Monday, January 30, 2012

Consort's chicken wings from Beijing

Red wine is rarely associated with traditional Chinese cooking, but at least one ancient dish comes as close to coq au vin as possible: Consort's Chicken Wings, or guifei ji

As was described a few months ago when I talked about lychees, another one of the Consort Yang's favorite dishes, this dates from about 1,300 years ago.

The Xuanzong emperor was so besotted with this plump and lovely consort that although he had over a thousand women in his harem, the only one whom he wanted was Yang Guifei.

This bewitching woman also had a taste for wine and liked getting tipsy. The story behind this chicken dish is that one day she and the emperor were in the Hundred Flower Pavilion sipping wine and having fun when she said mischievously, "I want to fly to the sky!"

Served with some spicy radish sprouts
The emperor was probably in his cups too, as he thought his beloved consort wanted to eat something that flew, so he ordered his imperial chefs to immediately prepare just such a dish for them. These harried masters of the kitchen quickly came up with a dish of chicken wings for the imperial table, by which point Yang Guifei was sober enough to be so delighted with what they had served that she proclaimed it delicious. And so it was named in her honor. 

She was right. This is a wonderfully simple yet utterly divine chicken dish that can be served hot or cold or anywhere in-between. Some people who don't know the story behind Consort's Chicken Wings use the whole chicken, but I think that only the tender wings should be used, as it's only fitting. 

I like to cut each wing into three pieces, since they are much easier to enjoy that way. Keeping the wing tips for ourselves as little snacks, I then serve the drumsticks and middle sections, often nestled up against a pile of Beijing-style spinach and peanut appetizer, which both contrasts with and complements the flavors and colors of the chicken.

... or spinach with peanuts
But back to that red wine. We will talk more about this in the near future, but red wine in particular has been made in north-central China for ages, and also has been memorialized in certain dishes, such as the Grape Fish of Anhui, which uses wine in the sauce. 

Noted wine expert Gerald Asher recently spoke to me about pairing Western wines with Chinese food, an idea whose time has surely come. When he came over for dinner the other night, we had this chicken dish as first course along with a California Chardonnay.

Knowing Ms. Yang, she would have asked for seconds of both.

Consort's chicken 
Guifei jichi  貴妃雞翅 
Serves 8 as an appetizer

8 whole chicken wings, preferably free-range and organic
3 tablespoons good soy sauce
Cut the wings into three sections
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil (used is all right here)1 leek or 5 green onions, trimmed and cleaned (leave whole)
slices ginger
7 tablespoons regular Chinese soy sauce
6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1½ cups filtered water

2 tablespoons rock sugar
¾ cup red wine

1. Rinse the wings and pat dry. Pull off and discard any feathers and loose fat or skin. Cut each wing into three sections. Place the wings in a work bowl and toss them with the soy sauce to coat.

2. Heat the oil over medium high heat until a chopstick inserted in the oil immediately bubbles all over. Drain the wings and discard the soy sauce. Fry the chicken wings in three batches of all drumsticks, middle sections, and tips so that they fry evenly. When each piece is golden brown, remove to a colander and place this in the sink. Rinse the oil off of the wings under running water to make the final flavors as light as possible. 

Rinse the wings after frying
3. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the wok. Heat the oil over high, and toss in the leek or green onions. Stir-fry them quickly until browned, and then add the soy sauce, rice wine, water, and rock sugar. When it comes to a boil, add the browned chicken wings. Bring the sauce to a boil again and then lower to a simmer. Cook the wings uncovered for about an hour, or until the sauce is reduced and the wings are very tender. Remove the ginger and leeks (or green onions); save them for a snack, as they are very tasty but not particularly good looking.

4. Add the red wine to the chicken and bring the sauce to a boil again. Simmer the sauce for a short while so that the chicken can absorb the wine flavors; the sauce should again be reduced to a thick sauce. Taste and adjust the flavors. Serve the wings hot, cold, or warm. 


Good quality chicken makes all the difference here. Get the best you can find, as the taste will shine through.

Use good regular soy sauce, organic if possible, and good wines. Since very few ingredients are used here, there is no place for iffy quality to hide. Remember, this has to be good enough for an imperial consort. Or your friends.

I talk a lot about saving things like the wing tips, ginger, and onions as snacks. You can, of course, toss them out, but do at least try them. They really are perfectly delicious. 

The sauce can also be used for something else, like cooking bean curd, carrots, or potatoes. It will gel up once it gets cold because of the chicken skin, so remove the chicken from the sauce before you refrigerate them.