This past summer my closest friend moved to Chicago to continue his medical training. Being a Fujianese Chinese American, Mike was responsible for introducing me to the diversity of Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine in St. Louis, and the reason I started learning to speak Mandarin. It wasn’t long before I started obsessing over Chili Spot restaurant (then Sze Chuan Cuisine) on Olive Boulevard, ultimately learning to cook my favorite Chinese dishes at home. This appetizer is the first that I made for Mike, and the name of the dish is a great example of what we often experience with Chinese menus — humor in the challenge of translations. Technically, this dish is simply Chicken in Chili Sauce, but it is more commonly called Saliva Chicken (because it activates your salivary glands). But that doesn’t sound so appetizing, so it is often called Strange Flavor Chicken. A more nuanced translation for the purposes of a Western menu might be Mouthwatering Chicken. Regardless of the name, it is one of my favorite dishes and the first I prepared for my friend.
1 lb chicken thighs
2 inches ginger, smashed
8 scallion whites
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
½ tsp Szechuan peppercorns, toasted and ground
1 tbsp sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp MSG (optional)
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinkiang vinegar
1 tbsp sesame paste
1 tbsp chili flake
2 tbsp ginger, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp sesame oil
4 tbsp chili oil
¼ cup scallions tops, thinly sliced
In a saucepan, add ginger, scallion whites and Shaoxing wine with chicken with enough cold water to just cover the chicken. Bring to a boil, not simmer, for 15 minutes. Shut off heat and let cool to room temperature for at least two to three hours.
Toast Szechuan peppercorns over medium-low heat until fragrant. Grind into a fine powder.
Shred chicken into large pieces.
Make the sauce by combining sugar, salt and MSG (if using) with the soy sauce and vinegar. In a separate bowl, combine sesame paste, drizzling with sugar/salt/vinegar mixture until homogeneous. Add chile flakes, peppercorn powder and ginger and garlic. Toss well and add sesame oil and chile oil. Just a quick toss — don’t emulsify. Spoon over chicken and garnish with scallion tops.
Yields two servings.
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