There are many versions of this wonderful recipe. Originally I used the late Barbara Tropp’s recipe from the old China Moon restaurant in San Francisco. I didn’t have the ingredients needed so I used Splendid Table recipe which came from Fuchsia Dunlop. I love the story about saving the Master Sauce and reusing it after freezing and passing it on to others!
The Story: I read that in China you cooked in a sauce, using it again and again for different meats, until it was your personal ambrosia. Then, in your final hours, you passed it on to your kin. The sauce never died, it went on for decades, and it was always becoming something more – at least that was the story.
The story was true. Master sauce, under different names, changes from one part of China to another, but all share a quintet of soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, star anise and sugar. In the traditional Canton-style sauce of Chinese author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s, the quintet joins up with a caravan of spices including a nutmeg-like Chinese seasoning, licorice root and Sichuan peppercorns along with a big piece of pork shoulder for extra richness.
This simpler Master sauce chicken is one place to begin. Utterly uncomplicated, this is the chicken for all seasons — the do-ahead Chinese feast dish, your summer picnic chicken, and the bird you do once a week for sandwiches and salad.
**Note: I am not that particular about the amount of liquid and you can see from my picture that I punctured the skin when I turned the chicken. It always tastes delicious and your house will smell wonderful while it cooks! Sorry about the weird photo-this recipe is worth making!
1/2 cup light soy sauce(Kikkoman works well here)
1/2 cup dark or double soy(I used the easy-to-find Koon Chun brand)
1 cup Shao-Hsing (aka Shao Xing) Chinese rice wine, or dry sherry
1/2 packed cup brown sugar
2-inch long piece of fresh ginger, peeled and the whole piece crushed
4 whole scallions, coarse chopped
2 star anise, bruised
about 1 to 1-1/2 cups water**
3-1/2 to 4 pound chicken (organic, if possible)
1. In a 4-quart saucepan with good heat distribution (which should hold the chicken snugly with just enough room to turn it over), combine the soy sauces, wine, sugar, ginger, first quantity of scallions, star anise, and 1 cup of water.
2. Bring to a boil. Using a long fork or cooking chopsticks in its cavity, carefully, so as not to splash yourself, slip the breast-up chicken into the liquid. Tuck it down into the pot so the liquid almost covers the bird. Add more water if needed. Baste the liquid over the breast 3 or 4 times. Adjust the heat so a bubble surfaces every 4 or 5 seconds. In so many words, have it at the barest simmer.
3. Cover the pot (don’t worry if the lid doesn’t seal) and cook 20 minutes. Put the pot on a work surface and turn over the chicken from top to bottom using the fork or chopsticks in its cavity. Try not to break the skin. Cook at the barest bubble another 10 to 15 minutes, or until an instant-reading thermometer inserted in the thigh reads 160ºF.
4. Take the pot off the heat and let cool, covered, for 20 minutes, or until thigh reads 170ºF. Refrigerate the chicken in its sauce 12 to 24 hours. Baste and turn every few hours to have the chicken color evenly. The chicken keeps about 3 days, but if left in the sauce that long, it overwhelms the meat. So remove the chicken from the sauce after 24 hours, strain the sauce, and refrigerate the two separately.
5. Serve the chicken close to room temperature. Warm gently in the sauce to just heat through. Cut it into quarters, then slice each breast crossways into 4 or 5 pieces. Separate the legs and thighs. Assemble the pieces, skin side up on a platter. Sprinkle with the sliced scallions. Spoon about a 1/3 cup of defatted master sauce over the meat. Accompany with rice and optional sauces below.
Saving the Master Sauce: Strain the sauce, chill, and remove the fat. Then freeze. Cook any meat, whole eggs, or poultry in the sauce, replenishing ingredients as needed. Fish should be cooked in a separate master sauce.