Sichuan Vinegar Chicken (Culiuji, 醋溜鸡)

A Fully Stocked Pantry, So You Can Make Left-Behind Dishes

Newly added to our blog trove of under-appreciated mainland dishes is this recipe for 醋溜鸡 (cùliūjī), Sichuan vinegar chicken. Not red, not hot, not numbing nor loud, Sichuan vinegar chicken speaks to the range of regional cooking often left behind in the diasporic new world. 

No one is at fault for this. If you only eat Sichuan a couple times a year, I’m sure you want your favorites—the quintessentiallyexaggeratedly, unmistakably Sichuan flavors everyone associates with the province. And if you’re selling Sichuan food to non-Sichuan people, it’s not usually that profitable to sell or focus on lesser known dishes. It’s not unique to Sichuan or Chinese food, but I’m sure it’d be far more difficult for your neighborhood Sichuan place to sell you culiuji than a downtown French bistro to start upselling socca.

Culiuji belongs to a family of “醋溜” (cùliū) vinegar dishes. Beijing’s 醋溜木须 (cùliūmùxū) is a traditionally halal meat and scrambled eggs dish that bears resemblance to Shandong’s 木樨肉 (mùxīròu) mushroom pork, better-known in the U.S. as the predecessor of Moo Shu Pork! Other culiu dishes you may have made and eaten resemble this classic Sichuan vinegar cabbage stir-fry and hot-and-sour shredded potato.

The defining characteristic of all culiu dishes is its vinegar base, making this Sichuan vinegar chicken a great way to show off the return of Zhenjiang’s Hengshun 6-Year Aged Black Vinegar to The Mala Market. The Chinese marinade technique of velveting meat softens each bite-sized chicken piece as elegantly as the way this aged black vinegar diffuses into fragrance once cooked.

white plate of sichuan vinegar chicken stirfry against black backdrop

It’s chicken with vinegar. Use your favorite black or rice vinegar if you have one that’s nostalgic to you.

Speculations on Sichuan vinegar chicken

Culiuji exists side by side along Sichuan’s abundance. In such a lush, productive growing region, with a distinct regional gastronomy going back further than Black Jesus, there are more dishes than not left off the Chengdu Taste shortlist.

I love the story told by the specific range of produce associated with Sichuan vinegar chicken throughout the year. Consider, for instance, winter bamboo shoot, one of the veggies traditionally stir-fried with culiuji. Harvested in the cool months before bamboo launches into its preternatural spring growth—and dug from the soil by hand before ever seeing sunlight—winter bamboo shoot is sweet, tender, crunchy and delicate.

Then there is 莴笋 (wōsǔn) or AA 菜芯 (AA càixīn, literally pronounced “ā’ā” cài), also known as A-choy or celtuce. Celtuce stem is fresh, tender yet crisp, not stringy like celery but more structured than cucumber. In effect, similar to winter bamboo shoot—and it just so happens that wosun comes into season each spring through summer, after the bamboo shoots start growing in earnest and winter bamboo shoot is literally out of season. So it comes as no surprise to then learn that a third common plant for culiuji, water chestnut, is harvested in the summer months and has a crispness not unlike celtuce.

Winter bamboo shoot, celtuce and water chestnut all make the perfect foil to juicy 溜鸡 (liūjī), literally smooth/slippery chicken. When one is out of season, another can be used. They are not combined, as they don’t really overlap in nature and all provide the same quality in the dish. I used my favorite celtuce, courtesy of a friend’s abundant Choy Division CSA share. I’ve also enjoyed making culiuji with canned sliced bamboo shoot and Chinese celery. You may use whatever similar textured veggie you like. Thinly sliced celery and 山药 (shānyào) mountain yam work too.

Whether figurative or not, I suspect the “liu” quality is attributable to the egg-and-starch velveting that encompasses each piece of chicken like plush cloud. (Needless to say, the chicken is always leg meat.)

ingredients for sichuan vinegar chicken laid out on a wooden board

Anything for culiuji you can’t get at the grocery store, you can get at The Mala Market.

Cooking Sichuan vinegar chicken with The Mala Market ingredients

I imagine there was a winter day more often than not when some Sichuan ayi had bamboo shoots, a chicken leg to spare and not much else outside the pantry. Cue the 泡椒 (pàojiāo) pickled chilies, black vinegar, caiziyou and cooking wine: et voilà, dinner. One ingredient I’m personally never without and pairs perfectly to the celtuce and chicken base in this dish is the Mala Market’s 云耳 (yún’ěr) cloud ear fungus. It comes and goes by preference with culiuji, but my preference is always to include it. However, one note for use is that you’ll have to prep it first, as it takes at least an hour to rehydrate to the right texture.

To the question of what vinegar to use: I listened to a chef on an old 2000s-era Chinese cooking show stress the preference of using whatever vinegar is familiar or liked. When cooking a spread of dishes for a typical Chinese family meal, there’s also sense in using the same vinegar to make the base tastes uniform. As a Beijing chef, he naturally reached for rice vinegar. Shanxi cooks may reach for Shanxi vinegar, and Sichuan cooks may prefer Baoning vinegar. A different Beijing cook stir-frying a simple culiuji plate for himself combined rice vinegar in the first addition of stir-fry sauce with Zhenjiang fragrant vinegar in the final splash. My family always likes cooking with Zhenjiang vinegar for its notable fragrance, and when I received a new Zhenjiang vinegar to try, I knew I wanted to make culiuji with it.

The Mala Market‘s new Zhenjiang Hengshun Aged 6-Year black vinegar smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced in a vinegar before. Far more intense—and saltier to boot—than regular Zhenjiang vinegar (we’re probably all familiar with the yellow Gold Plum bottle labeled “Chinkiang vinegar,” although Hengshun also makes a regular Zhenjiang cu), it’s front and center in this vinegar chicken dish that relies on vaporizing the vinegar aroma to give it its signature flavor.

The high heat of the wok releases the volatile fragrance on contact, but to get the penetrative vinegar flavor as well as the lingering aroma, culiu dishes use two separate additions of vinegar. The first portion of vinegar gets cooked with the rest of the stir-fry sauce, while the second is added in the final moments.

Prepping the ingredients

  • Soak the cloud ear/wood ear fungus in a medium bowl with room temperature water. Agitate the fungus to release sediment and dirt build-up. Scrub well once the wood ear begins to soften, and rinse in several changes of water until the water runs clear of debris. Refill with lukewarm water and let rehydrate 1-1.5 hours total. The fungus will expand 4x in size.
  • Slice the chicken leg or thigh into long strips, then chop into inch-long portions. In a bowl, mix the raw chicken with a splash of cooking wine and salt. Add the egg white and mix again. Lastly, add the starch and mix until evenly coated. Set aside while you prep the other ingredients.
  • Peel the celtuce stem and slice longwise into thin planes. Stack and slice perpendicular to the first cut into strips, roughly the width of the chicken. If using bell pepper, shape similarly. Set aside.
  • Add the chopped pickled chilies, garlic, ginger and scallion white/light green sections to a small bowl. Set aside.
  • In a smaller bowl for the stir-fry sauce, mix a drizzle of cooking wine with the broth, one tablespoon of black vinegar, salt, MSG (optional), sugar and starch. Set aside.

Cooking the chicken

In a wok, blanch fresh bamboo shoots briefly if using. Strain and set aside. Boil the cloud ear fungus for 1-2 minutes (longer if using wood ear), then strain and discard the cooking water. Set aside.

Add the caiziyou to the wok or skillet and heat on medium-high until the surface shimmers and the oil begins to smoke (skip the smoking step if not using caiziyou). This is a regular step to smoke off the raw odor of uncooked caiziyou and prepare it for cooking. Add the marinated chicken and shallow-fry, prodding with a spatula or chopsticks to break up the pieces. When they start turning white, flip them. Monitor their progress by checking that the sides are all white and cooked through at the surface, then strain the chicken from the wok, leaving as much oil behind as possible. Par-cooking the chicken keeps the end result tender and juicy. The bite-size pieces finish cooking very quickly in the stir-fry step.

Immediately add the bowl of pickled chilies and other aromatics to the hot oil and let it bloom. When you can smell the garlic, add in the celtuce or bell pepper and stir-fry briefly to incorporate. (Celtuce can be eaten raw, so do not fear undercooking.) Add the cooked wood ear fungus and chicken and toss to mix. Break up the settled starch in the stir-fry sauce by mixing it back into liquid before pouring the sauce down the sides of the wok while tossing to coat the chicken. Keep stir-frying until the starch slurry thickens and begins to bubble.

Taste to make sure the seasoning is as you like it. At the last second, with the pan hot and liquid bubbling, quickly splatter a teaspoon of black vinegar down the sides of the wok and toss one last time before plating. The walls of the wok must be appropriately hot to volatilize the vinegar aroma on contact. Garnish with the rest of the scallion greens and enjoy immediately!

white plate of sichuan vinegar chicken stirfry on black table

Juicy 醋溜鸡 (cùliūjī), literally vinegar slippery chicken, likely gets its name from the velveting marinade technique that encompasses each piece of chicken like plush cloud.

For more quick recipes with pickled chilies and dried wood ear mushroom, try Kathy’s favorite Pickled Wood Ear Salad! Other “culiu” vinegar dishes include this popular Sichuan vinegar cabbage stir-fry and hot-and-sour shredded potato.

Sichuan Vinegar Chicken (Culiuji, 醋熘鸡)

Servings 2
Kathy Yuan | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking

Ingredients

PREP

  • ¼ cup dried cloud ear/wood ear fungus approx. 10g
  • 2 boneless chicken thighs, cubed approx. 300g or ⅔ lb
  • splash Shaoxing wine approx. 1 tablespoon
  • ½ teaspoon salt approx. 4g
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon potato starch (or tapioca/corn starch) approx. 15g
  • 6 inches celtuce stem or fresh bamboo shoot or any combination of similar (bell pepper can be nice), peeled and sliced into inch-long pieces approx. 200g
  • 2 paojiao pickled chilies, chopped into inch-long sections approx. 40g
  • ½ thumb fresh ginger, washed and thinly sliced into matchsticks approx. 7g
  • 3-4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and thinly sliced approx. 7g
  • 2 whole fresh scallions, thinly sliced, dark green and light green/whites divided approx. 15g

STIR-FRY SAUCE

  • drizzle Shaoxing wine approx. 5g or 1 teaspoon
  • 2 tablespoons chicken broth approx. 35g
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Zhenjiang vinegar, divided approx. 25g
  • ½ teaspoon salt, more or less to taste approx. 4g
  • pinch MSG (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar, more or less to taste approx. 10g
  • ½ tablespoon potato starch (or tapioca/corn starch) approx. 5g
  • 4 tablespoons caiziyou (Chinese roasted rapeseed oil) approx. 100g

Instructions

PREP/MARINATE

  • Soak the cloud ear/wood ear fungus in a medium bowl with room temperature water. Agitate the fungus to release sediment and dirt build-up. Scrub well once the wood ear begins to soften, and rinse in several changes of water until the water runs clear of debris. Refill with lukewarm water and let rehydrate 1-1.5 hours total. The fungus will expand 4x in size.
  • Slice the chicken leg or thigh into long strips, then chop into inch-long portions.
    In a bowl, mix the raw chicken with a splash of cooking wine and salt. Add the egg white and mix again. Lastly, add the starch and mix until evenly coated. Set aside while you prep the other ingredients.
  • Peel the celtuce stem and slice longwise into thin planes. Stack and slice perpendicular to the first cut into strips, roughly the width of the chicken. If using bell pepper, shape similarly. Set aside.
    Add the chopped pickled chilies, garlic, ginger and scallion white/light green sections to a small bowl. Set aside.
  • In a smaller bowl for the stir-fry sauce, mix a drizzle of cooking wine with the broth, one tablespoon of black vinegar, salt, MSG (optional), sugar and starch. Set aside.

COOK

  • In a wok, blanch fresh bamboo shoots briefly if using. Strain and set aside. Boil the cloud ear fungus for 1-2 minutes (longer if using wood ear), then strain and discard the cooking water. Set aside.
  • Add the caiziyou to the wok or skillet and heat on medium-high until the surface shimmers and the oil begins to smoke (skip the smoking step if not using caiziyou). This is a regular step to smoke off the raw odor of uncooked caiziyou and prepare it for cooking.
    Add the marinated chicken and shallow-fry, prodding with a spatula or chopsticks to break up the pieces. When they start turning white, flip them. Monitor their progress by checking that the sides are all white and cooked through at the surface, then strain the chicken from the wok, leaving as much oil behind as possible.
    Par-cooking the chicken keeps the end result tender and juicy. The bite-size pieces finish cooking very quickly in the stir-fry step.
  • Immediately add the bowl of pickled chilies and other aromatics to the hot oil and let it bloom. When you can smell the garlic, add in the celtuce or bell pepper and stir-fry briefly to incorporate. (Celtuce can be eaten raw, so do not fear undercooking.)
    Add the cooked wood ear fungus and chicken and toss to mix. Break up the settled starch in the stir-fry sauce by mixing it back into liquid before pouring the sauce down the sides of the wok while tossing to coat the chicken. Keep stir-frying until the starch slurry thickens and begins to bubble.
    Taste to make sure the seasoning is as you like it. At the last second, with the pan hot and liquid bubbling, quickly splatter a teaspoon of black vinegar down the sides of the wok and toss one last time before plating. The walls of the wok must be appropriately hot to volatilize the vinegar aroma on contact. Garnish with the rest of the scallion greens and enjoy immediately!

Kathy Yuan

Kathy is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. All photos shot and edited by her.

Leave a Reply

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