Chengdu Challenge #17: Chongqing Chicken With Chilies (La Zi Ji)
Below is a photo of the very first plate of Chongqing chicken—sometimes called la zi ji, or just chicken with chilies—I ever had. It was in Chengdu in 2007, in a famous, upscale restaurant. When the server put it down on the table, my husband and I broke into nervous laughter as we saw chunks of fried chicken sitting under an avalanche of dried chili peppers. If we were sweating now, we thought, wait until we try to polish this dish off so as not to embarrass ourselves as wimpy Americans.
But like many dishes in Sichuan, this one’s looks were deceiving. Though this Chongqing chicken was glammed up with chili peppers in a ratio of about 10 whole chilies to one small chunk of chicken, the dish was not explosively hot but merely nicely spiced, like a gorgeous, intimidating woman who turns out to be your loveable new best friend.
Following the Chinese imperative that food look good and smell good before it taste good, the ruby, fat, “facing-heaven” chilies glistened and their lightly scorched aroma blended with that of abundant Sichuan pepper to entice and delight us before we ever sank our teeth into the chicken.
The only bummer to the dish as it’s served in China is that you can’t really sink your teeth into the chicken because it is almost always more bone than chicken. Traditionally, Chongqing cooks whack up a whole, quite small chicken, bones and all. The Chinese like this, because they like to gnaw on a bone to get to the meat. But I’m American, so I prefer a nice chunk of bone-free chicken meat. At least we were smart enough to realize that you don’t actually eat the peppercorns or chilies (well, maybe just a few), but instead pick out the chicken bits, which are coated with just the right amount of mala hot-and-numbing oil.
Since that encounter, I’ve ordered Chongqing chicken many times in Chengdu—though never in Chongqing, the autonomous megalapolis where it originated and which used to be part of Sichuan Province. Not many versions have strayed from the traditional—though I once had one that incorporated fried, small-diced potato. Yum.
I wanted to test the various versions in my Sichuan cookbook collection, but strangely, none of them have a recipe for la zi ji. It’s said to have been created in the 1920s, but didn’t really blow up until the 1990s, so perhaps that explains why the two books published in the 1970s don’t have it. But I can’t hazard a guess as to why the definitive Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English doesn’t have it. In any case, I’ve been trying to perfect this recipe myself on and off for years, so that is what you’re going to get here.
Funny enough, Sichuan hot chicken reminds me of the most famous dish indigenous to my city—Nashville hot chicken. Nashville’s version is fried chicken that packs a real punch if you order the “hot,” and a total knock-out if you order the “extra hot.” The original purveyor of hot chicken zealously guards its recipe, but folks have figured out that it is probably marinated in a chili pepper brine, fried in a chili batter and, after it comes out of the fryer, brushed with chili-laden lard. Yes, it’s hot. And it’s soooo good.
I have to give a nod here to my friend Dub, who wanted to open a hot-chicken truck in Nashville but secretly prepare the chicken Sichuan mala style, with the addition of Sichuan pepper to the chili pepper—”People won’t know what hit ’em.”
Like hot chicken, Chongqing chicken is given a spicy hot oil bath after frying. It is not generally battered like American fried chicken, but to further dial up the flavor I decided to add a light mala coating for the deep-fry, incorporating a fair amount of chili powder and ground Sichuan pepper into the potato starch dusting I give the chicken chunks in order to help them brown and crisp up nicely without adding an actual Americanized batter coating.
I leave the dried chili peppers whole, emulating that first-ever version I had, because they are so beautiful that way. Use large, fat Sichuan chilies if you can find them, or other medium-hot chilies. Leaving them whole is another reason the dish needs the extra heat from the mala coating. (To learn all about Sichuan pepper and how to make ground, roasted Sichuan pepper powder, go here.)
The chicken bits are fried twice, as they do in Sichuan, and should end up both crispy and tender. I then use chili flakes, red Sichuan peppercorns and, sometimes, fresh-pine-scented green Sichuan pepper in the finishing stir-fry oil.
The end result is crispy, hot, numbing, garlicky, gingery, oniony fried goodness. Finger-licking good, for sure, if you want to forgo your chopsticks. Move over, KFC and Korean fried chicken, Chongqing chicken is destined for American glory.
Updated September 2016.
- 1 pound (450 grams) skinless dark-meat chicken, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons potato starch or corn starch
- 1 tablespoon cayenne chili powder
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- 1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
- 1½ cups peanut or canola oil
- 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced ginger
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan chili flakes
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- At least 3 cups/3 ounces whole dried red Sichuan chilies (snip some in half and include seeds for a spicier version)
- 2 teaspoons red Sichuan peppercorns (or 1 teaspoon red and 1 teaspoon green Sichuan pepper)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 4 scallions, roughly chopped, whites and greens separated
- Marinate chicken pieces in Shaoxing wine and soy sauce while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Mix corn starch, cayenne chili powder, ground Sichuan pepper and salt in a large sealable baggie. Add the chicken pieces, leaving any accumulated juices behind. Shake the chicken pieces in the potato starch mixture until they are lightly coated.
- Heat wok on high heat until wisps of smoke start to rise and add enough canola or vegetable oil to deep-fry the chicken, about 1½ cups. If your wok or pan is large enough, you can fry it in one batch, but do not overcrowd the chicken. When oil is hot, add the chicken pieces and reduce heat to medium; the frying process should produce a medium bubble, frying at around 350°. When the chicken pieces appear to be cooked through, remove them from the oil to rest on paper towels. Return the oil to a high heat and add back the chicken in two batches, so they are not at all crowded. This time they should finish frying at a high heat, about 375°F, with a large, fast bubble. Fry just until the chicken is crispy and golden brown, then remove to drain on paper towels.
- Pour off oil to a bowl, clean the wok and return to heat. When hot, add back 4 tablespoons of the frying oil. Heat briefly on medium heat, then add the garlic and ginger and cook until softened. Stir-fry vigorously from now on, as you don't want anything to brown. Add the chili flakes and sesame seeds, stirring until lightly toasted, then add the whole chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and scallion whites. Stir until fragrant, then add the sugar.
- Add back the chicken along with the scallion greens, and stir-fry until well mixed. Plate with chili peppers prominently displayed.