Chongqing Chicken Like It’s Made in Chongqing
Published Jul 18, 2017, Updated Oct 30, 2023
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 laziji (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.) Scroll down about half the page if you don’t want to read about eating in Chongqing and Chengdu and would rather get right to the recipe.
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, Fongchong), 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.
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 guokui to the meat-salad-stuffed, sandwich version of guokui, 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 Market blog—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.
Another big treat of this trip was meeting up with Hang, one of our 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 (kaoyu), frog, snails and rabbit—and the company.
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.
How Chongqing chicken in Chongqing is different than in the U.S.
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. In Sichuan nowadays, chefs are more likely to use green Sichuan pepper than red in this dish, but either will get the job done. Use any Sichuan chili you like as well, but I find using large lantern chilies means you get the wow effect without needing as many chilies.
- Also in the mix in the particular version I had was bits of minced zhacai. What’s known in the West as “Sichuan preserved vegetable,” zhacai 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 zhacai, yacai and quick-pickled paocai—are much more of a priority in Sichuan’s food than in Sichuan food in North America.
- 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. The most surprising thing in the Chongqing version was crispy bits of chicken skin mixed in among the chicken nuggets. Clearly added intentionally as part of a whole chicken and meant to be their own crispy treat, they are decadently delicious.
- 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 (and in all my Sichuan-published cookbooks) 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. However, if you use a heavy wet batter, it’s definitely a Western take on the dish.
- Finally, there’s more oil in this dish—and every dish—in Sichuan than in the versions made here. Sometimes the abundance doesn’t really seem necessary, but in this case the fried chicken bits need the chili oil bath. The excess of both chilies and oil make this a special occasion splurge dish!
Now to the recipe!
This recipe was updated and revised in April 2023.
Chongqing Chicken Like It’s Made in Chongqing
- 2 dozen or so Sichuan dried chilies (preferably moderately hot lantern chilies or zidantou chilies)
- 1 pound dark-meat chicken, cut into 1-inch dice (no larger!)
- skin from 3 chicken thighs (or equivalent amount from other part of chicken), cut in 1-inch squares
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup neutral cooking oil (or enough to deep-fry)
- ½ cup caiziyou (Sichuan roasted rapeseed oil)
- 1 to 1½ tablespoons red or green Sichuan peppercorn (double that if your peppercorns are not fresh and potent)
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan ground chilies
- 4 to 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons minced ginger
- 4 to 5 tablespoons (an 80 gram package) zhacai (pickled mustard tuber), roughly chopped
- 1 jalapeno or other fresh green chili, cut in ¼-inch pieces
- 3 scallions, cut in 1-inch lengths
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon MSG or chicken powder (optional)
- Prep dried chilies by cutting them in half and letting some seeds fall away. Keep some seeds for heat and fragrance. Keep some chilies whole for looks if you like.
- Marinate chicken cubes and skin in Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and ½ teaspoon salt at least 15 minutes. Put cornstarch in a plastic baggie and add chicken and skin, shaking off excess liquid beforehand. Toss chicken in the starch until lightly coated.
- Heat wok on high heat until wisps of heat start to rise and add enough canola, peanut or other neutral oil to deep-fry the chicken, about 1½ cups. When oil is hot, around 375°, add chicken and fry until just golden. Remove and drain on paper towels. Fry chicken in two batches if you need to so you don't overcrowd it.
- Pour out oil, clean wok and return to low heat. Add caiziyou and Sichuan peppercorns and heat slowly until fragrant. Add Sichuan ground chilies, stirring to make a chili oil. Add garlic, ginger, zhacai, scallion whites and jalapeno and stir-fry until well mixed and fragrant. Add dried chilies and fried chicken to the wok and stir-fry, coating chicken in the oil. Add scallion greens, sugar, salt and MSG. Stir well and remove from heat.
Tried this recipe?