A starving beggar in China during the Qing dynasty is said to have stolen a chicken and was hotly pursued by its owner. In his haste he buried the chicken in mud near a riverbank to hide it. Later that night he returned and retrieved the chicken, its feathers covered in mud. He started a fire of twigs and branches to cook the chicken. But not having any utensils he placed the entire chicken directly into the fire. A tight clay crust formed as the fowl cooked, and when the crust was cracked open the feathers came right off the chicken exposing juicy tender meat and emitting an incredible aroma. The roasted chicken was so delicious he decided to start selling his creation to the villagers. Unbeknownst to him he had just invented one of the greatest culinary traditions of China.
That is the legend most often told by the Chinese. To be sure there are other competing stories but I like this one best for the romantic bent. Beggar’s Chicken originated in the Hangzhou (杭州) area in Zhejiang (浙江) province and can be found in many of its restaurants. Because of the laborious and lengthy cooking process most restaurants require advance notice to order. If you ever find a restaurant that serves this dish and you wish to order it be sure to call ahead.
This past July 4th weekend I was invited to plan a cookout at a friend’s house in New Jersey. Aware that there is an outdoor gas grill adjacent to the backyard pool I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to try my hand at making Beggar’s Chicken. For years I’ve had the fantasy of making this dish but often simply gave up because of the complex procedures involved. This time I was determined to make an attempt.
My first challenge was to find pottery clay to encase the chicken. Thanks to many suggestions from friends at Facebook and Twitter, I was directed to Pearl Fine Art Supplies on Canal Street. After sending Warren to procure the clay I went off to Chinatown to get the rest of the ingredients.
What to serve with the chicken was the second matter I had to tackle. I wanted accompanying dishes that were easy to make and that could be prepared ahead of time. I chose to make steamed glutinous rice with bamboo shoots wrapped in lotus leaves, Sichuan spicy pickled cabbage, Chinese broccoli salad with ginger and black vinegar dressing, corn on the cob and finally grill roasted sweet potatoes.
Just as planned I marinated the chicken, made the stuffing and prepared all the accompanying dishes a day ahead. The next morning all I had to do was stuff the chicken, wrap it in lotus leaves and encase it in clay. All these foods we brought to our friend’s house just before noon, allowing me to enjoy the sun and the pool in the afternoon while the chicken baked in the grill.
Admittedly the menu was quite unconventional for an American holiday cookout. But when the clay crust was cracked open and the aromatic chicken served, everyone was won over. I can’t think of a better time than to choose the Fourth of July to declare my independence from grilling hotdogs and hamburgers.
Beggar’s Chicken (叫花子雞)
- Preparation time: 1 hour 30 minutes
- Slow cooking time: 2 hours
- 1 (4 lbs.) whole chicken
- enough pork caul fat to wrap chicken
- 3 large dried lotus leaves
- 8 lbs. of non-toxic pottery clay
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 4 tablespoons light soy sauce (生抽)
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking wine (紹興料酒)
- 4 star anise
- 1 tablespoon whole clove
- 8 ozs. pork tenderloin
- 8 ozs. small shrimp
- 4 ozs. Smithfield ham
- 4 ozs. bamboo shoots
- 8 medium dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped scallion
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce (生抽)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing cooking wine (紹興料酒)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 4 star anise
- Put all the ingredients of the marinade in a small saucepan and heat over low heat for about five minutes until the spices are infused into the liquid. Let cool before pouring over the chicken in large bowl. Marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least five hours or over night.
- Cut the pork into 1/2 inch cubes and set aside. Clean and devein the shrimp and set aside. Reconstitute the dried shiitake mushroom in hot water. Dice the ham, bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms into about 1/4 inch cubes and set all aside.
- In a wok add the vegetable oil and heat until just beginning to smoke. Add the chopped ginger and scallion into the wok and stir-fry for about a minute. Add the pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots, and mushroom and stir-fry for about three minutes or until the meat is just about three quarter done. Add the rest of the Stuffing ingredients and stir-fry for another three minutes or until the meat is completely done. Place the stuffing in a bowl and let cool.
- Reconstitute the lotus leaves in hot water and set aside. When the stuffing is cool enough to handle remove the chicken from the marinade and brush off the spices. Stuff the chicken and tightly cover the entire chicken in the caul fat. Place the chicken on a piece of lotus leaf breast side up. Fold the leaf over the sides and wings of the chicken onto the breast. Fold the other sides of the leaf to cover the head and tail of the chicken. Flip the wrapped chicken over and place it on another lotus leaf and repeat the folding. Flip the chicken again and wrap a third leaf around it. The chicken should now be completely covered. Tie the wrapped chicken tightly with butcher’s twine. Cover the entire package with a layer of clay about 1/4 inch thick.
- Bake in pre-heated 400 Degree F oven or in covered grill for about two hours. When ready to serve crack the clay and unwrap the lotus leaves. Remove the stuffing and place in a serving dish. Pour sesame oil over the stuffing. Serve the chicken on a platter with the lotus leaves as a base.