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Adventures in food for curious cooks.

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Week 3 - Lucky Chicken

Chicken has been a part of Chinese culture and cuisine for over a thousand years. Make your dinner deliciously lucky tonight.

Chinese 5-Flavor Chicken  in the traditional Chinese New Year presentation. If you choose a simpler presentation, it's fairly simple make-ahead dish.

Chinese 5-Flavor Chicken in the traditional Chinese New Year presentation. If you choose a simpler presentation, it's fairly simple make-ahead dish.

As we know from the last two posts, chickens come from Asia. Although China lays claim to being the birthplace of the domestic chicken, science can't confirm this. (Precise dating of ancient chicken bones turns out to be frustratingly complicated; read more here.)

The best guess is that Chinese traders brought chickens home from their travels to points farther south. But however they got there, chickens have been part of the Chinese diet for at least a thousand years.

Five-Flavor Chicken

Our recipe for Chinese 5-Flavor Chicken this week comes from my friend Amy Rabb-Liu, who cooks her family's Chinese New Year feast every year. Amy learned to make many of these dishes from her Chinese mother-in-law who lives in Taiwan. 

Chinese culinary traditions are filled with ritual and symbolic meaning, especially during new year festivities. Amy tells me that for Chinese New Year, the entire table should be covered with food to symbolize plenty. The color red is everywhere (table linens, flowers, etc.) for good luck. And serving a whole chicken, complete with head and feet, symbolizes togetherness and completeness, and brings more good luck in the coming year. 

In our recipe, after the chicken is cooked whole, it is cut into chopstick-sized pieces for serving (see below for step-by-step instructions). In the US, chickens aren't usually sold with the head and feet intact (even at the Asian market - I looked!). So to achieve the whole-chicken-good-luck presentation, it's common to use a tomato to symbolize the head (red!), and scallions to symbolize the feet.

(If you want to keep things simple for a weeknight dinner, keep reading for suggestions.)

Making the Chicken

The five flavors in this dish's name are found in a flavor packet commonly available at Asian markets. The chicken is poached whole in a broth of soy sauce, wine and the 5-flavor spices. (See the recipe for details. And if you can't find the spice packets, I've provided substitution spices that you can use.) After cooking, the chicken rests in a little broth in the fridge overnight and is served cold the next day. It's soft, juicy and delicious, and is actually pretty simple.

If you're serving this for Chinese New Year and want to do the traditional presentation, keep reading below for step-by-step instructions.

But this dish can also easily work for a weeknight dinner if you've cooked the chicken the day before as called for in the recipe. If you don't plan to eat it with chopsticks, you can just cut the chicken into whole pieces (American-style, see below) and get the pre-cooked chicken on the table in about 15-20 minutes.

The initial cooking is actually pretty simple as well. It only takes about 5 minutes to start the broth, and then the actual cooking happens almost entirely without you, over a couple of hours. After an overnight rest in the fridge, dinner's nearly ready the next day.

Cutting Your Chicken Down To Size

After your chicken has rested overnight, you'll need to cut it into pieces for serving. Use whatever knives you're comfortable with (I used a meat cleaver and chef's knife for most of the cutting). It may seem strange to cut through bone as is done here, but the bones have softened a bit during cooking. Still, you'll want to use sturdy, sharp knives.

First, cut through the breast and down through the back (to one side of the spine) to separate the bird into two halves. Then, remove all the pieces from each half, as shown.

Cutting down through the breastbone and all the way down through the back of the chicken. As you reach the chicken's back, let your knife land to either side of the spine. You'll separate the spine from the other side in a later step.

Here's the chicken split into two halves.

Remove the wings.

Remove the drumsticks.

Remove the thighs.

Cut away the backbone.

After all the other pieces have been removed, cut each half in half again from head to tail to separate the back from the breast.

If you're not eating this with chopsticks, you can serve the pieces you've just cut whole, to be eaten with a fork and knife.

Cutting Chopstick-Sized Pieces

Now that the chicken parts have all been separated, cut each of them through the bone into pieces that are small enough to be manageable with chopsticks (about an inch wide is a good general rule). A sturdy cleaver is very useful for this, since you will be cutting through strong leg bones.

Cutting the breast into pieces about 1" wide.

Drumsticks are a little tricky, since all the meat is at one end. Cut through the meaty end so the result is two pieces that each have enough meat for someone to enjoy.

Drumstick pieces, ready for serving.

Cutting the thigh into serving pieces

Cutting the thigh; nearly finished. These pieces are still a bit large, so will need to be cut crosswise into smaller pieces.

The Final Presentation

These two pictures show a couple of options for serving. If you choose to go with the whole-chicken approach, the recipe provides step-by-step plating instructions. Or, you can keep things a bit simpler by arranging the chopstick-sized pieces any way you wish. Red table linens are always a good idea for a Chinese meal; red is considered a very lucky color in Chinese culture!

Chinese 5-Flavor Chicken arranged simply on a serving dish.

Chinese 5-Flavor Chicken arranged with all the pieces on a single serving platter, including tomato head and scallion feet for good luck. 

And With The Leftovers....

Interestingly, the poaching liquid created for this dish is not actually served with the dish! But it's a flavorful broth that can become the starting point for many other delicious possibilities. I used it to create this Green Garlic Noodle Bowl recipe, but that's just the beginning. You'll have around 3 quarts of the sauce left over to flavor rice bowls, noodle bowls, soups... the possibilities go on and on! It is a salty, slightly sweet sauce, so think about combining flavors that play against those. Fish sauce, mushrooms and/or your leftover chicken will add umami; bitter greens such as bok choy, kale or spinach will balance the saltiness; and a little hot sauce or a Thai chile can add a kick to balance the sweetness.

It's currently spring, so I used seasonal baby bok choy and green garlic. If you can't find them or they aren't in season when you're cooking, feel free to use the substitutions in the recipe. 

Oyster mushrooms and green garlic

Thai red chiles, also known as "bird's eye" chiles

Thai red chiles, also known as "bird's eye" chiles

Baby Bok Choy

Green garlic is simply young garlic; it still has its fresh green stalk attached, and the bulbs are milder and juicy compared to their grown-up counterparts. In therecipe, we smash the bulb and toss it in the sauce early as it simmers. The tender green stalk is sliced thin and sprinkled on top at the end to add a crunchy, garlicky bite.

Baby bok choy is a young version of bok choy. In the cabbage family, it has a slightly bitter taste and is a great counterpoint to salty sauces. Cooking time is brief for the baby version, a bit longer for the full-grown version.

Historical and archeological information in this post is based on Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.


Chinese 5-Flavor Chicken

Chicken simmered in soy sauce, wine and spices. Perfect for Chinese New Year or any time.

Green Garlic Ramen Bowls

Made with fresh, seasonal ingredients and Chinese 5-Flavor broth.

YeYe Noodles

Created by a grandfather for his grandchildren, a delicious lunch or snack anytime.

Next Week:  Armenia and Ethiopia