Not Your Grandmother’s Chicken Soup

Like many home cooks I love to collect all kinds of cooking utensils, appliances, cookware and tableware. I own a strawberry huller, fish poacher, taco frying tongs and artichoke plates. Then after using them once or twice they’re usually banished deep in a drawer or at the back of a kitchen cabinet, where they’re undiscovered for years. But there is one curious looking specialty clay pot, with a steam spout in the middle, that I use regularly for making the most delicious chicken soup. It is a Yunnan (雲南) steam clay pot (汽鍋).

Official Yunnan provincial information credits a Chef Yang Li (楊瀝), from Jianshui County (建水縣), for inventing the steam clay pot more than two hundred years ago. Originally used to make simple steamed chicken soup, over time medicinal herbs were added to make different kinds of healthful soups as remedy for various ailments. Other types of meat such as pork and beef were also used in more recent times. But chicken is still the meat of choice among Yunnan cooks.

The best steam clay pots are made from Yunnan red clay that is durable yet porous. The pot seasons with repeat use. In fact cleaning agents are not recommended, as they will be absorbed into the permeable clay. With age the pot will make even more flavorful soup.

Traditionally when steaming the soup the pot is placed on top of another regular clay pot full of boiling water. The two pots are sealed together with strips of paper using a starchy paste to prevent steam from escaping out the sides. As the steam cooks it condenses and create the most intensely flavored soup I know. If you do not have another clay pot for boiling water you can use any pot that will support the steam clay pot. Sealing the seam between the pots however is essential.

My steam clay pot was actually a gift from my sister more than twenty years ago when she visited us from Singapore. I had not seen this pot for sale in retail stores anywhere in the U.S. That is until recently when I discovered The Wok Shop in San Francisco sells it online.

I was originally dumbfounded about what to do with this pot. My sister was only able to tell me the most basic cooking instructions of steaming the soup over boiling water. Then I discovered various recipes to use with this pot in cookbooks and online. Over the years I’ve experimented with many of these recipes but I always return to the original, simple way of making a chicken soup flavored with ginger and wine. It is truly amazing that three ingredients, with a dash of salt and pepper, can create one of the most delicious soups of all time.

So if you’re as crazy about exotic cookware as I am then order this Yunnan steam clay pot post-haste, and make this chicken soup. You will be completely astonished by how a simple recipe can create such depth of flavors.

  • Steam Clay Pot Chicken Soup (汽鍋雞)

    • Preparation time: 15 minutes
    • Slow cooking time: 3 hours 30 minutes
    • 1 1/2 lb. chicken legs
    • 2 inch length fresh ginger (sliced thinly)
    • 1 cup Shaoxing cooking wine (紹興料酒)
    • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
    • I like to use dark meat for this recipe because it maintains a tender and smooth texture even after long period of cooking. You can remove the skin to reduce the fat in the soup. Cut the chicken legs into about one-inch pieces. Put the chicken in a medium stockpot and put enough water to cover all the meat. Parboil the chicken for about three to four minutes. Skim off the scum from the top of the water as it cooks. Scoop the chicken pieces out and place them in the steam clay pot. Discard the water from parboiling.
    • Add the rest of the ingredients in the steam clay pot and cover. Place the steam clay pot over a medium stockpot that’s filled with hot water. Cut long strips of parchment paper of about two inches wide. Be sure to cut enough length to surround the pot. Make a thick paste of flour or cornstarch with water to a consistency of paper glue. Spread the starch paste on the parchment paper strips. Seal the seam of the pots with the parchment. Then bring the water to a slow boil and cook the soup for about three to four hours.
    • If you notice that there is no more steam coming out of the spout the water may have boiled away. Remove the seal, add more water and seal the seam again. Continue to cook until the condensation has created enough soup to fill the steam clay pot. Serve the soup in the pot immediately after removing the paper seal.
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33 Comments

  1. Posted March 9, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I love that pot. Thanks for explaining about the cooking spout and how to use it. Now, I’ll be on the look out when I head to the Asian grocery store again.

  2. Tuty @Scentofspice
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not seen this lovely pot before and you’ve explained it well. Some of the best dishes I’ve tasted surprisingly have very few ingredients. Freshness is definitely essential.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Posted March 21, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    OMG. Is this the same clay pot you can use to make the famous clay pot rice?
    I love the simplicity of this dish!

    • Posted March 21, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Sophia, This is not the same clay pot for making clay pot rice. Regular clay pot without a spout is used for making rice.

  4. Posted March 21, 2010 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    ha ha…this is some name for a soup :-)))))…..thats absoultely deliciousa e magnifique…
    bjs e bom fim de semana

  5. Gretchen
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Glad to find this recipe — my mom used to make this dish with a celadon version of the pot my dad brought back from Thailand in 1969.

    She would add flat noodles to the soup, which would soak up the broth. Definitely one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever had! Thanks for providing this long lost recipe…I’m making it tonight in the same celadon pot…

  6. Charlie
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Wonderful recipe but the pot is no longer available from The Wok Shop and nowhere in Flushing… any ideas where I could get one?

  7. Sally
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink

    Question about Yunnan pot recipe. Do they sell parchment paper in the Asian market? If not, where can I find it? Or can I use wax paper?

    • Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Sally, You should be able to buy parchment paper in just about any super market. Otherwise gourmet shops like Williams-Sonoma also carries them. You may be able to find them in large Chinatown supermarkets as well.

  8. Margaret
    Posted February 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Addicted…that is what you will become if you invest in a Yunnan pot and make this recipe. It happened to my husband and me. It will happen to you, too. Don’t believe me? We bought a Yunnan pot in October and we have made this recipe once a week since. (I am on here now checking a quantity before we make it) Great post!

  9. Posted February 7, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Margaret, I’m so pleased you like this soup. Warren and I love this soup as well. I make it just about every other week.

  10. Carl
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    I picked up a Yunnan red clay pot at a yard sale not knowing what it was or how to use it. I love cooking and baking and I’m always trying something different so whatever this pot was, I had to have it.
    Thank you for the info and recipe for this pot. Looking forward to the chicken soup.

    • Posted February 26, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      The Yunnan steam pot is a marvelous invention. Enjoy the soup and if you’re in the New York area you can sample this dish at a new restaurant I’m working at… Lotus Blue.

      • Carl
        Posted March 8, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        Well I made the chicken soup and it was great! The is the best chicken soup I have ever had. I substituted some of the ingrediants but stayed with the cooking technique because I cook with what I have on hand. It’s more work then opening a can of Cambell’s but well worth the end results. This soup makes me want to take a trip down to Lotus Blue.

  11. Alison
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    My dad gave me 2 pots that they bought while living in Taiwan. Unfortunately one of the funnel tops on one broke, the top can be fixed but not sure what I can use, glue wise, to repair it. I would love to find recipes or a recipe book.

  12. Barry Kustin
    Posted July 23, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I love the idea of eating a fabulous chicken soup made in a Yunnan steampot–but limited space suggests I would have more use for a multi-tasker.

    Do you have recipes for other dishes using this pot?

    • Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      You can cook many different kinds of meat in this pot. Lamb, beef, frog, turtle and ham are all examples of what can be used. But the technique is generally the same. Prep the meat then add accompanying ingredients and spices before steaming for a few hours.

  13. Charlie Rosen
    Posted August 3, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I discovered that Joyce Chen markets the Yunnan Pot, I found one in a friend’s kitchen in the box — never used. Gave her this web site and now it’s in use!!

    • Posted August 4, 2012 at 12:48 am | Permalink

      I’m glad I was able to be the catalyst for your friend to start using this pot. It is an amazing pot!

  14. Arlene Bader
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    I bought a Yunnan Pot in Chicago’s Chinatown, after reading about it in a 1985 cookbook that I acquired, probably, at a garage sale.

    It is wonderful! But I don’t simmer chicken first and I don’t seal the pot/yunnan pot with parchment paper. No steam is escaping between the pot with the water and the Yunnan Pot. Why make it more complicated than it needs to be?

    Also…I only steam the chicken for 45 minutes. It is thoroughly cooked at that point. Further steaming would only be to increase the volume of chicken stock.

    • Posted January 14, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Hi Arlene,

      I’m so pleased to hear that you enjoyed your Yunnan steam pot as much as I do. It is a wonderful cooking implement and I’ve never fail to create amazing soups from it.

      Par-boiling meat before making soup and braised dishes is a uniquely Chinese cooking technique. The step ensure that the impurity and scum from cooking meat are removed before the actual cooking. The result from this process is that you’ll get an incredibly clear soup or sauce when you’re done. Try this the next time you make your steam pot soup and see the difference.

      You’re right that steaming for an hour will cooking the chicken thoroughly. But try cooking for a few extra hours then taste the soup and the meat. You’ll find that the meat is so tender that it falls off the bone. In fact the bones are cooked so thoroughly that they are almost chewable. Besides the extra soup is so satisfying.

      Sealing the pot with the water bath is optional and it does help prevent steam from escaping. You can also use a rolled up wet kitchen towel to line the seam of the pot for this purpose.

      Happy cooking!

      Kian

  15. Laurie Schwartz
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    I found one of these clay pots at a second-hand store and bought it because of its beauty, not knowing what I could cook in it. I’m delighted to find this recipe & can’t wait to try it! Thanks for posting.

  16. Shane & Becca
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I bought a very nice pot and didn’t know what to do with it. That is until last night! I added some flat noodles and shitaki mushrooms in the last half hour of cooking. It was gob smacking delicious, thank you for the recipe :)

  17. steve
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    These pots have holes in the side for some sort of handles – but what sort of handle?

    • Posted April 30, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Traditionally they would be tied with hemp rope for easy lifting. But with the pot sitting on another pot it is just as easy to use oven mitts.

      • steve
        Posted April 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the prompt response. I thought perhaps rope but the holes are narrow and sharp edged which seems risky of cutting rope. I had thought chopsticks – but too thin – or maybe wire. But as you say oven mitts are good.

        I gave had mine over 30 years; since I lived in Singapore. Just found it in a pile of stuff. Don’t think I bought it to cook in – just liked the style.

        But it did chicken yesterday and belly pork today. Both well.

        Using it on the base of a conventional steel steamer which it fits closely enough to need no sealing.

  18. Melissa Bible
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    What is the Shaoxing cooking wine like? I’m not near an Asian market and I am wondering if there is a substitution that I could use for this.

    • Posted April 30, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Shaoxing cooking wine can be substituted by dry sherry. But you can always mail order them from many on-line Asian markets.

      • steve
        Posted April 30, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        If you can get it a dry Madeira – Sercial or Verdehlo – is even closer to Shao Hsing in flavour.

        I recall in Taiwan being given salted plums in wine to drink. An acquired taste!

  19. steve
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Cooked it tonight – very good.

    Why do you do the parboiling? Is it for reasons of hygiene?

    • Posted May 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Hi Steve,

      I’m glad you enjoy the recipe. Parboiling meat in Chinese cooking is similar to searing meat in Western cooking. It seals the meat before the actual cooking process. An added benefit is that when you parboil the meat the juice or blood from the meet form scums on top and can be scoop off. This means that the soup or braise at the end produced clean broth or sauce. Try making the chicken without parboiling and you’ll see the broth full of impurities floating around.

      Cheers!

      Kian

  20. Satya
    Posted July 26, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I am receiving a pot like this as a gift, but for ethical reasons I don’t eat animal products. Are there any vegetarian recipes you know of that work well in this pot?

    • Posted July 28, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      This pot was originally designed for steaming food over a very long period of time to either tenderize the ingredient or to extract the nutrients. For vegetarian dishes I would recommend using dried mushrooms, root vegetables and beans for use in this steam pot. These ingredients have incredible amount of umami and can withstand long slow cooking. Try making a soup with ginger, dried shiitake mushrooms, soybean sprouts, kelp, daikon radish and fresh corn. Add some Shaoxing wine and seasonings such as salt and ground white pepper before steaming. I bet you’ll get an incredibly delicious broth out or them.

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