辣子鸡 Chicken among the red lanterns

There is no one classic Sichuan dish, but if there were, lazi ji 辣子鸡 would certainly be one of the contenders.

The name simply means “chili chicken” and with those two words, you do indeed have most of the recipe. Whereas the “chili crab” in places like Singapore is a goopy salty mess that tastes primarily of bottled sauce, the Sichuan dish is flavored with the intense, fragrant heat of fried red chilis.

And you need a lot of them. In volume, I would aim for a chili:chicken ratio of 2:1, and that’s before the chicken is cooked. Since you’re aiming for the chicken to dry out, it’s going to shrink quite a lot. The result is a big plate of dried chilis that you need to pick through to find the pieces of chicken. This makes lazi ji a great dish to share over beers, and while everyone is poking around the plate, someone is more or less required to make the observation that we are “looking for chicken among the red lanterns,” which sounds exactly like “looking for prostitutes in the red light district.”

Clever!

The dish is not hard to make, assuming that you are set up for deep frying. The basic steps are to chop chicken (with bone) into small pieces and marinate in cooking wine, onions, ginger, white pepper, soy sauce/salt and corn starch (this is the only salt in the dish, so don’t be shy). Soak for about 10 minutes, deep fry until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, and set aside.

Chop a large bowl of dried red chilis into halves, add dried Sichuan peppercorns, sliced ginger and garlic, and stir fry on low heat until the oil has become intensely flavored, but be careful not to scorch the chilis. Return the chicken to the pan, and fry fry fry until the oil has had a chance to really flavor the chicken–again, low heat to keep it from burning.

And yes, you need a range hood. You really need a range hood. Maybe I should have mentioned that first. Also open all the windows.

After a few minutes, take the chicken out and plate the chilis. Return the chicken to the pan, and give it a quick hot fry with sesame seeds, a pinch of sugar and white pepper, and finely chopped green onions. Plate with the chilis.

Here are two versions of the same dish: our instructor’s and mine, both made in a professional kitchen.