This is one of Hunan’s most famous dishes, a delicate concoction of chicken flavored with chiles and 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’s 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
LC Name Games Note
Honestly? We don’t care what this dish is named. We just want it on our plate.
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 1 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 almost but not completely cooked.
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and cut it into bite-size strips along the grain of the meat. (The bones and scrappy pieces of meat can be returned to the cooking liquid and made into stock. And I never discard the skin.)
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.
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’s 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.
Add the chicken and continue to stir-fry. Carefully splash the Shaoxing wine around the chicken. Add the vinegar, Sichuan pepper oil, if using, and salt to taste. Add up to 1 cup 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, occasionally spooning the liquid over the chicken.
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 immediately.