KitchenTigress: Cognac Fried Chicken Wings

Cognac Fried Chicken Wings

I have a friend who knows a thing or two about food. He doesn't cook but he's a discerning eater. If he says a restaurant is good, then it's either very good or at least above average. His restaurant recommendations never disappoint me. I have total trust in his opinion.

One day, this friend of mine asked me to bring him some bak chang made by his mother. He was living in New York at the time, and I was going to visit him for a couple of days.

Smuggle some comfort food to the other side of the planet for a dear old friend?

No problemo.

I hopped along to his mother's place, and Aunty gave me six bak chang to hand-carry to her son, plus another six as reward for the bak chang mule.

When I got home, I immediately steamed one of the little pyramids of glutinous rice, pork, mushroom, chestnuts, etc wrapped in bamboo leaves. I eagerly unwrapped the piping hot dumpling and took a mouthful, making sure there was a bit of each ingredient balanced on my chopsticks.

Chomp, chomp, chomp . . . chomp . . . ch . . . .

But . . . but . . . this is very ordinary what!

The dumpling wasn't bad, but it wasn't very good either. I was expecting something extraordinary because my friend had said his mother's bak chang was the best in this and the next galaxy, or something to that effect. But what I got instead was a very mediocre, average bak chang that was nothing compared to those made by my mother.

The next day, I and 11 bak chang flew off to New York, and promptly got thrown into jail for smuggling . . . Just kidding. With my innocent look, I sailed through customs, like always.

I stayed with my friend for two days and we had bak chang for breakfast on both days. He asked me if the bak chang was the best in this and the next galaxy. I nodded enthusiastically.

Watching my friend's rapturous enjoyment of the unremarkable dumplings, I realized he wasn't at all objective in judging his mother's cooking. His mum's dumplings may be ordinary but, to him, they were so precious that he froze the seven he had remaining. He couldn't bear to finish them too quickly.

Here's another one who thinks his mother's cooking is the bee's knees:

"My mother loved good food and liked to cook for her children. When I went to college and had to eat institutional food in the hall, I was miserable.

After I married and set up home, we had Cantonese maids. They were good cooks, but they could not quite reproduce the Peranakan dishes my mother cooked. So we got used to different standards.

A year ago, my niece, Shermay Lee, updated my mother's cookbook and called it The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook Vol. 1: Nonya Cuisine. It won an international award.

She had invited me to dinner at her cooking school in Chip Bee Gardens. Her dishes evoked memories of my mother's food. But either because of my age my palate has become dulled and jaded, or the ingredients are no longer the same; in my memory, my mother's dishes were better."

Lee Kuan Yew, 3 August 2004
Foreword to "The New Mrs Lee's Cookbook Vol. 2"

What was LKY's mother's cooking really like? Click here to find out.

Whenever my mother made fried chicken wings, she'd nick my father's XO Cognac and add a good splosh of the expensive brandy to the marinade. That, along with ginger juice, was what made her fried chicken wings special, she said.

In a time when meat was scarce, it was strictly one chicken wing per person. As a kid, I ate only half of my entitlement at the dinner table. The remaining half – the tip and the "mid-joint" – I would savour it sitting on the swing in the backyard. I chewed off the skin very slowly, nibbled on the meat, then sucked on the bones. I could make half a chicken wing last 30 minutes.

I'd like to say my mother's fried chicken wings are the best ever bar none. But I'm mindful that I'm not the best judge of my mother's cooking.

Cognac and ginger juice are my mother's secret ingredients for her signature fried chicken wings. A long marinade is crucial, to let the wings absorb lots of flavour.

XO Cognac Fried Chicken Wings
  • 12 chicken wings, about 1 kg – wash, drain, chop each wing along main joint into 2 pieces, chop and discard tips if not eating
  • 2 tbsp light soya sauce
  • 3 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 clove garlic, peel and pound finely
  • 3 shallots, peel, wash and pound finely
  • 70 g ginger, peel, pound finely and squeeze to yield 2 tbsp juice
  • 1 tbsp Cognac
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp ground white pepper

  • ⅓ cup tapioca flour
  • vegetable oil for deep-frying

  1. Marinate chicken for 24 hours, refrigerated, covered, and placed in a single layer if possible, in maybe a roasting pan or large Ziploc bag. Turn over once midway, or once every few hours if not in a single layer.

  2. 20-30 minutes before cooking, remove chicken from fridge to come to room temperature.

  3. When you're ready to deep-fry, drain and discard marinade. Dredge chicken in tapioca flour, patting gently to remove excess.

  4. Deep-fry wings immediately in hot oil over medium-high heat till golden brown and cooked (meat feels firm when pressed). Remove from oil. Increase heat to high. Reheat oil to just smoking. Deep-fry wings again, this time till just golden brown.

  5. Drain wings on rack or sieve lined with paper towels.

  6. Serve immediately with sweet or garlic chilli sauce. Meat should be juicy, fragrant and nicely seasoned; batter should be crisp and not oily.