Monday, February 4, 2013

Dining on chicken and chilies in Gansu

Out in the great northwest region of China, chickens are just not a big deal. The main proteins there have always tended to be animals that thrive in the dry climate and are able to graze on whatever the land manages to provide. 

In short, that means sheep. Cattle and goats are lower down on the list, way lower, and the poultry and pigs that populate every other area’s cuisines are here more or less the province of the Han Chinese living in the cities. For the minority peoples who live out in this area’s deserts and plateaus and wind-swept mountains, though, well, they like to eat lamb and mutton.

And yet, the chicken dishes that do manage to be made around these parts are savory and intriguing, partly because local cooks make the most of this rare ingredient, often by first blanching or steaming the bird before frying it, which capitalizes on the juiciness while turning every bit of the skin into a crunchy layer, or else frying it before tossing it with an enticing sauce, which is what we have here.

Chilies, onions, ginger & garlic
In this dish, two other items that are prized members of the cuisine of Gansu – as well as of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces – are featured: chilies and dark vinegar. Using fresh green chilies here instead of red ones emphasizes their herbal nature and keeps the crispy bits from becoming too sweet. The vinegar also tones down the sweetness, its friendly tartness perking up the appetite and punching extra flavor into each bite. (Because of safety issues, I have substituted apple cider and balsamic vinegar for the usual black Shanxi vinegar here.)

In fact, the traditional recipe for this dish is so radically on the tart end of the equation that nothing at all tames those sour notes, which is probably a great idea in an area where the heat can be so oppressing. I've played around with this a bit, though, and added a small amount of rock sugar, which smooths out the vinegar’s tendency to overpower all of the other flavors. It’s a matter of taste, though, how much sugar you want to add, or even whether you want to add any at all.

I’ve also used only chicken wings here, dismantling each one into three parts, which evens out the cooking times and gives the sauce more places to cling to. The result is a moist mouthful of tender meat edged with a crunchy crust that is wrapped with a delicately sweet and sour and spicy sauce, the many aromatics lending extra texture and color to each bite.

Chicken with green chilies Gansu style 
Dàkuài làzi jī 大塊辣子雞 
Serves 4 to 6  

12 whole chicken wings
¾ cup cornstarch
Spicy & savory
3 tablespoons regular soy sauce
5 tablespoons rice wine
Frying oil (peanut or vegetable)

6 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
½ cup sliced green jalapeno chilies (see Tips)
4 green onions, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 to 4 tablespoons rock or white sugar, optional
4 tablespoons sesame oil
Filtered water, as needed

1. Rinse the chicken wings and pat them dry with a paper towel. Cut each wing into three pieces; you can keep the wing tips for this dish or save them for stock, whatever you prefer. Mix the cornstarch with the soy sauce and wine in a medium work bowl, and then toss in the wings. Coat them evenly with the thin cornstarch mixture.

Northern fried chicken
2. Heat about an inch of oil in a wok over medium-high and add a third or a quarter of the wings to the hot oil. Swirl the wok around to shuffle the pieces apart and coat them with the oil. When one side is browned, turn the pieces over and continue to fry them until they are completely golden brown. Remove them to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the wings until all have been fried; keep the chicken in a warm oven if your kitchen is cold.

3. Drain out all but about 2 tablespoons of the oil. Heat the oil over high and add all of the aromatics; stir-fry these quickly until they are fragrant. Scoot the vegetables up the side of the wok, lower the heat way down low, and add all of the sauce ingredients, using the smaller amount of sugar to start with. Smack the rock sugar as it starts to melt, as this will break it apart and speed up the melting process, and add some filtered water as needed to keep the sauce fluid. When the sugar has melted, taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more sugar or any of the other ingredients as desired. Again, add more water as necessary so that you have at least ½ cup sauce in the wok. Turn the heat up to high and add the hot fried chicken. Toss it with the sauce and aromatics until the chicken is evenly coated. Serve hot.


Use other cuts of chicken, if you prefer, or even a whole chicken cut into smallish pieces.

The traditional recipe calls for green chili peppers, and they add a nice herbal zing to this dish. Feel free to substitute whatever fresh chilies you like here, as hot or mild as you like.