Friday, March 2, 2012

Savory salt-and-pepper chicken

I've had Shanghai on my mind lately. Well, at least the food of Shanghai. If you've ever enjoyed some of the lovely things Shanghai has to eat, you'll understand.

Shanghai is one of those wonderful places in the world where tasty things just seem to migrate to, like New York, say, or Paris. It's at the mouth of the Yangtze River near the Pacific Ocean, so nature has conspired with man to move all of the best ingredients and clever cooking methods of central China down to this enormous maw where people who really know how to eat await their next meal with sophistication, as well as barely hidden anticipation.

In the grand scheme of Chinese cuisine, Shanghai's beautiful way with food usually gets crammed in with the cooking styles of glorious Jiangsu, the province in which it is situated, or under the general name of Yangzhou, a highly refined cuisine centered in northern Jiangsu. But although I can understand the urge to sort everything into tidy little compartments, Shanghai has a way of squirming its way insistently into a category all of its own.
Marinating chicken

You can't really blame it at all for this.

The thing is, Shanghai isn't just Jiangsu cuisine or Yangzhou cuisine. It's more of a pastiche of the best that China has to offer mixed in with flavors and ideas that sidled up to this great seaport over the past century or so and then squirreled their way into the culinary consciousness of some very happy diners.

Take ketchup, for example. Definitely not from around here, but when this foreign ingredient is used to deepen the flavors in the local sauces or provide an underlayer for a side dish, ketchup shuffles off its prosaic demeanor and reveals itself to be a really rich tomato sauce with a touch of piquancy that is just waiting to come alive when matched up with other tongue-pleasers like soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, and ginger.

Another illustration is the fresh chili pepper. Most folks understandably associate fresh and dried chilies with south-central China, the palate-searing dishes of Sichuan and Hunan down through Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi, and points south. It's hot and humid there, and anything that helps wake up the taste buds is going to find a warm welcome, especially chilies. 

But fresh and dried chilies are also used with moderation in Shanghai, and when they do, they make a delicious statement.

Frying the aromatics
Take this dish, for example. Salt-and-Pepper Chicken really dials back the usual suspects like soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine, and starts out as a mild-mannered fried chicken dish. Then, a handful of chopped fresh chilies, garlic, green onions, and garlic team up with nothing more than salt to pack a flavor wallop. 

It's brilliant. All of these aromatics hit your mouth at the same time, and then you bite into the chicken and find temporary relief in the bland meat. Chew them together, and they form other flavors, the dusting of salt brushing up against the simple soy marinade hiding under the crispy batter, the garlic and chilies duking it out with each bite, and the garlic and green onions coming to a sort of herbal understanding just as you are about to swallow.

If you are at all familiar with Shanghainese food, you might have seen this in another incarnation, one that uses pork instead of chicken and called Jiaoyan paigu, or Salt-and-Pepper Pork Chops. And that is certainly good, but I've come to favor boneless chicken breasts here for their juiciness and for the back seat the chicken takes, acting more as a vehicle for all of the other flavors bouncing around on the plate than the main role.

Use whatever level heat you like here; I like red jalapeno chilies for their color and simple kick, but if you like a more herbal note, green peppers will do the trick. If you are adverse to heat or are feeding children, red bell peppers or pimentos work well; heat lovers can used something more pungent, like bird chilies or even habaneros. The garlic, too, can be adjust upwards or down to fit personal tastes and the menu.

Not your mother's fried chicken
I've suggested a minimum of salt here; taste the dish and add a dusting more if you think it needs it. And in case you're wondering, there's no black pepper here... just chili pepper!

Salt-and-pepper chicken 
Jiaoyan ji 椒鹽雞 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal

2 boneless chicken breasts (see Tips)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
5 slices peeled fresh ginger
2 green onions, trimmed
1 red jalapeno chili, trimmed and seeded
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 to 2 cups peanut or vegetable oil (see Tips)
1 teaspoon sea salt

1. Rinse the chicken breasts and pat dry, and either leave the skin on or remove it, depending upon your taste. Cut the breasts into 1-inch cubes. Place them in a work bowl and toss with the soy sauce; allow them to marinate for about an hour. Drain the soy sauce off and discard.

2. Finely mince the ginger, green onions, chili, and garlic. 

3. Toss the chicken with the egg and then sprinkle the flour over the chicken. Mix them together to form a batter that even coats each piece of chicken.

4. Add enough oil to the wok so that you have at least a 2-inch depth. Heat the oil over high until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil immediately bubbles all over. Add a few pieces of chicken at a time to the hot oil and fry them until golden all over; remove the fried chicken to a clean work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the chicken until all of the pieces are fried.

Fry the chicken to a golden brown
5. Pour off all of the oil, leaving just a slick of oil on the surface of the wok. Heat the wok over high again and add the salt to the wok. Quickly stir it around so that it starts to melt, and then toss in all of the ginger, green onions, chili, and garlic. Toss these for a few seconds to release their fragrance, and then add the fried chicken. Scoop and toss the chicken with the aromatics to coat each piece. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Serve hot.


Use organic, free-range chicken, if at all possible. I like to keep the skin on the chicken, but skinless is good too. Other parts of the chicken are great here, such as the thighs; simply bone them before cutting the meat into cubes. 

If you decided to go with pork, cut boneless pork loin into batons about ½ x ½ x 1 inch in size so that the pork cooks quickly and stays juicy.

Used oil is fine here as long as it smells and tastes good. Use as much oil as you like for the deep frying, but only add a few pieces of chicken at a time to the hot fat so that it keeps a steady temperature and does not cool down too quickly.