Chongqing Chicken Like It’s Made in Chongqing


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Chongqing chicken (laziji)

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. 

Chongqing chicken from a Chongqing restaurant
Chongqing chicken in Chongqing, the inspiration for this 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.

Fongchong eats jiangdou zajiangmian
Chief Taster and Translator Fongchong digs into some jiangdou zajiangmian (noodles with pork and pickled green beans) in Chengdu

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.

Chengdu rabbit heads
Jordan Porter schools Fongchong and her cousin Will on how to eat rabbit heads. (Top tip: The brain is the best part!)

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.

Qing Mei Mei Gan Guo Guo
Dining in Chengdu with Hang, whom we met through this blog, at a fantastic dry pot restaurant he found: Qing Mei Mei Gan Guo Guo on Xian Middle Road. I highly recommend it if you get to Chengdu.
Qing Mei Mei feast
Our feast at Qing Mei Mei: (clockwise from bottom) kaoyu (roast fish), numbing rabbit, frog with green peppers, cabbage and bacon dry pot, and shrimp and rib dry pot (the giant snails showed up later)

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.
Sichuan market pickles
Pickles and preserved vegetables at a Sichuan wet market
  • 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!

Ingredients for making laziji
Ingredients for Chongqing chicken, including denglongjiao lantern chilies and the Chongqing zhacai pickle we sell at The Mala Market. Missing is the heaping helping of Sichuan peppercorns that are the primary taste and sensation of this dish
Chicken and chicken skin for laziji
A chicken and its skin, both cut in small pieces
Chongqing chicken in a wok
So many yummy caramelized bits in the wok. While I cut back on the chilies compared to the restaurant version, fat lantern chilies still make a statement
Chongqing chicken with lantern chilies
Chongqing chicken like it’s made in Chongqing: more numbing than hot; punctuated with pickle, garlic and crispy chicken skin

This recipe was updated and revised in April 2023. 

Chongqing Chicken Like It’s Made in Chongqing

By: Taylor Holliday | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking


  • 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?

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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  1. Really glad I got to meet you on your trip and that meal really was fantastic! Excited to see more recipes inspired by your trip.

    1. Thanks, Hang! Great pleasure to meet you too. I’ll work on some of the dishes from that meal too, and might need your taste memories to help me.

  2. Fabulous blog. I just discovered you & subscribed yesterday. I like your revised la zi ji recipe, having only a few days ago cooked the Fuschia Dunlop version for umpteenth time. Must try it with the chicken skin. Agree that the dish is dominated by the pepper – I dry roast for a few minutes first. It is not a particularly spicy dish. Sometimes I soak the dried peppers first, sometimes just throw them in. Usually snip in half and remove seeds from some and leave other seeds “in the mix”. Haven’t tried it with fresh pepper but often drizzle some (homemade from dried heaven-facing) chilli oil over the finished dish.

    Looking forward to your next update

    1. Appreciate the feedback, Nathan! I agree that the dish is not, and shouldn’t be, too hot if you are using Sichuan dried chilies (vs., say, Thai). I like the look of whole chilies, especially when I have fat, round ones, but snipping them in half would definitely add a bit of chili heat. Like you, I get heat from the chili oil. This dish lends itself to variations. I once had it in Sichuan with small diced potato, golden fried, and that was divine as well.

  3. Always a joy reading your blog posts. The only food blog I actually subscribe to. Lovely memories of visiting Chengdu! Since you’ve visited a few times now, have you thought about writing a restaurant round-up?

    1. Thanks so much, Jim! A writer loves to hear the word “joy” attached to her writing.

      Funny that you should mention the restaurant guide. I have a grand plan for doing a crowd-sourced global guide to Sichuan restaurants, but so far all the designers I have employed to build the template have failed. Some day…!

    1. Hi Robert. You’re not the first to request that (my mother-in-law has too), but it’s kind of hard to do with Chinese food. Since it’s usually meant to be served family style and in combination with other dishes, the number of servings really varies. But in general, I would say a dish based on 1 pound of meat should feed four people with another dish or two. Hope that helps!

  4. You’re missing doubanjiang 🙂 My last attempt at making this dish included long green peppers and about 1 heaping tbsp doubanjiang. As you know, doubanjiang is a magic ingredient and was the “x” factor (along with the red oil) that brought my latest attempt at the dish to new heights. But I’m also guessing that the zha cai would pick up the slack and could be a good substitute.

    Not trying to take away from your version at all — it looks amazing.

    1. Hi Steve. I don’t think I’ve ever had a version of la zi ji with doubanjiang in it, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Could also use less chili oil that way. Will try it next time!

  5. I really enjoyed reading your food adventure in Chongqing. The dishes look so mouth watering. Makes me hungry!

  6. I made this the other day and it was delicious. Preparing the chicken skin isn’t as much extra work as I initially thought it would be. Two observations: [1] It’s critical to do a thorough mise en place of all the ingredients in step 5. If you have to stop the stir-frying to open a container or measure something, you risk burning the spices. [2] Fresh dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorn make all the difference in dishes such as this one. The aroma of the dish filled the whole house. It was glorious!

    1. Hi Paul,
      Thanks for your feedback on this one. And Yes! to both of your points. I’m glad you’ve mentioned having everything measured and fully ready, as the chili peppers should stay nice and red vs. browned by the wok while you’re scrambling with the next ingredients. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  7. I made this recipe tonight. I didn’t have zhacai so i subbed sumiyacai (possibly not a great sub but the best i could do). I didn’t have msg so left it out and my chili oil was from a few weeks ago (still smelled and tasted fine) but i had strained it so i threw in a tbs of korean chili flakes.
    The family agreed that they liked the flavors and the heat balance. they were not keen on encountering sichuan peppercorns (not a favorite experience for me, either but i knew they were there but i couldn’t see them). Would it be acceptable to grind the sichuan peppercorns and add that near the end of the trinity softening?

    The other comment from family is that they missed sauce (we have only had chinese dishes from restaurants until my fairly recent explorations). This is tasty but a bit dry by their expectations. Would you serve this with rice or with a noodle that may hold more liquid? Would it be heresy to create a sauce near the end to placate the existing palates? Thanks for the inspirational site and the access to ingredients that are not so easy to find.

    1. Hi Carlos,

      These are great observations and questions.

      I think yacai would be good in this too, giving it that little extra salty umami just as zha cai does.

      I totally understand about encountering whole Sichuan peppercorns that you didn’t see lurking in the dish. I think it is always perfectly acceptable to replace the whole peppercorns with ground Sichuan pepper. That way you get the flavor without the shock of biting down on one. I would add the powder near the end of the cooking process. Alternatively, you could infuse the oil by cooking the peppercorns first, then fish them out and continue with the chili peppers and other ingredients.

      As you mention, this dish does not have a sauce to speak of and is meant to be pretty dry. You could use more chili oil—though it could start to get quite spicy. Perhaps you could experiment with adding doubanjiang, as a previous commenter does, along with a bit of stock or water, to make a small amount of sauce. But I think I would serve it accompanied by a dish that does have more sauce rather than adding much sauce to this dish.

      Thanks for both reading and shopping with us! I’m glad to hear you are introducing your family to these flavors and learning to make the dishes your own.

      1. Thanks for the swift reply, Taylor. So, it sounds as if one could make sichuan pepper oil in a manner similar to making chili oil or am I reaching too far from your commment: “Alternatively, you could infuse the oil by cooking the peppercorns first, then fish them out and continue with the chili peppers and other ingredients.”. I haven’t tasted prepared sichuan pepper oil so I don’t know how strong it is.

        If i grind the pepper, you suggest adding it later in the recipe. Do you mean close to completion or at the end of softening the garlic/ginger/scallion medley?

        I’ll follow your advice and forget about making this somewhat saucy. As I get faster at these preparations I will be able to knock out more than one dish +rice or noodles for a meal.

        One more thing: eating the few leftovers at lunch today, i found that jalapeno wheels (I cut the green chile in the recipe into 1/4″ thick rounds instead of 1/2″ thick pieces as suggested in recipe) served to collect many of the sichuan peppercorns in the voids between the flesh and the inner membrane. That was an “exciting” bite of chile. much yacai was trapped there, too.

        Once again, thanks for your site and timely answers to questions. My next victim: Qing Hua Jiao Yu. I made the yu xiang pork recipe a week ago or so and it was a home run- unlikely i will ever order pork in “garlic sauce” at a restaurant again.

        kind regards, Chuck

        1. Hi Chuck,
          I wasn’t so quick this time. Sorry for the delay! You can indeed make your own Sichuan pepper oil this way, if you have nice, fresh, dried peppercorns. Bottled Sichuan pepper oil is made by infusing fresh (undried) peppercorns in hot oil and has a different taste. Ground Sichuan pepper is usually added at the end of cooking or as a finishing spice (as in mapo doufu) for stronger taste. Though in my other Chongqing chicken recipe, I also mix it into the cornstarch that the chicken is dusted in. I hope you’ll experiment and report back. (And maybe brew some in your beer! They do in China. 🙂 )

  8. Made this for my family last night. We lived as expats in Tianjin for 5 years–returned to the US this past December. Naturally we came to love REAL Chinese food (you know…not to be confused with what you can get at the Golden Dragon Buffet on every corner here in the US). We were all so happy with how this turned out…and I’m really impressed with what you’re doing here…and happy I found this site. Will definitely work our way through more of your recipes…and will have questions about other things that we have found difficult to find here.
    For instance…one thing we loved over there was 干锅千叶豆腐, Gan Guo Qian Ye Dou Fu. Not too complicated to make…just that we can’t seem to find the specific form & texture of tofu used in that and similar dishes. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks very much for writing. I love to hear from people who have lived in China and miss the food. It’s hard to replace it here, I know.

      I’m sorry I don’t know that specific dry pot. What IS the texture of the doufu? Is it doufu gan (dry, pressed doufu)? Or doufu skin? Both are widely available in the U.S. in Chinese markets. Or is it some other version? From photos of it online, I can’t really tell what form is used. But I’d love to try it myself!

      1. I think it’s more like a dry pressed form…but the texture is unique…not like what I see in ordinary supermarkets here in the US. Maybe a bit more “springy”…I’d say “rubbery”, but it’s not that in a negative way.
        I’ll ask a friend to help me get more details.