Friday, August 2, 2013

An ingenious gift of the Hakka people

One of the most classic of all dishes in the Hakka repertoire, salt-baked chicken is also incredibly delicious. Rarely available anywhere outside of the homes of good Hakka cooks (read: grandmas), this is a dish to master and enjoy.

Like so many other recipes from this ethnic group in South China’s hill country, it is both clever and startlingly flavorful. But despite the fact that the bird is packed solidly in a thick layer of rock salt as it cooks, the salt doesn’t penetrate the wrapping; instead, a tight cocoon of lotus leaf and parchment paper seals in all of the juices, so you are left with what can only be described as the essence of chicken. As you unwrap layer after layer, tendrils of steam curl out, greeting you with the scent of nothing less than a perfect roast bird dusted with a few aromatics and the haunting aroma of lotus.

Some Hakka or Cantonese restaurants in the U.S. will offer salt-baked chicken on the menu, but I have yet to be served an authentic salt-baked chicken outside of Hakka homes because it does call for a modicum of work and most people are satisfied with the white-cut chicken (the Chinese name for poached chicken) that is usually served instead.

Truth be told, there is little reason why restaurants should be so lazy about this dish because it really isn’t that difficult. Yes, it does require lots of rock salt, but that can be used over and over and over. Yes, the chicken needs to be wrapped, but that is pretty much the extent of the labor required. And yes, it does mean that a great-quality bird is called for, but charge a little more, I say, and let diners order the dish ahead of time. 

(Read the rest here on Zester Daily...)


  1. If you ever make it to Taiwan and want to eat Hakka food, head to Miaoli county. It's a Hakka stronghold with lots of delicious Hakka food. It's all a bit oilier, saltier and more sour than everything else I ate in Taiwan. Totally addictive. Be sure to get an order of 客家小炒, a super interesting stir fry which seemed to be a staple of every restaurant I visited.

    1. Oh, I loved Miaoli! Great suggestion, along with that "Hakka small fry."

      When I lived in Taiwan, my go-to Hakka center of the world was Zhongli (spelled Chungli 中壢 there). It seems like every time I visited, there'd be old guys in the park playing erhu (two-stringed violin-like instruments), which got me in a happy mood. And I'd hit the restaurants for a major Hakka fix.