Monday, October 29, 2018

Hakka smoked chicken chez Huang

My father-in-law’s extended family served this dish only on very special occasions. Being thrifty Hakkas—who are as notorious as the Scots for being penny pinchers—protein was always doled out in small servings and bulked up with lots of vegetables, pickles, and rice. 

Even a dish as famous as this made only a brief appearance on the dining table before disappearing in a flurry of chopsticks. Definitely one of those you snooze, you lose situations. 

This recipe highlights the Hakka love for natural flavors and simplicity. Living as they do in relatively poor lands, the Hakka have developed a true knack for eking out sublime deliciousness from every part of an animal or plant.

A distant in-law's specialty!
Here is one of the more extravagant dishes ever to make its way out of a Hakka kitchen, for the chicken is smoked. Something this luscious would be enjoyed only rarely and in small portions, which perhaps made it taste even better.

My late father-in-law's eldest male uncle, whom we all referred to as Dabofu, was famous for his household's rendering of this dish. He was a man of considerable presence—tall and good-looking, with deep eyes that had a corona of blue surrounding the usual brown irises—and he had three wives. But the one thing my husband always mentions when he talks about Dabofu is his famous smoked chicken.

Dabofu and his wives were never willing to part with the recipe, but I've played around with it over the years, and this seems pretty darned close. My secret? Barley tea in the smoker. You see, rice hulls were the usual smoking ingredient with many Hakka (cheap, plentiful, useful… what’s not to love?), but as they are impossible to find, even in Whole Foods, I figured barley tea might do well, since it’s pretty close, and it does. Perfectly. You can find barley tea in most East Asian grocery stores, where it is usually sold under its Japanese name, mugi-cha, in Chinese stores as 大麥茶 dàmàichá, and in Korean places as bori-cha.
Barley tea and rice

Although nowadays we would say that one chicken serves 6 to 8, in a Hakka family only a quarter of the chicken would be served at a time. And so my husband only was able to savor a tiny sliver that one time he was ever a guest at Daobofu’s place. 

I make up for lost time and opportunity here by serving the whole batch to just the two of us—beer on the side, thank you very much—employing a very American attitude toward putting good chicken on the table. J.H. gets almost teary-eyed with joy at having someone in the kitchen finally get their dining priorities straight.

Hakka Smoked Chicken

Kèjiā xūnjī 客家熏雞
Serves 4 to 6
Fan dry the bird

Seasoned salt:
4 tablespoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole white peppercorns
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
5 tablespoons sea salt

Either 2 pounds | 1 kg chicken wings or 1 whole fryer chicken, preferably kosher and/or free range
Boiling water, as needed
1 tablespoon seasoned salt for the wings, 2 tablespoons for a whole bird
¼ cup | 15 g loose barley tea (see headnotes)
¼ cup | 30 g raw rice of any kind
Spray oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1. First make the seasoned salt: Over medium-low heat, dry-fry (meaning don’t add any oil) all of the peppercorns, five-spice powder, fennel, and salt until the salt darkens and the peppercorns start to pop. Cool the salt and spices completely, and then grind them to a fine powder. Sieve the powder, discard any large bits, and store this in a covered jar in a dark area.

Surfaces absolutely dry
2. Start the chicken at least a day before you plan to serve it. Clean the chicken and pull out any pinfeathers. Lightly rub the chicken with a towel to remove any loose surface skin. With the wings, keep them in one piece, although you can remove the wing tips, if you prefer. With a whole chicken, tuck the wings under so that they lie flat against the body, but leave the legs untied so that the chicken can cook through quickly and easily.

3. Bring about 2 quarts | 2 liters water to a full boil in a tall pot that is just wide enough to hold the chicken. Have extra boiled water ready in case you need it. For wings, simply lower them into the pot, and for a whole chicken, lower the chicken into the pot with the breast side up, and add more water as needed to cover the chicken by at least 2 inches | 5 cm. Bring the pot to a boil again and then reduce the heat to maintain just a bare simmer.  Poach chicken wings for 10 minutes and a whole chicken for 15 minutes, then cover the pot and turn off the heat. Remove the wings after around 20 minutes, and the whole chicken after an hour or so, and drain thoroughly. Rub the chicken inside and out with the salt - about 2 teaspoons for wings and 1 tablespoon for a whole bird - paying special attention to the thicker areas. Cover the bird and refrigerate overnight.
Smoked up and ready

4. Set the chicken on a cake rack placed on a platter and air dry it with an electric fan, turning the chicken over every half hour or so to help the skin lose every drop of moisture, as this will allow the smoke to adhere to it later on. 

5. Put the barley tea and rice in the bottom of your smoker. Spray the rack with oil and place it in the smoker. Cover the smoker and set it over high heat. When smoke begins to billow out of the smoker, add your chicken. Smoke the wings for 10 minutes, remove the smoker from the heat, and then turn the wings over and smoke them another 5 minutes before letting the smoker cool down. For a whole bird, smoke it for about 25 minutes total. The good thing about using only barley tea and rice is that you won’t get any sour taste from the burned fuel like you if sugar is involved, so smoke away until the skin is as dark as you like. Remove the chicken from the smoker, cool for about 10 minutes, and then rub the surface with the sesame oil. Cut the wings in half, if you like, and the whole chicken into chunks. Place a small dish of the seasoned salt on the side in case someone would like this saltier.


  1. B Bowl has Barley Tea....A smoker is in my future. God I want one. This looks sooo good.

    Three wives. I could use a wife. :)

    1. You need a stovetop smoker. They're cheap and will serve you well. Mine is a NordicWare, and I got it eons ago from a big box store for (I think) around $60. Highly recommended, as is finding a way to get a wife or two.

  2. How much five-spice powder in the seasoned salt? It's in the instructions, but not the ingredient list. Thanks