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Wings for the sweet tooth

Hong Kong's Tai Ping Koon serves unforgettable chicken wings in Swiss sauce, so named because wait staff had misheard a Westerner's 'sweet' as 'Swiss'

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Tan Hsueh Yun on 22 Sep 2019

The Straits Times

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The relentless march forward and onward is all well and good, and people all fall in line like good little soldiers. But there is room for nostalgia in every life. In mine, it is the beauty and patina of vintage furniture, crockery and handbags; and, of course, retro food and the restaurants that serve them.

 

Between a cutting-edge restaurant and a coffee house that harks back to days of yore, I almost always choose old school.

 

There is something irresistible about the idiosyncratic blending of East and West to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

 

I love seeing food through these lenses: What did Asian chefs make of Western food? How did they tweak recipes to appeal to us? What a brave new world it was to explore then.

 

There are places in Singapore to go for this sort of thing. Prince Coffee House in Beach Road is a prime example. Its Hainanese pork chop and oxtail stew have the taste of halcyon days.

 

The Ship at Shaw Centre, despite its veneer of newness, also serves dishes like Chicken Maryland and Bombe Alaska, set alight at the table, but it is the fish beehoon that draws me back.

 

In Tokyo, nostalgia can be had in kissaten, old-style coffee places serving coffee in dainty cups, sandwiches filled with fruit enrobed in whipped cream and Japanese-style strawberry shortcake.

 

Ace Cafe in Kanda, run by a pair of brothers, serves coffee with a pat of butter floating on top, freshly fried doughnuts with pats of butter in the holes, and an ace nori-sando - a double-deck sandwich with, you guessed it, butter and crisp sheets of seaweed.

 

Cafe de l'Ambre in Ginza is just soaked in nostalgia. Here, you can have a cup of coffee made with 30-year-old beans at the ancient counter.

 

I mourn the passing of its owner, centenarian Ichiro Sekiguchi, who was usually roasting beans in the chamber out front, until he died last year at the age of 104.

 

In Hong Kong, I basked in the glow of old days earlier this year with my sister. I was there to visit her and we had a late, late lunch (or an early dinner) at Tai Ping Koon in Causeway Bay.

 

It was started by one Chui Lo Ko, who had worked as a chef for a Western trading company in Guangzhou.

 

In 1860, he opened a restaurant in Guangzhou, in Tai Ping Sha. It was the first restaurant there to specialise in Western food.

 

There are no Tai Ping Koon restaurants in mainland China now, but the four in Hong Kong are well loved.

 

When we were there, walk-in diners were turned away because the restaurant was fully booked for dinner. We had managed to get a table only because we were there at an odd time.

 

I was there for one of the legendary souffles, and it did not disappoint. Golden and puffed up, it arrived at the table with some ceremony, borne aloft by a waiter who was unfazed by my frenzied photo-taking.

 

My sister insisted on a club sandwich and it was a beauty because of the thick slices of corned beef tongue in it. It had such an old-world taste.

 

The table next to ours went in for the kill and ordered the beef tongue as a main course. I kept sneaking looks at the plate of thickly sliced tongue, driven mad by the savoury smell of it.

 

I shall leave corning meats to the experts but I cannot forget another dish I had that afternoon. Tai Ping Koon's chicken wings in Swiss sauce.

 

You know, of course, that there is nothing Swiss about the sauce. On Tai Ping Koon's website is the story, about a Westerner, who said, after eating the wings: "Sweet! Sweet!" The wait staff heard "Swiss" and so the wings became Swiss Wings.

 

Chicken wings are simmered in a rich, sweet braising sauce to make the dish. The wings are unforgettable to me because in addition to the sweetness, there is a very definitely umami kick to them.

 

My sister and I were both moved to recreate them in our kitchens.

 

Mei marinates her wings in dark soya sauce, light soya sauce, kicap manis, fish sauce, HP sauce, some sugar, white pepper and stock powder, then grills the chicken.

 

I have gone with a more classic simmering sauce because I see potential in keeping it in the freezer and having it get richer as I poach more chicken wings and possibly pork belly in it. The wings at Tai Ping Koon taste fantastic, I imagine, because that sauce has been going for years.

 

There is no light soya sauce in my brew because saltiness comes from other components. Dark soya sauce is not terribly salty, not if you use a good brand. I use Nanyang Sauce's Premium Brew Dark Soya Sauce, available on RedMart. A good amount of Shaoxing wine goes into it as well.

 

More umami comes from Worcestershire sauce, which also adds tanginess. Because I use umami-enhancing liquid shio koji, available online from Zairyo, in almost everything I cook, I add a couple tablespoons to my brew, but it is entirely optional.

 

Solids in the sauce include star anise and cinnamon for warmth; ginger and scallions for freshness; and rock sugar for gloss.

 

I know you would prefer to leave the sugar out entirely but remember these are sweet wings, and sugar will inevitably have to be in the braising sauce. I have kept it to a bare minimum, however, preferring to let the savoury notes stand out more.

 

There is one important step I hope you will not leave out - blanching. Plunge the wings into boiling water before braising and then shock them in ice water. This helps to firm up the flesh and keep the skin from breaking during the braise.

 

Tai Ping Koon uses the flats with wing tips attached but I prefer whole wings, those with the drummettes too, because they take very well to braising.

 

Goodness knows when I will be able to make it back to Hong Kong. I miss the restaurant's corned beef tongue terribly.

 

But at least I have the braising sauce in my freezer to make batches of Swiss wings.

 

SWISS WINGS

 

INGREDIENTS

 

  • 1 bunch scallions
  • 100g old ginger
  • 12 large chicken wings
  • 250ml good quality dark soya sauce
  • 100ml Shaoxing wine
  • 75ml Worcestershire sauce
  • 2Tbs liquid shio koji (optional)
  • 1.5 litres water
  • 150g rock sugar
  • 3 star anise
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • Sliced scallions for garnish

 

METHOD

 

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Rinse the scallions under running water and chop crosswise into 5cm-long pieces. Slice the ginger on the diagonal.

 

Add half the scallions and half the ginger to the water.

 

2. Fill a large bowl, big enough to hold all the wings, with water and ice cubes. Set aside.

 

3. Rinse the chicken wings under running water. When the water comes to a boil, place the wings in the water and cook for three minutes. Drain and place the wings immediately in the bowl of ice water. Let them sit in the water while you prepare the braising sauce.

 

4. Wash the pot you used for boiling the wings. Place the dark soya sauce, Shaoxing wine, Worcestershire sauce, shio koji if using, water, rock sugar, star anise, cinnamon, the remaining scallions and sliced ginger in the pot. Bring to a boil. Have a taste and add more of any of the sauce ingredients if you need to.

 

5. Place the cold wings into the braising sauce and bring it back to a boil. Turn heat down to medium low and simmer for 30 minutes, or until fully cooked. Make sure the wings are fully submerged while they are cooking. Add water to the pot if needed to cover the wings.

 

6. Remove the wings, place on a serving platter. If you like, scoop some of the braising sauce into a small saucepan and boil over high heat until reduced to a thick glaze, and pour this over the wings. Top with sliced scallions before serving.

 

7. Discard the spices, scallions and ginger after straining the remaining braising sauce. Pour the sauce into a sturdy container with a cover, and freeze for future use.

 

Serves four as a snack

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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