Mouthwatering “Saliva Chicken” (Koushuiji, 口水鸡)
Chengdu Challenge #22: You Know You Want It: Saliva Chicken
Which name do you prefer for Sichuan cold chicken in red-hot chili oil? Saliva chicken (let’s translate it as “mouthwatering” chicken)? Bobo chicken? Bon bon chicken? Bang bang chicken? From what I can tell from multiple Sichuan restaurants, cookbooks and the Web, the names are almost interchangeable, and there’s no real consensus on the ingredients and proportions in each.
They are all based on homemade, high-quality chili oil (hong you), of course, and from there include varying proportions of soy sauce, black rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, Sichuan pepper and, often, Chinese sesame paste.
The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine cookbook includes all of the above except vinegar in its bobo chicken and says it is named bobo after the clay bowl it is traditionally served in. Nowadays in Chengdu, bobo chicken is normally threaded on skewers, which rest in the oil-filled clay pot along with skewers of vegetables.
“The Good Food of Szechwan” has all of the above ingredients in only slightly varying proportions from each other in both its hongyou chicken and strange-taste chicken. However strange-flavor chicken—which Fuchsia Dunlop says is basically synonymous with bang bang chicken—generally has a much greater proportion of sesame paste to chili oil than the true red-oil chicken dishes. Also, in those dishes the chicken is usually shredded, while in the red-oil dishes it is cut in slices or chunks.
In Chengdu, there’s a chain of take-out restaurants called Bon Bon that serves only cold meats in red oil. I ordered the chicken and Fongchong ordered the chicken feet, and they were both in a clear chili oil-sesame seed concoction, no sesame paste in sight. In the San Gabriel Valley, Spicy City’s saliva chicken had not only sesame paste, but some other thicker, heavy-bodied ingredient. However it didn’t—and shouldn’t—taste like a sesame sauce; the sesame paste is just there as an accent. More recently I had a terrific version in Chengdu that was heavy on vinegar and sugar.
No matter what you call them, all the chicken-in-chili-oil dishes are in the same family and all delicious. My earlier recipe for Sichuan pepper cold chicken, jiaomaji, is also in this family, though decidedly heavier on the numbing spice. I agree with Fuchsia when she says in her most recent book, “Every Grain of Rice,” that she doesn’t even use a recipe most times when combining these ingredients for cold chicken, she just does it by feel and to taste.
Having said that, some combinations are better than others. This one, which I’ve tinkered with for years, is influenced by all of the versions above.
For the chicken, the one thing I do differently than all of the recipes I’ve seen for these dishes is that I steam the chicken instead of poach it. I guess Sichuanese always poach, but I just prefer the taste and texture of steamed chicken. Plus—and this is a big plus to me—instead of losing the chicken essence to the poaching water, you get a good batch of undiluted chicken juices when you steam it, like a really concentrated broth. I then use those chicken juices, flavored with the wine-ginger-salt marinade, as the secret ingredient in my saliva chicken. Adding a good helping of the fatty chicken juices helps me achieve the cold chicken ideal of chicken absolutely floating in red oil without using up all my chili oil or burning everyone’s mouths.
For the sauce, I start with the usual suspects, some of which are on display below. Chili oil is the major player and here I used both my roasty-toasty homemade chili oil and Blank Slate Kitchen’s chili oil, which is redolent of warm Chinese spices like star anise and black cardamom. Along with ground Sichuan pepper, I used Sichuan pepper oil. Please try to use a Chinese sesame paste, which is dark and intense, or, failing that, tahini. Peanut butter is not a good substitute.
This is an easy dish to make, and even quicker if you cheat and start with a store-bought rotisserie chicken. Do so if you must, just don’t stint on the mouthwatering sauce.
Mouthwatering "Saliva Chicken" (Koushuiji, 口水鸡)
- 2 pounds chicken breasts or thighs
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- 2 tablespoons ginger, grated
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup chili oil (with lots of flakes)
- 4 tablespoons chicken juices from steaming, cooled
- 3 tablespoons Zhenjiang rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons Chinese soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Chinese sesame paste
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper oil
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan pepper (see note)
- Garnish of crushed roasted peanuts, roasted sesame seeds and scallion
- Wash and dry chicken and place in a bowl or dish such as a pie plate that fits in your steamer. Pour 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine over the chicken. Mix grated ginger and salt to make a paste and spread it over the chicken and under its skin. When the water begins to steam, carefully place the bowl in the steamer and cover. Steam for about 30 minutes, then prick the chicken with a sharp knife to make sure the juices run clear and not pink or bloody. When just cooked through, remove chicken pieces from the bowl and let cool. Reserve the chicken juices.
- Mix together the ingredients for the sauce: chili oil with flakes, chicken juices, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, sesame paste, sesame oil, Sichuan pepper oil and ground Sichuan pepper. Taste and adjust if needed.
- Cut chicken off the bone in slices or large bite-size pieces. Arrange in a serving bowl that holds them fairly snugly. Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds and scallions. Serve at room temperature. Eat by plucking the chicken out of the sauce.
Reading this recipe just now, it is already living up to its name. Can’t wait to try this!
Thanks! Hope you enjoy it!
Shouldn’t it have garlic? I reserved the breast meat from a supermarket rotisserie chicken and chopped the rest up to make a shortcut version of this dish. It’s awesome!
It should have garlic if you want it to have garlic! But it shouldn’t have a strong garlic taste, at least in the versions I’ve had. (I often take the shortcut too.)
I notice that you’ve said to steam the chicken, but in the picture, the chicken is sitting in liquid. I’ve never steamed meat, so I’m not sure about the technique, but other pictures on other sites also have the meat sitting in liquid. Is it just liquid that has come from the chicken as it has cooked? Does that mean you have it in a double boiler rather than in something like a steaming basket? I can’t wait to try this recipe!
Yes, the chicken is steamed in a dish or bowl placed in your steamer so you can retain all the yummy, intense chicken juice that it produces for use in the sauce.