Beggar’s chicken (chicken out)


Unwrapping 叫化鸡 Beggar's ChickenEver since I wrote about lotus leaves on my ingredients blog Tokowijzer, I wanted to make Beggar’s Chicken, the famous Chinese chicken dish where a whole stuffed chicken is wrapped inside a lotus leaf, covered in a layer of mud and baked in a hot oven. I had seen the chefs in Chengdu doing a demo of this dish when I was at the Culinary Institute in Sichuan last year, but I hadn’t yet tried it for myself.

Lotus leaf: wrapping Lotus leaf: wrapping Lotus leaf: wrapping Wrapping and covering with clay Beggar chicken Unwrapping the chicken

Lotus leaves are such perfect things – large and pretty and smelling faintly like grass like green tea. They give off a subtle perfume to anything you wrap it in for steaming. So lotus leaves are the first thing you have to buy when you want to make this dish: they come dried in a huge package from the Chinese store, 12 large leaves to one pack. They seem impossible to handle but will be pliable and soft once soaked in warm water for half an hour or so. The next thing you have to hunt for is a large chunk of clay, which I found at the handicraft store. Of course if you know your clays or know your river beds or where ever you can find it for free, please do so! I remember the Sichuan chef announcing in the morning before he made the dish he had to go to the Chengdu countryside to get himself some special kind of clay, though I suspected him of making up this mission just to get the afternoon off 😉

As in a lot of Chinese recipes with strange sounding titles, there is a story to go with this recipe and a reason for its name. The story is there was a beggar in the Qing dynasty who stole a chicken and killed it, and wanted to eat it without anyone noticing the smells of cooking. He quickly hid the chicken in mud and then cooked it in a fire pit, covering it all up. Then after returning to the scene of his crime he opened the mud casing and the beautiful smells of the chicken came out. There is a variation to this story that says an emperor happened to pass by – supposedly Qianlong, who did a lot of southward travelling through his empire – and he was so attracted to the wonderful chicken smells, he stepped out of his carriage to share the beggar’s meal.

For this recipe, you will need:
1 chicken
2 tablespoons of Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
3 star anise
100 grams of minced pork
yacai (black Sichuan preserved vegetable) – optional, very hard to come by outside Sichuan
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
pinch of sugar
2 cm. chunk of ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
5 pickled chillies (leave them out if you don’t like hot)
dried lotus leaf
kitchen string
greaseproof paper
about 2 to 3 kilos of clay
hot oven or 200C barbecue
sesame oil

Soak the dried lotus leaf in hot water until soft and pliable. Drain on kitchen towel until needed. Wash the chicken, pat it dry and then rub salt on the inside. Salt the outside too, then rub with marinade of Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce. Put 3 star anise into the cavity of the chicken. Marinate for 30 mins up to one hour.

叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok, fry the minced meat until turning white, add yacai preserved vegetable if you can find it. Add 2 tablespoons of Shaoxing rice wine, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, half a tablespoon of sugar, 2 centimetres of finely chopped ginger. Add 5 deeseeded and chopped pickled chili peppers (from Sichuan): if you can’t get hold of these peppers you can leave them out, or substitute with home pickled chilies. Fry until everything smells good, then turn off the heat and let cool.

Take your chicken, fill the cavity with the cooled minced meat mixture and secure with toothpicks. Now take your presoaked lotus leaf, put the chicken on top and wrap the leaf all around the chicken. Then wrap a sheet of greaseproof paper around the lotus leaf and secure with kitchen string.

What I did next is study the photos of the Sichuan chef to see how exactly he covered the chicken with clay: he kind of caked it on with his right hand while holding the chicken in his left hand. So that’s what I did too. The problem with this method is that when caking the clay on here and there, halfway you won’t remember the thickness of the clay. Just by looking at the outside you can’t say which part was put on thick or thin – resulting in places with thin clay which crack during the baking process. I think next time I will roll out a slab of clay like a piece of dough, in an even layer of 1 centimetre thick, and then put on the chicken and wrap it around.

Put the (heavy!) chicken on an baking tray and bake in a 200 C oven (or barbecue, like Big Green Egg) for about 1 hour and 30 minutes. After baking the package will stay hot for quite a long time! Mine burst halfway because of the thinness of the clay as I said and the increasing heat. Cracking it open was no trouble at all.

The chicken had the most wonderful flavor: grassy and rustic from the lotus leaves, and perfectly succulent from the clay casing. Brush with some sesame oil and eat with plain white rice and a simple soy sauce dip. Will definitely try again!

叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken Unwrapping 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken

I now will share with you part of the most wonderful Chinglish recipe for Beggar’s chicken. Even when understanding Chinese perfectly, no one understands what direction this translation is taking! Usually you can kind of translate back and forth in your head to guess the real meaning, but this one, in places, turns out to be a total riddle.

[…] system of law: the chicken claws ribs to get dirty, with knife blade struck decapitation, legs, feet, into the altar, add soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, salt pickled one hour. [sounds like some strange voodoo].

chicken out, the cloves, star anise grind at the end, plus kaempferol wiping the end of the chicken all over the body.

Wok into the Shuzhu You, fried onions, ginger and fragrant from fishing to go after, and then shrimp, chicken gizzard an small, button mushrooms, pork and ham under the small, shrimp into the wok fried Britain several times. Gachot wine, soy sauce, cotton sugar fry off-sheng, Dai Liang squeezed after the chicken stomach, beheaded squeezed blade, armpit put clove oil packet networks using pigs, chicken tight body, wrapped several layers of external Xian Heye truss with a fine hemp rope, grind mud wine Tan mixing of water from Canada into the powder stick flat on a damp cloth, tied difficult to set the middle with a damp cloth scoop up mud to make mud stick thrown off tight wet cloth, wrapped with the wrapping paper, poke a small hole in the.

Good luck with that!


4 Responses to “Beggar’s chicken (chicken out)”

  1. 1 Soesja

    The first and only time I had this really delicious Beggar’s chicken was a long time ago at a dinner at Lai sin’s. So I couldn’t wait to make myself one, but instead of clay I used a crust of dough, which was in the end not a good idea. The dough absorbed a lot of the flavours of the chicken and its moisture, leaving a not very exciting, quite dry piece of chicken. But reading this recipe again, I feel like give it another try. I am going to get myself a big lump of clay and try to get a lovely chicken as described, can’t hardly wait!

  2. Funny you mention it. I had it at Lai Sin’s as well… in the 90s during one of my translation jobs for the Ministry of Agriculture. We were shown the chicken in clay crust on which a beautiful character ‘SHOU’ (long life) had been carved. Then it went back to the kitchen and out came the best pieces of chicken, straight to the minister’s table.. 😉
    I have read about the crust of dough in several places, good to know your views! Let me know when you do your clay chicken … good luck!

  3. are you sure the Chinglish version is not a hidden way to describe the perfect murder?

  4. I haven’t tried your recipe yet but I told my husband about it, mostly about the bird and the clay. And to my astonishment he wasn’t surprised or shocked but replied dryly that the clay was probably applied to get rid of the feathers more easily… he told me about a tribe somewhere that catch hedgehogs and put them in clay before roasting them in order to facilitate the removal of the spines. No, I won’t try that but I might try actually try the Beggar’s chicken…I’ll let you know about the outcome.

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