Sunday, September 11, 2011

Big Plate o' Chicken

Ahh, Xinjiang food.  If I ever leave this crazy country, I may bid its traffic, crowds, and pollution good riddance, but I will be eternally grateful for being introduced to Xinjiang food.

Xinjiang is the very large province (technically 'autonomous region') in northwest China populated mostly by the Uyghur minority... and some of the most delectable sheep you've ever encountered.  The land is dry, which means less rice and more wheat, yielding a cuisine rounded out mostly by some tasty flour-based carbs such as noodles and bread that is baked in wood-fired tandoori-like ovens.

Despite Xinjiang's abundance in tasty lamb, one of my favorite Xinjiang dishes is Da Pan Ji (大盘鸡), literally meaning Big Plate o' Chicken.  And a big plate of chicken it indeed is: a giant platter of chicken pieces tossed with potatoes, green peppers, and leeks.  Fresh, wide, chewy flour noodles are added afterward and tossed in the remaining sauce.

Are you drooling yet?

Last semester, I had the pleasure of teaching a group of primary school teachers from Xinjiang, and decided to let them put their teaching skills to the test and teach me how to make Da Pan Ji.  It certainly wasn't easy or quick, but I was pleasantly surprised by how do-able it is and that Da Pan Ji is a one pot recipe is an added bonus.

Well, I couldn't keep the joy of Da Pan Ji to myself, so here is the recipe for one of the tastiest things that China has to offer.  And I promise you, it will taste nothing like Panda Express.  In a good way.

Xinjiang dinner, compliments of my amazing students.

You will need:

For the noodles:
3 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons salt-- dissolve salt into water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

For the Da Pan Ji:
1 whole chicken-- cleaned well outside and inside the cavity, giblets removed, separated and cut into small pieces (keep bone in)
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3-4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 liter light beer
1 cup hot water
3 potatoes-- peeled and cut into 3 inch cubes, then tossed with a little salt
2 Anaheim peppers, cut into 3 inch squares
salt to taste

Flavor Bouquet-- place all ingredients into a small bowl
3/4 cup dried red chilis
1 whole star anise
4-6 Bay leaves
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
4 inch knob of ginger-- peeled and sliced into strips
2 leeks cut into 4 inch pieces, then sliced lengthwise
1 whole bulb of garlic-- peeled, then crushed lightly to release flavor

Note:  For those of you who lack the butchering skills (or a mini chainsaw) to take apart an entire chicken, I cheated the second time I made Da Pan Ji by using drumettes and chicken wings.  Saves a TON of time, and if you live in China, you don't have to deal with the whole chickens coming with the head and the claws.  For me, personally, that's just a little to 'real.'

First, prep the noodles.  Put the flour into a large bowl, then add salted water little by little, incorporated it into the flour by hand.  Continue to add water until the dough comes together and pulls cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.  Knead the dough on a board (no need to flour the board) until it softens.  Put the dough on a board with the bowl inverted over it to keep the dough moist.  Allow the dough to rest.

AJ kneading the noodle dough
Pour oil into a large wok over high heat until the oil is about 2-3 inches deep.  When the oil begins to smoke, add all of the chicken pieces.  Stir carefully, and add a few pieces of ginger to stop the smell.  Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon of salt over the chicken to render its juices.  Cook over high heat for 10-15 minutes, until all juices have reduced and the oil begins popping gently.

Add soy sauce to the chicken, until it turns into a deep caramel color.  Add the flavor bouquet all at once.  When the chicken begins fragrant, pour in the beer, and hot water.  Allow to simmer for a few minutes, stirring the chicken and spices gently.  Ladle out about three ladle-spoons of the broth, and reserve for later.

Flavor bouquet!

Rinse the salt off the potatoes and drain well.  Place potatoes on top of the chicken in a single layer, but do not mix them.  Cover the wok with a lid, and turn down the heat to medium.  Let the broth simmer until the potatoes are cooked through (and can be pierced easily with a chopstick).

While the potatoes are cooking, push down the noodle dough into a large patty.  Rub the oil over the top of the patty, turning it over once so it is well coated by oil.  Cover with the bowl again, and let it rest a second time.

At this point, the potatoes should be cooked through.  Add the reserved broth back on top of the potatoes, toss in the green peppers, and mix everything together, and transfer to the biggest plate you own, preferably one with a generous lip to catch all the good broth.

Now, to finish off the noodles!  Slice up your patty into long strips about 1 inch thick.  Squeeze the strips in between your fingers to create a wide, flat noodle.  If you're feeling brave, you can try holding your noodle on each end between your index finger and thumb and waving it up and down to stretch it out.

Once your noodles are good and stretched, fill up your wok (no need to clean it!) with water and bring the water to a boil.  Push your noodles into the boiling water and cook for about 5 minutes.  You can put the noodles over the chicken, or divide it between your guests bowls, and ladle the Da Pan Ji over the noodles.

Wipe the drool from your chin, and savor the product of all your hard labor.

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