Monday, 25 April 2011

Big plate chicken (大盘鸡)

For a food blog, I haven't written much about the stuff recently! To be honest, I've been concentrating on the garden, and unusually for me, I've not been flicking through cookery books for a good few weeks. Well, I've dug out a few in the past couple of days, but this recipe doesn't feature in any of them.

In fact, this is another recipe I owe to my brother - in a manner of speaking. The last time I visited him in London (to help him move into his new flat), he recommended we visit a restaurant he'd been to before. It was unusual - focusing on the cuisine of Xinjiang, the largest and least Chinese region of China. My brother and I have long been fascinated by Central Asia and the Silk Road, so it was perfect. A review had appeared, I think in the Guardian, and had attracted the attention of my brother's colleagues. He went, and liked it, despite the spiciness and exoticism of a lot of the food.

We went, and had "big plate chicken", much the best main course according to my brother. Incidentally, I tried tripe for the first time - skewered, char-grilled, and spiced. It was flaccid and bland. But the chicken was great - rich, hot, copious. It turns out, this is the definitive dish of the region - a fusion of Chinese and Turkic. Effectively it's a chicken and vegetable stew, with spices and noodles. Potatoes and rustic, hand-drawn noodles hint at the harsh simplicity of landlocked peasant food, and the Chinese influence is felt in the inclusion of soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, Sichuan pepper and star anise. Like most of my favourite recipes, it can be altered to suit many tastes, and a lot of the ingredients are optional.

"Big plate" chicken • Dàpánjī • 大盘鸡


  • chicken
  • potatoes
  • onion/spring onion
  • bell pepper (Capsicum)
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • tomato (tinned, fresh, or puréed)
  • oil
  • chilli (fresh or dried)
  • soy sauce
  • Shaoxing rice wine/sherry/beer
  • noodles
  • star anise
  • Sichuan pepper
  • Xinjiang spice mix*
*This spice mix is a combination of cumin, Sichuan pepper, black pepper, salt, chilli powder, ground ginger, and garlic powder, ground together. Alternatively, just add toasted cumin seeds, salt and pepper to the main stew, and extra chilli if necessary.

  1. Peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Finely slice the onion or spring onion. De-seed and chop the pepper. Peel and finely chop the garlic and ginger.
  2. Heat oil in a wok or large pan. Fry the Xinjiang spice mix, or substitute spices, for a minute, to release the fragrance. Add the chicken, and brown for several minutes. Add the potato, onion, garlic, pepper, chilli, and ginger, and cook for another few minutes - do not allow to brown.
  3. Add a generous glug of rice wine and soy sauce, a spoon or two of Sichuan pepper, two or three star anise, and the tomato. Add enough water to cover the potatoes and chicken, and bring to the boil.
  4. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for two hours or more, until the potatoes are tender, and the chicken is well cooked.
  5. Add the noodles. Fresh noodles can be added straight in; dried should be rehydrated according to packet instructions before adding. Serve immediately.
notes and substitutions
  • I use chicken on the bone. Today I jointed a whole chicken, cutting it into ten pieces - halving each breast, separating the wings, the legs and the thighs. You could use chicken legs, thighs, breast, or any combination - but meat on the bone will take longer and add more flavour (and it's more authentic).
  • Most of the vegetables are optional, except the potatoes. I added carrot today, but used no onions. Any colour pepper is fine, though I believe green is most common.
  • Any oil is acceptable, as the strong flavours will overpower even something assertive, like extra virgin olive oil. Peanut and sesame are most authentic, I suppose.
  • The noodles are traditionally handmade, rough 'la mian', or pulled noodles. I've done a simple wheat and water noodle, but today I used prehydrated egg noodles for speed and simplicity. Coarser noodles work best. You could omit them, and serve it as it is, or with bread.
  • I rarely use rice wine or any alcohol - it's not essential, though will obviously add some complexity. White wine, sake, or even a dash of mirin might work as alternatives.
  • I often add a little sugar, especially if the chilli levels are too high. The spices can be adjusted up or down to your taste. I do recommend tracking down star anise and Sichuan pepper (unrelated to black pepper), however - both are widely used in Chinese cooking, featuring in five spice mix (along with cloves, cassia, and fennel seed).
It's a great dish for cold weather - rich, warming, satisfying. You can make in in the oven or a slow cooker, too - after the ingredients have been pre-fried. Slow cooking in particular renders the meat incredibly tender.

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