There is a dusty and musty kitchen supply store, tucked away in the recess of the biggest shopping center in LA’s Chinatown, that is a particular favorite of mine. Right past the two-story emporium with the vats of dried ginseng and loose tea, that also carries mysteriously European cookies and all kind of kitchen equipment, the store in question is manned by a nice older woman, with a limited range of English who, nonetheless, will go to great lengths to understand what you are looking for.
Most times when I visit, I am not looking for anything in particular. I move pots and pans around, get my hands dusty and always come out full handed: a little basket to hold orphan vegetables in the fridge; an extra sized cutting board, restaurant style, at a fraction of the going prices; take-out boxes in which I package cookies and truffles. The store never disappoints. On my last foray, I was inspired to replace an ancient wok I wasn’t using anymore because it was rusting. The lady insisted I buy a wok made of a material that is not entirely clear to me what it is – it’s very light, doesn’t seem to scratch and it washes beautifully. She insisted I would like it.
The wok was carried to the upstairs restaurant where I usually end up having lunch ($22.00 buys lunch for two and no one goes hungry), right before I browse the grocery stores for tiny bananas and unusual vegetables. Then it was stashed away with other pots and pans and I forgot all about it for a few weeks.
I love most Asian food (the notable exception is Korean, too meat based) and I am not afraid to try simple recipes. Purists would be horrified at how I mangle them, substitute ingredients as the original ones might not be in my pantry and would require either a trip to Chinatown or, worst still, the San Gabriel Valley. I probably end up with the Chinese equivalents of what I call New Jersey Italian: food that was Italian to begin with and but was watered down and modified to please foreign palates (I am looking at you, over-sauced and over-garlicky pasta).
No matter. Now that I have even replaced my old and small rice cooker with a shinier, speedier and bigger model, I am even more inspired to cook simple Asian dishes. Enter Three Cup Chicken, a mainstay of Taiwanese cooking, at least in the U.S. So called because it’s supposed to require only three ingredients, one cup of each, but the likelihood of cooking anything in one cup of oil in my kitchen was slim. I looked at a few recipes online and deemed it simple enough, and a good wok inauguration.
In the absence of scallions, I used leeks. Rice wine was replaced by a mixture of marsala and brandy and the end result of beyond delicious. And it took much less than it took my rice cooker to deliver fluffy rice.
RECIPE – Serves 4
This is the basic recipe. Feel free to add any vegetables you like. You can use seitan in place of chicken. Thighs are the meat of choice but I used the breast. I omitted the garlic as I am not a fan but slice as much garlic as you like and cook it with the ginger.
2 or 3 T sesame oil (or other neutral oil)
1 large leeks (or a few scallions), cut thin
dried red pepper flakes to taste
2 lbs skinless and boneless chicken thighs or breast, cut in bite size pieces (1kg)
1 T brown sugar
1/2 C white wine (or rice wine or brandy)
1/4 C soy sauce
2 large handful of basil
1 knob of ginger, peeled and sliced thin
- Heat the wok on high heat and add half of the oil. When very hot, add the ginger, leeks and pepper flakes and cook for a minute or two. Push them aside.
- Add the remaining oil, then the chicken and cook, still on high heat, until browned, 5 minutes or so (you can also add any vegetables at this point).
- Add the brown sugar and stir. Add the wine, soy sauce and let the mixture come to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, between 7 and 10 minutes.
- Take the wok off the heat, add the basil, stir and serve over rice.