Braising is a technique used throughout China, in which you first sear food in dry heat and then finish it with a longer boil or simmer. It is ideal for helping tougher cuts of meat turn out tender and juicy.
This recipe (新疆麻辣鸡) has a Western Chinese flavor. For one thing, the saltiness comes from added salt (very rare on this blog) instead of soy sauce. And of course the dry spices used here are far more typical of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region than Beijing.
Use chicken in any form you can get it. If you can buy a free-range whole chicken, that’s obviously best. Butchered chicken pieces from a grocery store, while not quite as tasty, will still work just fine. If you’re using a whole chicken, cut it up in the traditional Chinese style: first, cut it in half lengthwise (reserving the backbone for stock); then remove the wings and legs, cutting the wings at the joints into two pieces; then use a heavy cleaver to cut each drumstick, thigh, and breast into three pieces. This will give you a total of 22 pieces. Remember that Chinese eaters prefer the pieces to be bone-in, which ensures that you get the juiciest and tastiest meat possible.
Attentive readers of this blog will note subtle variations in what I’m calling the Xinjiang dry spices. For example, this dish doesn’t call for as much cumin as the famous big plate chicken that also comes from Xinjiang. You can make the dry spices in any quantity and use them for other recipes.
For big plate chicken, I used large potatoes that I cut into healthy chunks. For this recipe, I use small colorful potatoes. You can do whatever you like.
INGREDIENTS and PREP:
- One whole chicken or 2-4 lbs chicken pieces such as legs, breasts, and wings; either way, cut into serving-sized pieces
- 5 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 Tbsp Xinjiang dry spices (1 part black pepper, 1 part Sichuan pepper corns, 1 part dried red chiles or 1 part cayenne pepper, 1 part cumin, 3 parts mild red chili powder, all briefly roasted in a dry pan or wok until fragrant and then ground fine)
- 4 cups chicken stock (or water), 2 tsp salt, 1 lb small potatoes
- 3 scallions, white and green parts, sliced very thinly
- Heat 3 Tbsp peanut oil in a large, heavy pot until just smoking, then add the chicken (#1) and brown for 5 minutes per side, until colorful all around. Remove the chicken.
- In the same pot, make sure the oil is still hot, and then add the garlic (#2) and fry for a minute or two until fragrant. Then add the dry spices (#3) and fry for a few seconds until hot.
- Add the stock (or water) to the pot along with the potatoes (#4) and the chicken. Add liquid if needed, so that everything is submerged. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 25 minutes.
- Turn off the heart and let stand for about 10 minutes. Then stir in the scallions (#5) and serve with rice or rustic noodles.
VARIATIONS: Use duck instead of chicken. Also, varying the spices or the braising liquid will create an entirely different tone: for example, use coconut water or sugar cane juice instead of chicken stock. By adding more cumin, turmeric, and minced green chiles, this will begin to feel more like a curry.