It should go without much dispute: for many people, our eating preferences came from the kitchen which our moms didn’t let us enter. The kitchen, soaked in lemon yellow sunlight late in the afternoon, or glowing fluorescent white in the evening, speaks magic. Dish after dish of vegetables and meat filled our grumbling stomachs; brought us the joy we deserved after a long day of school or work; broke the bad spells even before we turned the key and opened the door. The realm of culinary magic showers the family with motherly love and care – or fatherly, depending on who’s in charge of the kingdom.
These memories of sorcery from the kitchen make a great impact on what, why and how, I cook in mine. The kitchen is now my territory, and my wife Zoe is my (occasional) sous-chef. I cannot claim to be a fantastic chef, but I am able to sprinkle our cozy apartment with a bit of magic. My mom and my mom-in-law have been sending me tips and tricks, but now it’s them who stay out of my kitchen when I put on my apron.
My favourite dish is chicken wings, wingettes specifically. Both eating and cooking them. They are very easy to handle. Remember, we eat mostly with chopsticks. We either poke them into the middle part of the wing, between the two bones, or pick up the wingette parallel to the chopsticks and take the first bite from one side. Just like playing the harmonica. Eating the full wing can be clumsy and messy. We do eat just the wing tips, prepared in a Chinese marinade, as a kind of snack served with alcohol. But it’s just not a dish we regularly serve at dinner. So we go for the wingettes. The middle. The golden mean.
Wingettes are also the dish I have the most confidence in cooking. They’re easy to prepare. I usually buy the frozen wings from the market, rinse them under tap water, pat them dry and marinate them with a bit of soy sauce, salt, sugar, sesame oil and corn starch. Instead of deep-frying or roasting, I just pan-fry them until they’re golden brown, and then pour on my gravy of choice, cover with the lid, wait, and finally stick a chopstick into the middle of each wingette. If no blood is oozing out, the dish is ready.
The Art of Sauce and Gravy
In Chinese cooking, there is a whole art to sauces and gravies. For example, the gravy is a lot thicker for wingettes than it would be for steak. And it is mostly salty. We wouldn’t serve the same gravy with seafood, in most cases. Chicken wings go with two main types of gravy, at least in my kitchen: fermented soybean curd or oyster sauce.
Oyster-sauce gravy with wingettes is still my all-time favourite. That isn’t a mistake – I’m sure you imagine I would mean to say: “wingettes with oyster sauce gravy.” But no. We care about the gravy more than the meat.
You might wonder why I go on at great lengths about how I make and eat wingettes, and what kind of gravy I prefer. The answer is simple. They are associated with sweet childhood memories.
Growing up Eating Wingettes
Mom was very good at making oyster sauce gravy wingettes, though she didn’t do it very often. The meals she made could be elaborate sometimes. Even to the point where we would eat with forks and knives (I learnt my table manners at home) enjoying a feast with steak, pasta, and broccoli or asparagus. But oftentimes a dinner could be as simple as broiled cabbage and pork chops with no sauce. It was worse when I got sick (let’s talk about culinary disasters another time).
Having wingettes for dinner meant Mom had a good day, and so did we. Mom seldom showed joy or satisfaction on her face, but a good indicator is wingettes, accompanied by cream soda with milk (an exclusively Hong Kong drink). Her good mood might be because she received housekeeping money from Dad. Perhaps because summer came. Simpler reasons might include me not getting sick from a bug that was going around, or me behaving myself for the whole day, and not making her mad. On those days, as she prepared meals in the kitchen, I seemed to see the aura around her head in golden yellow – maybe it was just because the soft afternoon sunlight seeped in through the kitchen window. As she turned around and saw me watching, she would say, “don’t come in. Wait outside.” But I could smell oyster sauce. Something good was happening this day.
It’s Just not the Same
As I grew up and had dinner at home less, chicken wingettes became something I would want to have only at home, just because no wingettes out there could compare. Having meals with chicken wingettes outside the house is actually a cheap choice. They are often braised for too long and lose that firm texture. For illustration I took the risk and ordered a bowl of Taiwanese noodles with wingettes a few days ago, just for you. Be quiet! It’s research! Anyway. Look good. Taste meh. Not like the ones at home. During the days I stayed at Granny’s place, her braised wingettes with potatoes were also too tender, although I still liked them lots. As long as it was Grams who cooked.
But whenever I visit Mom, when she asks what I would like to have for dinner, oyster sauce gravy wingettes are always at the top of my list.
Remembering the Past through Food
Fonder memories remain and soften the more dismal ones.
I think about my younger days when I smell the oyster sauce gravy. And I want to cook and eat wingettes when the old days come across my mind. I discovered that, as I grow older, bad memories – my parents’ messy divorce, a sense of feeling abandoned – those that once made me think I didn’t have a childhood at all, have become faint fragments of thoughts.
So instead I choose to remember the magic from the “forbidden” realm. The chef preparing secret recipes for the love of the family. The mellow, yellowish glow from the kitchen window on tranquil days. The days when I yearned for oyster sauce gravy wingettes after a long day at school.
I still yearn to have them now. But now I own this magic spell. It’s my turn to share this love with my family.
Pan-fried oyster-sauce gravy wingettes (two servings)
|Frozen chicken wingettes||8 pcs|
|Soy sauce||2 tbsp|
|Corn starch||1 tbsp|
|Sesame oil||1 tbsp|
|Oyster sauce||2 tbsp|
|Corn starch||1 tbsp|
- Thaw wingettes at room temperature.
- Wash wingettes under tap water. Pat dry with paper towels.
- Add wingettes into the marinade. Set aside for at least 15 minutes.
- Preheat a large frying pan. Sear both sides of wingettes over high heat until light brown.
- Turn heat to low. Add oyster-sauce gravy and cover with lid. Continue cooking for around 10 minutes. Flip wingettes a couple of times.
To check whether the meat is fully cooked, I would poke a chopstick in the middle of the wingettes. If you feel some resistance sticking the chopstick in, or there is blood oozing out, flip the wingettes over and continue cooking. This may affect the appearance of the wingettes, but since they are covered in a thick gravy sauce, you likely won’t be able to tell. That said, I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you are serving this dish to guests, especially if you want to impress them.