La zi ji (Chicken with Chiles) was one of the dishes from one of my first meals with a bunch of expats at a Sichuan restaurant in downtown Shenzhen. Well, that's not entirely true. I had already been in China for several days at that point and it's not like I refrained from eating until then. Instead I was teaching English at a summer camp where we were stuck eating at the cafeteria with the students and other teachers everyday. Gourmet food it was not, but what grade school cafeteria actually serves good food? Anyway, this dish made an impression. Nestled in a bowl of flaming red dried chilies were little nuggets of succulent chicken. It looked scary hot, but so long as you stayed away from the chilies themselves you were fine and the chicken was barely spicy at all. So after coming across this recipe in Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty I knew we had to make it. I tried to track down Sichuanese chilies, but short of another trip to Chinatown, didn't think I was going to find any. In the end I found some dried Tiensin Chinese chilies at Kalustyans that I decided to use.
As usual, I dug into my dinner first. Alex is slow. Once dinner is on the table I tend to dig right in. Conversely, Alex wanders into the kitchen to pour himself another drink and then meanders on over. So I dug into the bowl and plucked out a piece and chicken that I threw in my mouth. And then I said "hmmmm" and nodded. Alex's response was "well that's a good sign." He knows me so well. This chicken isn't exactly the same as the dish that I first ate in China, but it's really close. And it's really good. And I mean really really good. In Alex's words, it's "not like your standard Americanized Chinese dish with a gloopy sauce." Instead the dish is meant to be dry - not that the sense that the meat is withered and dried out because it's overcooked, but more in the sense that the chicken stands alone without a sauce. And the chicken itself is has a nice and crispy exterior from being fried. We didn't deep fry the chicken - instead I shallow fried it in a Le Creuset in 2/3 of an inch of peanut oil. Then the chicken is tossed in the flavorful chili oil and suddenly it goes from just cubes of cooked marinated chicken to something else entirely. Something totally delicious. After you eat an entire bowl of chicken your tongue starts to go numb and tingly. But your lips never burn because the chicken really isn't that hot and spicy, it's really just lightly perfumed by the all of the chilies. I love it. Alex loved it too. Now he just has to remember not to rub his eyes after de-seeding all of those chilies...
Recipe after the jump!
Chicken with Chiles (La Zi Ji)
Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan
By Fuchsia Dunlop
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2/3 lb. total)
2 tsp Shaoxing wine or medium-dry sherry
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1/4 tsp salt
1 small rice bowl filled generously with dried red chilies, preferably Sichuanese (about 1 1/2 cups)
peanut oil for deep-frying
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2 scallions, whites only, each cut into about 3 sections
a generous pinch of sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
Cut the chicken into 1-inch cubes and put them into a small bowl. Add Shaoxing wine, light and dark soy sauce, and salt. Mix well. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
Wearing rubber gloves, snip the chilies in half with scissors and remove and discard as many seeds as possible.
Pour oil to a depth of 1/2 an inch into a heavy-bottomed pan. Heat the oil for deep-frying over high heat. Add chicken and fry until the pieces are cooked through, golden brown, and a little crispy on the outside, about 4-5 minutes. Drain well on a plate with paper towels and set aside.
Heat 3 tbsp peanut oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant - the garlic should beginning to turn a light golden color, about 30 seconds. Add chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Stir-fry until the oil is spicy and fragrant, about 10-20 seconds. Be very careful not to burn the chilies! Add the chicken and scallions. Stir-fry until ingredients are well-combined and chicken is coated with the flavored chili oil. Season with salt and sugar to taste. Remove the wok from the heat and stir in the sesame oil.
Serve immediately with steamed rice.