My mom always drew the raves for her barbecue chicken – tangy and sweet, salty and sticky, equal parts American and Asian – and indeed she spent years gradually perfecting the recipe. But it was my dad who worked the old brick fire pit in our backyard, tending to the coals like incubating eggs, now and then cranking the heavy iron cooking grate up for less heat or down for more.
Before he died, though he was weak and ill with cancer, my dad painstakingly closed up the fire pit. He knew no one else would have the patience to work the ancient contraption as he had for decades, using his engineer’s ingenuity to keep it operational.
Over the years my brothers and I had offered to buy him a newer device, but he scoffed at kettle grills, propane, and anything new. Faded dusty pink and gray, the square fire pit was original to the house, long before my parents’ tenure, and my dad took pride and pleasure in keeping the old girl going.
Cooking Chinese food is hot kitchen work, and because my mom appreciated the break from the stovetop, my dad grilled regularly year round. Only when it rained was he thwarted, as water poured into the large square smoke hole in the ivy-covered canopy above the fire pit.
My dad never took any credit for his grilling skills, directing all praise to my mom. But after he was gone we didn’t make barbecue chicken for three years. It wasn’t the same without the fire pit, or my dad’s quietly perfected grilling technique.
I featured this recipe back in 2011, when I was living in Ohio, far from my dad and his fire pit, making not-barbecued chicken under my oven broiler. Not the same but still a tasty and welcome reminder of home.
Recently my mom has started to make her barbecue chicken again, now cooked by my meat-loving brother Ray, who has taken on the mantle of family grillmaster. And we’ve decided the 2011 recipe, developed over the phone between California and Ohio, needs a little update on ingredients and technique.
Chicken wings used to be my mom’s favorite, but she’s really come around on boneless skinless chicken thighs. Chinese people love the flavor of meat on the bone and welcome the activity of eating it off. But Americans generally like the ease of boneless, so that’s what we use for entertaining.
We tweaked the proportion of hoisin sauce to ketchup in the marinade and added a bit of soy sauce in addition to the sugar and vinegar. My mom used to add a touch of mustard but now leaves it out. She chops her garlic only into large chunks. The flavor gets into the sauce, and I suppose the chunks fall off during grilling, or perhaps never make it onto the grill at all.
My mom always dips each piece of meat separately in the marinade. I used to dump the sauce into my pile of chicken, but my mom’s method coats the meat much better and makes a world of difference in its flavor absorption.
She adds a few pieces at a time to the sauce, then swirls and takes them out one by one.
If you marinate in the morning, the chicken will have good flavor by evening. Or you can marinate overnight. We thought our double batch was a generous amount per person, but it was all nearly gone by the end of dinner. That’s when you know it’s good.
I’m terrible at grilling, but I’m trying to learn from my brother. He recommends heating to about 250-300 degrees F, then cooking the chicken on one side until the edges are getting brown and dry. Then flip to cook the other side.
Ray manages the trick of keeping the outside juicy but with a little char. I’m working on that.
I only had time to snap a quick picture before the eager crowd pushed in. Make more than you need – if you are lucky enough to have some left, leftovers are just as delectable cold or warm the next day.
My dad used to let the kids help him put out the fire at the end. Here’s my first little firefighter, over a decade ago, wearing a blanket knitted by my mom as a superhero cape.
You can catch a glimpse of the barbecue area out the window here, along with a pile of old planks my dad was saving for who knows what. Always busy with projects at home, my ever-active dad rarely sat to chitchat with adults. But for little people he had nothing but time.
Mom’s Barbecue Chicken
Over many long California summers, my mom has perfected her tangy chicken marinade with a Chinese twist, and my dad has perfected his grilling technique. No matter how often we have it, barbecue dinner at their house is a huge treat each and every time.
- 2 1/2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs (wings work well too)
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1/2 cup hoisin sauce
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- Crushed red pepper (optional)
- Rinse and pat dry chicken (moisture will make the marinade watery). Cut each thigh into 2-3 pieces, trimming any pockets of fat.
- Mix sauce ingredients together in a bowl.
- Add chicken to the sauce a few pieces at a time, and turn pieces to coat each one well. Remove well-coated chicken pieces to a container (a baking dish or ziploc bag work well). Let marinate in refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.
- Chicken is best grilled (heat to 250-300 degrees F), but you can use a broiler as well. If using broiler, cook 8-10 minutes on first side. Watch carefully, as the broiler can go from cooked to burnt very quickly. Cook until chicken is browned and starting to char at edges. Second side will cook more quickly than the first. Let rest for a few minutes and test for doneness before serving.
- Hoisin sauce is fairly common these days in the Asian section of regular supermarkets. But if you can make it to an Asian market, the Koon Chun brand is darker, thicker and more strongly flavored than what you’d normally find at the supermarket. For the gluten-free, I’ve read that Wok Mei brand is also very good.
- Feel free to substitute white sugar for brown, or another vinegar for white. These are in such small amounts the substitutions won’t make a big difference.
- You can omit the crushed red pepper, but a sprinkling gives a bit of interest to the sauce without any real heat. Feel free to use more if you want a real kick.
- In the past my mom has sometimes added a small squirt (1 teaspoon) of mustard to the mix.
Here’s the link to a printable version.