Once upon a time – long, long ago in China’s ancient past there was an Emperor who was fleeing from his enemies after a battle. He disguised himself as a beggar, and whilst on the run, being very hungry he stole a chicken. Fearing that the locals would know he had stolen it and tell his enemies where he was, he hid it in the mud at the edge of a river. When the danger had passed, he retrieved the chicken, now completely covered with mud, and put it into his fire to cook.
When he thought it would be cooked, he took it out of the fire and broke open the muddy covering which was now absolutely hard having been in the fire. When he did so, all the bird’s feathers came away with the mud, and the chicken was succulent and delicious. That is one of the legends about how ‘Beggar’s Chicken’ came to be.
These days mud plays no part in preparing this masterpiece of Chinese cuisine. The bird has already been plucked and it is stuffed then wrapped in Lotus leaves (these are usually bought dried and then soaked until soft) and following that a wrapping of heavy salted dough or pastry is sealed round the chicken. It is then cooked slowly in an oven for between four and six hours. Then it will be brought to the dining table, still in its carapace – a hammer and knife will be produced and one of the guests will be invited to break open the wrapping to expose the bird.
Recently our friend K (who is a superb cook) and her husband W invited us and other friends to their hutong house for Sunday lunch.
After several delicious cold dishes (traditional start to a Chinese meal): Lotus Three Ways: pickled, stuffed with pork, and deep fried into spicy crisps; steamed savoury eggplant; baby tomatoes with sour plum sauce and various other delights.
Then they brought out the Beggar’s Chicken!
Wow, wow, wow! One of us was handed the hammer and knife and invited to do the honours – breaking through the heavy crust of dough proved harder than he had expected, serious force was required. But when he succeeded in breaking it open the most wonderful aroma permeated the room. Everyone went “Aaah…” simultaneously!
K had made a fantastic stuffing of sticky rice studded with bits of Sichuan ‘bacon’ and chopped shitake mushrooms. As a side dish she served a big platter of wilted shredded green beans with slivers of smoked tofu, all in a delicious sauce.
The chicken was sublime – tender, moist and full of flavour. I have never had such a delicious ‘roast’ chicken in my life. Conversation ceased as we all tucked in.
This is not a dish that is usually served in a private home as it is thought that only a professionally trained chef can prepare and cook it properly. I have to say that is wrong! This Beggar’s Chicken cooked by K was the real deal – a chicken any Beggar would have died for.
I feel so privileged to know such a wonderful cook.
Thank you K and W for a memorable Sunday Lunch!