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Chicken: Chinese Style

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Fall Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(3) page(s): 9, 10, 34, and 36

Perhaps as far back as anyone can determine, and maybe as old as the Chinese culture itself, there are reports about the use of chickens. However, the earliest usage has nothing to do with eating these birds; or does it? Chickens are mentioned on ancient oracle bones. As a food item, they were written about as being consumed during the Zhou Dynasty (1066 - 221 BCE). Pictures of them are found on pottery. Some sculptures of chickens have been located and dated circa 3,000 BCE. And, chicken bones themselves have been found in both Han dynasty Tombs #1 and #2. These were radio-carbon dated circa 5,000 BCE. Were that not early enough, there are bones dating chickens circa 6,500 BCE in the north of China.

While chicken, which is known as Gallus gallus or Gallus domesticus, was the first fowl to be domesticated in China, it is believed that they were first valued not for food, but for waking folks up. Goose may have been the first fowl consumed. Eating chickens came later, or that is what some historians seem to believe. One of the main reasons given is that the very early Chinese did lots of hunting for goose, an animal not domesticated until long after the chicken was. Considering chicken’s popularity now, it is hard to think of a time when the Chinese did not eat this bird.

There are no guarantees as to when chickens actually were first consumed. It used to be thought that colonization in the Pacific some five thousand years ago was a probable time. But chicken remains have been recovered from domestic sites such as the Hemandu site in Southeast China some seven thousand years ago. It is hard to believe they were not consumed there, at least by some of those people.

Archeologists and historians know that chickens were one of the six domestic animals reported about and reared as livestock before Zhou Dynasty times (1046 - 221 BCE). The other five animals first domesticated were the horse, ox, sheep, pig, and dog. These important animals were written about very early on as were the first five grains that included two kinds of millet, soybeans, wheat, and rice. No one believes they were not eaten that early. As to chicken consumption, they were eaten thousands of years ago in other places in Asia, so the same is probably true in China.

In those early days, chickens were valuable beyond the crow of the males among them. Their bones, specifically the thigh bone, was used for divination. It is recorded, that white roosters rode on coffins as the body inside was transported for burial. Called ‘soul chickens’ they were there to scare away evil spirits trying to accompany this deceased before it was buried. This role for the chicken of scaring away evil spirits was particularly popular in Guangzhou and other southern environs.

With the keeping of chickens for these purposes, it is only natural that they made their way to the table and were an easy-to-consume food item. After all, there are many reasons to keep/raise chickens. Most particularly, raising and keeping them is easy as they are scavengers who find their own food. Keeping them provides lots of valuable excrement, as theirs is excellent fertilizer. Their feathers make great bedding material. These birds are easy to slaughter, and it is virtually effortless to salvage their blood for medicinal and culinary purposes. Other reasons include that there is no need to worry about spoilage after killing a chicken because all their meat can be consumed quickly even by very few people. The chicken is a small bird so slaughtering one is a quick job.

Keeping chickens is a regenerative process. That is because they lay lots of eggs when young, more than two hundred and fifty in the first year, fewer each year thereafter. Those that are fertilized can hatch and lay more eggs. The Chinese know that when older, long after their laying-egg-life is over, chickens make great soup. For eons, the Chinese have considered chicken feet a great delicacy, and they cut and cook all large pieces of meat, and easily use all wings and giblets. Chicken fat is appreciated as are all of this bird’s bodily components.

Ordinary chickens are, in the hot/cold dichotomy, considered warm and neutral. Black chickens, discussed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 10(2) on page 7, are primarily used medicinally. They are touted extensively because the Chinese believe they cure various illnesses, reduce strain, and rid the body of 'evil qi' of the chest and the abdomen. Known as 'silkies,' these white-feathered birds with their black-skin and black meat may be new to western markets, but they are not that new to the Chinese. They have been popular for hundreds of years, if not more. Friar Martin de Rade, who visited Fujian in 1575, wrote about them. He told the western world about their unusual-colored flesh. A couple of hundred years earlier, Marco Polo told about seeing them in several Chinese cities.

The Chinese use what they call 'yellow chickens' or ordinary ones to cure weakness of the spleen and reduce diarrhea. They recommend them to pregnant women and nursing mothers. They like to gift a whole chicken to a new mother. Some do not wish to do so too early after a child’s birth as it may be a bad omen, so they do not do gift theirs until thirty days after the birth. However, close family members do give them to new mothers during those first thirty days knowing she will be served a soup made with the whole chicken, other bones, other meats, and lots of black vinegar. They now know that this soup is healthy and replaces the considerable calcium she lost during childbirth.

In this 'Year of the Rooster' and in all years past and present, since they began eating them, it is believed that the Chinese use all parts of the chicken. In the countryside, most raise their own and kill them as needed. City folk prefer buying theirs alive, then having them slaughtered. Many save the blood, have the feathers removed, the bird gutted, and all organs given to them with the whole chicken, head, feet, tail, and all left attached to the bird’s body.

My grandmother, though not Chinese, used to send me to the live poultry market under the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan to get her ‘pullet’ every Friday. The Chinese elderly there would often ask me if they could have the blood and the feet from my bird. When told 'yes' for the former they were delighted. They were disappointed when told 'no' for the latter. I tried to explain that grandma used the feet when making chicken soup as they gave it body and lots of flavor. When they asked for the small eggs still without shells, I told them these baby eggs were mine, promised to me by grandma. I loved their taste and the fact that grandma said if I ate them I would grow up not to be the skinny kid I was. I was told to give these Chinese ladies the head, and they gladly took it and the tail.

Chinese purchasing their own chickens always wanted the head left attached to the body. Once I asked a lady why and she said the brains in it would make her kids smart. She also said the blood was gelled and used in soup and other dishes including what I now know are very early recipes for hot and sour soup and several stir-fry dishes.

Since those forays to that market, which no longer exists there, I have learned that in early China, hot and sour soup recipes virtually always had chunks of coagulated blood in it. And, I have since learned why. The coagulated blood reflects back on those ‘soul chickens’ intended to drive away ghosts from the homes who prepared them that way. Many cities with large Chinese populations often have one or more live poultry markets. Many Chinese and others can be found shopping in them; and a few times recently I have, too. I did ask several Chinese shoppers and a couple of Chinese men working there why the blood is saved and what it is used for. Not one of them, even with help of several translators, gave any reason that resembled ‘soul chicken’ use.

Chickens are very versatile. The Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei (1716 - 1797 CE) once wrote about two that he used to make a ten-course meal. Qing Dynasty emperors. (1644 - 1911 CE) reportedly liked their chickens fat. They smoked them, boiled them, and fried them. And on the eve of Chinese New Year, they ordered them made into a soup. The fat and blood, both considered strengthening foods, may have been why they wanted theirs fat and alive.

Eating chicken had positive and negative connotations. In earlier times, if eating a chicken thought to be poisonous, the recommendation was to drink good wine vinegar to counter its ill effects. An early dictum was never to eat chicken prepared in a fish stock. Why? Because it was said to obstruct the bowels. Still another, never eat chicken and rabbit at the same meal; the why here, that serious diarrhea results.

There are many more, some popular at least since the Yuan Dynasty (1280 - 1368 CE), and reported in The Soup for the Qan by Buell and Anderson. Most are for pregnant and nursing women including that if a mother eats chicken when pregnant, she should not be surprised if her child gets tapeworm. And, should that infant get ringworm sores, then mother or wet nurse must avoid chicken, shrimp, fish, and horsemeat. For those wanting an increase of qi, who are not pregnant, they should eat their chicken made with mutton, mushrooms, and flour.

For those living in the Yuan Dynasty (1280 - 1368 CE) and wanting a popular recipe for chicken, recipes indicate making one with salt, soy sauce, vinegar, fennel, and flower pepper (now called Sichuan pepper), and roasting it over hot coals. Near and during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) the chicken dish of delight was boiled bones from chickens made with cardamon into a soup. During that same dynasty, chicken was cooked with sheep stomach, sprouted ginger, carrots, eggs, and spinach, and seasoned with coriander. This melange they thickened with ground sunflower seeds. Popular, closer to the end of the Ming, Chickens were roasted after stuffing them with apricot kernels, onions, and vinegar.

Today, a plain roasted chicken is popular, often basted with soy and maltose. They can be seen hanging in Hong Kong and Cantonese restaurants and market places. The illustration of two of them is shown aove and was the cover picture of this issue. Note the head tucked under the wing, and that the skin is glossy and gorgeous. These birds are juicy and tender, and ready to eat. They simply cut them and serve them to you if ordering it there; as we often do. These are not a simple soy sauce chicken but rather a roasted chicken. They can be purchased, cut, and taken home to eat later.
Smoked Chicken, Chinese-style
2 large whole chicken breasts on the bone, about two and one-half pounds
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon mixed ground fennel, ground coriander seed, and ground star anise or five spice powder
5 whole cloves
1 star anise
1/4 stick cinnamon
1/4 cup light soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 cup raw rice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons whole tea leaves
3 scallions
1. Rub chicken breasts on both sides with salt and then with the spice mixture. Refrigerate covered for four hours.
2. Bring one quart water to the boil, then add cloves, star anise, stick cinnamon, soy sauce, and rice wine. Then add chicken breasts and remove from the heat. Let stand covered, for half an hour.
3. Mix rice, sugar, and tea leaves. Line a wok or deep pan with aluminum foil and add this mixture. Put a rack over it, and put chicken breasts on it, skin side down, then cover and heat until it smokes. Smoke the meat for fifteen minutes, then remove. This step needs to be done outside or in a very well-ventilated room; preferably one with an exhaust fan.
4. Remove from the pan, and chop the chicken breasts into one to two-inch pieces and set aside for about an hour, to cool.
5. Mince scallions, put on a serving plate, and put the chicken pieces on top, skin side up, and serve, They should be close to or at room temperature.
Hot and Sour Soup, the Ancient Way
1/8 pound lean pork, slivered
1/2 firm bean curd slivered
3 dried black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed, and slivered
2 cups chicken broth
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
4 Tablespoons coagulated chicken or pork blood, slivered
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 Tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
2 teaspoons thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
1/2 egg white
1. Mix pork, bean curd, and mushrooms and put into a large pot, then add chicken broth and four cups of water and heat. Allow this to simmer for fifteen minutes.
2. Add all the rest of the ingredients and simmer for five minutes, 3. Beat egg white and stir in and keep stirring, albeit very gently, for one minute, then serve.
Fujian Chicken
1 cup corn oil
8 skinless and boneless chicken thighs, cut into two-inch pieces
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 slice fresh ginger, slivered
1 Tablespoon red fermented rice, Fujian style
1 cup Chinese beer
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons of water
1. Heat corn oil and fry chicken pieces for one minute, then remove. Remove all but one tablespoon oil, saving it for another use.
2. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil, and fry garlic for half minute, then add salt, sugar, and ginger. slivers and fry for another minute before adding the fermented rice, and the beer, and bring to the boil.
3. Add chicken pieces, reduce heat and simmer for fifteen to eighteen minutes before adding the cornstarch mixture, raising the temperature, and stir-frying until the sauce boils and thickens. This should be no more than one minute, before it is ready to be served.
Roasted Chicken, Chinese-style
3 to 4 pieces dried tangerine peel, soaked for fifteen minutes, reserve the liquid, then mince them
3 slices fresh ginger, slivered
2 cloves fresh garlic, slivered
1 Tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon yellow or grinding bean sauce
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Maotai or another strong liquor
1 whole three-pound chicken, cleaned and dried
1. In a large pot, mix tangerine peel, ginger, garlic, hoisin and ground bean sauces, soy sauce, and the Maotai. The add the chicken and bring to the boil, and keep turning the chicken about a minute or two per side, until no sauce remains in the pan; about three to five minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F, Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil and put the chicken on a rack in this pan, and cook five minutes on each side, before reducing the heat to 350 degrees F. Roast it twenty minutes per side.
3. Remove the chicken, and first cut in half, then chop each side into about twelve pieces before serving.
Boiled Chicken, Old Style
1 whole chicken, about three pounds, cut in quarters
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 carrots, thinly sliced
1 carrot, shredded
12 hard-cooked and peeled quail eggs
1/2 cup coarsely chopped Chinese spinach
1/4 cup minced fresh coriander
1. Put chicken into a large pot with six cups of water, the salt, and the rice wine and bring to the boil. Remove the scum from the liquid, reduce the heat, and simmer for thirty minutes.
2. Add carrot slices and shredded carrot and simmer another ten minutes. Remove the chicken and take the meat off the bones, cut any large pieces into two or three smaller ones, and return the meat to the pot.
3. Next add the quail eggs, chopped spinach, and chopped coriander. Simmer another five minutes, then serve.

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