The Beggar's Chicken
Chinese cuisine is, arguably, the most renowned and popular form of dining in the world. The origin of individual dishes ranges from the traditional to the bizarre. The Beggar’s Chicken is an exotic banquet dish that traces its origin from the lowest caste of the society - the beggars, to the table of the imperial palace.
In ancient China, during one of the many famines that periodically ravaged the Land of the Dragon, refugees flooded into Chang Sho, a rich and fertile farming district on the outskirts of the scenic Hangzhou, in the eastern province of Jiangsu. One refugee turned beggar, forced by a pang of hunger, snuck into a village, and absconded with a chicken. With no cooking utensils and ingredients, he devised an ingenious method to cook his meal.
At the bank of a stream, the beggar built a fire and then went to work on the chicken. He packed the chicken, feathers and all, in a thick coat of mud. Taking pains to knead the mud between the feathers, he inserted a stick of reed into the chicken via its tail. He then set the chicken to one side then banked the fire which had turned logs into hot coals. He used a set of sticks to maneuver the mud-covered chicken into the bed of hot coals with the reed riding at the top. Slowly, the heat turned the wet mud into hard clay. In time, a mouth-watering aroma wafted through the cracks of the clay and into the air. The beggar waited patiently until the internal juice of the chicken spurted out from the reed, indicating that the innards of the fowl was cooked. He fished the clay ball out of the fire with sticks then swung his stout walking staff and cracked open the brittle shell. When he removed the hardened crust, chicken feathers that had been kneaded into the mud also came off.
However, the poor beggar did not have time to enjoy his meal. The fragrance of his dinner attracted a passerby, who happened to be a servant sent by the owner of the chicken, to track down the lost fowl. Caught with the loot in his mouth, the beggar hung his head in guilt as the servant dragged him back to the village.
The servant presented the trembling culprit and the half-eaten chicken to the master of the manor. The house’s master prided himself to be a gourmet chef and had been upset at the loss of his prized hen, however, his demeanor changed, as he smelled the aroma of the evidence. He pinched off a piece of the meat and sampled it, then to everyone’s surprise, he sat down and consumed the rest of the evidence.
At length, the master belched with satisfaction and gestured the beggar to come forth. The culprit cringed and fell to his knees then shuffled forward to the proprietor. The beggar kowtowed and then pleaded for mercy, but to his surprise, the master shushed the man into silence.
Ten days later, the master invited his group of fellow gourmands for a gathering. His guests arrived with anticipation, eager for a taste of the gastronomic delight in the host’s manor. They were surprised when the host ushered them into the dining room where a large terracotta ball sat on a wooden tray, at the center of the table. Under the puzzled gaze of his audience, the master picked up the large cleaver by the tray and deftly struck the clay ball with the back of the heavy knife. The shell cracked open allowing steamy, fragrant aromas to permeate the room. The host used the cleaver, assisted by a pair of chopsticks, to pry off the remaining shells. The guests were surprised to see chicken feathers attached to the inside of the terracotta shells. Inside was a steaming chicken. At a gesture from the master of the manor, servants transferred the whole chicken onto a clean plate and then removed the wooden bowl together with the hard clay pieces and chicken feathers.
In contrast with a traditional serving technique which entailed carving up a whole chicken in the kitchen prior to serving, the host reached over with his chopsticks and stripped off a piece of meat from the bird, then gestured for his guests to join him in the experience. He waited in anticipation, as they gingerly followed his instruction. Their uncertainty soon turned to praise with a taste of the bizarre dish. For the rest of the dinner, the host regaled his guests with the tale of the exotic origin of the dish. At the end of the story, he presented his new chef, the thief who stole the chicken. Everyone congratulated the host on his losing the chicken in such a serendipitous manner and requested copies of the recipe.
The new owners of the recipe experimented with the beggar’s original cooking technique. Over time, generations of chefs refined the initial bucolic recipe, culminating in an entrée on the imperial emperor’s menu. Today, restaurants in Hangzhou City were especially well known for this gastronomic wonder.
Image: Cracking open a Beggar's Chicken
Restaurant New Heong Kee 新香记, Hong Kong – FoodPlanet by RunningMan
1 whole chicken
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 cups Shao Shing (Chinese rice wine)
2 TBS ginger
2 TBS scallion
1 TSP garlic
1 TBS cooking oil
1 TSP salt
6 oz Chinese smoked ham
1/4 cup Chinese mushrooms
1/4 cup bamboo shoots
4 fresh lotus leaves
2 lb pork fat
1. Slice a hole in each of the chicken’s armpits to clean and remove the innards. Wash and pat the chicken dry with a cloth, then remove the major leg, thigh, and wing bones. Marinate chicken with soy sauce, half a cup of wine, ginger, garlic, and scallion for one hour.
2. Slice ham, chicken gizzard, chicken liver, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots into long thin strips. Heat the wok then add oil and salt. Stir-fry ham, chicken gizzard, and chicken liver then add mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Remove the cooked mixture from the stove.
3. Stuff the interior of the chicken with the stir-fried mixture (through the armpit holes of the chicken). Pour in the remaining marinating sauce. Place cloves at armpits and inner thighs, then tuck and fold chicken limbs onto the body. Cover with a thin sheet of pork fat, then wrap with lotus leaves and tie with hemp rope. Mix the remainder of the wine with mud, then coat the chicken to form a mud ball. Place in a baking tray and bake over low heat (225 degrees) for three to four hours.
4. Remove chicken from oven. In presence of guests, crack and peel off clay shells, lotus leaves and pork fat. Serve with pepper salt. Be careful when cracking clay shells to avoid injury from hot steam.
Modern Chinese restaurants serve Beggar’s Chicken with a small gold mallet to break open the clay ball. Special care is required when cracking the shell, as the escaping steam and piping hot juice could cause injury. Customers keep the mallets as mementos of sampling such a famous dish. Some Chinese restaurants, especially those outside of China, use a flour mixture in place of mud, however, this sanitary-minded substitute fails to approximate the earthy flavor of the recipe in its true form. The flour mixture tends to be stickier than mud, thus harder to handle. Flour also does not hold up as well under extended cooking time. Besides, it is not as interesting a talking piece over the dinner table.
Health-conscious connoisseurs could dispense with the use of pork fat in the recipe. In China and some parts of the U.S., people still could get live chicken at the marketplace, thus affording an authentic cooking process; however, with the advent of the modern supermarket, western chefs do not have to slice holes in the armpits to clean the innards of the chicken.
Traditionally, Chinese wineries sealed the mouths of wine vats with mud prior to storing them for aging. Chefs use the mud taken from wine vats, to prepare the Beggar’s Chicken as a part of its marinating process. Since the average household seldom keeps such mud on hand, wine mixed with ordinary mud became a part of the recipe.
This also make a field expedient recipe for hunters to cook wild games such as turkey, grouse, duck, or geese.
Long Tang is a historian on Chinese history and culture. He is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish. He is also a gourmand. He is the author of five books and numerous articles on history and culture of China.