Beggar’s chicken

Beggar’s chicken

Finding Fire

Chinese legend tells of a hungry beggar who stole a chicken in Hangzhou. Hotly pursued by the farmer, he made it as far as the river before concealing the bird in the mud. He returned at nightfall, lighting a small fire to cook his stolen dinner. When he retrieved the chicken he discovered it was encased in the rich clay of the riverbank, but he was so hungry he placed it directly on the embers. As the mud baked, a crust formed around the bird as it slowly steamed within. Breaking open the clay released an aroma so ethereal that it aroused the attention of the emperor, who was travelling on a nearby road. He stopped to eat with the beggar and deemed the rich succulence of the chicken to be delicious enough to grace the table of the Imperial Palace.

While this dish can seem elaborate – and you need to start it a day ahead – it is a beautiful way to cook directly in the fire and the results are worthwhile, with an unearthly tenderness that sees the meat fall away from the bone. It may be a kingly dish but, like a beggar, you will be compelled to eat it with your hands.


Quantity Ingredient
1 whole free-range chicken (1.8–2 kg)
3 dried lotus leaves, soaked for 40 minutes until pliable
4kg earth clay

For the marinade

Quantity Ingredient
1 star anise
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons soy sauce
60ml shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons ginger root, finely minced

For the stuffing

Quantity Ingredient
50g glutinous rice
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 knob ginger root, finely minced
2 spring onions (scallions), finely chopped
50g wood ear mushrooms, finely sliced
50g shiitake mushrooms, finely chopped
2 lap cheong (chinese dried sausage), diced
8 dried day lilies, soaked for 20 minutes in filtered water and finely chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon dried goji berries
10g dried scallops


  1. 1. Prepare your embers.
  2. 2. Prepare the marinade. Lightly toast the spices in a cast-iron pan for 2–3 minutes until fragrant. Remove and grind the spices to a fine powder. Combine with the soy sauce, rice wine and ginger.
  3. 3. Wash the chicken and pat dry with paper towel. Rub the skin and cavity with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 6–8 hours.
  4. 4. Wash and soak the glutinous rice for 4 hours in filtered water. Rinse and then drain.
  5. 5. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and drain, reserving the marinade.
  6. 6. Prepare the stuffing. Heat the grapeseed oil in a cast-iron pan and fry the garlic, ginger and spring onions for 1 minute until fragrant. Add the mushrooms and lap cheong, and continue to cook for 2 minutes. Add the day lilies, goji berries, dried scallops, drained rice and reserved marinade. Stir to combine. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  7. 7. Fill the chicken cavity with the stuffing, tying the legs together with kitchen string to secure. Place the chicken on one lotus leaf, breast side up. Fold the leaf over the sides and wings of the chicken onto the breast. Turn the wrapped chicken over, placing it on another lotus leaf and repeat the wrapping. Repeat once more with the third leaf, completely covering the chicken, before securing with butcher’s twine.
  8. 8. Roll the clay into a rectangle about 5 mm (¼ in) thick. Place the wrapped chicken on one end of the clay, folding the other end over the chicken. Pinch the edges of the clay together with your fingers, ensuring that the chicken is well sealed. Leave to dry for 40 minutes.
  9. 9. Place the clay-wrapped chicken on a bed of embers, and completely cover the chicken with embers. Leave to cook in the ashes for 2 hours, at which point the clay will have baked hard on all sides. Remove the roasted chicken from the fire and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
  10. 10. Take to the table, break open the clay and unwrap the lotus leaves to reveal the magical bird.
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