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.
This Post Has 36 Comments
The lotus leaves look like a nest. The neck of the chicken is so graceful.
This meal looks simple and beautiful.
That sounds difficult to make, but looks so good. I may have to try that with a few substitutions (since I don’t eat pork).
This is an absolute work of ART! I am flabbergasted and don’t know what to say. This is so much more than cooking. It’s culture. GREG
What an amazingly beautiful dish! And you’re right, it’s the perfect way to declare independence. 🙂
Thanks for sharing it.
“…declare my independence from grilling hotdogs and hamburgers.” LOL. Hear, hear. ;D
Oh wow! I’m so impressed. We’re in the middle of moving right now, but when we get settled, I’m definitely going to try this…or try to try this 😉
Thanks so much, as always, for the beautifully written and informative article.
Love the back story and history on this preparation. Having never done this before, you really have a great sense of putting it all together. Now it is a definite will try on my list of culinary adventures.
I love the history lesson that comes with this scrumptious chicken
Very interesting read!
gorgeous! love all the photos
wow…what an amazing story and dish.
thank you so much for sharing.
try substituting the clay for a salt dough works a lot better in my opinion.
I think you made a brilliant suggestion – dough!
May i please use the picture of your begger chicken rice picture for my education usuage
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Hi. It’s great to find the real “clay-clad” beggar’s chicken recipe online! I am planning to make it for the Canadian Thanksgiving. I am very excited about it! I have a quick question regarding the caul fat. Is there substitution for this ingredient and what is the consequence of omitting it. Also, do you think you can improve on the recipe and what are the improvements. Thank you very much! I really appreciate it.
Just as a headsup, I think someone has misappropriated two of your pictures over here, along with (possibly) some of your text. ilearn-culture is a corporate production and they’re presumably trying to make some money from it.
Whether you do anything about it or not is up to you, but I found that in my internet wanderings today and thought you should know.
Thank you so much Adrian! I am going to contact them regarding this.
if the clay starts cracking, is it still going to cook for the same amount of time? thank you! beautiful recipe
Hi Roxy, Yes I would still cook the chicken for the same amount of time. Slight cracking should not affect the result much.
Hi. I´ve been desiring to cook a chicken this way since Isaw your post. Looks completely dellicious. But, living in northern spain, I have a couple of doubts. What could I use as a substitute of the caul fat? Or could I skip that step and simply avoid using it?
The other one is what can I substitute the lotus leaves for? A friend of mine suggested using vine leaves, but I think the best idea should be using the paper you can use in the oven.
Thanks in advance for your time.
try rolling it in banana leaf, you can try using lemon juice and pepper with salt as a rubbing on the skin as a tenderiser, before putting clay on the banana leaf
So cool! I was looking for a topic for my project at school, and this is perfect! Looks delicious, and I love all the details and story behind it. Thanks!
Can I use Banana leaf (which is also large enough) to cover the chicken?
Any knowledge on this?
I think banana leaves would work well with this recipe. The leaves will impart very subtle flavor to the chicken but I think would be very pleasant.
Thank you Monsieur Kian Lam Kho.
Absolutely marvellous and seems a must try. What will you suggest serving this with? Rice or noodles? Suggestions please
Just serve the chicken with extra vegetables if you wish. Any green vegetable will do… steamed bok choy, stir-fried string beans or spinach.
superb…………….i like this food very much…..
Hi, been dying to try this recipe but I’m having a little bit of a dilemma on finding the clay. I live in Southington CT.
maybe you can help me with my little dilemma on my quest. Looking forward to hearing from you soon. Have a good day.
You can find non-toxic clay from any pottery/art supply shop. The best type of clay for the purpose of this recipe is terra cotta. You can order them on-line if you can’t find them in nearby retailers.
I can’t easily aquire lotus leaves or banana leaves. What can I use? Are they necessary? What are the consequences of no leafs with the clay stick to the chicken ?
I baked Beggar’s Chicken before. Here a dipping sauce for it if anyone want it”
Garlic Ginger Sauce:
4 in (10 cm) ginger, pealed and sliced
6 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon cooking oil
Process the ginger and garlic in a food processor until fine. Combine with the remaining ingredients and store in a covered jar. Shake just before serving wit the chicken.
Yum, another way to use my terracotta, i must give this one a try, cheers 🙂
Here is a simpler way to make Beggar’s Chicken. A convection oven can eliminate the need of using clay or pastry to cover the chicken and allows the dish to cook evenly (but still need to wrap the chicken with lotus leaves then with sheets of aluminum foils), and would be ready in less times than in a household electric oven under 480ºF and cook it in 80 minutes.