Chinese 5-Flavor Chicken
Whole chicken poached in a broth of soy sauce, wine and spices. Brings good luck to your new year table, and delicious adventure anytime. Visit the Why Did the Chicken Cross the Globe? series that inspired this recipe.
Note that this dish should be cooked a day ahead, then rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours before being plated and served.
About 14-16 cups cold water
1 1/2 cups soy sauce (not low-sodium)
3/4 cups white wine (Chinese rice wine, dry French vermouth, or any inexpensive, drinkable white wine will do)
6 ounces Chinese rock sugar (available at Asian market), or 3/4 cups white granulated sugar
2 Chinese 5-spice packs (available at Asian market, see notes for substitution)
1 whole chicken, about 5 pounds (giblets removed)
For everyday garnish:
Cilantro sprigs and (optional) sesame oil
For Chinese New Year garnish:
1 plum tomato, 2 whole cloves, 2 scallions, 1 bunch cilantro and (optional) sesame oil
1. Select a heavy pot with a lid, large enough to immerse your whole chicken. Confirm this by putting the whole chicken into the pot, then adding 14 cups of cold water. (You may want to leave the chicken in its packaging at this point, or put it in a large zipper bag before you do this. Less mess.) Depending on the size of your chicken and the size of your pot, you may need more or less water, but the chicken should be fully immersed, while leaving enough room in the pot for the water to boil. (Our All-Clad stock pot was perfect for this.) Once you are sure you have the right pot, with the right amount of water in it, remove the chicken and set it aside, leaving the water in the pot.
2. Stir in the soy sauce, white wine, sugar and 5-spice packs. Put the lid on and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Once the mixture has begun to boil, turn the heat to medium-low, put the lid askew and simmer for 30 minutes.
3. After 30 minutes, stir the sauce to distribute the spice sediment throughout the broth, then carefully lower the chicken into the pot, breast side down (this will allow the breast skin to brown). Turn the heat to high with the lid askew and bring it back to a boil. Once it has begun to boil, turn the heat back down to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer.
4. Gently simmer the chicken, submerged in the liquid, with the lid askew for 40 minutes. If your chicken is positioned breast side down, it will probably be about 95% submerged with just a small portion of the back emerging from the broth - this is perfect! If your chicken instead wants to float or turn over, you can weigh it down with a bowl on its back as it simmers away (see picture).
5. Only for the perfectionists: To help ensure the chicken skin is evenly colored, you may want to occasionally lift the chicken out of the pot briefly, stir the broth, then lower it back into the broth. If you do this, be careful not to tear the skin! Instead, you can lift the chicken a bit with the handle of a wooden spoon in the cavity, briefly stir the liquid, then lower the chicken back into the pot. If this seems like too much trouble, don't worry about it! Like I said, this is only for perfectionists. You can see from the prep pictures (below) that we didn't do this - the skin is unevenly browned, but strategic placement of cilantro garnish will help camouflage any pale patches.
6. After 40 minutes, remove the pot from the heat and remove the lid. Do not overcook, or the chicken will begin to fall apart and will not remain whole. Allow the chicken to rest and cool in the broth for 1 hour with the lid off. After an hour, carefully lift the chicken from the broth and transfer it to a large (2-gallon) zipper bag or a large bowl. Give the broth a good stir, then add about a half-cup to the chicken. Position the chicken so that the breast and top (or any parts that didn't properly color) are lying in the broth. Cover the bowl (if using) with plastic wrap. Put the chicken in the refrigerator to rest for 24 hours, shifting the chicken in the broth every few hours as needed to even out the color. (Refrigerate the rest of the broth to use in Green Garlic Ramen Bowls or another dish!)
7. When you are ready to serve, take the chicken out of the refrigerator and discard the sauce (or better yet, combine it with the rest of the sauce you saved from the day before). Put the chicken on a large, sturdy cutting board and use a cleaver (or whatever knives you are comfortable with) to cut the chicken into pieces as shown.
Don't use knives with a serrated blade, as they could tear the skin and flesh and the presentation won't be quite as nice.
If you are tight on time, or don't plan to eat the chicken with chopsticks, you can cut it into larger serving pieces (Western style). But if you'd like to serve the chicken in the traditional Chinese way, visit Week 3 - Lucky Chicken for a step-by-step guide with pictures to cut up your chicken into chopstick-sized pieces like a pro.
Once you have cut your chicken into serving pieces, you can choose whether to plate the pieces simply, or present the pieces all together for good luck.
Option 1: Simple presentation: Position the pieces attractively on a serving platter or individual plates and garnish with cilantro. If desired, brush the skin with a little sesame oil.
Serve cold and enjoy!
Option 2: Traditional Chinese presentation: For good luck at Chinese New year, and to symbolize togetherness and completeness, it is traditional to serve every single piece of the whole chicken together, including the feet and head!
It is traditional to arrange the pieces on a platter in the rough shape of a chicken, as shown. You can arrange the pieces in any way that seems attractive, which may depend on the final coloring of the skin and the way they were cut up.
For a bountiful New Year, the pieces should be crowded together on the platter so that you cannot see the platter amidst all the chicken pieces, and the edges of the platter should be garnished with cilantro to cover. You can overlap pieces as needed, placing plumper pieces on top of any that are bonier or may be less visually appealing to your guests.
Here's how we did it:
Since in the US our chickens do not come with their heads and feet still attached, a tomato and scallions are often used to represent the head and feet of the bird. This still counts as serving the complete bird!
Position the head and feet in their proper position on the platter and serve cold.
If you don't have a pot that's large enough for a whole chicken plus all the liquid, you can still make this dish using 2-3 pounds of chicken parts (bone-in, skin on), and halve all the other ingredients. To achieve the whole-chicken New Years presentation with a smaller cooking pot, cook all the pieces of a whole chicken in batches, halving the broth ingredients.
If you can't find 5-spice packets at the Asian market (read here for more about them), use the following: 4 teaspoons fennel seeds, 1 cinnamon stick, 1 teaspoon whole cloves and 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds. Combine these in a tea ball or tie them up into a pouch of cheesecloth, and drop it into the broth along with a pinch of ginger.
Thank you to Amy Rabb-Liu for the original version of this recipe.