Gail Tsukiyama’s The Color of Air Macanese-Style Portuguese Chicken
The Color of Air takes place in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai’i in 1935, brimming with the influx of workers who had immigrated to the islands from China, Japan, the Philippines, and Portugal to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations. In my Japanese community of locals, the Hilo Aunties are a group of women who have grown up together through good times and bad. Auntie Nori owns the Okawa Fish Market, where she churns out everything from sushi and lomi lomi salmon to Kalua pork and Hawaiian sweet bread. The one thing she doesn’t make is the Macanese-style Portuguese chicken, which her best friend, Mariko, had made better than anyone on the island. The blending of cultures and food has remained singular to Hawai’i today, and writing The Color of Air has been a wonderful reminder that food provides sustenance in more ways than one.
During our family get-togethers growing up, the table was always laden with food. One of the dishes I loved was my Aunt’s (and Mariko’s) Macanese-style Portuguese chicken using coconut milk. My aunt never used a recipe and cooked by feel, so here’s the closest recipe I could find from Saveur. Enjoy!
Gail Tsukiyama's Macanese-Style Portuguese Chicken
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 1teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce, divided
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, or dry sherry
- 2 pounds chicken thighs, drumsticks, and wings
- 1 large russet potato peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1 10½ ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
- 3 tablespoons evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 medium yellow onion coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon curry powder
- Cooked jasmine rice or dinner rolls, for serving
- In a large bowl, stir the cornstarch, bouillon, salt, sugar, and pepper. Add 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce and the Shaoxing wine or sherry, mix well, then add the chicken and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 6 hours.
- In a medium pot, add the potatoes and enough cold water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring to a boil and cook until softened but still firm at the center, 7–9 minutes. Drain and place by the stove.
- Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 375°F. In a medium bowl, whisk the cream of chicken soup, coconut milk, evaporated milk, and ½ cup water. Set it near the stove.
- In a wok or deep skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil. Once hot, add the onion and curry powder. Cook, stirring, until softened and translucent, 7–8 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and cook, turning occasionally, until lightly browned all over, 5–6 minutes. Add the potatoes and remaining tablespoon of soy sauce, and continue stir-frying until the sauce is almost completely evaporated, about 30 seconds. Stir in the coconut-milk mixture to coat, and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and chicken are cooked through and the sauce is thick and creamy, about 20–25 minutes.
- Pour the contents of the wok into an 8-inch square baking dish. Bake until the top is browned and bubbly, 15–20 minutes. Serve over cooked jasmine rice or with crusty bread.
My mother was originally from Hong Kong and my father was Japanese from Hawai’i. I grew up amidst a wonderful mix of cultures in which food has always taken on both an emotional and spiritual quality. Specific foods were eaten on holidays to enhance felicity, prosperity, and longevity, and I still observe most of them to this day. For instance, I still eat long noodles on my birthday for a long life and buy lettuce on Chinese New Year’s for good luck. The power given to food has not only been a part of my life but has carried through to the lives of my characters in all of my books.