Sok's ginger chicken
An essay by Jacquie Tran
7 May 2022
Tomorrow is Mother’s Day around these parts.
I’ve been thinking about my mum a lot recently and missing her. It was September 2021 when she died, just a couple days after she was last awake and we were able to have a conversation with one another.
I’ve been thinking about her, feeling far away from home and from whānau, so I decided that I’d make her famed ginger chicken recipe.
Years ago now, she walked me through the process in that way that Asian mums do. It was something like this:
Slice up a good amount of chicken thigh fillets. It must be the thigh cut, everything else is too dry / salty / bony / bothersome to prepare.
Julienne lots of ginger until you have enough. I know you think this looks like a lot of ginger, but you’re not even close to enough yet. Still nope. Nuh-uh. Ay-yaaaaaah...keep going.
Use this exact spoon to get the right amount of fermented soybeans—yes, always use this highly specific spoon of non-standard measure. (Conveniently, this essential spoon seems to only exist in my family’s household as I’ve not seen another quite like it in my 30-some years on this planet.)
Prepare a blazing hot wok. First things first: a few glugs of vegetable oil, then the sliced chicken. Stir fry until the chicken has browned.
Now it’s time to work quickly. In goes the ginger. (That whole mound??) Yes, all of the ginger, all in at once. In go the fermented soybeans right after.
Pour in some soy sauce to bring it all together, about this much, mum says. (My eyeball measurement says this much soy sauce is roughly 3 tablespoons.)
Sprinkle a small amount of MSG, just enough for a little flavour.
Stir fry everything together for about 2 minutes or so.
Serve with freshly cooked jasmine rice. And make sure you get the good rice in those big bags from Springvale. You know the one. 25 kg, with the elephants on the front.
I write it down now, in this way, because I didn’t write it down at the time. The steps above are a neat retelling from my memories of watching mum cook. But my remembered recipe is not the real recipe, not precisely anyway.
I didn’t write it down at the time because she worked so quickly, the way experienced and practiced cooks work.
An aside: What better definition of an experienced, practiced cook than a caregiver who cooked almost everyday of her adult life (usually 2 and sometimes 3 times per day) to feed a family that included a slow and picky eater with seafood allergies, the one kid that always seemed to need / demand a separate dish to the family meal that had to be specially made up just for her (yep, that’s me).
I didn’t write the recipe down at the time of our cook-along because I made some quick mental notes in the moment. Key ingredients, key steps. I cook a lot, I know what I’m doing. This recipe is deceptively simple actually, I can definitely recreate this - no need to write it down in full technicolour. I’ll do it someday anyway and get mum to check that it’s right.
Mum died last year. I never did get around to writing out her recipe.
A couple of weeks ago, I get that familiar hankering for ginger chicken. It’s one of my favourite meals to have when I have gone home to see my parents.
It’s in my genetic code to return to it time and again, for the rest of my life. Mum regularly told the story of being pregnant, feeling her water break, and deciding to cook up a big batch of ginger chicken for herself. She wolfed it down. Washed up her dishes. Went to hospital. Gave birth to me.
I thought that it was probably a traditional Cambodian or Chinese recipe that she had been taught by her mum or another family member. I did a quick Google search. Ginger chicken recipes abound, but surprisingly I couldn’t find any that seemed similar enough to mum’s brew.
Did she make this one up herself?
In the absence of even a close-enough-is-good-enough reference point, I thought hard about my memories of our cook-along. Ginger and chicken aside, I could recall fermented soybeans as a key ingredient. I searched through old notes and found that I’d jotted this line down, buried deep in a long-forgotten shopping list:
(ginger, chicken, fermented soybeans, soy sauce, MSG)
I went to the shops. Bought the key ingredients. Brought them home and started prepping. I had to piece the meal together from fragments of memory. Like listening to distant echoes at the far end of a tunnel, then trying to reverse-engineer those echoes into a coherent story. I drew on lots of memories, not just from cooking it that one time with mum, but memories of the many times I ate and enjoyed this specific meal. The comfort and familiarity of home and the smell of stir-fried ginger wafting through every room. The banquets when we’d serve everyone from a big bowl in the middle of the family table. The times mum would recount her in-labour-binge-sesh to guffaws and tears of laughter.
I made guesses and adjustments along the way. Reasonable guesses from my own experiences as a home cook, but guesses nonetheless.
I couldn’t remember exactly how to prepare the chicken, but I figured I would have to slice it since I knew I had to julienne the ginger too. Sliced chicken and thinly sliced ginger makes sense together.
Mum never gave a lot of guidance on how much ginger to include. I didn’t have any sense of the rough number and size of root pieces I might use, nor an approximate weight measurement. But I did remember a passing thought during our cook-along session, “The amount of ginger is a lot more than you think you need.”
We don’t own a wok (I say as my ancestors wail) nor a gas cooktop. I used our flat-bottom frying pan atop an electric stove and adjusted the cooking process along the way, knowing that my pan wouldn’t get up to the wok temperatures my mum would have worked with.
Fermented soybeans add a strong flavour that needs to be present, but I was worried about ruining the balance of the dish by adding too much. I tasted it and made a rough guess about how much would be a good amount to cook with. Spoon by spoon, about one-third of the jar went into the frying pan in the end.
I finished cooking and prepped a bowl for me and for Jonathan. The house was full of the familiar smells I know. I looked at my dish and it looked good! It looked close. But I also knew it wasn’t quite right, not quite on the money.
Jonathan took a bite. “It’s amazing, Jacquie. Super tasty!”
I took a bite. It was warming and packed with flavour. Not enough ginger (I knew I didn’t add enough), but a delicious interpretation, a remix.
I thought about my mum and how much I miss her.
I polished off my bowl in record time.