[Image: Crisply-fried bite-size pieces of chicken piled on a fluted white plate, intermingled with a large quantity of fried dried red chillies.]
I am not, in general, a big fan of chicken dishes — too often, they're just bland and boring. However, 辣子雞 (là zi jī), or chicken with chillies, is a notable exception. This dish consists of bite-size pieces of chicken — often left on the bone for extra flavour — which are first deep-fried and then briefly stirfried with a terrifying quantity of dried chillies.
The chillies are not intended to be eaten, but are used simply to impart their flavour to the chicken; the dish is quite fragrant, and not necessarily as overwhelmingly spicy as it may at first appear. (Having said that, I have eaten some fairly hot versions which I suspect may have included chilli oil among their ingredients.)
As well as plain old 辣子雞 (là zi jī), the Chinese names I've seen this listed as include:
|重慶辣子雞||Chóngqìng là zi jī||Chóngqìng is a direct-controlled municipality adjacent to Sichuan province and previously part of it. According to Fuchsia Dunlop, this is where 辣子雞 originated.|
|歌樂山辣子雞||Gēlèshān là zi jī||This name is even more specific than the above, in terms of location; Geleshan is an area within Chongqing.|
|四川辣子雞||Sìchuān là zi jī||This name also associates the dish with Sichuan.|
|川香辣子雞||Chuān xiāng là zi jī||The 川 here is an abbreviation for 四川, i.e. Sichuan.|
|飄香辣子雞||piāo xiāng là zi jī||This one literally translates as "drifting-fragrance chicken with chillies" — see below.|
I've chosen the last of these names to describe today's dish, linking up to Wednesday's post about 香/xiāng/fragrant. According to the member of staff I interrogated about this at Red & Hot restaurant, the "drifting fragrance" part of the name is a reference to the way the fragrance of the chillies drifts out during cooking. "Floating fragrance chicken" might be another plausible translation, and I've also seen "drifting-fragrant chicken", which confused me for ages until I realised that it's the fragrance that's drifting, and not the chicken.
I suspect from the English translations I've seen in my menu collection that when 飄香 is used in the name of the dish, cumin is used in the cooking. I'm not entirely certain about this, though; it may just be a coincidence. In any case, some versions of 辣子雞 include cumin, while others don't.
When I made this earlier this week, I adapted Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe. The first change I made was that I used chicken thighs instead of breasts — they're more hassle to prepare, but I prefer the flavour. Since I'm not an expert butcher, I took the bones out before dicing them (four chicken thighs gave me 325g of meat once bones and skin were removed).
The other change I made was that I added half a tablespoon of cornflour (cornstarch) to the marinade. When I've had this dish in restaurants, the chicken pieces have had a crispy coating, while the photos I've seen of versions made to Ms Dunlop's recipe have lacked this. Cornflour helps to create a crispy coating, which is what I wanted. It didn't work out, though; I think I should have added quite a bit more cornflour, and possibly also had my oil hotter. But it was still tasty! The flavour was there, and although the texture wasn't what I was aiming for, it was just fine in itself and I'm already looking forward to making this again.
For more photos and discussion of different ways of making 辣子雞, see CNNGo's search for the best la zi ji in Shanghai — note that of course Shanghai is not in Chongqing, but I figure it's as least as valid as me learning about the dish by eating it in London!