Two of the most popular braising techniques in Chinese cuisine are hong shao (“red cooking,” or “red braising”) and lu.
While distinct, both involve simmering a usually rich, fatty meat in an aromatic liquid, seasoned with soy sauce, Shaoxing or rice wine, and a fragrant medley of whole spices. The meat cooks low and slow, until tender and intensely flavorful.
This home-style family recipe for braised chicken combines the two techniques, as many Chinese home cooks like to do, for best-of-both-worlds results.
A hong shao dish starts by pan-searing the meat in oil and sugar, which melts and caramelizes, until all sides take on a rich, dark caramel color. Water, seasonings, and spices are added and the mixture is brought to a boil, then slow-simmered over low heat. By the end, the braising liquid will have reduced into a thick, glossy sauce, perfect for draping over steamed rice.
The lu technique, on the other hand, skips the searing step—although modern recipes may include it, to add more flavor—and starts with a braising stock that uses more water, and won’t reduce as much. After cooking, the meat is traditionally allowed to cool and rest in that aromatic braising liquid, soaking up even more flavor; it’ll taste even better the next day.
Afterward, the liquid can be saved and repeatedly reused for future braises, developing a deeper, more complex flavor each time. Chinese restaurant kitchens, and some home kitchens, will all have their own “master stocks” made in this way. There are legends of master stocks that are decades or even centuries old, passed down through generations of cooks.
This recipe starts with the caramelization of the hong shao method, but ends with plenty of flavorful braising liquid for soaking the chicken overnight. Master the basic formula for a versatile addition to your cooking repertoire.
It’s easily adaptable to different proteins—try pork belly, short ribs, bean curd, or even oxtails—and welcomes add-ins from hearty veggies to hard-boiled eggs. As for the spices, each restaurant or family will have a unique signature blend. Feel free to mix it up, based on what you like and what you have, to make your own.
Chinese Soy Sauce-Braised Chicken Drumsticks
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
- 8 chicken drumsticks (2 pounds), bone-in, skin-on
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 slices ginger
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 3 cups water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 whole black cardamom (tsaoko)
- 3 whole star anise
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Season the drumsticks with salt and white pepper on all sides.
In a large pan over high heat, add the vegetable oil and ginger. Lay the drumsticks in the pan in a single layer and cook, flipping them to brown each side, until all sides are golden-brown, about 4 minutes.
Push the drumsticks to the edges of the pan and add the sugar to the opening in the middle. Stir-fry until the sugar melts; this will give the chicken a beautiful red color. Then add the soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and rice wine. Stir and cook for 1 minute, flipping the drumsticks to coat all sides.
Pour in 3 cups water, or just enough to barely cover the chicken. Add the cinnamon, black cardamom, star anise, bay leaves, and black peppercorns and stir briefly. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Then, turn the heat to low and simmer for 40 minutes, adding water if needed to keep the chicken covered with the liquid.
Serve immediately, pouring some extra sauce over the drumsticks, with rice. Or, let the drumsticks soak in the braising liquid overnight for even more flavor.
You can swap the chicken drumsticks for chicken wings, thighs, or any protein of your choice that can withstand slow-cooking, such as pork belly, short ribs, oxtails, or even bean curd. The process is the same; just adjust the cooking time as needed.
If you don’t have white pepper, use black pepper instead.
You can also add more ingredients to the pan, such as chopped onion, carrots, mushrooms, cabbage, hard-boiled eggs, tofu, or glass noodles—the possibilities are endless. Add heartier ingredients such as onion, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, or firm tofu at the beginning. For boiled eggs, add them in the last 30 minutes of cooking. For thick glass noodles, add them in the last 10 minutes, and for thin glass noodles, the last 3 minutes.
If you don’t have some of the whole spices, feel free to substitute with what you have, or simply omit. Try cloves, dried tangerine peels, or dried red chili peppers.
Recipe by CiCi Li, the producer and presenter of “CiCi’s Food Paradise” on NTD. Join her in discovering the world of Asian home cooking at CiCiLi.tv