode, and then add the sugar and boiling water. Cover the wok, bring the liquid to a full boil, and then reduce it to low. Simmer the chicken for around 30 minutes. (The dish can be made ahead of time up to this point.)

3. Quickly boil down the liquid to a syrupy sauce. If the wings look like they are going to fall apart in the process, scoop them out and place them in a clean work bowl. When the sauce has been complete reduced, turn off the heat, return the chicken to the wok, toss it in the sauce, sprinkle the vinegar over the chicken, and immediately cover it. My father-in-law insisted that the chicken not be moved after this point, as otherwise the vinegar will turn sour. Open up the wok after a couple of minutes, plate the chicken and sauce, and serve immediately.


  1. Vinegar is used with chicken dishes a lot here in Japan. Anywhere from 1 T like you mention to 100 cc!! It makes the chicken so refreshing! I love it.

    1. Vinegar really is an amazing ingredient, isn't it? I grilled a flank steak tonight, and one of the ingredients was vinegar. It makes all my taste buds very happy!

  2. Such simple ingredients and yet this recipe captivates me. I will definitely be making this. Thank you.

    1. Hi and thanks! Let me know how this turns out for you...