Saturday, August 25, 2012

The milder side of Guizhou: a tomato-ey chicken dish

Just about all cuisines with a reputation for spiciness (read: searing chilies) have a Jekell and Hyde personality, I'm coming to believe. Everyday dishes are hot as hell and are pooled in red oil, or at least that is the case with Hunan and Sichuan and even Mexican cuisine, to just name a few. But when it comes to having folks over for dinner, these chilies tend to be tucked away in favor of mild, delicately seasoned dishes with gentle textures. 

It's all about finesse, I suppose. It's sort of like changing out of your jeans and very comfortable tee shirt into a silken number with a string of pearls. The object is to not only make the dinner formal and to entertain the guests, but also the mark it as a fancy occasion.

The main ingredients
Guizhou is no different. When it comes to banquets, the foods tend to be more liberal in the protein department, and the seasonings are anything but hot. Like today's dish, the satiny Chicken Slices with Tomatoes. Nothing screams in here. It's all very understated and subdued, but at the same time it is incredibly tender and flavorful.

Traditionally, this dish is made with thinly-sliced chicken breasts, but as I've said before, I'm a bit of a sucker for dark meat, especially in stir-fries, since thigh and leg meat stay juicy and springy, while white meat tends to dry out. Other than that, this dish is pretty much straight from Guiyang, the capital city that lies in just about the exact center of Guizhou province.

Tomatoes are given the haute cuisine treatment here in the manner of Escoffier: they are peeled, seeded, and cut into tiny dice so that when the dish is done, you're left with more of an impression of tomatoes than any actual chunks. 

When cooked this way -- very quickly, mind you, not stewed -- the tomatoes practically dissolve into the chicken and form a smooth sauce delicately tinted red. But the flavor remains fresh and bright, the essence of tomato enveloping every morsel.

Peeled tomato
The secret to this is the "velveting" technique so beloved in Chinese stir-fries: thin slices of meat are wrapped in a mixture of egg white and cornstarch, which both protects the protein and forms a truly velvety coating that is neither thick nor obvious. 

My favorite way of doing this is by first tossing the meat (or in this case, chicken) slices with cornstarch and salt so that every surface is dusted. Then I add the egg white, which turns the starch into a batter when mixed around into the meat. It's really simple, yet it's simply magic.

A handful of very thinly sliced green onions flavor the dish, but to make them even more subtle, only the whites are used. This way they disappear into the background. You really never notice them visually or otherwise, because they melt into the tomatoes.

Tomatoes are relative newcomers to China, of course, but they've become a welcome ingredient in just about every region. Called fanqie (barbarian eggplant) in the South and xihongshi (Western red persimmon) in the North, they made their way to China through Europe in the Ming dynasty. The first known reference to them is in a 1621 book called Chunfangpu, which calls them "barbarian persimmons" (fanshi), and this is a delightful suggestions that the two modern Chinese names for tomato must have branched off of this early moniker.

The author of this book was not at all impressed with tomatoes, though. "Eaten raw they scratch the throat of man," he declared, so it is possible that old wives' tales about these "love apples," as they were known in Europe, accompanied these innocent fruits into China.

Nowadays, according to Chinese traditional medicine, tomatoes are believed to relieve summer heat, reduce phlegm, increase salivation, relieve thirst, improve the stomach, and help digestion. If that wasn't enough, tomatoes are also said to cool the blood, calm the liver, act as a diuretic, and reduce blood pressure.

But I am of the opinion that they just plain taste wonderful, especially at this time of year when they are at their peak. See if you don't agree...

Chicken slices with tomatoes 
Fanqie jipian 蕃茄雞片 
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal, or 2 to 3 as a main dish

12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken meat
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg white
Pepper and egg white in the chicken
½ teaspoon (or so) freshly ground pepper

8 ounces meaty tomatoes (Roma or other non-juicy, flavorful, red variety)
Boiling water
2 green onions, trimmed (white parts only)
3 to 4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil or mingyou

1.  Remove any large tendons and pieces of fat from the chicken. Cut the meat against the grain into thin slices not more than 2 inches in length. Place the chicken in a medium work bowl and toss with the cornstarch and salt, then mix in the egg white and pepper to form a thick batter.

2. Cut a small cross into the skin on the blossom end of each tomato. Place the tomatoes in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Let them sit for a few minutes until you see that the skins can be easily peeled off. Rinse the tomatoes in cold tap water and remove the skins. Cut each tomato in half along the equator and gently squeeze out the seeds and juice. (You will use only the flesh of the tomato in this recipe.) Cut the flesh of the tomatoes into small dice.

3. Thinly slice the white ends of the green onions and measure out the rest of the ingredients.

Add veggies to the chicken
4. Heat the wok on high, and when the wok starts to shimmer, add 3 tablespoons of oil to the wok. Swirl it around to coat the inside of the wok and add the chicken. Use chopsticks to toss and break apart the chicken into separate pieces as it cooks. 

5. When most of the chicken looks white and is starting to brown in areas, toss in the tomatoes and sliced onions; if you need a bit more oil to keep the chicken from sticking to the wok, dribble it in around the edges to heat the oil up before it enters the fray. Toss the chicken and tomatoes together, and when the juice from the tomatoes starts to thicken, add the sugar and soy sauce. Continue to quickly cook the chicken, and as soon as the meat is done, sprinkle the sesame oil or mingyou over the chicken, toss once again, and serve.


Fleshy tomatoes like Romas work best because there is less waste from the juice. You can use the juice in stocks, of course; just strain out the seeds. 

Organic, free-range chicken is recommended for flavor and health, and also just because the birds have a happier life. Use the fat, skin, and bones from the chicken for something delicious.

Have all the ingredients prepped and measured for this dish. It is slightly time-consuming to trim and slice the chicken, as well as peel and seed the tomatoes, so have these all done before you fire up your wok.

This makes an excellent main dish for family, Just ladle the chicken over some steamed rice and add a green vegetable. Your loved ones will thank you.

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