Saturday, December 31, 2011

Easy Beijing-style smoked chicken, plus toasted peppercorn salt

Smoked chicken sounds so exotic, not to say tasty, that it must be hard, right? 

The fact is, smoking a bird is totally easy and will ensure your reputation as a terrific Chinese cook.

I've been making smoked chickens for decades now, and started out with Barbara Tropp's recipe in her wonderful Modern Art of Chinese Cooking

In fact, if you don't have her book in your collection, get it, if for nothing else than her detailed description on how to set up a home smoker. I will offer some simple advice on that here, but for the answer to every question you might have about Chinese-style smoking, check out the late great Tropp's book.

Smoked chicken is one of those delights that can be made well in advance of any party, is about 100 times simpler than it looks, and probably would convince the most die-hard vegetarian that maybe just a nibble would be all right.

All you need to do is get a good, organic, free-range chicken so that it is full of chicken-y flavor. Then, rub it all over with either gaoliang (white liquor) or Shaoxing rice wine and a finely ground mix of roasted Sichuan peppercorns and sea salt, steam it for about an hour until it's about 80% done, and then pop it into a smoker, either in a DIY job (see below in step 3) or in something like the little stove top smoker that I have happily used for quite a while now. If you have any leftovers, they are beyond delicious in salads, sandwiches, and everywhere else, while the juices have a divine smokiness that demands a hot bowl of noodles to do them justice.
Steam the chicken on a trivet

If this is the first time you've attempted smoking something, read the directions and tips through a couple of times so that every step becomes very familiar. Turn on the stove fan as high as it will go and open a couple of windows for cross ventilation if your fan is less than strong. You will pretty soon find yourself smoking salmon, trout, pork belly, hardboiled eggs, and just about anything else that will fit. It's just that delicious.

The Toasted Sichuan Peppercorn Salt is a delightful condiment to have on hand. Use it to season fish or poultry, as the resiny aromas make seafood and chicken taste fresh and lively. It also is handy as a dip for steamed chicken, sprinkled in fried breads, or rubbed into pork roasts. The main requirements are that you use fresh peppercorns for their sprightly flavor and that you grind them as finely as possible, since any coarse pieces feel like grains of sand in the mouth.

Beijing style smoked chicken 
Jīngshì xūnjī  京式薰雞
Serves 4 to 6 as a main entree, 8 to 12 as part of a multi-course meal

1 whole roasting chicken (about 5 to 6 pounds); use a large whole fryer if a roasting chicken is not available
4 tablespoons gaoliang white liquor or Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons Toasted Sichuan Peppercorn Salt (below)

½ cup dry, uncooked rice of any kind
½ cup dry tealeaves of any kind
½ cup  sugar of any kind
A couple tablespoons of aromatics (dried orange peel, star anise, stick cinnamon, etc.)
Toasted sesame oil

1. Clean the chicken and pat it dry inside and out with a paper towel; rinse and pat dry the giblets, if you like. Place the chicken in a large work bowl and rub half of the liquor inside the cavity and then rub half of the peppercorn salt in there, as well. Massage the outside of the chicken with the rest of the liquor and peppercorn salt. Toss in the giblets with the marinade and let the chicken marinate for an hour or so.

Steamed and placed in the smoker
2. Spray a trivet and a large, high-rimmed, heatproof platter with oil. Lay the chicken on the trivet and tuck the giblets into the chicken's cavity; pour the marinade over the chicken. Place the chicken in a steamer and steam on high heat for about an hour, until the chicken is about 80% done, adding more water to the steamer as needed. To check for doneness, pierce the thigh with a skewer; it should go in easily but release pink juice. Remove the chicken from the steamer (and the giblets from the cavity) and let it cool to room temperature, and then place it in a breezy area so that the skin dries completely.
Smoking permitted in my kitchen

3.  Prepare your smoker by lining either the old wok or the smoker's fuel bowl with heavy foil. Place the rice, sugar, and aromatics in the smoker and place either an oiled rack or an oiled smoker's tray over the rice. Position the chicken in the center of the smoker. Place the smoker on a rear burner (where there usually is better suction for the overhead fan) and turn the heat under it to high. Wait until the smoke begins to emerge in thick plumes (see the second photo from the top), and then cover the smoker; if you are using an old wok, wrap the foil lining up around the edge of the lid, leaving only a small opening for the smoke to escape. 

Toasted Sichuan peppercorn salt 
Huājiāo yán  花椒研 
All over China
Makes about 1 cup

1 cup Sichuan peppercorns
½ cup sea salt

Peppercorns and salt
1. Place the peppercorns and salt in a dry wok and stir them over medium heat until the salt turns tan and the peppercorns start to pop; it should smell fragrant at this point and the peppercorns should smoke a little bit. Remove the wok from the heat and let the ingredients come to room temperature. 

2. Grind the roasted peppercorns and salt very finely. They should have the texture of talcum powder, so do this as finely as you can. The powder can be shaken through a fine sieve if blender or spice grinder is not up to the job.

3. Store the peppercorn salt in a jar and keep it in a cool, dark place.

The texture of baby powder
4. Smoke the chicken for about 10 to 15 minutes, turn the chicken over, and smoke it for another 10 to 15 minutes, depending upon the size of the chicken and how hot your stove is. The chicken is done when the skin is a dark mahogany color, as in the photo at the top of this page. Remove the chicken from the steamer and let it come to room temperature. The chicken may be made ahead of time up to this point and refrigerated.
5. Lightly rub some sesame oil on the skin to make it shine. Use a cleaver to cut the cold chicken into whatever size pieces you want. If the chicken is still pink inside, or if you want to serve the chicken hot, wrap the chicken in foil and bake at 350 degrees F for about 15 minutes, or until heated through.


A good quality bird that is fresh and plump will make this dish flavorful and especially tasteful, so I always use an organic, free range chicken. You can also use chicken parts, like legs and thighs, if you prefer. Chicken livers can be easily steamed and smoked if you thread them on bamboo skewers first, since they will not fall apart that way; just be sure to not steam or smoke them too long.

The gaoliang or rice wine will remove gamy smells in the same way that the peppercorns do, resulting in a chicken that tastes particularly fresh. Taiwan's gaoliang from the island of Kinmen (Jinmen) is especially good.

Steaming the chicken until it is almost done ensures that the meat will be juicy and not overcooked, since it will be subjected to further heat in the smoker. 

Steam and smoke the chicken on a trivet, which allows both the steam and the smoke to flow easily around the bird.

Cut up the chicken with a sharp cleaver or heavy knife while the chicken is still cold. This way, the meat will not fall apart and the bones are less liable to shatter. Then, rearrange the chicken into a pleasing pattern, which usually means putting it back together again like a puzzle.

Vary the flavors by using different aromatics and wines.
Directions from All Under Heaven!

Save your stale uncooked rice and tealeaves for the smoker; you won't be able to taste whether they are fresh or not here, since they end up being little more than fuel. Don't bother wasting good tea or rice on the smoker.

To make your own smoker, use an unfinished (i.e., not nonstick) steel wok with a tight-fitting lid that you will never use for stir-frying again, since this high dry heat will ruin the finish. Good places to find old woks and lids are second-hand stores, garage sales, and so forth. 

Drawing copyright (c) Carolyn Phillips, 2015
All Rights Reserved