Sichuan Stir-Fried Chicken With Yacai (Jīmǐ Yácài, 鸡米芽菜)

0

Print
Jump to Recipe – proceed at owN risk
Sichuan stir-fried chicken with yacai

Another Brilliant Use for Yacai

When I saw a bag of yacai (芽菜) lingering in my fridge recently—likely leftover from my last dandanmian or ranmian craving—I thought about making an under-appreciated Sichuan dish: jīmǐ yácài (鸡米芽菜, rice-sized chicken with yacai). This speedy stir-fry dish (sometimes known as yácài suìmǐjī) delivers a plate of savory and slightly spicy flavors in just 20 minutes.

Yacai is a traditional preserved vegetable made of mustard stems and leaves. It comes from the southern city of Yibin (宜宾) but is beloved throughout Sichuan. Cooks use it in various noodle toppings and pastry fillings, such as ranmian (burning noodles from Yibin) and ye’er ba (a leaf-wrapped sticky rice cake). In this particular dish, these fermented mustard leaves are used to season chopped chicken with a nice salty flavor while also adding umami and a contrasting, lightly crunchy texture.

When I was growing up in Sichuan, I had this dish both at home and in restaurants, served with rice or wowotou (steamed cornmeal bread). However, as this was not a staple dish in our family, I don’t have strong memories of it. When I decided to make it for myself, I texted both my grandmas to ask if they’ve made this dish, and my paternal grandma, nainɑi (who is originally from Nanchong and now lives in the town of Cangxi), sent me instructions for making it. When I lived in China, I was rarely allowed in the kitchen, so I only started cooking once I moved to Germany to study at 21. I learned from a blend of memory, online resources and cookbooks, and I sometimes seek help from my family (though my grandmothers are notoriously bad at writing measurements). 

The preparation my nainai shared with me for jimi yacai is straightforward and simple: chop and marinate the chicken, then fry it with yacai and chili peppers. (She also told me that she likes to fry chicken with dongcai, a preserved vegetable from Nanchong. These two pickles, along with zhacai from Fuling and pickled mustard stems from Neijiang, are Sichuan’s four most famous preserved vegetables.) 

After I made her recipe, I tried looking into the history of this dish, but couldn’t find any references to it when flipping through cookbooks. I did, however, come across a few variations of other jimi dishes: One variation, from a 1985 book Encyclopedia of Sichuan Cooking (川菜烹饪事典), was made with peanuts, and two others, from the 1994 book The Comprehensive Guide of Chinese Sichuan Cuisine (中国川菜大观), were made with carrots and peas. Based on these dishes, I believe that jimi yacai is one of a variety of ways home cooks in the area came up with to flavor chicken—one of the many ways Sichuan home cooks skillfully transform pantry pickles into quick, affordable but flavor-packed meals.

Use a combination of red and green chilies for a mix of flavors and colors

Choosing Chilies for Stir-Fried Chicken With Yacai

Sichuan-grown chili peppers are traditionally used for this dish—usually a mix of red xiaomila chili and green erjingtiao to add different heats and textures. Some cooks use bell pepper instead. In my version, I used a combination of fresh long green Turkish pepper (sivri biber) and Spanish peppers, which are mildly spicy. You can choose any fresh chili peppers you prefer, such as Mexican, Chinese or Thai, depending on your desired level of spiciness.

Preparing the Yacai

Yacai is a popular ingredient in Sichuan cuisine, and in China it can be found whole (the stems pickled but still intact) in farmers’ markets. Outside of China, you’re more likely to find suimiyacai, the pre-chopped version of the dish. Yacai can be quite salty straight from the package, so it’s best to remove the excess salt in the brine before using the ingredient in your recipe. You can either rinse it under running water for 30 seconds, using a fine sieve, or soak it in cold water for about 5 minutes. Either way, make sure to drain the pickles and squeeze out all the water. You can also toast the yacai to dry it out and release its aroma, but this step is optional and you can skip it if you’re in a rush.

Learn More

Check out our Pantry How-To section to learn more about how Yibin yacai is made and find numerous Sichuan recipes using it. You’ll also find info on Sichuan’s other world-famous pickle, zhacai, which is often confused with yacai but is quite different in texture and taste.

Preparing and Cooking the Chicken with Yacai

This dish is typically made with chicken breast, but if you’re not a fan, skinless boneless chicken thighs are a good alternative. The most labor-intensive part of this dish is the process of cutting the chicken. First, cut the meat into thin slices, then cut those into strips and then, finally, cut the strips into small pieces. As the name suggests, the pieces should ideally be pea-sized, but it’s not necessary for each piece to be perfectly consistent. 

The process of marinating chicken in starch and seasoning, known as “velveting,” is a common practice in Chinese stir-fries. Adding starch makes the meat more tender and gives it a smoother texture once it’s cooked. To remove unpleasant “meaty odors” from the chicken (known as quxing in Chinese) and add a nicer aroma, I’ve added Shaoxing wine and ground white pepper. Finally, I include a splash of dark soy sauce for color. Once these ingredients are mixed, I add a light layer of oil to seal the marinade and make it easy to stir-fry the meat.

This recipe uses the “hot pan and cold oil” method, known as reguo lengyou (热锅冷油), to fry the chicken. To do this, preheat the wok until it is lightly smoking, then add oil, swirl to coat the wok and immediately add your chicken while the oil is just warm (under 195ºF/90ºC). This technique is often used to stir-fry meat pieces quickly so that they don’t stick.

For more homestyle Sichuan dishes, check out our Cured Pork Belly Stir-Fry, One-Pot Weeknight Suancaiyu, and Hand-Torn Cabbage Stir-Fry.

Sichuan Stir-Fried Chicken With Yacai (Jīmǐ Yácài, 鸡米芽菜)

By: Xueci Cheng

Ingredients 

  • 3 ½ ounces yacai
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 ¾ ounces mixed medium-hot and hot chili peppers (ideally a combination of red and green varieties such as Turkish green peppers or Anaheims and red cayennes)
  • 10 ½ ounces chicken breast
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
  • 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil (Sichuan caiziyou preferred) plus more as needed
  • 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon tian mian jiang (sweet wheat sauce)
  • ½ teaspoon white sugar

Instructions 

  • Remove the yacai from its package and rinse under cold running water for 10 seconds, then drain and squeeze out the excess water.
  • Stem the chilies and slice them into thin rings (you should have about ⅓ cup). If your chilis are spicy, you could also remove the seeds.
  • Thinly slice the chicken, then cut each slice into strips and then into pea-sized pieces. Transfer the chicken to a bowl and add the Shaoxing wine, dark soy sauce, cornstarch and white pepper and mix until well combined. Add 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil to coat the chicken and mix again.
  • Heat a well-seasoned wok or a deep frying pan over low heat, then add the yacai and toast it for 2 to 3 minutes, until the excess water evaporates and the pickles become fragrant. Remove the pickles from the wok and set them aside; wipe the wok clean.
  • Heat the wok over high until it’s lightly smoking, then turn the heat down to medium. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, then immediately add the chicken pieces and stir to break up any lumps. Stir-fry the chicken, stirring constantly, until it turns pale. Add the ginger and garlic and stir-fry them for a few seconds, until fragrant. Add the toasted yacai then season everything with the soy sauce, sweet wheat sauce and sugar. Mix well, taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.
  • Add the sliced chili and stir-fry everything for about 2 minutes, until the chili rings soften slightly.

Tried this recipe?

About Xueci Cheng

Xueci Cheng is a recipe developer and culinary creative based in Berlin, Germany. Born and raised in Sichuan, she has lived in different parts of the province, including Guangyuan, Mianyang and Chengdu. After moving to Germany in 2015, she began a quest to recreate the tastes of her home. Her journey led her to become a food editor at a German cooking platform, and to found Chill Crisp, a food media project where she shares videos and newsletters that delve into Sichuan and other regional Chinese food, blending historical context, personal stories and cooking techniques. Xueci’s work can be found on her Instagram, @chill_crisp, and her newsletter: chillcrispbyxueci.substack.com.

Recipes you might like

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 Comments

    1. Hi Arnauld – Thanks for the question! Every cook will do this a bit differently, since some people prefer their pickles dried-out to concentrate the flavor while others want to preserve more of their original texture. Xueci, who wrote this recipe, usually toasts them for 2–3 minutes, until they’re dry and you can really smell their aroma.