North Chinese kitchens harbor the smells that are most dear to me and among them is invariably that of a potted chicken, simmering slowly in a rich soy brew. It is a dish that requires almost no work to produce, and at the end of several heavenly scented hours you are left with a sublime chicken and an inspired master sauce from which you can create any number of homey, tempting dishes.
Clean the chicken thoroughly as directed.
Choose a heavy pot that will hold the chicken snugly and allow it to be turned. Spank the ginger and scallion to release their juices, then add them to the pot with the water, soy, wine, anise, and optional aromatics. Do not add the sugar at this time.
Bring the ingredients to a boil over moderately high heat, then ease the chicken into the pot, breast side up. While waiting for the liquids to return to a boil, baste the chicken continuously with a large spoon to set the color and tighten the skin. Continue basting for several seconds after the boil is reached, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cover the pot. Simmer 20 minutes. Uncover the pot twice during this initial cooking to check the simmer and baste the bird.
Turn the chicken over, being careful not to tear the skin. One reliable method is to anchor a long cooking chopstick or wooden spoon in the cavity while turning the bird by its neck bone with a mitted hand. Scatter the sugar evenly around the chicken, swish the sauce to dissolve the sugar, then baste continuously for 1 minute. Cover the pot and simmer 20 minutes more, basting the chicken thoroughly at 10-minute intervals.
Move the covered pot to a cool burner and let the chicken steep for 1½ hours. Baste the chicken several times as it steeps, replacing the cover each time to retain the heat.
Turn the chicken over, with the same care as before. Baste it thoroughly, replace the cover, and steep 30 minutes more, again basting at 10-minute intervals.
Gently remove the chicken to a plate, then tip the plate over the pot to drain the cavity of sauce. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let it cool several minutes. Rub the sesame oil between your palms, then smooth it evenly over the chicken to give it fragrance and sheen. Don’t miss the spots under the wings and thighs.
Serve the chicken hot, tepid, or at room temperature. To retain its moistness, cut just before serving, either Chinese-style or in a fashion to suit you. Present the chicken on a platter of contrasting color. Hide any chopping failures or skinless bits under a mound of the prettiest breast pieces, then surround with the wings and drumsticks. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of the heated sauce and garnish, if desired, with sprigs of fresh coriander or clusters of red radish fans.
Leftover chicken is best at room temperature or gently reheated with a bit of the master sauce.
Strain the sauce through several layers of damp cheesecloth, discard the seasonings, then refrigerate up to one week or freeze indefinitely for future use. Leave a small amount of chicken fat in the sauce. It will lend its sheen and rich goodness to the next thing you cook.
If the sauce diminishes and you do not want to start from scratch with a whole chicken, then use 2–3 pounds chicken breasts. Add to the sauce that remains more of everything you started with, but substitute a light, unsalted chicken stock for water and use only 2–3 slices of ginger. Keep to the original proportions given in the recipe and follow the cooking procedure. As you cook it, taste the replenished sauce for the proper balance of sugar, soy, and wine, and adjust if needed.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.