This is one of Hunan’s most famous dishes, a delicate concoction of chicken flavored with chiles and clear rice vinegar that is said to have originated in Dong’an county. Its precise history is lost in the mists of legend, although most sources claim it is based on a dish called “vinegar chicken” (cu ji) that was eaten in Dong’an county as far back as the eighth century, during the Tang dynasty. Some embellish the tale to say it was invented by three old ladies who ran a modest restaurant. One evening, so the story goes, some merchants called and demanded dinner at a time when the women were sold out of almost everything, so they had to slaughter a couple of chickens and rustle up a new dish on the spot. The resulting recipe was so extraordinarily delicious that the merchants spread the word far and wide, and the dish entered the canon of classic Hunan delicacies.
There are two different versions of the tale of how “vinegar chicken” eventually became known as “Dong’an Chicken.” Some say a Qing dynasty military commander named Xi Baotian loved the dish, and often served it to his guests at banquets; because Xi was from Dong’an, people started calling it “Dong’an chicken.” Others claim that after the success of the Northern Expedition in 1927, a Nationalist army commander, Tang Shangzhi, served “vinegar chicken” at a banquet in Nanjing. His dinner guests were profuse in their praise, and asked what the dish was called. Tang felt that the original name was a bit blunt and inelegant, so he told them it was called “Dong’an Chicken,” and the name stuck.
I have based the recipe below on one told to me by one of the great Hunanese chefs, Shi Yinxiang, a delightful man now in his 80s, who used to cook for Chairman Mao whenever he returned to his home province.—Fuchsia Dunlop
About 4 quarts water or chicken stock
1 free-range or corn-fed chicken, about 2 3/4 pounds
1 3/4-inch piece fresh ginger, unpeeled
1 fresh red chile
4 tablespoons lard or peanut oil for cooking
3 dried chiles (optional)
1/2 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper or 1/2 teaspoon Sichuan pepper oil
2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons clear rice vinegar
Salt to taste
3/4 teaspoon potato flour mixed with 2 teaspoons cold water
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Bring the water or stock to the boil in a large saucepan over a high flame. Add the chicken and return the liquid to the boil, skimming the surface, as necessary. Crush half the ginger and one scallion with the flat side of a cleaver or a heavy object, then add to the pan with the chicken. Reduce the heat and poach the chicken for 10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the cooking liquid and allow it to cool; reserve the cooking liquid. The chicken should be about three-quarters cooked.
2. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the flesh from the carcass and cut as far as possible into bite-size strips, along the grain of the meat. I never discard the skin. (The bones and scrappy pieces of meat can be returned to the cooking liquid and made into stock.)
3. Cut the fresh chile in half lengthwise and discard the seeds and pithy part, then cut into very fine slivers about 1 1/2 inches long. Peel the remaining ginger and cut it into slices and then slivers similar to the chile. Cut the green parts of the remaining 2 scallions into slivers of a similar length; set aside.
4. Heat the wok over a high flame until smoke rises, then add the lard or peanut oil and swirl around. When the oil is warming up but before it is smoking hot, add the fresh chile and ginger, along with the dried chiles and Sichuan pepper, if using, and stir-fry until fragrant, taking care that the seasonings do not take color or burn.
5. Add the chicken and continue to stir-fry. Splash the Shaoxing wine around the edges of the chicken. Add the vinegar, Sichuan pepper oil, if using, and salt to taste. Add up to X cup of the chicken poaching liquid (if the chicken is very juicy, no additional liquid will be necessary), bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down a little and simmer briefly to allow the flavors to penetrate the chicken, spooning the liquid over.
6. Add the potato flour mixture to the liquid and stir as the sauce thickens. Throw in the scallion greens and stir a few times. Remove from the heat and stir in the sesame oil. Serve.
Recipe © 2006 by Fuchsia Dunlop. All rights reserved.