Chicken and eggs

Chicken and eggs

By
Fuchsia Dunlop
Contains
11 recipes
Published by
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
ISBN
9781408869239
Photographer
Chris Terry

Every Chinese person knows that the best chickens are reared in the countryside, where they peck around the rice fields and vegetable plots, seeking out stray seeds and insects. They are known as tu ji – literally ‘earth chickens’ – the Chinese term for birds that Westerners would call free-range, organic or traditionally reared. I’ve eaten the best, most unforgettable chicken of my life in Chinese farmhouses. One chicken stew, made from a bird reared by the parents of my friend Fan Qun and cooked over a wood fire in rural Hunan for the New Year’s feast, was dreamily delicious, the platonic ideal of chickenness.

For the Chinese, as in many other cultures, chicken soup is an important tonic food. (New mothers are often fed chicken soup during their month of confinement, to replenish their energies after the birth.) In the past, chicken was a luxury meat. It was eaten on special occasions, or brewed up with pork ribs and ham to make fine banquet stocks in rich homes and fancy restaurants. Older hens, scrawny but flavourful, were used for soups and stews; young capons for cold chicken dishes and stir-fries. Almost every part of the chicken is still used in the Chinese kitchen: the innards might be stir-fried with something fresh or pungent and the rest of the bird cooked whole; or the breasts and leg meat used for flavourful wok-cooked dishes and the rest added to the stock pot. In restaurants, you’ll find the wing tips, stewed in a spiced broth, offered as a special delicacy; the feet (known as ‘phoenix claws’) are another snack to be savoured.

There is something very satisfying about buying a whole bird from a farmers’ market and using every bit of it at home. Think of cutting away the breasts and using them in gong bao chicken with peanuts; poaching the thighs and serving them as cold chicken with a spicy Sichuanese sauce, or using them to whip up a black bean chicken. Stew the heart and liver in a little spiced broth and dip them in salt, ground chillies and ground roasted Sichuan pepper. And then make the rest of the bird into a stock, with a little ginger and spring onion, and use it as the base for the evening’s soup, or store it in the freezer for another time.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the chicken in Chinese cooking, however, is the way a little bit of its meat or fat can lend rich, savoury flavours to vegetable dishes. Half a chicken breast, sliced or slivered and simply marinated, adds an extra dimension of deliciousness to a wokful of mushrooms or vegetables. Leftovers from a Western-style roast chicken can be given the Sichuanese treatment: sliced or slivered, bulked out with salad leaves and served with a lavishly spicy dressing; or piled on top of a bowl of cold buckwheat noodles. Chicken stock is a perfect base for all kinds of soups, while the golden fat that solidifies at the top of a panful of cooling stock is often added to mushrooms or greens just before they are served, like a magical elixir of umami flavour.

Chicken is the bird most often cooked at home in China, which is why it’s the focus of the recipes that follow. Duck is also enjoyed, but cooked less often at home than in restaurants and in the workshops of specialist food producers, whose ovens, large woks for deep-frying and smokeries are designed to make the most of its luxuriantly fragrant fat. Many Chinese people will buy in roasted, smoked or stewed duck and serve it with home-cooked dishes. Leftover duck can be chopped up and used in fried rice, with a little preserved vegetable, or in soupy rice (used in place of salt pork); and the carcass makes a fabulous stock to which you can add Chinese cabbage and tofu for a comforting soup.

Goose is another fowl that is enjoyed in certain parts of China, but rarely cooked in a domestic kitchen. Pheasants and pigeons are rarer treats; game birds such as pheasants may be fried in oil, then slow-cooked, as in the braised chicken with chestnuts, or simply stewed in a clay pot with a little Shaoxing wine, ginger and medicinal herbs for a tonic soup.

Finally, eggs might be stir-fried with tomatoes or made into a golden Chinese chive omelette; they may also be fried on both sides (to make what are known as ‘pocket eggs’) and laid on top of a bowl of noodles. Duck eggs are sometimes eaten in omelettes, but are more often salted or preserved in alkalis to make the striking delicacy known in the West as ‘1,000-year-old eggs’.

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