Growing up with a celebrity grandmother had its ups and downs. Maria Lee, after all, is and has been a household name in Hong Kong for over fifty years. She wasn’t just our ‘Mah-Mah’ (paternal grandmother), she had so many roles we could barely grasp them all: celebrity cook with her own set of cookbooks and TV shows, baker with her own-name bakery Maria’s, philanthropist, artist, musician, even (briefly) Chinese opera star, and now holder of a certificate in Chinese Medicine and Children’s Behavioral Studies. It’s safe to say: she was a pretty big deal.
Then, just over ten years ago, the Maria Lee Empire came crashing down around her and she was forced to liquidate her company. Of course none of this ever stopped her, because if there was one thing she was known for it was her determination and can-do spirit, so she worked her way back up and now, at the age of eighty-one, Maria Lee is once again at the top of the Hong Kong food chain. Though she will never give one-on-one lessons, for me she will of course make an exception.
She tells me that this dish is her signature dish – Smoked Spiced Chicken – and that it’s incredibly popular with everybody she serves it to. “It’s very special”, she says, smiling and patting me on the shoulder, “okay, we begin.”
There are three steps to making her chicken: marinade in a seasoning powder overnight, poach the chicken in a broth made from various spices, then smoke it in a wok. That’s it. “Simple, but very tasty”, she says. The phone rings – it’s the television company and they want a quick word. We have, by now, reached the smoking stage and my eyes are streaming from the grey clouds that now fill the kitchen. “Ah, already too much smoke,” she says, lifting the lid, still on the phone, and she removes it from the pot and onto a plate. We eat it for dinner, and though the chicken is, indeed, a little over-smoked, it’s still delicious.
“Tomorrow,” she points at me with her chopsticks, “you make this yourself. And maybe in ten days I teach you Chinese as well” – well, if anybody can do it, Maria Lee can.
1 medium free-range chicken
For the marinade:
1 1/2 packets of Seasons Spicy Bake Mix (available from most Chinese supermarkets – if you can’t get hold of it a close approximation would consist of ginger powder, salt, a small amount of crushed star anise and cornstarch)
1-2 tsps salt
For the poaching liquid:
1 bottle Amoy Lo Sui marinade (you can make this from scratch using a Chinese “soup packet”. This particular one consists of: black peppercorns, star anise, dried bay leaves, dried figs, dried ginger and dried tangerine skin. If from scratch, add about 5-6 cups of water, the other poaching ingredients, bring to the boil and allow to cook for 30 mins before adding the chicken)
6 cups water
1 cup sugar
4 tbsps dark soy sauce
4 tbsps Xiao-Sing wine (Chinese wine)
4-5 tsps Chinese red tea leaves
4-5 star anise
3 Brown sugar bars (called ‘Brown Sugar in Pieces’, can be found in Chinese supermarkets)
A large handful of cooked rice (leftover from the evening before is best!)
x1 large pot, big enough to hold the chicken
x1 large wok and lid, big enough to hold the chicken
1. Wash and prepare the chicken: rinse with water, inside and out, pat dry with kitchen paper, snip off the bishop’s nose and two fat flaps on either side of the cavity, and remove the giblets (if any) from inside.
2. Cover the chicken, inside and out, with the Spicy Bake Mix, then wrap in clingfilm, pop on a dish and into the fridge overnight.
3. When ready to cook, pour the poaching ingredients into your large pot and bring to the boil. Taste, and if too sweet or salty adjust the soy sauce or sugar as necessary.
4. When boiled, add to the chicken – it should cover the chicken. If it doesn’t you’ll need to turn the chicken every five minutes or so. Let the liquid reach boiling point again, then turn it down to a very low simmer and poach for about 30 minutes. Depending on how big your chicken is you may need a little more or a little less time – you can check to see if it’s done by taking it out of the liquid and cutting along the bone with a knife or pair of scissors. If the juices run clear then it’s ready, if it’s still bloody you’ll need to poach it for another 5-10 minutes or so. Do not cover the pot.
5. Meanwhile, prepare your smoking ingredients. Line the bottom of your wok with a piece of foil big enough to cover the bottom, and in that place the tea leaves, star anise and bar sugar, broken into smaller pieces. Top with the rice and place the trivet in the centre. About 5-7 minutes before your chicken is cooked, turn on the heat and place the lid on top of the pot, but keep it quite low. About 2 minutes before the chicken is ready, turn the heat up to high and allow the smoke to accumulate – it should be quite smoky when you put the chicken in.
6. Remove the cooked chicken from the poaching liquid and place it on the trivet in the wok. Cover with the lid and place a damp cloth around the edges of the lid to seal in the smoke. Smoke for a minute and a half, then remove from the wok.
7. To serve it the Chinese way: chop the whole chicken in half, then into bite-sized pieces, using a meat cleaver. Serve with hot steamed jasmine rice and enjoy!