Chengdu Challenge #17: Chongqing Chicken With Chilies (La Zi Ji)

Chongqing Chicken With Chilies
Hot Chicken~~

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.

chicken with chilies

Would you like some chicken with your chilies?

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.

chicken with chilies

Nashville “hot chicken” is a distant cousin to Chongqing chicken

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.

chicken with chilies

Bring on the mala: three kinds of Sichuan pepper and two kinds of chili pepper

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.

chicken with chilies

The more chilies, the more enticing

Updated September 2016.

Chengdu Challenge #17: Chongqing Chicken With Chilies (La Zi Ji)
Author: 
 
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  1. Marinate chicken pieces in Shaoxing wine and soy sauce while you prepare the other ingredients.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Add back the chicken along with the scallion greens, and stir-fry until well mixed. Plate with chili peppers prominently displayed.

 

You may also like...

46 Responses

  1. sub says:

    Hi Taylor,

    Personally I don’t understand why they use that scary amount of chillies, No I’m not afraid of heat, it’s just a waste to throw them away !

    for flavouring the chicken I marinate it with few spoons of fragrant chilli oil, that’s my little secret ^^

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      True. I couldn’t bring myself to use as many chilies as restaurants sometimes do. But the more you use, the better it looks!

  2. Klaus says:

    Could you contact me, I have some comments…and questions …too lengthy to post here…

    Klaus

  3. Xianhang Zhang says:

    Probably my favorite iteration of this was a dish I had in China which consisted exclusively of the joint between the drumette and the flat of a chicken wing. I’m a huge lover of cartilage and that dish really hit the spot.

    This dish is often served with rabbit in China although I tend to prefer the chicken version as the joints in the rabbit are still tough with such a short cooking time.

    Mission Chinese serves a version of this with just chicken wings and it’s killer, I make sure to get some every time I go.

    Serious Eats has their interpretation of the Mission Chinese version here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2015/01/the-food-lab-crispy-oven-fried-chicken-wings-xian-superbowl-buffalo-snack.html

    Also, recipe for the Mission Chinese version here: http://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/make-danny-bowiens-chonqing-chicken-wings-sundays-niners-game

    All in all, fantastic dish!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Those are very nontraditional versions—as Danny Bowien’s stuff always is—but they sound great. Also, the benefit of using wings is that you get to keep the skin (vs. the chicken chunks version where it doesn’t stay attached). I’ll have to try the Serious Eats baked version. Thanks for sharing.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Xianhang,
      Have you tried the Serious Eats recipe? I tried it last night and it was delicious. It’s not very Sichuan—and in fact it is called Xian style—but we loved it. Wondering if you found it very numbing? Perhaps because I used Sichuan pepper I got in Sichuan it was fresher and therefore very ‘ma.’ My husband said his tongue was still numb this morning. But my daughter loved them!

  4. Lynette says:

    Hi, I love Sichuan food too and found your site to be very informative. Thanks for the great work! Another website I came across about Sichuan food is this: http://www.chinasichuanfood.com/
    Hope it can help you cook even more different varieties of Sichuan food 🙂

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Lynette! I do know this blog. It’s by a woman in China who writes about the Sichuan and other Chinese food she grew up on. Great stuff!

  5. Charlie says:

    A local Sichuan restaurant makes a very tasty version of this dish. The owner said that they include the ingredient “prickly ash bark” as well as Sichuan peppercorns. I can’t find much on the internet about it…it seems to be primarily marketed as a natural remedy. It’s always interesting to compare the many versions of these classic dishes!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Interesting. I’ve never heard of or seen prickly ash bark. I have a feeling that restaurateurs know a lot of secrets that we don’t. 🙂 Thanks for writing!

      • Bill Zigrang says:

        Taylor, I think this reply got lost in the ether, but from one “big-nose” to another, prickly ash pepper (same tree as the bark) is sold in Japanese markets as “Sansho.”

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Right. I am pretty sure it is a different species, as there are numerous species in Sichuan alone. Does it taste the same? Is it usually fresh and numbing when sold in the U.S.? I assume it suffers from the same fate as most Chinese supermarket Sichuan pepper here.

  6. Steve says:

    What should the oil temperature be for the initial “medium heat” deep-fry? 300 degrees F? Lower than that?

    Thanks! Looks like a great recipe packed with flavor. So far the Dunlop La Zi Ji recipe has let me down 🙁

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Steve,

      I have to admit I rarely use a thermometer and just eyeball a medium bubble. But as in most twice-fried things, the first fry should be around 325°F. The second fry should be around 375° to 400°, producing a quick, vigorous bubble. Hope that helps! You can also use cayenne pepper for more serious heat. Thanks for writing!

  7. Steve says:

    Wonderful! Thanks so much for the clarification. Now to find those elusive “facing heaven” chilies…

  8. Steve says:

    A couple more questions (I think I’m going to try it this weekend!)
    -it’s kinda hard to measure out a tbsp of sliced ginger accurately, so could I just use an amount equal to the garlic (both weighed on a scale?). Or is there a specific garlic/ginger ratio?
    -By “thinly sliced” ginger, do you mean sliced into coins, or into thin strips?

    Thank you so much!
    -does it matter if the chili flakes are Chinese/Korean, or can they be regular ones from a supermarket? I’d prefer not to drive 30 mins to the Chinese grocery if I can 🙂

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Steve,
      This is a pretty rustic dish, so the measurements and ratios of ginger and garlic are not meant to be precise. Just use a lot! You often see the dish with slices (coins) of ginger and garlic, but feel free to change to slivers. The one thing I would not change is the chili flakes. Asian flakes are very different from grocery store/Italian-style flakes. Sorry to make you drive!

  9. Steve says:

    Thanks again! Very helpful tip about the chili flakes. I’ll order some…

  10. Maggie says:

    One of my favorites but I seldom cook it at home because of deep frying is required. You posted a really great question. Although I saw this this dish in almost every Sichuan restaurants, you don’t the the recipe so often in cookbooks. Sometimes I come across the ones that stir fry the chicken instead of frying. Your version looks really great!
    By the way, where did you get these Sichuan chili peppers? I can’t find very good chili pepper in most Asian markets here. They are spicy but do not have a vibrant color like real real Sichuan chili pepper.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks so much, Maggie! I have to admit that I brought those chilies back from Chengdu. However, I occasionally see these fat “facing heaven” chilies from Sichuan in Chinese stores in the U.S.

      • Maggie says:

        I need to check out more Asian markets and bring some from China next time.
        If you start a chili pepper online shop on your blog, it will become very popular for sure!

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Ha! I’ve actually thought about it, because there are so many great chilies–and chili flakes–in Chengdu that we don’t get here. But importing them is so difficult.

  11. Cody says:

    I just got back from a trip to Hong Kong/ China. Our first night there we went to one of the late night street markets Hong Kong is famous for, we were tired and jet legged and most of all hungry… We stopped into this slammed little joint called temple street spicy crab…. I wasn’t in the mood for crab so the ” fried chicken” looked good…. Low and behold it was the best effing chicken I’ve ever had!

    For the rest of the trip I talked about it. I even tried to go back while stopping back through Hong Kong but it was closed 🙁 anywho I’ve been trying to find a recipe and the search has led me high and low. I think I’ve finally found something that might compare!! Really excited to try this one out!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Cody,
      Thanks for your interesting message. I’ve had typhoon shelter crab in Hong Kong, which I assume is what they were serving. Was it covered under a mound of fried garlic? I’ve never thought about that treatment for chicken, but it is pretty similar to Chongqing chicken now that I think about it. Both are fried and then wokked with chilies and garlic. The difference, I think, would be that fried garlic, but that might be a good variation on this. Let me know how it goes!

  12. Christopher says:

    Thank you for a great website! I am really enjoying reading your story and recipes! I’m a pretty basic cook, but maybe I will try some of these recipes!

    Last fall I was in Beijing for the first time. I went out for lunch one day and had my favorite: Sichuan-style Chicken. It was my first real experience with mala. My mouth was numb for an hour, haha! Now thanks to you, I understand why! Keep up the good work!

  13. As an expat in China of several years, I’ll have to say your recipes are incredibly authentic. Love your background in finding the cuisine and your adoptive background as well. So sweet and definitely resonates with my beliefs! I’ll definitely be linking back to your blog with my Chinese-inspired recipes. Cheers!

  14. Stacy says:

    You nailed it! This was fantastic.

  15. Dave says:

    I found it interesting that a variant you once had in Chengdu contained bits of fried potato. I ordered this dish at “Q” in Boston, which is a restaurant more known for hot pot than authentic Sichuan cuisine. It was delicious and very close to recipes for Chongqing chicken I had seen before, but there were a handful of french fries in it. I was really confused and thought they added it as filler, but after reading this it seems the chef knew what he was doing!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Interesting. The one I had was more like little diced home fries, but I wouldn’t be sad to find french fries in my la zi ji. 🙂

  16. Frank Rodriguez says:

    Taylor, I have been making Chongqing Spicy Chicken over the last 12 years since my first trip to Shanghai. I had it once and was hooked and have sought out the best every time I return to China. Question I am making this tonight for a larger group of people 10. So the frying will be very time consuming and I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen and not socializing. What are your thoughts on pre frying the chicken and how I might keep it crispy until it’s ready to go back in the wok for the final stir fry with the peppers, garlic and Ginger

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Sorry not to reply sooner, Frank. But I’m not sure I could have helped anyway, since I’ve never tried to pre-fry the chicken. Since this is not a heavily breaded chicken, I’m assuming it could wait around awhile. I would love to hear your feedback if you tried it though. Thanks!

  17. Frank Rodriguez says:

    Taylor worked out fine. Instead of drawing on Paper towels. I drained them on a cooling rack over a baking pan. Then popped them in a 120F oven until I was ready to add them to the wok. Had everything pre sliced and diced before the guests arrived so I could socialize for about an hour then as you know once we were ready to eat. It all was finish off in the wok in 5 minutes. I also do a variation of the chongqing chicken that I also add fresh baby corn cut in bite size angular cuts, and snow peas cut angularly , and peanuts . It adds a bit of veggies that I find kind of a nice additional crunch to the mix. It must have all been good because I made 4 pounds of cut up chicken thigh meat and there wasn’t a bit left some had two and three helpings thanks for the reply.

  18. David says:

    Hi, everytime I have ordered this in China and abroad it comes with peanuts. I am guessing you would just toss them in with the spring onions at the end?

  19. JazzBruce says:

    Taylor, each of the 15 or so recipes of yours that I have read so far (from top to bottom) has presented every aspect [historical background, dish names, your variants, ingredients, and processes] so perfectly excellent that from now on my Sichuan folder will only contain your Mala items. Really !!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks so much, Bruce! Some days you just need to hear feedback like that. I hope they cook for you as well as they read. 🙂

  20. Karl says:

    While we have a few authentic Chinese restaurants back stateside, none I’ve visited thus far in MN have this on the menu. I made this dish the other night and was instantly hit with wonderful waves of oh so tasty nostalgia — will be making again this week, no doubt! Thank you!!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Love to hear that, Karl. My goal is to transport you back to China. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to let me know it worked!

  1. March 8, 2017

    […] Mala Chicken recipe I’m introducing today is adapted from Chongqing Chicken With Chilies (La Zi Ji) by The Mala Project, a food blog that shares authentic Sichuan […]