Saturday, November 20, 2010

Drunken chicken

Shanghainese food -- a particularly spectacular part of that lovely kaleidoscope of Chinese cuisine that centers in fabulous Jiangsu province at the mouth of the Yangtze River -- has been a love of mine ever since my boss at the museum plunked me down at a groaning banquet table in Taipei and said, "Eat."

He too was from East China, so he knew his way around a Shanghai-style restaurant like it was his own back yard, and we would all end up glassy-eyed and grinning after hours of slowly working our way through what must have been most of that chef's repertoire.

Almost every such banquet started out with something drunken. My favorite was always this Drunken Chicken, although one of my more annoying colleagues would often order things like raw drunken crabs mainly, I think, so that he'd have no competition from me.

Over the years I've tried again and again to perfect this enchanting way to start a meal, and I think I've finally succeeded. Most restaurants I ate at long ago in Taiwan made this dish out of the whole chicken, which meant that there would be lots of dry breast meat or too much undercooked thigh meat with bloody marrow.

This dish, though, really shines when just thigh meat is used, as it lends it an incomparable richness and juiciness. I then throw in a good handful of Chinese wolfberries (aka goji berries), which not only spark up the landscape with lots of color and sweetness, but also lend a nice gel and sheen to the sauce. Keep the skin and bones on during the steaming because you don't want to lose a drop of their flavor and texture.
Wolfberries on the chicken

As with so many of Jiangsu's best dishes, Shaoxing wine is the star of the seasonings here. You don't have to buy an expensive bottle, just whatever's on sale and tastes good. How do you tell if it's any good? Smell it... it should taste distinctly mushroomy, have a good sherry flavor, and give you a nice kick in the pants once it hits home. See the photo in the previous entry for a couple of brands that I often use when cooking. (My favorite comes in a square bottle from Taiwan and has the name TTL stamped on the red label.)

The final secret ingredient here is Vietnamese fish sauce, or nam pla. Not exactly traditional in this part of China, this Chaozhou-style seasoning provides a wonderfully funky undercurrent to the sauce that just doesn't arrive by any other avenue. This is very close to a traditional Chinese ingredient that's called "shrimp oil" (xiayou); the brand with the three blue crabs on it was once recommended to me by a good Vietnamese cook, and I've never looked back.

Serve this dish cold with any other appetizers you like. The picture at the top here shows it with steamed snow peas topped with a roasted sesame dressing. That way there's the boozy, funky, red and white chicken sitting next to the fresh, sweet, nutty peas. Who says you can't have it all?

Drunken chicken
Zui ji  醉雞
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

4 whole chicken thighs with skin on (organic and free range, of course)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns, optional but tasty
1 green onion, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small finger of ginger, thinly sliced
1/2 or so cup chicken stock
1/2 cup Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce (see note above)
3 tablespoons Chinese wolfberries (goji berries)
Boiling water as needed
1. Make this the day that you wish to serve it for the best texture; after a day or two in the wine, the chicken flesh will turn powdery. Rinse and pat dry the thighs. Rub the salt and optional Sichuan peppercorns into the skin and flesh of the thighs, add the green onion and ginger to the chicken,  and place everything in a bowl that fits easily in your steamer. Let the thighs marinate in a cool place for half an hour or so. 

2. Place the bowl in the steamer over high heat and steam until done, about 15 minutes. Check to see whether the meat is cooked through by piercing the thickest part of the thighs; the juices should run clear. Remove the bowl from the steamer. Strain and reserve any of the juices. 

Colorful contrasts all around
3. Measure the reserved juices and add enough chicken stock to make about 1 cup. Cut the bones out of the thighs and remove the skin if you want, although the skin will give the dish another layer of texture if you leave it on. Put the chicken in a Ziploc bag and pour in the juices and stock, as well as the rice wine and fish sauce. Place the wolfberries in a heatproof bowl and pour just enough boiling water over them to cover. As soon as they plump up, add the berries and their juice to the chicken, squoosh everything around, and refrigerate the chicken for a few hours and up to 8 hours before serving; longer than that and the chicken turns powdery in texture. When you think of it, shake the bag so that the chicken gets thoroughly saturated with the marinade.

4. To serve, remove the chicken from the marinade and slice into 1/2-inch wide pieces. Arrange these attractively on a plate and scatter the wolfberries over the top. Glaze the chicken with some of the reserved marinade.

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