Monday, January 17, 2011

Shandong's delicious garlic chicken

To the southeast of Beijing lies the province of Shandong, an area whose importance to northern-style cooking is so great that just about every dish north of the Yellow River is considered part of the Shandong school of cuisine. 

A rich agricultural area, this province has a long finger that reaches out over the Yellow Sea toward Korea. But it is the Yellow River itself, the great mother of China, that has shaped the history - and of course the cuisine - of this area. It's the land of Confucius, of Sunzi, of great philosophers whose teachings molded the way the ancient Chinese thought. If China had an Athens, it would probably be in Shandong.

But thought isn't the only thing that is taken seriously around here... just check out the food: bold flavors radiate with garlic and green onions, dishes are salted with great soy sauces and sweet wheat paste, and inventive pastas and breads adorn just about every meal. Yes, it's cold outside, but this is the kind of food that will feed your soul and keep your toes warm, no matter what the thermometer says.

The stinking rose of Shandong
One of Shandong cuisine's most endearing traits is its love for raw garlic. Sometimes, as much as I adore garlic, I would still watch in amazement as our late friend Chang Hung popped yet another peeled garlic clove into his always wryly smiling face. Eyes twinkling with the mirth that was never far from the surface, he'd explain, "These are Shandongnese peanuts!" 

The first time that we sampled Shandong Garlic Chicken was when a friendly restauranteur, who also happened to be Mr. Chang's relative, introduced us to his house specialty. We've been ardent fans ever since. We would also order a plate of this divinely flavored chicken before we even sat down so that we could dive in after that first sip of scalding tea.

He made his chicken the traditional way: a whole chicken that is fried, steamed, chilled, and then whacked up into smallish pieces, piled over cubes of cucumber, and then doused in a garlicky vinaigrette. But after figuring out how to make it and contemplatively gnawing on all those bones, I came to the realization that I much preferred nothing but boneless dark meat here. Its moist, springy texture works as a wonderful foil against the deeply seasoned sauce and the crisp cukes.

Smack open the cukes
A word of advice on smacking open rather than slicing the cucumbers here. This serves two purposes. First, veggies get a rough edge this way that helps them snag the sauce and flavor up their bland sweetness. Second, the cucumbers somehow end up feeling crispier this way, and their jagged edges not only echo the torn meat much better than straight lines ever could, but because they are slapped flat, you can easily get a nice mouthful of both them and the chicken, everything expertly sauced and seasoned to a fare-thee-well, which is the whole point of the dish.

As always, use the best chicken you can find, which means organic, free range, free of antibiotics, and so forth. The chicken's flavor needs to be clean and fresh, and this is the best way to ensure that. Also, I adore the piney flavor that ground, roasted Sichuan peppercorns give to this dish. Use more or less as your palate and obsessions dictate. The resulting broth is amazingly good, too. Be sure and reserve a few tablespoons for the sauce, but the rest can be used in any number of dishes. Just heat the jelled sauce to melt it, strain out any solids, and add it to stir-fries, fillings for jiaozi and baozi (aka dumplings and filled steamed breads), or as a simple sauce over some chewy noodles. Even the fat from this sauce is delicious! 

Finally, a note on frying the chicken: the aroma of chicken marinated in nothing more than good soy sauce is about as good an aphrodisiac as I can think of. This combination will weaken willpower as well as knees, so consider frying up a batch whenever you need such a reaction.

Shandong  garlic chicken 
Shandong shaoji  山東燒雞 
Serves 6 to 8 generously as a cold appetizer, 4 to 6 as a cold main dish

Jagged edges on chicken & cukes
6 chicken thighs or 8 to 10 legs with the skin on
1/4 cup regular soy sauce
Vegetable or peanut oil, as needed
2 teaspoons toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
1 finger fresh ginger, thinly sliced
3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
5 to 6 Persian cucumbers, or any smallish cucumbers with tender skin and seeds
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark vinegar
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil 
2 tablespoons reserved liquid from the steamed chicken
1. Rinse the chicken pieces and pat them dry with a paper towel. Place them in a plastic bag with the soy sauce and marinate them for about an hour, squishing the bag every now and then to make sure that every surface is nicely tanned. Drain off the soy sauce  and pat the pieces dry. 

2. Heat about an inch of oil in a large, flat frying pan over medium-high heat and place the chicken in the pan, doing this in two or three batches, if needed. Fry the chicken until it is a golden brown all over, adjusting the heat as necessary to ensure an even heat that the browns the skin without blackening the juices. Remove the chicken to a heatproof plate that will fit into your steamer, draining off as much oil as possible. 

Dusted with ground Sichuan peppercorns
3. Scatter the ground Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, and green onions over the fried chicken, making sure that all of the pieces are well dusted. Steam the chicken for about 1 hour, until the juices run clear when the thickest part is pierced with a knife or chopstick. 

4. Remove from the heat, let the chicken come to room temperature, discard the seasonings, and bone (but don't skin) each piece. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the chicken juices. Shred the chicken and skin into thick strips, again keeping as much skin on the meat as possible, plucking out any veins, little bones, gristle, or tendon that you run across. Chill the shredded chicken in a covered container for up to three days. 

5. About an hour before you want to serve this dish, trim the cucumbers and smack them open with a cleaver. Cut them into 2-inch lengths and arrange them on a serving plate. Mix together the remaining ingredients in a measuring cup or small bowl. Arrange the chicken on top of the cucumbers and then pour the sauce over everything so that the cukes and chicken have a chance to get flavored up. Garnish with cilantro, if you like.

6. Leftovers will be good the next day, but it's best to drain off the cucumbers and store them separately so that they don't get too salty and soft; even better, use fresh cucumbers the next day.

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