There is a well established tradition of poached chicken and other poultry in Chinese cooking. Nanjing is famous for its poached duck, 咸水鸭, xian shui ji (“salted water duck”); Guangdong province has its 白切鸡, bai qie ji (“white sliced chicken”), and somewhat further afield, Singapore is famous for its “Hainanese Chicken Rice,” itself adapted from an actual Hainanese dish called 文昌鸡, wen chang ji (“wenchang chicken”).
Sichuan province adds its own twist on the venerable poached chicken, which — predictably enough — takes the form of slathering shredded poached chicken in chili oil, black vinegar, and a host of other aromatics and flavorings. The culinary mastermind(s) behind this dish then gave it the name “saliva chicken,” which is a nice illustration of why it’s usually a good idea to get a professional to do your marketing. Luckily, the name hasn’t hampered that dish’s popularity much, and it remains a hallowed favorite of Sichuan cuisine.
The poaching method among all of these dishes is fairly typical, with minor variations: put a whole chicken in water with some seasoning, spices, and/or aromatics. Bring the water to a boil, remove and drain the bird, place it back in the poaching liquid, bring back to a boil, then simmer/poach.
An alternative to poaching is steaming, which my mother quite preferred as it was a hell of a lot easier. If she was feeling particularly casual that day, after marinating her chicken she’d just chop it up and toss it in the rice cooker for an hour or so.
One thing that is almost universal in my experience of poached poultry in Chinese cuisine is that it is usually served cold or lukewarm, often as an appetizer. While it’s something I do quite enjoy, I have always been more a fan of the shatteringly crisp skin on a well roasted chicken. There have been many family meals where I’ve examined a wonderfully flavored but pale, flabby, rubbery piece of chicken skin, and lamented the loss of what could have been.
Playing off a favorite preparation of my mother’s, we’ve developed this recipe. It’s been a favorite at a couple of hosted dinners, and has become a staple for us whenever we have a whole chicken on hand.
Sichuan Peppercorn Roasted Chicken (椒盐烤鸡)
- Roasting pan or baking sheet
- Sturdy chef's knife or kitchen/poultry shears
- 1 roasting chicken 4 lbs (just under 2kg)
- 1 Tbsp Kosher Salt Roughly 17g. Adjust this up or down according to the weight of your chicken. Figure ¼Tbsp (¾tsp) per pound of chicken.
- 4 Tbsp Red Sichuan peppercorns 20g. Important to use RED Sichuan peppercorns for this; red peppercorns are for flavor and aroma and a little numbing; green are for some aroma and flavor, and to really amp up the numbing sensation.
- 1 inch fresh ginger, finely sliced (optional) About 15g.
- 1 Tbsp Neutral vegetable oil canola, avocado, refined olive oil, etc
- 1 tsp Kosher Salt
Spatch That… Hen
- There are any number of instructions out there on how to spatchcock a chicken, but here we go again:
- Make sure your chicken is thawed, if purchased frozen.
- With kitchen shears or a sturdy chef's knife, cut out the backbone. Reserve the backbone for stock.
- Lay the chicken flat, on its breast so the internal cavity and ribs are exposed.
- Place a chef's knife or cleaver along the center of the chicken, against the breast bone. Strike the back of the knife once or twice, gently but firmly, with the heel of your hand to split the breast bone.
- For brownie points, use a paring knife to carve out the wishbone and remove it.
Trim And Clean Your Chicken
- Trim off any extraneous or undesirable fat; generally there will be some around the tail end of the body cavity. This can be reserved for the stock pot, rendered down for crackling and flavorful chicken fat, or (please don't do this) discarded.
- Turn the chicken so it is skin-up, and inspect for any residual feather shafts; they shouldn't cause any real harm, but are unattractive. I like to do at least one pass to remove any I find.
- In a skillet over medium heat, toast 4Tbsp (20g) of red Sichuan peppercorns until they are slightly darker in color, are very fragrant, and are leaving small spots of oil on the surface of the skillet.
- Dust your spatchcocked chicken very liberally on both the skin and cavity sides with kosher salt. For a 4-pound (1.8kg) chicken we used 1Tbsp (17g) of kosher salt. Make sure that even the hidden surfaces (under the wings, between the thigh and breast) are well salted.
- Scatter Sichuan peppercorns, 2Tbsp on each side, over the chicken; press the peppercorns well into the meat on both the skin and cavity sides. Press a few peppercorns into the surfaces under the wings and between the thighs and breasts as well.
- (optional) scatter thinly sliced fresh ginger onto the chicken, about 15g. Make sure both sides of the chicken have good coverage.
- Cover and place in the coldest part of your fridge for anywhere between 2 to 4 days. Turn the chicken every 18-24 hours.
Prep And Roast
- Preheat your oven to 400F (200C), or 375F with convection (190C).
- Remove the chicken from the fridge and rinse it under cold water, removing excess salt and all the peppercorns. You'll notice pink stains on the meat from the peppercorns; this is normal!
- Once free of peppercorns, place the chicken in a roasting pan or on a rimmed baking sheet, ideally on a mesh roasting rack, skin side up.
- Pat the chicken completely dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel.
- Lightly dust the entire skin side surface of the chicken with kosher salt, about 1tsp.
- Drizzle 1Tbsp of vegetable oil over the chicken, and massage it and the salt into the chicken with your hands, making sure every part of the chicken with skin is coated with oil and salt.
- Place the chicken on a middle rack, and roast anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on your oven, or until the temperature at the thickest part of the thigh reaches165F (74C).
- If the skin isn't golden brown and crispy at this point, switch the oven to broil until the skin reaches the color you like.
- Remove the chicken and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes.
- If desired, deglaze the roasting pan with water, stock, or wine, and create a pan sauce or gravy with the drippings.
- Just before serving, if the skin has softened during the resting period, you can re-crisp it by placing it back under the broiler for a couple minutes.
- Serve hot; this should be flavorful and juicy enough to stand on its own, but also does well when paired with a pan sauce, Sichuan chili oil, or (if you'd like to be a bit more traditional) a scallion-ginger oil.
- Smoking this style of chicken, either on a smoker or in the oven, as my mother sometimes did (place a pan in the oven with some wood chips, dry green or brown tea, rice, and brown sugar) also produces excellent results. You can also lightly add some smoke flavor with a smoke gun or stovetop smoker, but I’ve generally found this to be more trouble than it’s worth.
- Steaming or poaching this chicken is also a great choice; serve chilled alongside ginger scallion sauce for a more traditional preparation.