Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jiangxi's three cup chicken with a Taiwanese twist

Taipei during the early eighties had a strip of little dives at the upper end of Zhongshan North Road, up in Tianmu where most of the foreigners lived. 

But unlike any of the other restaurants in the area, these "beer houses," or pijiu wu, mainly catered to a Chinese clientele that reveled in what can best be described as local and very Asian tapas. These little shacks were decorated with folk art, had bamboo paneling, and offered lots of good beer, but the real draw was the food.

On Friday nights when we didn't have to work late, we would meet friends at one end of the beer house section and slowly eat our way up the hill and back down, ordering small bites of whatever was the house specialty. Many offered Taiwanese seafood creations, like fresh little oysters in a fermented black bean and fresh chili sauce, or grilled shark, or whole boiled shrimp still in the shell. Other Taiwanese specialties were often on the menu, too, like popcorn chicken, and Chaozhou cuisine held its own against the cultural onslaught with its own seafood dishes and satay beef. All of it was meant to be washed down with the cold local pilsner, and all of it was extremely good.

The dish I looked forward to the most, though, was called Three Cup Chicken. Little morsels of chicken on the bone were served in a sticky, savory sauce with loads of crispy garlic cloves, fresh chilies and green onions, chewy ginger slices, and a big handful of basil leaves that perfumed the air as much as they did the chicken.

It wasn't that hard to figure out the basic recipe, since it's all in the title: three cups (wine cups, that is) of light soy sauce, sweet rice wine, and lard (or vegetable oil). With this basic ratio, it at first seemed that this would be little more than a matter of balancing out the other flavors so that the chicken ended up in a sticky, dark sauce redolent with garlic and ginger, decorated with the brilliant greens of scallions and fresh basil, and punctuated with scarlet chilies. What I finally figured out, though, was that somewhere along the way a very clever Taiwanese chef had substituted oyster sauce for the soy sauce, which provided a nice stickiness to the chicken and added another ever-so-slightly-fishy tang to the sauce. After reading up on the subject, I found out much to my surprise that the chilies and basil were notes that we should thank Taiwan for, too. And that is the Taiwan twist.

As with so many of the dishes here, you can balance the flavors to satisfy your tastes: the garlic can be cooked until it dissolves, or you can have barely cooked cloves livening up the party in your mouth. The white parts of the green onions can be added toward the end if you want more of a bite, and the chilies can be as hot or as mild as you like. It's easy to over-sweeten this dish, though, so try not to add more sugar unless it really needs it.

Jiangxi province
Three Cup Chicken hails from the little-known culinary gold mine called Jiangxi. An inland province to the west of Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, Jiangxi is usually lumped in with Jiangsu and Zhejiang and considered part of eastern Chinese cuisine. Well, maybe. But as I've cooked my way through some of its marvelous dishes, I've come to feel that (as with so many such categories) more attention was probably paid to the name rather than to the actual culinary influences in the area. For example, Jiangxi has Anhui to the north and both Hubei and Hunan encircling it to the left, with a toe in Guangdong and only a small shoulder nestled up against Zhejiang. As one Chinese author noted, Jiangxi's cuisine has strong flavors and features lots of oil, neither of which are anything like eastern Chinese cuisine.

So where does that put Jiangxi? Directly into the loving arms of hearty Hunan style cooking. Granted, Jiangxi is generally not as spicy as Hunan's, but Jiangxi's food revels in garlic, chilies, and sesame oil, and it has a creative streak that demands attention.

This was brought to mind when I recently watched a cooking show from Jiangxi that was trying to determine the best dishes the province had to offer. One chef that was interviewed figured that Three Cup Chicken was a shoo-in because it really is to Jiangxi what clam chowder is to Boston. He then demonstrated his recipe, placing a chopped-up hen he had just killed into a sandpot along with a wineglass full of sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine. I was not the least bit surprised that his dish did not win. The poor chicken didn't even get browned first, and nothing else was flavoring the sauce. What a waste of a nice hen.

Back in my beer house days, though, the Three Cup Chicken we ate was always a gorgeous assembly of herbs and vegetables, with just as much plant in there as meat, and the sauce was reduced to a lovely sheen, its flavors absorbed in the meat and guaranteeing an explosion of flavor with each bite. Basil doesn't deal with heat too well, so it was always presented as a huge garnish that we diners could then mix into the chicken, allowing us the savor the fresh, almost licorice taste of this beautiful herb before the chilies and garlic and tender chicken made themselves known.

I recommend using boneless chicken thighs here, but if you like to nibble on bones, chicken wings would make an admirable substitute. Just trim off the wing tips of 2 or so pounds of free-range chicken wings (use the tips for stock), and then whack the wings in two. In fact, if you are serving this as a beer house type of tapa, that would be just the ticket. And if you'd like to try the more traditional way of preparing this dish, check out Diana Kuan's recipe, but leave out the basil.

And if you are not in the mood for chicken, try the salmon variation I just cooked up; it's equally delicious. Jiangxi is famous for its freshwater fish, but I think that this would meet with approval if salmon ever came to be part of Jiangxi's cuisine.

Fry chicken in the sandpot
Three cup chicken 
Sanbei ji  三杯雞  
Jiangxi via Taiwan
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs or 2 pounds chicken wings (see note above)
4 inches unpeeled ginger
16 whole cloves garlic
¼ cup vegetable or peanut oil
¼ cup oyster sauce
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
The white parts of 4 green onions, trimmed and diced into half-inch rounds
2 to 4 fresh red jalapeno chilies (or any other red chili), trimmed and cut into thin rings or half moons
The greens of 4 green onions, trimmed and diced
1 cup (packed) fresh basil, with the large leaves roughly chopped and all the stems removed

Reduce the sauce 
1. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry. Remove any tendons and cut the breast into 1-inch pieces, but keep the skin on.  If you are using wings instead of thigh meat, trim off the tip sections (use the wing tips for stock) and whack the rest of the wings in two. Slice the ginger into very thin pieces (you should have about half a cup); peel the garlic cloves and trim off the hard ends, but leave the cloves whole.

2. Heat the vegetable or peanut oil in a sandpot or wok until it starts to shimmer. Add the ginger slices and fry them over medium heat, stirring often, until they are golden and crispy; use a slotted spoon to remove them. Add the chicken to the ginger-scented oil and stir it as you fry it until the chicken is golden all over.  Pour in the oyster sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil, and toss in the fried ginger and the whites of the green onions. 

Three cup salmon
3. Bring the pot to a boil, cover it, lower the heat to medium-low, and then simmer the chicken until it is tender and the sauce has reduced by more than half. Add the whole peeled garlic and continue to gently cooked the sandpot with the cover on until only the oil remains at the bottom of the pot.  (The dish can be made ahead of time up to this point and reheated just before you add the final ingredients.)

4. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings. Toss in the chilies and the green parts of the onions. Sprinkle the basil over the top, place the lid back on the pot, and serve immediately with lots of hot rice and cold beer.

Variation:  For Three Cup Salmon, use 2 pounds of boneless salmon filets, but leave the skin on. Rinse the filets and pat them dry with a paper towel before cutting them into 2 by 1-inch strips (more or less). Fry the salmon with the skin side down first, but don't move it around until the skin is golden. Then turn it only two more times so that the fish doesn't break apart. Proceed with the recipe as above.

Map courtesy Wiki Commons

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