Growing up, one of my favorite comfort dishes was my dad’s version of chicken poached in soy sauce. That might sound gross to the uninitiated, but hear me out: Picture a tender, juicy, whole chicken poached in an intoxicating blend of dark soy sauce, rock sugar, spices, and aromatic Chinese rose wine. It’s like Hainanese chicken went on vacation to umami town, took a spa day, and came back with a honey sweet tan.
Soy sauce chicken is a classic Cantonese dish that belongs to a class of dishes called siu mei—the many roasted and braised meats you can find in cheap Hong Kong eateries. Although it’s typically inexpensive, that doesn’t mean the popular dish can’t also be quite refined: Singapore's Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle offers a Michelin-starred version, which sets you back a mere $3.64.
But soy sauce chicken isn’t necessarily easy to make. Some of the ingredients are hard to come by: there’s rock sugar, an irregular, light amber-colored crystallized refined sugar that’s not quite as sweet as your run-of-the mill granulated stuff; or chenpi, a warming medicinal ingredient traditionally made by sun-drying tangerine peels, rendering them a bit sweet, with a slightly bitter and sharp finish; or, perhaps most obscure of all, there’s mei kuei lu chiew, or Chinese rose wine, a spirit distilled from fermented sorghum and infused with rose petals, giving it a floral, sweet kick. (Mei kuei lu chiew is generally around 100 proof, if you’re looking for a fun time.)
Sometimes—on certain occasions when my family didn’t have these ingredients in stock—we would use Coca-Cola instead. Yes, that Coca-Cola*. Refreshing, curiously spiced, amber-toned, and diabetes-inducing Coke served as a secret weapon of sorts when times were tough and grocery shopping fell by the wayside.
*Now, before anyone pillories me and speaks to the evils of high fructose corn syrup and Big Cola, this isn’t the first instance of Coke weaseling its way into savory cooking. Dishes like Cola ribs and Cola-glazed holiday ham are proof of that. In fact, Coca-Cola chicken wings were all the rage back in the ‘90s in many parts of Asia, a popular kids’ food whose provenance is sadly lost to history. (The first time I had Coca-Cola wings was in college, on a first date. She offered to cook me dinner at my apartment. Then she rolled up with two pounds of wings, a liter of Coke, and an equally bubbly personality.)
Plus, most recipes for soy sauce chicken call for at least a "fistful" of rock sugar, which translates to roughly half a pound of the sweet stuff. There’s nothing inherently healthy about that dish, and I will make no such claim to the contrary for Coca-Cola chicken, either. In reality, you don’t consume all of that sugar. The sauce seasons the meat and coats the exterior of the chicken, and only some of that sauce ends up on your plate (or on top of rice).
But you know what? In a pinch, Coca-Cola worked really well. Sweet, tangy, with notes of citrus, caramel, cinnamon, and vanilla, Coke was a solid substitute for the classic ingredients used in soy sauce chicken. You didn’t need to dissolve huge chunks of rock sugar and you didn’t need magic tangerine peels, so, yes, Coca-Cola chicken wasn’t an exact copy of the original. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t as close as you could get. The dish was complex and delicious in its own right—certainly worthy of a place on my family’s dinner table.
When I told my dad I wanted to revive the recipe for Coca-Cola Chicken, he chuckled. "That’s a silly one...it’s simple food. Who’s going to eat that?" But I pressed on, explaining my desire to perfect the technique based on his soy sauce chicken recipe. You see, my father kept his original recipe for soy chicken shrouded in mystery for years. He cherished it. It was off limits. He was constantly refining it, tweaking it to be better. But Coca-Cola chicken? He wasn’t too attached to the idea—more tickled by its novelty than inspired by its ingenuity. But I insisted that my adventures in Coke-poached chicken were a way to stay connected to his original recipe, to his way of cooking. He could respect that.
My dad doesn’t really read cookbooks. At least, not the ones that I read. He doesn’t follow food trends, he’s never heard of Serious Eats, and he probably thinks kombucha is an island. But he does have the best palate I’ve ever encountered. And, perhaps most of all, he’s a physicist at heart: Analytical and painstakingly methodical, grounded in pragmatism, ruled by the forces of the natural world. He definitely put most of his experience points into critical thinking and deadpan humor. In other words, he’s got the perfect DNA to be a cook.
He keeps a tome of his own homespun recipes. Full of Post-its and peppered with grease stains and dog-eared pages, it’s written in an indecipherable mix of Chinese and English chicken scratchings. It’s the sort of text that would be a treasure to find in a distant future: a glimpse into a period of unfettered tinkering and innovation, a catalogue of decades of trial and error.
He thumbed through his book. "What do you want to know?"
Rough it Up, Brush it Down
In my early trials, I was often unhappy with the mottled appearance and uneven coloration of the chicken skin. I wanted a smooth, even appearance. Where was I going wrong? "You need to rough it up," my dad advised. "Give it a good rub with salt."
Salt acts as an abrasive—like sandpaper—to smooth out imperfections. I immediately noticed a difference: chunks of yellow, calcified fat were flying off the skin, revealing a perfectly smooth surface underneath. To clean the skin a bit, my dad likes to brush the skin with wine, which further seasons the meat and creates a pseudo-brine by dissolving the salt on the skin’s surface. This process loosely mimics the effect of a dry brine, wherein salt draws out moisture from meat, gets dissolved, seasons the meat, and dissolves proteins to make the meat juicier and more tender. To be honest, I’m not sure if the time it takes for the poaching liquid to come together is enough for the salt to penetrate the meat deeply, but it can’t hurt, right?
Choosing the Right Ingredients
This recipe is all about building flavor up front. Choosing the right aromatics goes a long way: Ginger, star anise, cinnamon, garlic, and white pepper are essential. Since most people can’t find chenpi, I leave it out. The Coke provides some of those bitter citrus notes. But for a sweeter, rounder flavor, my dad recommends a little sliced shallot.
According to my dad, "Toasting your spices makes a difference. I’ve done it both ways. Take the time to wake everything up." Initially, I just threw everything together with the poaching liquid and brought it to a boil, resulting in a flatter, less pungent flavor. Toasting the spices and aromatics in a little oil made a huge difference in flavor both in the sauce and the actual meat.
Once everything is nice and toasty, I add all the liquid. In addition to Coca-Cola, Chinese dark soy sauce is essential. It provides a deep, rich color and proper salinity to the dish. And while Coca-Cola is sweet, it isn't viscous enough to adhere to and fully lacquer the chicken on its own. Due to its limited availability, I don’t use rock sugar; I use honey for viscosity instead. Honey contributes an amber color, has a rich, floral flavor, and it helps the sauce cling to and paint the skin.
Wine is also crucial to this dish. I had great results with Shaoxing wine, but I was also curious about mei kuei lu chiew. The rose wine imparted an amazing flavor that intensified and deepened the floral notes of the Coca-Cola. I decided to leave it in. If you can find it, great. But if you can’t, plain old Shaoxing wine works wonders. To retain a bit more wine flavor through cooking, I add it in right before the chicken.
Perfecting the Poach
To cook my chicken properly, I tried every method known to man. I cooked the bird whole; I broke the bird down into parts; I tried two legs and a crown; I tried it spatchcocked. In the end, it didn’t really matter which way I butchered the bird. To save time and maximize convenience, I landed on taking the back out and splitting the chicken in half from top to bottom. This method gave the best appearance, and it was also the most efficient treatment. Since I wasn’t using a crazy amount of poaching liquid, I had to flip the bird halfway through cooking. Keeping the bird in two halves made flipping easy.
As for cooking time and heat, my father listed no less than six different methods for achieving the proper cook, based on the weight of the chicken and how much time you have. There’s the cold start "set-it-and-forget-it" method, which involves cooling down the simmered poaching liquid with ice cubes, adding the chicken, then bringing everything to a simmer, covering the pot, shutting the heat off, and letting the chicken sit until it’s cooked. There’s the "simmer-and-shock" method, in which you simmer the chicken until it reaches the desired temperature, rapidly cool it down in an ice bath, then re-submerge it in the cooled poaching liquid until it absorbs plenty of flavor.
I settled on two methods. My preferred method, which my dad calls the "simmer-and shut," involves a brief 20-minute bare simmer, after which the heat gets shut off and the chicken gradually comes to temperature in the hot poaching liquid. The post-simmer rest gives the chicken ample time to absorb the liquid, which also colors the exterior. The resulting meat is juicy and tender, but with a slight bite that’s more typical of soy sauce chicken.
The second method is more akin to sous vide cooking. After building the poaching liquid, I let it cool to 170°F, then add the chicken and maintain a cooking temperature between 150° and 160°F. This method takes forever—on the order of a couple hours for a whole chicken—but if you have the time, it results in extra-tender, extra-juicy meat with skin that’s deeply and evenly lacquered.
Finishing the Sauce
No matter which method you choose, resting the chicken is essential. And while the meat rests, I choose to reduce the poaching liquid until it thickens slightly. "The finishing touch for any chicken like this," my dad explains, "is all about pouring the sauce on top. It should feel like finishing a painting." Ladling the reduced sauce on top fills in any light spots, and gently warms up the meat right before serving.
My favorite part about this recipe is the aftermath. "You should store your chicken in the sauce. It’ll be way better, way more intense the next day," my dad recommends. And the best part? You can use the poaching liquid again to poach more chicken, fortifying the sauce until you get this soy-cola-chicken mega-sauce concoction. "It just gets better and better. Don’t waste anything."
Passing the Dad Test
I recently cooked my version of Coca-Cola Chicken for my dad. "This is tasty...I feel like I’ve had this before..." he mused, "What’s in this? It’s not soy chicken."
I explained to him what he was eating. "Hmph, it doesn’t taste like Coke. Not bad...not the real thing, but not bad."
To say that cooking is derivative is reductive. As cooks, we all copy each other. It’s always been, and always will be how we cook that matters. As the OG All-father of gastronomy Jacques Pepin famously said, "A recipe captures a moment in time," not to be followed blindly, but to be performed with all your senses, mindfully. I didn’t invent Coca-Cola chicken. I didn’t need to. But with my dad’s guidance, I revived a piece of my family’s history; I codified it, refined it, recorded it in time for safekeeping. My father’s recipe is always changing. It will take a lifetime—maybe more!—to perfect. And so will mine.
As we ride the Northeast Regional train to New York to visit my aging grandmother—and as I’m writing this story—my dad keeps one piece of luggage by his side: a neatly wrapped green bag, intended for his mother. Inside it rests a whole chicken, expertly poached in soy sauce—no Coke, this time.