Chicken Essence Is Southeast Asia’s Red Bull

The purest distillation of chicken.

May  8, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham; Anna Billingskog (Food Stylist); Brooke Deonarine (Prop Stylist)

Red Bull—it’s the elixir of energy, the ambrosia of athletes, the drink that gives you wings. But let’s be honest, while Red Bull might put an extra pep (or ten) in your step, from a taste perspective, it’s pretty rank.

During my college days, as papers and project deadlines loomed, I remember having to wade through crumpled Red Bull cans and empty caffeine pill strips strewn over the sidewalk on my way to lectures. That sickly sweet, medicinal stench of stale Red Bull still lingers in the depths of my olfactory memory, even today. And all my life, I’m proud to say that I’ve never had Red Bull voluntarily, because in my native home of Malaysia, we drink chicken essence instead.

In Southeast Asia, especially within the local Chinese communities of Malaysia and Singapore, chicken essence has long ousted Red Bull as the energizer tonic. Like Red Bull, it could boost your concentration and keep you awake for hours like that NZT pill from Limitless (or at least that’s the lore). But unlike Red Bull, chicken essence actually tastes good. It has the deep, robust flavor of chicken coursing through it, thanks to an umami-rich jus you get from the drippings of an oven-roasted bird, but with less fat and a bolder, purer flavor.

Photo by Amazon

While chicken essence started off centuries ago as a niche component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), today it’s widely available and is used extensively by mothers, students, and people from all walks of life, prized for its energizing effects on the mind and body. Moms might give it to their children before major exams, college students might take shots of it for those nights when the midnight oil has to keep burning, and office workers might down bottles of it in their chase for deadlines. As Brand’s—one of the famous chicken essence brands in Malaysia (or at least the most aggressively marketed one)—puts it, chicken essence is for “busy people who want to seize the day.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Curious too, how much chicken essence one would get from cooking a whole chicken for hours? And the now-cooked chicken... is it good to eat? I don't mean is it healthy... but is it now dry and overcooked or is it only fit for pet food?”
— Gammy

It’s a curious cultural phenomenon in this part of the world, but what truly intrigues me is the way it’s made at home. Because, despite the rise of slow cookers, built-in-steamers, and the Instant-Pot, all modern techniques are largely eschewed in favor of the traditional, old-school method of extracting chicken essence. In most Chinese households, chicken essence is made with a very ad-hoc kitchen set-up—the gai jing extractor, as I like to call it. (Gai jing is the Cantonese term for chicken essence.)

You start by inverting a small bowl into a larger bowl filled with a few tablespoons of salt water. A whole chicken, butchered and roughly smashed up (to increase its surface area), is then splayed out on top of the overturned small bowl. This whole bowl should be left to steam undisturbed in a double boiler or a covered wok for several hours. During this time, the steam cooks the flesh and bones of the chicken, and bits of juice drip down into the cavity of the bowl. What results is the clear, aromatic essence of chicken, untainted by any flesh or marrow, gleaming and golden, clear as the morning sun.

And once you have a sip, the pure, distilled spirit of the chicken will imbue you with the focus and attention you need to plow through your tasks, and make you feel like you can speed through your to-do list like Road Runner.

Have you ever had essence of chicken? Let us know in the comments below.
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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.


Kazumi J. October 2, 2021
Born into the Chinese family in BKK, when I was young, my grandmother used to give me a bottle of Brand whenever I studied hard or near the exam. She said that this can boost up my energy. As I stuidied in Food Science & Technology, much later, I learnt later that chicken essence is rich in amino acid named taurine, which can help improve function of nervous cells in brain. That really explains why my grandmother give it to me.
Suzy May 9, 2019
So is the Brand’s drink a reasonable alternative to home made?
Stottey May 9, 2019
As soon as I started reading this I scrolled up to see "Is this by Yi Jun Loh? Yep!"

In Mainland China then 鸡精 isn't chicken essence, it's chicken bouillon:太太乐鸡精-调味料-丸鶏ガラスープGranulated-Chicken-Bouillon-100gx4/dp/B07F8SPB4Y

But in Taiwan 雞精 is similar stuff to in Malaysia. I'll have to try and make some/get some :)
emgoh May 8, 2019
Good memories of my mother-in-law. She always seems to have warmed little jars of chicken essence at the ready when we arrive in Penang and again when we are headed to the airport to return to the states.
Jun May 9, 2019
That's so precious!! <3
Gammy May 8, 2019
Curious too, how much chicken essence one would get from cooking a whole chicken for hours? And the now-cooked chicken... is it good to eat? I don't mean is it healthy... but is it now dry and overcooked or is it only fit for pet food?
Jun May 9, 2019
You'd get around a cup of essence, though it also depends on the amount of water you have in the inner bowl to start with. And yeah the chicken is pretty dry after the whole process. But in Asia we sometimes still use it to add what little flavor's left into stocks or herbal soups. And pet food works too, for sure!
Tyler B. May 8, 2019
Red Bull is already the Southeast Asian Red Bull -- it's a Thai drink.
Jun May 9, 2019
OH I had no idea!!! Woah okay all the Red Bull banners in Bangkok make so much sense now. 😂
Edward C. May 11, 2019
So you going to change the article title because right now it's kinda weird?
jennifer May 8, 2019
I guess I'd like to see this done. As an avid broth drinker/maker, I'd be interested in trying it. But I'm picturing this huge wok in order to accommodate the bowls and chicken - and then a rather big mess to clean up afterwards. (Also, the bone broth I make is gloriously golden, too.)
Jun May 9, 2019
Haha yeah it does take some time and extra tools. (Though over here in Malaysia my mom uses an electric double-boiler/slow-cooker, so it's pretty much no fuss.) But oh the flavor though! It's like five bone broths packed into one. 😉