Cháozhōu Cocaine Chicken 潮州鹵水鸡

In food on 01/30/2009 at 10:32 am

Cháozhōu, Chiu Chow, Teochew, however you phoneticize it, for me, it’s YUM. There’s a spot in Chinatown that seems directly transported from the factory of dingy dives serving comfort food. It’s reminiscent of my distant memory of trips to Taiwan, a country that teeters between high-tech commerce and dirt roads, creaky cramped stairwells and that omnipresent greenish glow of flickering fluorescence against ceramic tile walls. That place close to my heart is New Bo Ky

I hadn’t really had an awareness of Cháozhōu cuisine except for this incredibly addictive, tender, supple chicken and duck served exclusively at Bo Ky. It is not really a hidden gem per sé, it’s more like the open secret of Chinatown. Critics universally praise it, tourists are found there aplenty, but people often mistake it for a Vietnamese dive given the phô and other soups on the menu. I am really just starting to delve into the nuances of provincial cuisine myself, so I can’t fault the masses for thinking all Asian food from one country is the same. The real secret stuff to chow on is in plain sight, huge color photos of the most popular dishes within the pages of the simple menu. My only critique of the place is the lack of beverage selection. And the tea is one step above soggy dirty gym socks. At least you can wash things down with the clear soup, which comes with most every dish.

Last night I had my usual braised chicken. The dipping sauce really makes this dish, a sour, spicy and awesome counterpoint against the heartily-sauced meat. Sometimes the duck is fatty and lacking in meat. So, to really engorge the silky mouth feel of the soft-as-butter flesh, chicken is the way to go. The burnished golden skin is really too much to resist. Bad reviews I’ve read seem to be coming from the wrong place. This joint serves the kind of homestyle food that is like Mother’s kitchen, full of deep, rich flavors that are not as multi-faceted as you would expect for a ‘Chinese’ restaurant. Patrons really come here to feel at home and stuff their bellies. And they do have some ringer dishes for tourists, the fried stuff, which if you scan the Asian people around you, do not order. Most are sinking their faces into the massive meat-topped rice dishes or bowls of soup. I also tried the large intestine with pickled mustard greens yesterday, and man, it is definitely the best I’ve had in all three Chinatowns in NYC.

The service is typical of a place which is mildly xenophobic. I often bemoan my lack of Cantonese skills, given that dialect is really what gets you by in Chinatowns of the world. Even when I speak Mandarin, I get a little attitude. So if you walk in only speaking English, of course you’re not going to get the service you think you deserve. Having stepped into African restaurants salivating for the spicy mustard whole-roasted tilapia in Harlem, and been ignored long enough that I gave up and walked out, I take it with a grain of salt. Like everything, if you really want it, you gotta be able to stuff your ego in your pocket and suffer a little for it.

The Teochew people come from a hardscrabble, clannish part of Guangdong province and speak a dialect somewhere between Fujianese and Cantonese. They are nice, hardy peasant stock and the food reflects their personality. Denied entry into other businesses because they were outsiders (xenophobia strikes back!) the Chiu-Chownese got into real estate when it wasn’t profitable. Some managed to trickle into Taiwan and entangled many of their dishes into the cuisine, some which are now considered staples of Taiwanese food. So because the restaurant business isn’t really in their cultural ethos like the Cantonese, if you can find Cháozhōu in your town, consider yourself really really lucky.

What I realized from doing a little research is that this chicken is a version of red cooking, braising meats in soy sauce. These guys just add a couple more spices in it to give it that Mainland taste. Here is my approximation of that heady goodness, with an accompaniment of pungent pickled daikon (okay, it smells like farts and yes, I like getting the evil eye on the subway when I have it hidden in my shopping bag).


Duck or chicken, quartered (also could use pork belly)
1 cup Chinese cooking wine (can substitute a non-fruity white wine)
light soy sauce (you want the other flavors to shine through the braise)
cinnamon sticks
star anise

(if you’re stuck in a pinch, allspice or 5-spice powder could be substituted for cloves, and star anise. It’s supposed to contain all the flavors of Chinese cooking: sweet, sour, bitter, savory and salty. Blends differ.)

1 Tbsp sugar
white pepper is best, but black is okay

Dipping sauce:

garlic chopped
red chili or sambal
lime juice or vinegar
1 tsp sugar

Pickled Daikon:

sliced daikon (white radish) into thin potato chip-like rounds. If you’re lucky enough to have a mandolin slicer, use that to get the thinnest possible discs.

vinegar or lime juice

Put all chopped ingredients and meat for braising into pot. Adjust soy sauce and water at 1:1 ratio, just enough to cover meat. Simmer for at least 45 min.

Mix ingredients for dipping sauce and start marinating the daikon, both in 1:1 ratio with water, but also to taste.

Top cocaine chicken and daikon delight on rice.

bo ky

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