Chongqing Chicken Like It’s Made in Chongqing
The Truth About Sichuan Food There vs. Here~~
At last I’ve eaten Chongqing Chicken in Chongqing, and not only was it delicious, it was revelatory. This new recipe for the dish is based on the version I had there. It won’t be for everyone—a main ingredient is crispy fried chicken skin!—so I’m not replacing my previous recipe, which I created in 2015 based on memories of Chongqing chicken I had eaten in Chengdu, where it is known as la zi ji (chicken with chilies). I still like that version, but I want to add this louder version to the collection because it makes a lot of interesting points about how eating in Sichuan is different from eating Sichuan in the U.S. (Chongqing is not technically part of Sichuan any longer, as it is an independent metropolis, but the food is still very similar.)
This was my eighth three-week trip to Sichuan since 2007—totaling up now to about six months spent there. The city has changed tremendously over those 10 years, growing exponentially larger and richer. I have changed a lot too, of course. While I’ve grown only slightly larger and no richer, I have gained a Chinese daughter, built this Sichuan food blog and opened an online Sichuan market. That is to say, I know much more about the cuisine than I used to and have become much more adventurous.
When I visited in the past, I dined mostly with local friends and colleagues at mid-range restaurants and upscale banquet places—at their insistence, for reasons of hygiene and food safety. I couldn’t really venture into the hole-in-the-wall, open-front, tables-on-the-sidewalk noodle joints and “fly restaurants” by myself because, unlike the more upscale restaurants, they don’t generally have English/pinyin menus or even picture menus and I neither spoke the language nor knew street food well enough to order.
But for the past couple trips I’ve had my Chief Taster and Translator in tow (aka my daughter, Fong Chong), and she’s been as determined as I am to try the full range of Sichuan food. So we’ve eaten our way through every place that caught our attention, both high and low. (I hope you follow us on Facebook or Instagram to see the whole gamut.)
This time we stayed in an Airbnb apartment on the east side of Chengdu, a solidly middle- and working-class neighborhood full of locals-only street food and food streets. (If in doubt about where to start in a Chengdu eating odyssey, just pull up Apple Maps, or Baidu maps if you can read them, and look for streets crowded with restaurants; chances are you’ll find a street devoted to food. From there, just walk the street, pick a crowded place, and dive in, pointing at others’ food if you need to.)
I also highly recommend starting your trip as we did, by doing an evening food tour with Jordan Porter’s Chengdu Food Tours. Jordan specializes in eating what the locals eat. He not only knows where all the good street food and fly restaurants are, he also knows the owners of these places and chats them up in Sichuan dialect. They clearly enjoy his amiable presence, and you will too. Plus you’ll get to try some of the city’s best street foods—from griddled, meat-stuffed, pastry guo kui to the meat-salad-stuffed, sandwich version of guo kui, and from “bedspread” hand-torn noodle soup and non-fried “eggrolls” to spicy, roasted rabbit heads—in a much more efficient and insightful way than trying to find them yourself.
One of many things Jordan—who’s a contributor to The Mala Project—and I agree on is that Sichuan food is not nearly as spicy hot as TV food personalities and Sichuan restaurants in the U.S. make it out to be. While Bourdain and Zimmern (both of whom I still love) hyperbolize the heat and create an expectation of blow-your-head-off spice in Western diners that Sichuan restaurateurs in America strive to provide, you can eat for weeks in restaurants of every stripe in Chengdu and encounter only the occasional explosively hot dish.
In fact, of ma and la, the defining tastes of Sichuan food, ma, the citrusy tingle of Sichuan pepper, is far more pronounced in the cuisine than la, the heat of chili peppers. This makes sense if you think about it, since Sichuan pepper is the native son, and the chili pepper is a foreign interloper, present in the cuisine for only three hundred years or so. (I’ll go into detail on my new insights into both Sichuan pepper and Sichuan chili peppers in future posts.)
That brings me back to Chongqing’s version of Chongqing chicken and how it’s different from that dish in the U.S.
- Despite being visually all about the chili peppers, Chongqing’s version is ruled taste-wise by Sichuan peppercorns, which are present in abundance. The dish is not particularly la, but it is definitely ma.
- Also in the mix in the particular version I had was bits of minced zha cai. What’s known in the West as “Sichuan preserved vegetable,” zha cai is a pickled mustard tuber that is native to Chongqing—and you find it everywhere there, including in noodles or as a condiment on the table at noodle spots. Preserved vegetables and pickles—including zha cai, yacai and quick-pickled paocai—are much more of a priority in Sichuan’s food than in Sichuan food in North America.
- The most surprising thing in the Chongqing version was crispy bits of chicken skin mixed in among the chicken nuggets. Clearly added separately and meant to be their own crispy treat, they are decadently delicious. This is just one example of how Sichuan eats every part of the animal. At the same restaurant where we had this Chongqing chicken, we ordered dou hua (creamy fresh tofu) topped with fei chang. Fong Chong wasn’t sure what fei chang meant, and neither was I. Unfortunately it meant pig intestines, which are beloved in Sichuan, but not so much by us. (Now that plates of crispy chicken skin are trendy in the U.S., I guess fewer Americans consider it offal.)
- In my previous recipe, I tried to impart flavor and crispness to the chicken by dusting it with a mix of cornstarch, chili powder and Sichuan pepper powder before deep-frying. Some U.S. restaurants even batter it before frying. I noticed in Chongqing that cooks there don’t do that, leaving the chicken naked and saving all the spice for the finishing stir-fry oil. But after testing that, I found that it’s difficult to brown and crisp the chicken without drying it out unless you use some starch.
- Two other things I noticed, I will not be doing. There, the dish features small bites of bone-in chicken with very little meat. That’s intentional, because Chinese relish contrasting textures and a challenge for the tongue. But for most of us in the West, that’s too much effort of both the butchering and eating kind for too little payoff. So no bones. Though small bites—not big chunks—is definitely the way to go.
- Finally, there’s more oil in this dish—and every dish—in Sichuan than in the versions made here. Many times it’s a necessary part of a dish…but many times it isn’t.
This last insight came from Hang, one of my first and most supportive and vocal blog readers, around since 2014. Hang is Chinese Australian but lived in the U.S. for the past few years. He really knows his Sichuan food, and when we discovered that we’d both be traveling with our families to Chengdu at the same time, we decided to meet up for dinner. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable meals of the trip, both for the food—a feast of dry pots, roast fish (kao yu), frog, snails and rabbit—and the company. Hang said he felt that all the oil in some dishes in Chengdu and Chongqing served to mask the other flavors, pooling on top of the dish and making it difficult to get to the sauce. I have to agree.
Though on the whole, of course, dining in Sichuan is a pleasure like no other. The cuisine is not simply blow-your-head-off hot. It’s so much more than that. Not just hot, numbing, sour, salty, nutty, sweet, umami, fresh, fragrant, multi-textured, whole-animal and locally sourced, but all of the above.
Now to the recipe!
- 1 pound dark-meat chicken, cut into 1-inch dice (no larger!)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Skin from 3 chicken thighs (or equivalent amount from other part of chicken), cut in 1-inch squares
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorn (double that if your peppercorns are not fresh and potent)
- 2 tablespoons minced scallion
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 4 to 5 tablespoons chopped zha cai (pickled mustard tuber)
- ¼ teaspoon MSG or chicken powder (as in China, but optional)
- 1 jalapeno or other fresh green chili, cut in ½-inch pieces
- Handful or two of Sichuan dried chili peppers, left whole for visual effect
- 2 to 3 tablespoons chili oil with flakes (preferably homemade)
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Marinate chicken pieces in Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt while you prepare the other ingredients. Lightly salt the chicken skin.
- Heat wok on high heat until wisps of heat start to rise and add enough canola or peanut oil to deep-fry the chicken, about 1½ cups. When oil is hot, around 350°, add chicken skin pieces and fry until they are just starting to turn golden. Remove and drain on a paper towel.
- Mix cornstarch and cayenne chili powder in a large sealable baggie. Add the chicken pieces, leaving any accumulated juices behind. Shake the chicken pieces in the cornstarch mixture until they are lightly coated.
- Return the wok oil to about 350° to 375° and fry the chicken pieces until they are crispy and golden brown, then remove to drain on paper towels. Fry chicken in two batches so you do not overcrowd it.
- Pour off oil to a bowl, clean the wok and return to heat. When hot, add back 3 tablespoons of the frying oil. Heat briefly on medium heat, then add the Sichuan peppercorn, scallion, garlic and ginger and cook until softened. Stir-fry vigorously from now on, as you don't want anything to brown; lower heat if you need to. Add the zha cai, MSG (if using), green chili and dried chilies and cook until the chilies are softened and just starting to turn color.
- Add back the chicken and chicken skin, stir-fry to combine, and add the chili oil with flakes—about half oil, half flakes, adding more oil if the dish is too dry. Turn off heat, stir in sesame oil, and remove to a serving platter.