MAMA’S BRAISED CHICKEN LEGS ON RICE W/ FRIED CHILI CAPERS

IT IS, DILEMMA.

FORTUNATELY, ONE THAT COULD BE TACKLED WITH A BIT OF REVERSE-ENGINEERING.

We don’t, most times for good reasons, screw with heirloom recipes.  Recipes that are passed down for generations.  Recipes that our grandmother learnt from her grandmother, so on and so forth, are generally deemed as the sum of all collected wisdoms in a pot, sacred, untouchable.  Recipes that should and will be followed, obeyed even, without any desecrating thought of adding an extra tbsp of mustard here or a dash of unholy spices there, otherwise somewhere inside the dusty family album, grandma’s tearing up.  Because this is how it has always been done, as far as recipes go, is an unarguable instruction.

But should they be?  My family, for one, doesn’t have an “heirloom recipe”.  Not really.  My mom is a fantastic cook, which probably isn’t a credit to both of my grandparents whom, from what I’ve heard, were either too short-lived or too much of a diva to teach her anything in the kitchen.  And as far as paying-it-forward goes, she never writes anything down.  So all in all, a single generation and one big approximation, I think, is probably not an heirloom recipe makes.  But, if I were to pass down anything from my mother’s repertoire of ambiguous recipes, if there’s anything that resonates my memory of cooking and eating together as a family, it is this.  My mom’s braised chicken legs over rice.

I don’t quite remember when she started cooking this dish, but by estimation, somewhere right after we moved to Vancouver from Taiwan.  This tastes and smells like coming home after school.  And as a notoriously picky eater back then, this evoked my first acknowledgment of hunger.  In my wishfully sentimental heart and eagerness for an “heirloom”, I would pick this recipe out of it all, to be passed to people by whom I would like to be remembered.  You.  But coming back to what I was saying, I don’t regard heirloom recipe with absolution.  If anything, and I’m sure as in most cases, it is a progression.  If I were to pass this recipe on, looking back, I wouldn’t do it exactly the way she did it.

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For one, I don’t like chicken that’s braised to death.  “Falling off the bones”, a characteristic from my mother’s dish, is generally great, but just not for chicken.  For me, chicken should be tender, well yes, but still supple… juicy even.  The standard that I hold for the succulence from the best fried chickens out there, should be applied just the same right here, even in a braise.  Trouble is, this would also require a significant reduction in the cooking time which is needed for the chickens to absorb flavours from the liquid.  So it is, dilemma.  Fortunately, one that can be tackled with just a bit of reverse-engineering.  Instead of asking the chickens to drink up those flavours we are trying to introduce during cooking, I’m actually going to do that before the cooking even starts.  On the night before, I marinate the chicken legs inside an intensified version of my mom’s original braising liquid.  Then, I cook them only for 30-plus min, with added chicken stock for dilution, just until the meats reach the state of being cooked but still maintaining that bounce and juice within the muscles.  It is a texture unexpected from a braising dish, juicy and lively, with all the desired flavours that would have otherwise been sacrificed in a shortened braising time.  I am happy with this reinvented braised chicken leg which, like old times, is the perfect thing to spread out over a bed of hot steamed rice… but, not by itself.

This dish just isn’t the same without the spicy and sour highlight from Chinese pickled cabbages, an ingredient foreign and unattainable to most people without knowing that there is a great substitute sitting right inside their fridges.  Capers.  Yeah, capers, fried until shrivelled and almost crispy, will closely resemble the unique pungency that I previously thought was impossible to replicate.  Fragrant and succulent braised chicken legs on rice with the zings from fried chili capers, here you think, are as worthy as any other recipes to go down the family line… but, not yet complete.  I just couldn’t stop myself from topping it with a crispy edged, puffed and fluffed sunny-side-up with the yolk still running…  Can mom blame me?  Then the whole thing, the sexy leg and rice and egg AND EVERYTHING, is wetted with a good douse of the dark brown braising sauce seeping all the way down to the bottom…  Hold that leg with one hand and a spoon with the other, I think this recipes is good enough to be left alone for another decade.

Pass this on for me, will ya?  I hope it lives on in your kitchen, in this generation to the next.

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MAMA’S BRAISED CHICKEN LEGS ON RICE W/ FRIED CHILI CAPERS

Ingredients

    BRAISED CHICKEN LEGS:
  • 4 large whole chicken legs
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 16 slices (50 grams) ginger
  • 11 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 star anise
  • 1 1/2 tbsp sichuan peppercorns
  • 3/4 cup (168 grams) soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup (110 grams) Chinese shoaxing wine
  • 1/4 cup (56 grams) dark soy sauce (important for color)
  • 3 tbsp (35 grams) light brown sugar
  • 1 cup (240 grams) unsalted chicken stock
  • FRIED CHILI CAPERS:
  • 1/2 cup (80 grams) brined capers, drained
  • 4~6 small red chilis, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp rice vinegar
  • 1/3 tsp granulated sugar
  • TO SERVE:
  • Hot steamed rice
  • Crispy fried eggs
  • Ground white pepper for dusting

Instructions

  1. TO MAKE BRAISED CHICKEN LEGS: Start the day before. In a skillet over medium-high heat, add canola oil and sliced ginger, cook for a couple min until the edges of the gingers are slightly browned. Add the chopped garlic, star anise and sichuan peppercorns, and cook for another min until fragrant. Transfer the mixture into a large container, along with soy sauce, shoaxing wine, dark soy sauce and light brown sugar. Stir until the sugar has melted, then evenly coat and marinate the chicken legs in the container for about 18~24 hours, rearranging/flipping the chickens once in between.
  2. Transfer everything into a large pot and add the unsalted chicken stock. Bring it to a simmer then cover with lid, leaving a small opening for steam to escape. Every 10 min or so, flip and baste the chicken legs with the braising liquid, and continue to cook for 30~40 min (depending on the size of chicken legs) until tender but still juicy. The meats should not be falling off the bones or anything like that. They will be still supple.
  3. Remove the chicken legs from the pot, then strain the braising liquid through a sieve. Discard the solids, then skim off of excess fat on the top. But it's important to leave some fat in the liquid for flavours. Return the legs back to into the liquid.
  4. MAKE FRIED CHILI CAPERS: While the chicken legs are cooking, place the capers in enough water to submerge, and let soak for 3~4 min to get rid of excess saltiness. Drain well then roughly chop them. Heat the canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, then add the chopped capers, red chilis, rice vinegar and sugar, and cook for a few min until the edges of the capers start to shrivel and brown just slightly. Let cool and set aside until needed.
  5. TO SERVE: Serve the chicken legs over hot steamed rice with fried chili capers and crispy eggs, with a generous pouring of the sauce over the rice and eggs. Dust with a bit of white pepper and dig in.

Notes

As you can see, my chicken legs were humongous. If you're using smaller ones, do 5 chicken legs, and reduce the cooking time to 30 min.

Please make sure that your chicken stock is UNSALTED. Use the best kind you got.

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25 Comments

  • These look amazing! And I love the not over braising the chicken. At our house fall off the bone is reserved for pork and beef. Love the flavours in this!

  • I love the capers substitution! saves me a trip to chinatown. I make this so often, but I’ve never marinated overnight – great idea, I agree that chicken shouldn’t be falling apart the same way the pork/beef braises do!

  • Well this looks incredible. Quick q’s: would this work just the same with skinless chicken legs? And what could I sub for the Chinese shoaxing wine if I can’t find it?
    (Also, just read the post about Dumpling. Major tears. Sending lots of love to you and Jason)

  • My por por used to make this for me, though I think it was just soy-braised chicken legs without the spices. She used to give it to us with mashed potato – I know, pretty random, huh? – but I bet it was to appeal to our European halves.

    I am making it asap.

  • Looks like it started out being looed chicken and then you went and made it hugely better! Yummy comfort food. Thank you again.
    And so sad about your wee dog. Heavy sigh!

  • Those fried chilli capers look incredible Mandy, such a good idea!! And the fried egg?! Looks like the perfect finishing touch. Thanks for all the tips re marinating the chicken and getting the perfect braise – I totally agree about not wanting it to be absolutely falling off the bone. Definitely saving to try! x

  • I absolutely love your blog – feels like home to me. My mom is from Taiwan… never writes anything down recipe-wise and doesn’t cook for us any longer (she’s too tired). My mom is an amazing cook and I miss her home-cooked meals. I’m so sad because I keep trying to recreate her food but I’m off the mark. I firmly believe she isn’t telling me everything when she teaches me – secretly loving it as the my kids gush over anything she makes. HA! I’ve marked off many recipes from your blog and can’t wait to cook!

  • Mandy, I can’t use alcohol in my cooking – do you think lightly sweetened rice vinegar would work? Can’t wait to try this!!

  • As the recipe sounds so nice and the pictures are as wonderful and yummy as always, yesterday we cooked the recipe (with the chicken preparation on Friday). I used other soy sauces, which I had available, more of the sweet and dark one. Nevertheless it was really good, the chicken tender and moist and not falling off the bone ;-). I told my husband that this is very important. The kick of taste with the chilli capers is unbelievable good. We made the crunchy rice with it that you have with the turmeric chicken. It was all sensational lovely. I think your food blog is the best ever.

  • I made this last night and it was delicious!! I added some lemongrass to the marinade. And just before serving a fried the chicken of and reduced some of the cooking liquid. Served on a bed of coconut rice and added some crsipy fried shallots. I love that it’s easy to do and doesn’t really require all that much time!

  • This was like the 5th recipe of yours I’ve made and it seriously kicked ass. It’s to the point at my house, when my husband calls on his way home and says “what’s for dinner?” all I have to say is “its one of Mandy’s recipes” and he says “YES!!” Your blog is my go-to place for no fail recipes. Too bad I can’t post a pic here of my dish tonight. You would be proud!

  • Mandy, I made this last night and it was incredible. My husband loved it too. It’s so full of flavor, briny, salty, sweet, savory. Combined with the egg and rice it really is something special. I say you did a great job passing it on. Instant new classic. Thanks so much for sharing your amazing tips in the kitchen (how to steam rice without a steamer—#gamechanger!!!) and such great, tried and true recipes. Xo

  • I just found your website and I love it! Love the recipes and your writing style. Congratulations on finally being able to leave a place you do not like living in… I am in a similar situation in a different city but have not yet figured out my escape yet…
    Question: I actually really like Chinese pickled veggies and usually have lots hanging out at home. If I were to sub them back in, which kind would you recommend, and would I prepare them the same way as the capers? Thanks!

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