Cooking fiascos: beggar’s chicken (jiào huā jī, 叫化鸡)
Updated: Jun 28, 2019
"Then the beggar's chicken. It looked at first like a foil-wrapped whole bird, but he undid it, folded back layers of crinkly baking bags, and broke the seal on a tight molded wrap of lotus leaves. A magnificently herbed chicken aroma rushed into the air.
Maggie couldn't wait. She picked up a mouthful of chicken that fell away from the carcass and into her chopsticks at a touch. It was moist and dense with profound flavor, the good nourishment of chicken, first marinated, then spiked with the bits of aromatic vegetable and salt-cured ham which had been stuffed in the cavity and were now all over the bird. Shot through everything was the pungent musk of the lotus leaf.
At once she knew she should write about this place. She should give this recipe, catch the glorious bustle of this restaurant, describe these tall windows looking over the lake and virgin green hills beyond."
The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones
There is an old Chinese saying that goes: “shàng yǒu tiāntáng, xià yǒu sūháng,上有天堂, 下有苏杭” which literally means "Above, there is heaven; below, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou". Marco Polo sure seemed to agree, since he apparently described the city of Hangzhou as “beyond dispute the finest and noblest city in the world” and “where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in paradise”.
Intrigued by such a description I jumped on the occasion to visit Hangzhou a few months ago (we had been in Suzhou a year and a half before that). As I browsed through my travelling guide and some web sites wanting to learn more about what a toddler and I could manage to see in three days, I became more and more interested by what the city had to offer in terms of culinary heritage rather than its legendary beauty. As it turns out, Hangzhou might as well be named one of the cradles of Chinese gastronomy. Unknown to many of us -who have mostly gotten used to eating Cantonese food in our home countries- this city’s streets and walls hold the secrets and testaments of centuries of valuable knowledge.
It all pretty much began in 1127 when the capital of China was transferred from Kaifeng to Hangzhou. The city’s geographical location, with surrounding lakes and muddy rice-fields, offered the perfect protection against the invaders from the North. The relocation of the court sealed Hangzhou’s prosperous future as royal families and aristocracy wished to continue indulging in feasting and enjoyment in these lands. While food items were transported on camelbacks through the Silk Road, ships were built to develop maritime trade routes. Records show that new varieties of rice, litchi, wine, raisins, dates, sugar cane became known to Chinese people during those years and fermented wines, distilled alcohols and tea gained in popularity. With a new and growing supply and demand, setting marketplaces also became imperative in order to distribute and sell these items.
The role of food in people’s life changed. It was no longer meant to only satisfy a basic need of satiating hungry stomachs but became the motive of inspiration and reflection for artists, literati and poets who wrote whole treatises on the subject. Cookbooks were published and recipes were included in encyclopedias. Printing was already well established, thanks to which the written word became cheaper and access to it faster, hence allowing the spreading of ideas of different kind -culinary included.
With more and new delicacies arriving into the city, people needed more places to eat. As most of the eateries were ran by immigrants from the old capital of Kāifēng (开封), the local tastes and ingredients fused with the imported northern flavors creating a brand of Hangzhou kitchen that survived until nowadays. The result are dishes that merge “the dainty and the smooth, the crisp and the tender, the simple and the elegant, the small and the exquisite”. Along with new restaurants, night markets, barbecue shops and oil-baked-pastry shops multiplied.
Hangzhou lost its capital status eventually, but it remains until today an important center of Chinese cuisine, a cuisine that evolved in time, became more complex and divided into several regional schools. Hangzhou continued to maintain and cherish what we know today as the Zhè (浙) style (one of the eight big Chinese cuisines), which has two branches: the Lake branch and Town branch. The former relies on fish, shrimp, vegetables in season and pays a lot of attention to cutting skills; the latter is more oriented towards meat and vegetables.
Why had it taken me years to find out the history behind this culinary paradise? I wondered. I set my mind into tasting at least one of what seemed to be the city’s most interesting dishes: The Beggar’s chicken. Wandering around the Qīnghéfāng Old Street (清河坊古街 Qīnghéfāng Gǔjiē), besides the crowds and ‘Chinese’ souvenirs that have become so ubiquitous in touristic cities across the mainland, I noticed several shops displaying brown ovals of baked clay piled up one over the other. As lively as the street was, as unappetizing those dry and dark balls appeared to me. It was definitely not the way I was going to taste the beggar’s chicken for the first time.
Earlier during the day, I had found out there was a legendary restaurant that prided itself in being the place to eat it. Restaurants in Hangzhou are famous for preparing their own signature dishes, such as: Dragon well shrimp kernel, Old duck cooked with a Chinese pot, West Lake Vinegar Fish, Dongpo meat and Beggar’s chicken. Some say Beggar’s chicken -also called Beggar’s virgin chicken and Beggar’s eight treasures chicken, has a 400 -year old history, and it is a typical dish of the oldest restaurant in town called Lóuwàilóu (楼外楼). The weather was not on our side, though, the last evening in the city was rainy and cold. Left with no other choice but hitting the hotel dinner buffet, I made it my mission to taste this dish in the future, wherever, however.
A 6-hour experiment
Prepping time: Let’s do it!
State of mind: Confident and positive
Planned time frame: 1 hour
Progress: Lotus leaves placed in water, marinade for the chicken mixed; and, the dough (substitute of the clay) resting
With the failure of the Hangzhou attempt, I decided to try to replicate myself this dish at home. How hard can it be? I thought. As it turned out, very. I found a recipe and the preparations started. I set the date for the thrilling experiment and went to get the all the ingredients. Now, I am notoriously known for being terrible at calculating portions, time-planning and assessing difficulty levels in cooking. What is normally supposed to be food for a 4-people dinner, turns out to become leftovers for the next 3 days; and, what I usually think will be a quick fix, turns out to be an hours-long cooking process. What initially seems to be a rather easy dish, turns out to be a nightmare. What was supposed to be 60 minutes of prepping, ended up being a whole afternoon chaos.
Getting excited: Yes, I can!
State of mind: Optimistic
Planned time frame: 30 minutes
Progress: Lotus leaves soaked and bendable, chicken marinating in the fridge, pork belly stuffing in preparation.
Beggar’s chicken is a dish widely known in the southern Chinese provinces of Zhèjiāng (浙江), Jiāngsū (江苏) and Guǎngdōng (广东), and it appears by name in the literature of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1736 – 1795). Some argue, however, that the dish is much older as clay had been used in China to wrap food for cooking for several thousands of years.
Basically, chicken is wrapped in lotus leaves and then enclosed in a clay shell and baked for hours until the meat becomes so tender that it practically melts in the mouth. Many of Chinese famous dishes are a cultural and historical heritage. They have been part of the culinary tradition of a region for centuries and have become an institution in themselves. These dishes are frequently surrounded by a legend of how they came to be and why they have acquired their names. The Beggar’s chicken is one of the most allegorical ones. There are several versions, most of them introduce small variations, but they generally all coincide in the central facts: a poor beggar stole a chicken and deprived of kitchen utensils, he needed to find some other alternative for cooking the fowl. And so, he came up with the idea of wrapping the bird in lotus leaves and baking it in hot ashes.
Final arrangements: This better work!
State of mind: Focused, cannot be bothered
Planned time frame: Just according to schedule
Progress: Lotus leaves spread on the counter, chicken stuffed with pork belly
Few food items have been so closely ingrained in Chinese long history as chicken. The earliest archaeological chicken bones found in China date back to 10,000 B.C. After domestication chickens were used as alarm clocks and there are no clear records on when they first started being consumed as food items.
The poultry stand in the local market offered an astounding assortment. I got a glimpse of a black chicken, which clearly belonged to another variety. Studies suggest that Chinese local chickens have more genetic diversity than in other countries, we are talking about at least 78 types of this fowl. Just take Guǎngxī (广西). Over 80% of Guangxi’s territory has a complex topography of mountain, plateau and basin, which has allowed for a rich biodiversity to develop. Guangxi is also home to several ethnic nationalities, whose settlements have been rather scattered one from another. All this has resulted in a wide variety of native chickens that developed unique characteristics (body size, plumage, colour), such as Lóngshèng (龙胜) chicken, Nándān (南丹) chicken, Guǎngxī (广西) black chicken, three-yellow chicken, Qīngyuǎn má (清远麻) chicken and Xiáyān (霞烟) chicken. Present day breeds and varieties of chicken were mostly created during the nineteenth century hen craze era and those breeds that are productive in terms of meat and eggs are the ones more widely bred by multinational corporations, but come from a narrow genetic base. Commercial varieties produced by domestic and foreign breeding companies to meet economic needs have impacted negatively on the populations of indigenous breeds, particularly due to the latter’s slow growth rate and poor laying performance.
Crisis: Why is this happening to me?
State of mind: Obfuscated and nervous
Planned time frame: Who cares!
Progress: None! The lotus leaves have perforations, the juices of the marinade are dripping all over and the dough is becoming soggy.
A record of a recipe from the Yuan Dynasty (1280 - 1368 CE) shows chickens were to be prepared with salt, soy sauce, vinegar, fennel, and flower pepper (Sichuan pepper), and roasted over hot coals. Qing Dynasty emperors (1644 - 1911 CE) liked them smoked, boiled and fried, and they would eat them in soups on the eve of Chinese New Year. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) it seems that the most popular dish was “boiled bones from chickens made with cardamom into a soup”, but chickens were also stuffed and roasted.
In Chinese Traditional Medicine, chickens are warm and neutral foods used to “cure weakness of the spleen and reduce diarrhea and feed pregnant women”. Nursing mothers are also given a soup made with “the whole chicken, other bones, other meats, and lots of black vinegar” to help replace “the considerable calcium she lost during childbirth”. “Chicken stewed with sesame oil, rice wine and fresh ginger root” is part of the diet of women in post-partum quarantine. Black chickens, considered especially prodigious, were supposed to “cure various illnesses, reduce strain, and rid the body of 'evil qi' of the chest and the abdomen”.
Failure: Why, why did I attempt this?
State of mind: Frustrated
Planned time frame: In the trash can
Regression: Wrapped chicken sitting over soggy useless dough. I completely overlooked the addition of a baking foil in between the lotus leaves. Big mistake!
Although at first glance, the beggar’s chicken seemed very exotic, the techniques employed for its preparation are not as unusual as they may have seemed at a first glance. Polish people like to use cabbage leaves to make gołąbki (rolls stuffed with pork and rice, or just meat). In Ecuador, there is a wide display of dishes that use this method: humitas (steamed fresh corn cakes wrapped in corn leaves), quimbolitos (steamed wheat or wheat-corn cakes wrapped in achira leaves) or tamales (dried corn cakes stuffed with meat and wrapped in achira leaves). In Malaysia, there is nasi lemak –glutinous rice wrapped with banana leaves and in Congo liboké de viande -meat in banana leaf. In Australia, aborigines use melaleuca (paperbark) leaves to wrap fish (or kangaroo or other meats) and in Japan, we have the gingami-yaki, literally “foil-grilling” using bamboo leaves or wet paper. The use of bamboo is widespread in Southeast Asia, but Chinese have also used lotus leaves as foils to pack perishable food items, as bags to carry foodstuff, and as a wrapper for baking.
Make it work moment: I swear never again!
State of mind: Resigned
Planned time frame: Dear God, I hope I can get it over with!
Reset: Chicken finally covered with the flour-salt dough (which I had to make again) and placed in the oven
The technique of using hot ashes was also not foreign to other parts of the world. One of the methods that pre-Hispanic cultures used to roast their meats was to bury the protein in ashes or in underground ovens, like the Mexican pibil (used today in the Yucatan Peninsula). In Florida, archaic Indians slowly enhanced cooking oven-like methods, like mixing “coals and sand and the burying the food within”. In Australia, the melaleuca packages were baked in heated sand covered with hot ashes. Leaves were used to protect the food from getting dirty. The Japanese also developed the use of a “2-piece earthenware vessel called horaku […] two cymbals sealed rim to rim”. In ancient times, such a vessel (which had food inside) would be sealed with “clay or mud and buried in live coals to cook the foods in it”.
In China, records show that the earliest technique of cooking was collocating food over hot blocks of stone. With time, other methods evolved and among them the mud-wrapping of food and its cooking in hot coals. By the end of the Shang dynasty (1766–1122 BCE) cooking developed even more, and records of recipes from the Zhou dynasty (1122-425 BCE), show that pigs were stuffed suckling pig and wrapped “in straw and reeds”, and baked “in a heated pit”.
The moment of truth: You go girl!
State of mind: Better than at 15h40
Planed time frame: Few minutes
Feedback: Let’s see!
As I took the tray out of the oven and placed it over the counter, I could hardly wait to hear the sound of the cracking clay shell and finally see what the dish was worth. Expectations were high. I gently hit the dough with a small kitchen pounder and, nothing. The dough was so thick and hard that my husband needed to take matters in his own hands. Success! As the casing gave away, millions of crumbles scattered all around and an herbal mist inundated the whole kitchen. Did it smell good? Did it not? I couldn’t tell.
Further inspection revealed a pale yellowish chicken, not too appealing to the eye – nothing like the golden brown roasted chickens that normally come out of our oven. It all had to come down to the taste. Savouring was imperative. The first incision of the knife into the fowl led to the complete separation of the meats from the bones –as if these were barely holding the terribly heavy weight of the bird’s flesh. At least, I got that part of the cooking right –I thought tot myself. The chicken tasted exactly as it smelled: herbal. The lotus leaves aroma completely overpowered the dish and my apartment. We ate in silence. No sounds like Mmmmm, Wow!, or Yummy were uttered. At least, Xiaowen Ayi confirmed that it was indeed, the way a steamed chicken should taste and look like. It seemed a lot of work for such underwhelming critique (not to mention the headache, back pain, swollen feet and hot flashes I was left with). As I painstakingly tried to sweep hundreds of crumbles laying around everywhere, I wondered: Was it all worth it?
Things didn’t get much better the next time around. I did remember to use an additional layer of baking foil to wrap the meat before enclosing it in the dough which made the whole process much faster and painless. I used bolder flavors for the marinade (including cumin and garlic) and a different stuffing with sauerkraut, mushrooms and smoked bacon; all in hope for a more memorable meal. One bite, two, and then there it was, my husband’s voice: “It just will never be my favorite dish”. My husband’s scant review was final. I did agree though. And with it, I went on to close the pages of the recipe for Beggar’s chicken for the foreseeable future.