Monday, August 8, 2011

Fujian's red wine chicken

I was first introduced to northern Fujian's exciting cuisine through my husband's beloved professor, Wang Men-ou. A native of Fujian, Professor Wang once took us out for a meal at a his favorite place, a bare bones shop called Victory Restaurant. 

This little storefront was on the wrong side of the tracks in a bad part of town, but I don't think that this ever bothered its clientele much. They were there for the food. Period. 

Victory was always packed and was always serving dishes that I'd never heard of before and have never had again. Except, of course, for the ones that I have reconstructed from my memories.

This place was so great that even the rice was unforgettable. A unique style of cooking from the Hakka people of Fujian province, these firm and chewy grains were cooked in woven grass bags that scented the rice with the lush aroma of summer. Likewise, the crispy eel filets were better than any other way I've eaten them: coated in a batter flavored with red rice wine lees, this was like fish and chips gone to heaven. Light and remarkably grease free, it was always the first thing I would order whenever we returned for another feast.

All the flavors this marvelous dish
Fujian's cuisine is generally divided into north and south. Southern Fujian cooking is very much like Taiwan's because of the mass migration to the island that occurred just a few hundred years ago.  Today we are going to talk more about the cuisine that centers around the capital city of Fuzhou in the north, where the banquet dishes in particular are often fancier and are just as refined as those of its neighbors to the north, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

As I've gone on to explore this little known arena of incredibly good food, I've found other dishes that are just as inventive and just as tasty as what I enjoyed at Victory. 

Number one has to be this chicken. The Red Wine Chicken of northern Fujian is just about as lush a version of braised poultry as you're liable to run into.  It calls for only two indigenous ingredients, but they will already be in your pantry if you've made Fujian's Red Wine Lees, which provides you with both the solids and the wine. If not, search out some commercially made wine lees (or hunt down a northern Fujian native for a handout) and use either some Fujian red rice wine (pictured above) or Shaoxing rice wine.

Traditional recipes for this dish usually don't call for the chicken to be browned first, but I like the texture the browning gives to the meat, and it also gives me a chance to pour off most of the fat for something else. The flavors are cleaner this way too, in my opinion, and the red wine lees have more of a chance to dance on your tongue without impediment.

This dish calls for a whole chicken, but you can use whatever cuts you like, such as wings, thighs, breasts... just get the best quality bird available. If you do use a whole chicken, cut off and reserve all of the extra fat; we'll talk about how to render chicken fat soon, since that is a wonderful seasoning for any number of East China dishes. And you can also trim off the back, wing tips, and neck from the whole bird and use them to make a quick stock to go with your dinner; we'll look at this recipe very soon, too.


Fujian's red wine chicken
Hongzao ji   紅糟雞 
Northern Fujian
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

1 whole organic, free range fryer, or about 3½ pounds chicken parts
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1 finger fresh ginger, unpeeled and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 
4 green onions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
4 tablespoons (or so) Red Wine Lees, homemade or commercially prepared (see above)
½ cup Fuzhou red rice wine, the wine from the Red Wine Lees, or Shaoxing rice wine
1½ cups boiling hot filtered water
10 large Chinese mushrooms, fresh or plumped up, stems removed
1 or 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
Sugar, optional
Shredded green onions for garnish

1. Rinse the chicken, pat dry, and remove the extra fat, as well as any organs still inside the cavity.  If you are serving this as a main dish, you can cut this into 10 large pieces (legs, thighs, wings, and the two breasts cut in half); for a more traditional presentation, cut the chicken into pieces about 2 x 1 inches in size.

Brown the chicken first
2.  Heat the sesame oil in the wok over high heat until it smokes, then add the ginger, garlic, and green onions. Quickly stir-fry the aromatics for about 10 seconds to flavor the oil before pushing them up the side of the wok. Add all of the chicken to the wok, skin side down, with the dark meat in the center of the wok and the breasts around the edge. Brown the chicken all over, turning the meat and adjusting the heat as necessary, and stirring in the ginger, garlic, and green onions.

3. As soon as the chicken is browned nicely, pour off all but about a tablespoon of the fat and reserve it for something else. Push the chicken to one side and fry the red wine lees in the center of the wok to remove its raw flavor. Toss the chicken with the fried red wine lees, pour in the rice wine and water, stir the mixture around, and then add the mushroom caps and soy sauce; if you are using commercially prepared red wine, this will probably have salt in it, so don't add too much soy sauce immediately. Lower the heat and simmer the chicken in the sauce uncovered until the breast meat is just barely cooked; remove the breasts to a plate, taste and adjust the seasonings by adding more soy sauce and sugar, if necessary. Continue to simmer the dark meat until the thighs are fully cooked. Reduce the sauce more, if necessary; it should have the consistency of thick cream.


4. Arrange the chicken and mushrooms on a serving platter, pour the thickened sauce over them, and garnish with the shredded green onions. Serve with plenty of hot steamed rice.

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