Recipe: Beggar's Chicken
This dish is my own variation on a classic Shanghai dish with a baking technique that involves wrapping a whole stuffed chicken in lotus leaves and coating it with clay that hardens into a brittle shell for diners to break at the table. Instead of baking a whole chicken, I divided it into individual portions, and this modern interpretation substitutes a basic flour-and-water dough instead of clay for the shell, with cabbage leaves as wrappers, which are much more readily available than lotus leaves.
The chicken turns out meltingly moist and tender, the stuffing is savory and aromatic, and best of all is the sauce, a simple reduction of chicken stock, flavored with a little soy sauce, Chinese rice wine, and oyster sauce. Although somewhat labor intensive, this dish is worth it. But a word to the wise: If you decide to try it yourself, be sure to allow for overnight marinating of the chicken breasts, and at least 3 hours for preparation, assembly, and baking. Rest assured, you will be well rewarded for your time and effort.
4 boneless chicken breasts, with skin
4 large outer cabbage leaves, quickly blanched in boiling water to soften
4 10" squares of aluminum foil
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Combine marinade ingredients in a shallow dish. Add chicken breasts and marinate overnight, turning once after 6 hours.
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 pound ground pork
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 onion, finely diced
6 shiitake mushrooms, coarsely chopped
2 cups white cabbage, finely shredded
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons shaoxing (Chinese rice wine) (substitute dry sherry)
Heat sesame oil in a wok. Add pork, garlic, and onion, and stir-fry until lightly browned. Add mushrooms and cabbage and continue stir-frying until tender. Season with shaoxing and a dash of cinnamon and stir to thoroughly blend. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
3 cups flour
1 cup water
Extra flour for dusting
Combine flour and water in a mixing bowl and stir with a fork until it forms a ball of dough. Cover with a dish cloth and allow to rest for about 30 minutes. Turn the dough onto a floured board, dust dough ball with more flour and knead until dough is elastic. Divide the dough ball into 4 equal pieces. Dust each portion of dough with more flour and use a rolling pin to flatten into 9" circular sheets about 1/8" thick.
Assembling the Beggar's Chicken:
Preheat oven to 350. Place a sheet of aluminum foil over each dough sheet, and place a blanched cabbage leaf on each one. Place one chicken breast on each cabbage leaf, and spoon about 1/3 cup of pork stuffing mixture into the center of each one. Wrap each chicken breast around the stuffing, wrap the blanched cabbage leaf around the stuffed chicken breast, and wrap the aluminum foil tightly around the stuffed, cabbage-wrapped chicken. Finally, wrap a sheet of dough around each one, and turn the package over, seam side down, into a greased baking dish. Bake uncovered for two hours, draining away pan drippings at 30 minute intervals so that the dough wrappers do not steam or become soggy. When the Beggar's Chicken is done, the dough wrapper should hard and brittle. Transfer the chicken to individual serving dishes with the sauce on the side, and allow guests to break the dough shells at the table. The handle of a table knife works well for cracking the dough shell, and for convenience, serve some empty dishes for guests to discard the wrappings and skin. Serves 4.
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water or stock
While the Beggar's Chicken is baking, bring chicken stock to a boil in a small saucepan. Add soy sauce, oyster sauce and shaoxing and reduce to a simmer. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and set aside. Gently reheat sauce at serving time.