Monday, July 7, 2014

Guizhou's chili chicken and delectable hot sauce

Chili chicken is popular throughout the Central Highlands, and both Hunan and Chongqing (Sichuan) have their own delicious versions. 

My favorite, though, comes from Guizhou. It is not as spicy as the other two, but I find the flavor much richer.

The secret to Guizhou’s famous chicken dish is soaking dried chili peppers until they are soft, and then grinding them with ginger and garlic into a creamy paste that the locals call ciba lajiao, or “mochi chili.” 

Ciba is a rice paste that is used throughout the south for snacks, sweets, and as a starch, and this sauce probably got its name because it too is thick.

Ciba lajiao
The following recipe gives you extra sauce that can be refrigerated for some other dish. (Try it in a quick stir-fry or braise with either bean curd or pork, or as a dipping sauce for jiaozi with a dash of soy sauce and/or vinegar.) Do keep your eye on it, though, as I found that guests tend to snag the jar once they've tasted the sauce.

The soaking of the chilies tames much of the heat and turns them mellow, and then a slow turn in hot oil with other aromatics magically turns this into something truly special.

A second secret to perfect Guizhou-style chicken is using bone-in meat that you chop into bite-sized pieces. The Chinese believe—and I agree with them—that the meat on the bones is the sweetest, and having to deal with the bones forces me to linger over this dish and appreciate all of the many layers instead of wolfing it down.

Chili chicken
This recipe will give you a medium-hot chicken dish. What this means is that you should not be alarmed at how hot the sauce initially is, because the heat of the chilies calms down as the sauce is cooked. However, this heat can be increased or decreased as you wish.

Chili chicken
Guìzhōu làzĭ jī 貴州辣子雞
Serves 4

Guizhou ciba chili sauce (makes about 1 cup):
1 cup dried Thai chilies
Warm water as needed
¼ cup peeled, coarsely chopped garlic
¼ cup peeled, coarsely chopped ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly-ground black pepper
1 cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided

Grind the aromatics
Chicken and marinade:
Half a whole fryer
2 tablespoons rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 or more tablespoons Guizhou ciba chili sauce (see recipe above)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup cornstarch
½ cup or more peanut or vegetable oil (used all right if it smells fresh)

2 or more tablespoons Guizhou ciba chili sauce (see recipe above)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 medium leek or 3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
Whirled into a paste
1. Start this recipe the day before you plan to serve it. First make the sauce: Rinse the chilies, remove the stem ends, and place them in a medium work bowl. Cover the chilies by about 2 inches with warm water and let the soak for at least 12 hours and up to 24, or until the chilies have softened completely. (If you are in a hurry, pour boiling water over them instead.) Drain the chilies in a colander, discard the water, and shake them dry.

2. Place the softened chilies in a mini food processor fitted with a metal blade (or blender) and add the garlic, ginger, salt, about 10 grinds of black pepper (or to taste), and ½ cup oil. Pulse these together to form a coarse paste, scraping the sides down as necessary.

Chopped bone-in chicken
3. Pour the rest of the oil into a cool wok and add the chili paste. Slowly cook the chili paste over medium heat, stirring often, until the chilies have turned from red to a mahogany hue; this should take about 30 minutes. When it is ready, the garlic will taste mellow and there will be a yellowish foam on top of the sauce. Cool the sauce to room temperature, and then refrigerate it in a closed glass jar.

4. Clean and dry the chicken. Use a heavy cleaver to chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces no larger than 1-inch square. (Even the breast meat should be trimmed down, as this allows the marinade’s flavors to penetrate the chicken well.) Place the chicken in a medium work bowl, toss with the rice wine, chili sauce, and soy sauce. Marinate the chicken for 2 hours or so. Drain off and discard any liquid and then toss the chicken with the cornstarch.

Fry chicken in batches
5. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, add ½ cup oil and swirl it around to coat the inside. Add a handful of the coated chicken and toss it in the hot oil until it has browned. Remove the chicken to a clean plate but leave the oil in the wok. Repeat with the rest of the chicken until all have been cooked, adding more oil as needed.

6. To make the sauce, return the wok to medium heat and add the chili sauce. Stir it around in the hot oil to release its fragrance, and then add the cooked chicken. Toss in the sugar, soy sauce, and water, and turn the heat up to high. Cook the chicken quickly until the sauce has reduced. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Finally, add the leeks or green onions and toss these together with the chicken only until the greens wilt. Plate and serve immediately.