Friday, June 17, 2011

A Sichuan chicken dish fit for an artist

Some artists are lucky enough to be as adept in the kitchen as they are in front of a canvas. Few, though, are so good that they have a whole slew of dishes named after them. Some of these are poets, like Su Dongpo and his wondrous pork dish.  Even scarcer are visual artists doubling as gourmets; Taiwan's great Chang Dai-chien (aka Zhang Daqian) was one of these select few.

Master Chang
A native of Sichuan province, Master Chang was one of China's best-known contemporary painters, and he without doubt reigned over Taiwan's art world. He is probably most famous for his "splash ink" (pomo) landscapes, those colorful and almost abstract landscapes that only tell you what you're looking at when you get close and see the details.

I'm related in a way to Master Chang in one of those tenuous, convoluted lines that decorate the Chinese world of guanxi (who you know). Actually, three ways. 

The first is the most formal of all: I was the only student of my Chinese painting teacher, and his master (Sun Yun-sheng) was the main disciple of Chang Dai-chien. So, I'm a Chang disciple three times removed. Or something. (I paint in oils now, so I've strayed off the path a bit.)

Chang's pomo
Second, he often was an honored guest at the National Museum of History in Taipei where I worked as a translator, and I was lucky enough to go out and eat with him and talk with him and interpret for him whenever there were "foreign guests" around. 

Always courteous to a T, Master Chang was a gentleman of the old school, inevitably dressed in a long dark blue robe that contrasted beautifully with his snowy white beard... honestly, he looked like he could have just strolled out of one of his blue-green landscapes. The museum provided him with a secretary on rotation, and I was quite tempted when my number came up. But, I was moonlighting at so many jobs then that I couldn't afford it. Regrets? Oh yeah. It was only later when I started to really get a grasp on the wonders of Chinese cuisine that I understood what a great gourmand he was and what a chance I might have had.  The callowness of youth.

Above is a photo of a menu in his own handwriting that still hangs in his house, which is now a memorial museum. And I have to say that it's serious business when your menus are considered works of art.

And third, like Master Chang, I love Sichuan cuisine. No doubt about it. It is hailed as one of the greatest of China's many locales, and they'll get no argument here. A certified chili-head like me has little resistance to the spices that adorn Sichuan's everyday foods.

One of the creations attributed to Master Chang is today's chicken stir-fry. Lots of dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns adorn this dish, and the types I've used here - "facing the heavens" chilies and green peppercorns - are worth a deeper look, so I'll be talking more about them very soon, as well as another staple of Sichuan cookery, Pixian hot bean sauce.

The main ingredients
In today's Daqian Chicken, cubes of tender breast meat are lightly fried before being bombarded with the aromatic trio I just mentioned. And just to amp up the sweat factor, fresh chilies join in the rumble across your tongue, so be sure to serve this with lots of hot steamed rice to mitigate the assault. But, as in all great Chinese dishes, there's contrast to be found, bits of this and that that provide a cool yin to the fiery yang. In this case it's crunchy batons of celery or Chinese celtuce stalks, and they offer a welcome green hue to the reds and whites here.

Do note that the dried chilies and whole peppercorns stay in there with the chicken, so this isn't something that you can wolf down, even if you have a palate of steel. Take small bites and remove these aromatics with your chopsticks as inconspicuously as possible, arranging them in a dainty pile at the edge of your plate. At least, that's the way it's supposed to be done.

Worthy of an artist and of your dearest chili-loving friends, here is my favorite Daqian dish.

Daqian chicken 
Daqian ji 大千雞
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as an entree over rice

Chicken and accompaniments:
12 ounces boneless chicken breast meat, organic and free range, if possible
1 tablespoon cornstarch
6 small dried chilies
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

½ inch fresh ginger
3 stalks very green celery, or 1 large stalk celtuce (wosun)
2 fresh chilies, as spicy or mild as you like
3 green onions
1 tablespoon good vinegar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons rice wine
2 tablespoons Pixian hot bean sauce (la doubanjiang)
¼ cup lightly salted or unsalted stock
Scrape the meat off the tendons
1. Rinse and pat dry the chicken breasts, and leave the skin on if you wish. Remove the silver skin and tendons from the breasts. If you've never done this before, wrap the end of a tendon with a paper towel and grab it with one hand, and use the other hand to scrape the meat away from the tendon with a paring knife. Cut the chicken into 1-inch cubes, place in a medium work bowl, and toss with the cornstarch.

2. Break the chilies in half and discard the seeds. Rinse them and the peppercorns in a sieve and shake them to remove all of the water; I like to knock the sieve against a dry towel to get the last drops. Place the oil in a wok.

3. Slice the ginger into thin pieces and then crosswise into very tiny strips. Remove the strings and ends from the celery, slice it crosswise into 2-inch pieces, and then lengthwise into ¼-inch batons. (If you are using celtuce, peel it and remove the tough membrane under the skin, as well. Cut the celtuce into 2-inch batons that are ¼-inch wide.) Stem and seed the fresh chilies and slice into thin strips. Trim off the root ends of the green onions and separate the white parts from the leaves; cut the whites into thin rounds and put them in one pile, and then cut the leaves into 2-inch pieces and put them into another pile.

Fry the hot bean sauce
4. Mix together the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine in a small bowl. Place this bowl, the hot bean sauce, and the stock near the stove.

5. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil immediately bubbles all over. Add the ginger, dried chilies, and peppercorns to the oil and quickly stir-fry them until they are very fragrant. Toss in the chicken and stir-fry it with the aromatics until the chicken is white all over. (Don't fry it until it is brown, as the breast meat will dry out.) Either scoot the chicken and aromatics up the side of the wok or scrape them out into a clean bowl, leaving as much oil in the wok as possible and turning the heat up to high.

6. Place the hot bean sauce in the oil and stir it around as you fry it for a couple of seconds. Add the rest of the sauce, bring it to a boil, and then toss in the chicken, celery (or celtuce), fresh chilies, the whites of the onions, and the stock. Rapidly fry everything together, and when the sauce has reduced to the point where it is sizzling, add the onion greens and toss it with the chicken until the onion greens just start to wilt.

7. Immediately plate the Daqian Chicken and serve while hot with steamed rice.

Photo credits: 
Master Chang and menu, courtesy National Palace Museum, Taipei 
Peach Blossom Spring, 1983, courtesy Cemac Ltd.