THE PHYSICALLY AND FLAVOR-MASSIVE, BEIJING SUPERMARKET FRIED CHICKEN
SAVORY JUICES GREASED WITH RENDERED FAT RUSHED ARDENTLY OUT OF THE MEAT… A NOSTRIL FULL OF AROMA AS A MIXTURE OF CUMIN, CHILI, GARLIC, AND THE IRRESISTABLE SMELL OF CRISPED CHICKEN SKINS SENT ME INTO AN ANGRY SPIRAL OF REGRETS AND RESENTMENTS
In AA they say, there are twelve steps to recovery. Well, this fried chicken is my Step Nine.
Specifically, if you (hopefully) aren’t familiar, this is a stage where the recoveree make direct amends to people whom they had harmed, wherever possible, as a part of the process to obtain emotional balance and closure.
So here I stand, almost two years into my recovery from six traumatic years in Beijing, I am ready to talk about this fried chicken.
To start from the beginning, I first saw these fried chickens inside a supermarket a few blocks away from our apartment in Beijing. Calling that place a supermarket is a gross exaggeration whereas a glorified convenience store would be more appropriate, but for six long years, I passed by that supermarket about once a week on a conservative average, and I consistently dismissed the peculiar stall that was tucked in a dingy corner by the entrance with a sign that read, “Meixiang Fried Chicken“.
Peculiar indeed, not because there was a random fried chicken stall inside a suspicious convenience store, but that as ambiguous as it was, almost everyday around 3pm, there would be a line cued up at its greasy window, as long and meandering as my bafflement. Typically, a line exceeding 15% of the total crowd-size stretching the entire block, is a mathematic proof good enough to send me into investigation, but feeling prejudice towards this entire city in general, I thought either this fried chicken was an understated treasure, or these people were out of their minds.
For six years, I went firmly with the latter.
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But in the last week before our departure, with no foreseeable intention to ever return, I thought, fine, you know, might as well. Last chance to reaffirm, once and for all, that I was right.
So one afternoon, I stood in line, and ordered my fried chicken almost in a pique. The first impression that came to mind was the sheer massiveness of its round and flattened body. Instead of American-style fried chicken where the drumstick and thigh are two separate entities, this fried chicken was one entire chicken leg that was semi-butterflied and “opened up”. Its dramatic entrance and the subtle cracking sensation it made even against the light pressure of my fingers, began to instill a sense of fear and self-doubt as my hunger surged in betrayal. I took my first bite, and instantaneously, I succumbed. Savory juices greased with rendered fat rushed ardently out of the meat in between the very thin but inarguably crispy, almost lacy coating. Faster than I could say “Okay you win!“, a nostril full of aroma as a mixture of cumin, chili, garlic, and the irresistible smell of crisped chicken skins sent me into an angry spiral of regrets and resentments. Cumin!, a designated spice for lamb in this part of the world, who knew, could work so marvelously with fried chickens! Six years!, that it stood right under my nose and I had to have it right before I was going to lose it?
So a few days later when we packed up and left, I did what any emotionally imbalanced human being would do, I blocked it from my memory. Not only that Beijing was the last thing I wanted to recall after practically fleeing the place, but I certainly didn’t need any mix-signals to remind me of anything that was undeniably decent about it. Just like Batman does not need to accidentally see Joker picking up a garbage from the sidewalk and throwing it in the trashcan before he decisively pop a Batarang in his head. Heroes don’t need that shit.
But two years passed, and perhaps sensing my mental stability slowly wobbling back, the idea of this fried chicken returned. I retraced and recreated its magnificence based on memory and I was, once again, reminded how wrong I was to ignore it all these years. Oh what a succulent and mouth-watering closure. What a finger-licking Step Nine.
Dear Meixiang Fried Chicken, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I shut you out for six years before introducing myself, then again neglected you for another two years. Would you forgive me? You taste magnificent.
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- 1 cup water
- 1 clove of garlic, smashed
- 1/4 cup chicken bouillon granules
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 cup ice water
- 2 whole large chicken legs
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 3/4 tsp ground white pepper
- 1/2 tsp ground sichuan peppercorns
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- chili flakes
- 1/2 cup potato starch (not cornstarch)
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup vodka, plus more if needed
- canola oil for frying
- BRINE THE CHICKEN: We're using chicken bouillon granules for the brine which may prompt you into thinking "Isn't that largely artificial flavorings and MSG?". Yes! Yes it is! Which is why this fried chicken is great! But if you have some sort of imaginary sensitivity towards MSG (FYI, your body reacts no differently towards artificial MSG than the naturals ones from, say, tomatoes), you can substitute with a brine made with 2 cups of chicken stock, 2 tbsp of salt and 2 tsp sugar.
- In a small pot, warm 1 cup of water with garlic, chicken bouillon granules and salt just enough that the salt is completely melted. Add 1 cup of ice water to cool down the brine, then set aside.
- With a small but sharp knife, place the chicken leg skin-side down then make a slit along the L-shape bones. Continue to peel the meat open with the knife to completely expose the bones, then completely sever the joints, any tissues and tendons connecting the drumstick-bone and thigh-bone (but do not cut through the skin). You can see the first photo for reference. This step "butterflies" the chicken leg and detach the connective tissues that make the leg contract during cooking, allowing it to stay as a large flat piece.
- In a container or plastic-bag that allow the chicken legs to be completely submerged in the brine, combine the brine and the legs and let marinate for at least 2 hour or overnight.
- PREPARE THE SPICE-MIX AND BREADING: In a small skillet, toast ground cumin, white pepper, sichuan peppercorns and garlic powder over medium heat until fragrant. Set aside until needed. In a sheet-pan, whisk together potato starch, flour, salt and ground black pepper. Set aside until needed.
- FRY THE CHICKEN: Pour vodka into a sheet-pan, set aside. Remove one chicken leg from the brine and rinse off any excess brine under cold water then pat dry. Coat the leg in vodka, drain slightly, then transfer into the potato starch-mixture. Gently press the breading onto the surfaces of the chicken leg until fully covered. Gently pat it to dust off any excess breading, then set aside. Repeat with the other leg.
- If you have a deep fryer with enough oil that will submerge the entire flattened chicken leg, great. Heat the oil to about 330 F/165 C, or until it bubbles up immediately around a wooden chopstick, then fry the leg until golden browned on both sides. Potato starch WILL NOT get as browned as regular flour-breading, so we are aiming for a MEDIUM golden brown. If you cook potato starch to the brownness as regular flour-breading, the meat will be overcooked.
- If you don't have a deep fryer and wants to conserve oil, pour enough canola oil into a wide NON-STICK pot or skillet that will fit the flattened chicken leg until the oil reaches 1 1/2" deep. Heat the oil to about 330 F/165 C or until it bubbles up immediately around an inserted wooden chopstick. Gently lower one leg into the oil, SKIN-SIDE UP first, then keep ladling the hot oil over skin-side to create a craggy blistered surface (I highly recommend wearing a kitchen mitt while doing this to avoid splatters). Do this for about 2 minutes, then flip the chicken and continue to cook, ladling the hot oil over the chicken periodically, for another 4~5 minutes until medium golden browned on both sides.
- Drain well, and while it's still hot, coat both sides of the chicken thoroughly with the spice-mix. Two extra large chicken leg should use up all the spice-mix. Serve immediately or never.