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Kung Fu Chicken

One chicken eaten in nine ways.

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I

t was the diagram that did it. 

Flicking through a cooking-school textbook I’d been given by a chef in Yangzhou, my eye was drawn to a fantastically complicated illustration. It was like a family tree: at the top of the lineage was a live chicken, with ruled lines showing how it could be divided into twelve descendant parts, which would, in turn and in various combinations, yield nine diff erent dishes that could be served at a single meal. A headnote explained that yi ji jiu chi (one chicken eaten in nine ways) was a demonstration dish devised by Wang Suhua, a high-ranking chef specializing in Huaiyang cuisine, the grand, classical style of cooking in the old city of Yangzhou.

Chef Wang had designed each recipe to showcase his skill and the particular qualities of individual parts of the bird. There were appetizers, stir-fries, two soups, and some Chinese-style chicken nuggets. Textures ranged from chewy to custardy, from succulent to crisp. Technically, the dishes demanded mastery of the key skills of the Chinese professional kitchen: dao gong (knife work), tiao wei (the mixing of flavors), and huo hou (the command of heat). Every dish had to look, taste, and feel diff erent from every other in order to conjure up a suitably enticing variety from a single principal ingredient.

Like any classically trained Chinese chef, Wang had started by contemplating his ingredients. He had analyzed their strengths and weaknesses and worked out ways to enhance the former and subdue the latter, choosing his seasonings and cooking methods accordingly. The bony head, feet, and wings have what my father would call a “high grapple factor”: the kind of intricacy of cartilage and bones that the Chinese adore, so they are simply boiled and dressed, so they can be gnawed and chewed and enjoyed in all their textural complexity. The succulent flesh of the thighs is showcased by a quick velveting and stir-frying, while the smooth, boneless breast meat is both stir-fried and, in two other dishes, magicked into a silken paste. And because any Chinese chef knows that viscera such as gizzard and liver become leathery when overcooked, they are thinly sliced and swiftly flash-fried, with seasonings that smooth away any coarseness of flavor. The intestines are only fleetingly scalded, to preserve their sprightly slipperiness. The result of such thoughtful cooking is a whole meal of dazzling beauty and variety.

It was exhausting just reading the recipes, but for me, the challenge was irresistible. “One chicken nine ways” summed up one of the aspects I love most about Chinese cuisine: the combination of careful economy and deranged imagination. How sensible to ensure that when you take the life of a bird, virtually nothing is wasted besides claws and feathers. And how insane it is to spend hours dissecting it and transforming it into nine exquisite little dishes,
when a typical Englishwoman would just shove it whole into the oven!

Of course, my first problem was finding a live chicken. With most dishes, any old dead chicken will do, but with this set of recipes, I needed not only flesh and bone but also very specific innards. Some London butchers or farmers’ markets are able to provide a bag of giblets, but even the most adventurous English giblets would never include a chicken’s intestines (you can’t even buy chicken intestines in my favorite Chinatown supermarket, which stocks chicken hearts and gizzards). Moreover, one of Chef Wang’s dishes required jellied chicken blood, which would be even more impossible to source. My only hope of obtaining jellied chicken blood in London would be to prepare it after slitting the throat of the bird myself.

I made a few calls, but my usual meat suppliers were unable to provide a bird that wasn’t what they called “oven ready.” Reckoning that it would be easier to find a live farmhouse bird in the countryside, I asked my photographer friend Ian, who lives in a Cambridgeshire village, if he could track one down. The first farmer he called had plenty of chickens but was unwilling to sell them live: “We used to sell live chickens,” said the woman he spoke with, “but then Asians kept buying them and killing them in their back gardens.” Ian kept very quiet at this point. The second farmer had no such qualms, and Ian was able to buy a bird of suitable weight (about four and a half pounds) and bring her with him to London. Neither of us was sure if live chickens were allowed to travel on British trains, so he tucked the bird up safely in a cat-carrying box that he veiled in some colorful drapes (luckily she was unperturbed by any lingering traces of cat scent, and refrained from squawking during the journey).

Ian and the bird arrived at my home in a taxi after dark. She was a beautiful creature, clean and plump, with a coat of snow-white feathers. There was a grace about her, and she looked me steadily in the eye. We tried to make her feel at home, bedding her down on some old copies of the China Daily and giving her a last supper of corn and water. I chatted and clucked to her, feeling guilty at my own perfidy. (There are all kinds of crimes against the laws of hospitality, but surely the worst thing you can do to a houseguest is murder her?) Whatever her suspicions, she settled down quietly for the night, with just the occasional cluck or purr-like trill as she nested.

In the course of many years exploring China, I have seen plenty of carnage in
the markets. When I lived in Chengdu, the poultry stalls were a mess of blood and feathers. Although bird-flu scares have largely driven live poultry stalls out of the cities, fish and eels are still commonly killed and cleaned to order. As a cook, I have been confronted from time to time by slaughter and gore. I have killed and gutted fish, crabs, and eels. I’ve plucked and gutted pheasants ever since, as a teenager besotted with the fundamentals of cookery, I persuaded my mother to buy me a brace in feather. But I had never killed a chicken.

I do believe that anyone who eats meat should be prepared to face up to what this means, and I’m not particularly squeamish. At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but remember a conversation I’d had with an American friend only weeks before about his own conversion to vegetarianism. He’d been out hunting with his father on a bitterly cold winter’s day, and they had killed one of a pair of geese by the side of a frozen lake. The goose’s mate had circled over them for what seemed to him like an age, honking in distress or anger. Even when they had loaded the dead fowl into the car and driven off, its widowed spouse had followed their car, circling overhead and honking. “And I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he said, “that constant honking.”

Ian and I rose early the next morning. It was a cold November day. We let the bird walk around for a while, and then we took it outside to do the necessary deed. Self-consciously, and a little furtively, we killed it in my front yard, to the amazement of a couple of passersby who happened to glance over the wall. Following Chinese procedure, I caught most of the blood in a glass vessel that already held a little water, a sprinkling of salt, and a dash of oil. I gave the mixture a stir, and then took it upstairs to set it in a bainmarie. I dunked the bird into a potful of hot water to loosen its plumes. And then I went back outside and sat on the blood-spattered step to strip off the feathers, which fell away easily into my hands.

Upstairs in my apartment, I cut the bird open and pulled out the warm, glistening mass of viscera. I sorted out the innards, carefully discarding the greenish sac of bile, salvaging the liver, the just-stilled heart, and the purplish gizzard with its frondy patterns of white. In the sink, I slit open the intestines with a scissor blade and rinsed them clean, rubbing them with salt and Shaoxing wine. And then I cut off the head and feet (trimming away the toenails), and jointed and boned the bird. I set the carcass to simmer in a potful of water, with purifying ginger, scallion, and Shaoxing wine. By now I had all the parts required for the recipes, and the real prep could begin.

Like many Chinese cookbooks, my written source for the chicken extravaganza was vague about quantities, so I had to make them up. And I couldn’t resist tweaking a few of the recipes to suit my Sichuanese tastes. While Chef Wang suggested dressing the chicken’s wings, head, and feet with soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil, I added some Sichuanese chili oil and a pinch of Sichuan pepper. His proposed stir-fry of cubed chicken thigh with red pepper seemed like an open invitation for a bit of Sichuanese heat and vivacity, so I also prepared some pickled chili paste and garlic. And because I couldn’t find Chef Wang’s Jiangsu pickled cucumber and ginger in London, I opted instead for Sichuanese preserved mustard tuber (zha cai), for its equally delectable salty-sour crispness. I also chose to substitute vegetable oil for lard, reckoning that it would be impossible for me to serve all the dishes simultaneously, and wanting to avoid the unattractive congealment of cooling lard.

It’s a cliché that Chinese cooking is all about the prep, but it’s also often the truth. The slicing and marinating for my nine dishes took several hours. My work was complicated by the fact that I had broken my right wrist only six weeks before and was still recovering. I could, apparently, bone and joint a chicken, but when it came to the laborious pummeling of the breast into a smooth paste, a skill I had learned as a apprentice chef in Sichuan, my wrist protested and I had to ask Ian to put down his camera and take up a pair of cleavers, while I looked bossily over his shoulder, insisting that he pick out every wisp of tendon.

By the time I was ready to actually cook, the kitchen table and counters were covered in a multitude of tiny bowls and dishes. There were bowls of sliced innards, puréed breast in two different formations, chunks of drumstick, slivered breast, cubed thigh, boiled extremities, sauces, batters, finely chopped scallion and ginger, sliced garlic, ham, bamboo shoots and mushrooms, chopped blanched spinach, and other bits and pieces. The stock, still simmering away, had begun to perfume the kitchen with its beguiling richness, and my recipe note cards were spattered with soy sauce and oil.

After that, everything happened very fast. I dressed the boiled head, feet, and wings in my Sichuanese dressing to make the dish charmingly named fei jiao tiao—“fly-squawk-jump.” I cloaked the drumstick pieces in a golden egg-yolk batter and deep-fried them into chicken nuggets redolent with the aromas of scallion and Sichuan pepper. I whipped up the two separate thigh stir-fries, velveting the meat in mildly hot oil and then wokking it more fiercely with the appropriate seasonings, first with pickled chilies, ginger, scallion, and garlic; and second, unusually, with cubes of crisp apple. I stir-fried the finely slivered breast with Sichuanese preserved vegetable. The little odds and ends of offal—the crisp gizzard, sleek liver, and bouncy heart—were thinly sliced and bao (stir-fried at a high temperature), with slices of water chestnut for a pleasing crunch.

Trickiest were the puréed chicken breast concoctions. The first, “snowflake chicken,” involved pouring a whipped breast emulsion into poaching oil, hot enough to cook it gently while preserving its custardy mouthfeel, and then swiftly stir-frying the cloudlike morsels with bamboo shoot and mushroom. The second was a geng, or thick soup, of diluted breast thickened with starch, ornamented with a little reserved breast soup colored green by spinach and drizzled onto the surface in the classic Taiji design, depicting the eternal ebb and flow of yin and yang. Finally, I made a soothing broth by adding the jellied blood and ribbony intestines, along with sliced mushroom and bamboo shoot, to that sumptuous chicken stock.

We laid all the dishes out on a dark background, and I felt a flush of pride and satisfaction. I could hardly believe I had managed to follow in Chef Wang Suhua’s footsteps, slaughtering the bird on the doorstep without being arrested, washing my first chicken intestines, testing and documenting nine new recipes that had all turned out fine. There were still a few white feathers on the kitchen floor, and the whole room was spattered with oil and littered with a miscellany of empty bowls and seasonings. The cat box yawned emptily in the hallway, and a few spots of blood remained outside at the scene of the crime. But there, amid the devastation, those nine little dishes sat serenely in their military formation, a testament to the transformative magic of Chinese cuisine.