April 2021 Alumni E-News Spotlight: The TAS Chicken Leg
Shan Lee, Assistant Alumni and Community Outreach Officer

The Taipei American School Chinese roasted chicken leg has become an iconic symbol of the TAS experience for many since the 1980’s. The cafeteria lunch lines are the longest on the days it is served, and it has been the best-selling lunch entree since appearing on the school lunch menu.  Alumni talk about it well after graduating and always request it be on the menu at on-campus alumni events. While this dish can be found all around Taiwan, alumni claim the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg is superior to all.

The TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg is a tender chicken leg that is marinated and then braised.  It is traditionally served over white rice with a variety of vegetable sides, most often with Chinese broccoli.  Nowadays, brown rice is also offered as a healthier alternative to white rice, though many alumni and students insist that “the right way” to have the chicken leg is over white rice.  At present, the Chinese roasted chicken leg appears on the lunch menu about once a month, only because it is such a popular dish.  

The origin story

The Chinese roasted chicken leg was added to the TAS lunch menu almost 40 years ago by Shirley Chang, Chef of Chinese Cuisine.  Before TAS Chang worked for a local catering restaurant that provided lunches for the school, before it had its own kitchen. When the school opened one, they offered Chang a job.  She joined the food service team in 1986 and stayed on for 30 years until she retired in 2016.  Chang told me that she was hired because her manager appreciated her work ethic, her methodic and disciplined way of doing things, and how she takes pride in everything that she creates.  Chang was instrumental in ensuring the kitchen operations ran smoothly and efficiently and also fundamental in creating recipes for the school lunch menu.  She is still known and respected for her meticulousness, persistence, dependability and resolve for ensuring that all work she does or manages is done well.  Shawn O’Neal, TAS food service Business Manager who worked with Chang for many years, describes her to be “legendary, special, a one in a million.”  

Chang created the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg recipe and it took her at least 30 iterations before coming up with the final version that is still used today.  Creating a recipe for such a large quantity of servings that is able to satisfy the palate of students over generations and stand the test of time is no small feat.  Thanks to Chang’s diligence, dedication and attention to detail, the TAS community has its famous and beloved Chinese roasted chicken leg.

A special dish

We received a variety of responses from alumni and students when we asked them why they love the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg and what makes it so special. The general consensus from alumni is that the flavor of the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg and the feelings and memories that are connected with it make it extra special.  

The Chinese roasted chicken leg (紅燒鷄腿) is a very popular dish in Taiwan and can be found all around the island. It contains a dozen simple ingredients that when combined create an aromatic and balanced flavor profile that is fundamental in Chinese cuisine: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and spicy.  O’Neal explains the possible reasons for this are the tenderness of the meat and the flavor penetration throughout each piece. 

The process for making the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg is straightforward but time-consuming. The recipe requires just mixing the ingredients together, leaving them to marinade, and then simmering together.  The chicken is marinated for at least 48 hours and this step, according to O’Neal, enables the flavors to penetrate the chicken and makes all the difference. Chang emphasizes the importance of removing the chicken from the pot before it overcooks so that the meat stays tender.  To be able to serve the Chinese roasted chicken leg for lunch, the food service team makes at least 1300 servings on that day, and they are still able to maintain the quality and flavor of this recipe that continues to satisfy the appetites of TAS students and alumni.

When alumni talk about the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg, they frequently refer to their memories and experiences from lunchtime.  Some alumni describe the experience of waiting with friends in long lunch lines for the Chinese roasted chicken leg, ordering two portions (if not more) because one order was not enough to satisfy their cravings, or preferring it a certain way.  Alumni Rosalind Wu ‘04 recalls, “I would always ask for extra sauce over rice!”  Current TAS students tell similar stories about Chinese Chicken Leg lunch days. Nicolas I. ‘30 declares, “The chicken leg line is always super long but totally worth it!” The different versions of the stories that alumni and current students tell all express a similar sentiment, energy, and enthusiasm. 

Over the years, the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg has become an example of comfort food and for many students and alumni: a cultural touchstone - something with nostalgic and sentimental appeal that links generations in a community together.  Food can be a powerful tool to help trigger memories and past emotions, particularly in a place like Taiwan where it is an important part of the culture and everyday life. Research has shown that there is an association between comfort foods and the feelings of belonging tied to our relationships with others and “that  comfort foods remind us of our social ties, which means they may help us feel less lonesome when we feel isolated.”  This is particularly interesting given the current pandemic situation where social distancing and other safety mandates make the need for real connections even more imperative to people’s mental and emotional well-being.  

The TAS Chicken roasted chicken leg today and how can you get it?

After leaving TAS, alumni rarely have the opportunity to get the TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg.   An alumnus might be fortuitous enough to be visiting campus when it is being served in the cafeteria and get to enjoy it unexpectedly.  The TAS Chinese roasted chicken leg has been served at on-campus alumni events such as Alumni Homecoming and the Alumni Thanksgiving dinner.  Due to the recent pandemic, the Alumni Office has instead organized special Chinese Roasted Chicken Leg Pick-Up events where alumni are invited to come back to campus for a lunchbox, see their peers, and take home something deliciously nostalgic.

The Alumni Chinese Chicken Leg Lunch Pick-up held in September 2020 was the first event in eight months where alumni could come to campus and it drew alumni from Classes of 1972 to 2020.  In addition to pick-up participants, alumni who could not attend, current students, faculty, and former parents had enthusiastic feedback about the event.  “There’s something to be said about investing in your alums this way, but look at the meal - this is promoting healthy living for the students, as well.  Wish I’d had a plate like that back in high school! Go TAS!” exclaims TAS parent W.  Ruark. Those who attended expressed excitement and appreciation along with a request that we hold another chicken leg giveaway. Those that weren’t able to attend made the same request, most emphatically. Hiromi Fong ‘98 responded to the event post on Facebook, “If only you could deliver overseas! Enjoy, everyone!”

The TAS Chinese Roasted Chicken Leg recipe from Food Services is available here.

Nick Yeh '13 became inspired by the recent demand and enthusiasm in the TAS Alumni Facebook group for a kitchen-friendly recipe.  He took upon himself to experiment and come up with his modified version of the School's Chinese Roasted Chicken Leg recipe to share with the TAS community. His recipe and photos are available here.

To see photos from the September 2020 and March 2021 Chinese Roasted Chicken Leg Pick-Up events, please visit the Alumni Media Gallery 2020-21.