This week I’ll be traveling all over South Carolina for work, causing me to fall a bit behind in the Land of Plenty series, but I resolve to restock my Sichuan pantry next weekend and dig in.
Luckily, I have a few posts queued up for this week so you won’t get withdrawals, or what I call the “Sichuan shakes”.
Today’s post is a dish that I was quite excited about – Dry-Fried Chicken. I’ve already taken on Dry-Fried Green Beans, but texturally it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting and I was more looking forward to dry-frying meats and seeing how that turned out.
To refresh your memory, dry-frying (gan bian) is a distinctively Sichuan cooking method, where food is generally cut into small or thin slivers, then stirred constantly in a wok with just a small amount of oil, until it’s slightly dried out or “fried”.
A vegetable, such as celery, leeks, or bell peppers is added near the end of the cooking, so they are slightly cooked, to add a wonderful crunchy contrast (and color) to the dish. Remember, textures are very important in Sichuan cooking.
I didn’t have celery on-hand, but I did purchase some Chinese cabbage from Love is Love Farms via The Local Farmstand. Yes, I mention these places all the time, and yes, I will continue to do so until it’s beaten into you – you should visit these people!
On to the pictures:
This recipe is fairly simple in appearance, though it does take some time. Of course, you need to get all your gear out and your food prepared before you start applying heat. I attempted to cut the stems of the cabbage into the “horse-ear” shape, which is where you cut the vegetable at an extreme angle. Only a few of them turned out as planned.
Don’t worry, I didn’t throw the cabbage leaves away, they were stored for later use.
Again, get your ingredients right next to your wok/heat source.
The cookbook instructs us to cut the chicken into one inch chunks. I wasn’t exactly sure if that meant cubes, so I attempted to cut them into strips of moderate thickness. The size/shape of cuts of meat are important in Sichuan, so maybe I need to try this again, following the guidelines more closely.
The chicken cooks for 4-5 minutes by itself to release moisture, then the chiles and the Sichuan pepper is added.
Here comes the fun part – now we turn down the heat, add red chili bean paste, splash in the Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce, and dry-fry for 10-15 minutes. That seemed excessively long to me, but we have our orders…
In that 15 minutes, a few things happened. First, the bottom of my wok became covered by a thin layer of a dense, sticky, paste-like mixture of oil and chili bean paste that somewhat burned. Also, the Sichuan peppercorns appeared to pretty much totally char, which is not appealing. Even though the heat is medium, cooking those tiny peppercorns for 15 minutes, I don’t understand how any other outcome is possible. Finally, the chicken turned leathery in appearance, looking more like chicken jerky than what I was expecting.
After my 15 minutes was up, I added the vegetables for 1-2 minutes, removed it from the heat, then seasoned with salt and sesame oil and served.
With some consternation I sat down to eat. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting in appearance, however, it did look decent. The taste? The crunch and color of the cabbage and the scallions was enjoyable, but the chicken, while tactilely interesting, was indeed somewhat leathery and tough on the outside. The flavor/depth from the red chili paste, with slight sweetness and more than moderate heat was appealing, and the chicken below the tough exterior was still surprisingly succulent. I still don’t think I was on target though.
I tried to search for other photos of this recipe and all I could find is here.
I intend on playing with this recipe a bit more. I think I will add some of the Sichuan pepper and chili paste later in the process. I also have been told by a friend that cooking larger pieces of chicken will result in a much juicier and more enjoyable dish, and that in general these cooking times are often odd. It’s tough to gauge how close my results are to the intent when there aren’t many resources online, and with such few restaurants to which I can compare.
I slowly ate each bite, scratching my head, challenging the authenticity, then I realized…well, I just ate and enjoyed the whole damn thing.