Not all chickens are created equal. As long as they are stored correctly, fresh chickens will almost always taste better than frozen, and the texture is firmer and less watery, too. So try to buy fresh local chickens instead of the flabby, tasteless, overgrown ones sold in supermarkets – they will make whatever dish you’re cooking taste better.
Most Hongkongers just go to the siu mei (roast meat) shop if they want soy sauce chicken, but it’s also easy to make. The fresh local chickens I buy are the perfect size: 1.2kg. If you like, chop off the head, neck and feet before poaching the bird (it doesn’t change the cooking time), then freeze them to use the next time you make chicken broth.
Choose a cooking pot that is large and deep enough that the chicken has room to “swim” in the poaching liquid. It shouldn’t be too wide though, because the poaching liquid needs to cover three-quarters of the bird.
In this recipe, the chicken is just poached, not simmered, which gives the meat a silky texture. I like chicken a little pink at the bones so for a bird that weighs 1.2kg, I poach it for an hour. If you prefer it fully cooked, poach it longer. If you have a larger chicken, you'll need to increase the cooking time. A chicken that weighs 1.5kg (53oz) will need about 1½ to 2 hours to poach, plus an hour to cool in the liquid.
Put the two soy sauces and the rice wine in a pot, add 750ml (3 cups) of water and bring to the boil over a medium flame. Add the sugar, ginger, spring onions, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cardamom, cassia/cinnamon and garlic cloves. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the sugar is dissolved.
Lower the chicken into the pot, breast-side up; the liquid should come at least three-quarters up the side of the bird. Bring to the boil, then turn off the flame. Cover the pot with the lid and let the chicken poach for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn on the flame, bring the liquid to the boil again, then turn off the heat. Poach, covered, for another 15 to 20 minutes.
Turn the chicken over so it is breast-side down. Again, turn on the flame and let the liquid come to the boil. Turn off the flame, cover the pot and let the chicken poach for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn on the flame, let the liquid come to the boil, then turn off the heat, cover the pot and let the chicken poach for another 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove the lid from the pot, turn the chicken over again, and leave it in the liquid for about an hour. Lift the chicken out of the pot, letting the liquid drain from the cavity, then put it in a bowl. Drizzle with about 20ml (4tsp) of oil then use your hands to rub it lightly but evenly over the bird. Leave it to cool while preparing the dipping sauce.
Finely mince the spring onions, then put them in a bowl and mix in the salt. The salt will wilt the spring onions. Mix in about 30ml of oil, then taste the mixture, adding more salt, if necessary.
Chop up the bird Chinese-style - through the bone into pieces you can pick up with chopsticks, or if you like, remove the bones and cut up the meat into neat pieces. Arrange the chicken on a platter, then serve with the dipping sauce on the side.