Don't care for Thanksgiving turkey? Try a steamed chicken.

Not many will openly admit they don't care for traditional Thanksgiving turkey. But there are many cuisine alternatives to choose from. This Asian twist on the poultry centerpiece will make the holiday feel new.

Pickles and Tea
Steamed poultry like this glazed chicken is a popular Thanksgiving choice among Chinese-Americans.

When I was researching my first book, "The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook," several Chinese Americans I spoke to told me that their parents prepared steamed chicken or duck instead of roast turkey for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t surprised because steaming is more traditional than roasting in many Asian cultures. 

One person recalled that she ate steamed turkey during the holidays when she was growing up. I was doubtful you could find a steamer large enough to fit a turkey (maybe the turkey was in parts?!), but who knows, maybe industrial-sized steamers are available in a Chinatown somewhere!

Ever since then, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of steaming a bird for Thanksgiving. Truth be told, I’ve never steamed poultry before and I wasn’t sure where to start. But I knew I didn’t want to attempt steaming a turkey; I didn’t want to wrestle a 12-pound turkey (the smalllest I could find) into a steaming apparatus, nor did I want to risk serving a raw bird to my guests. So I settled on a whole chicken.

In September, I received a copy of Kian Lam Kho’s just-released "Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking" (Clarkson Potter, September 2015). As I perused the recipes in this 368-page tome, I found a couple of recipes (or parts of recipes) for steamed chicken. One recipe–the recipe for “Tea Smoked Duck” — called out my name.

Making Kian’s tea-smoked duck is a four-part process – marinating, steaming, smoking, and deep-frying. I decided to simplify the recipe by marinating, steaming, and finally roasting the chicken until burnished. (Go here for tips on stovetop steaming.)

I know I said I wanted to a steamed chicken, and you most definitely can stop there (just paint some sesame oil all over the skin to make it shine). However, I found the pale chicken quite unfestive and wanted to go one step further and give the bird some color. Either way, the chicken is delicious, with the marinade permeating every morsel of meat. Although I must say that the sweet and tangy glaze shellacs the skin beautifully and makes the chicken taste extra special.

So if you’re open to a different kind of bird this Thanksgiving, do give this recipe a try!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

Steamed Thanksgiving Chicken
Adapted from "Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees" by Kho Kian Lam (Clarkson Potter, 2015)

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill Thanksgiving bird both in terms of flavors or technique. The Chinese ingredients and cooking method are a nod to my cultural heritage, yet the preparation is tedious enough to make this a special occasion dish (aren’t all dishes meant for special occasions long-drawn and laborious?). The original recipe calls for duck; feel free to buy that instead. Or, if you prefer white meat, do as my husband's famliy once did and purchase ONLY the turkey breast. That should fit in your steaming apparatus.

Serves 6

Marinade
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup Shaoxing cooking wine
1/4 cup sugar
1 (2-inch long) fresh ginger
2 scallions
2 tablespoons salt
3 whole star anise
4 ounces cassia bark (I used one large cinnamon stick)
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns (substitute black pepper if desired)
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 whole chicken (3 to 4 pounds)

Glaze
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoons white rice vinegar
1 tablespoon warm water

1. Put all the ingredients for the marinade in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat until it starts to simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

2. Put the chicken in a large zip top bag and pour the marinade over. Seal and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, or overnight, flipping the chicken every few hours.

3. Put a wire rack in a wok or large Dutch oven. I didn’t have one that would fit so I arranged 3 pairs of chopsticks in a grid (see photo below). Add enough water to just cover the wire rack or chopsticks. Remove the chicken, scraping off any solids clinging to its skin and transfer to a platter. Put the platter on the steamer rack or chopstick grid. Cover and steam for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the thigh reaches a temperature of 160 degrees F.

4. Remove the chicken from the wok and let it air-dry at room temperature for one hour.

5. Mix together the honey, vinegar and water in a small bowl. Brush the honey-vinegar mixture on both sides of the chicken and refrigerate uncovered for 3 to 4 hours to air-dry, or as long as you can manage. Save the honey-vinegar mixture.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.

6. Brush the chicken with the honey-vinegar glaze again. Fill the bottom of a roasting pan fitted with a rack with about 2 cups of water (this will catch the drippings and prevent it from burning). Place the chicken breast-side down on the rack and roast for 15 minutes, until the skin is brown and glossy.

7. Let it rest for 10 minutes before carving. Serve with Sticky Rice Stuffing.

Notes
1. In the original recipe, Kian lists maltose syrup (available at Asian markets) or honey, which is what I used, to make the glaze. I reckon maple syrup would work, too.

2. Kian’s marinade calls for 11 ingredients. If you find the number too daunting, you can simply rub coarse salt all over the chicken skin and stuff the cavity with ginger, garlic and green onions for a Hainanese-style chicken or just take your pick of marinades.

3. The skin on this chicken tastes lovely indeed but it isn't crispy. The trick to crispy skin on your bird – such as that sheathing Peking Duck – is to air-dry it uncovered in your fridge for 2 to 3 days before roasting until it "has the texture of a dry sausage casing" according to Kian. Try it and see what happens!

4. Considering how many steps this recipe requires, you can start several days ahead. Great news for Thanksgiving prep!

Related post on Pickles and Tea: Soy sauce chicken

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