Chengdu Challenge #2: Cold Chicken in Sichuan Pepper-Scallion Oil (Jiao Ma Ji)
The Jiao Ma Ji Challenge~~
For the most part, chicken is chicken. But jiao ma paste, now that’s a discovery! Jiao ma refers to Sichuan pepper, and the paste is made by mincing the peppercorns together with a load of scallions and adding oil to make a sauce. Combine that with red-hot chili oil and Sichuan pepper oil and a little starter of cold chicken is the most exciting thing on the table. That’s what’s so brilliant about Sichuan cuisine. It has a million ways to make plain old protein absolutely sing with flavor.
Of course, this is assuming the numbing spice sings to you. Though Sichuan pepper is an acquired taste, it’s an easily acquired one, the numbing quality more than compensated for by the unique and intense flavor, which I struggle to describe because nothing else tastes like it. I particularly like the jiao ma paste used in this dish because the peppercorns aren’t left whole, where they can blow you away, but they’re also not ground to a diminished powder. Instead they are minced into small pieces that carry a real punch but not a knock-out.
The recipe in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English just jumps right in and calls for pre-cooked chicken, leaving the decisions on how to cook the chicken to the cook. The first time I made it with boneless, skinless chicken breasts, which, thinking like a Westerner making chicken salad, I poached. Chinese do poach chicken, and other recipes I’ve since seen for this dish use that method. But Chinese also steam chicken parts, which I thought might be better for this preparation.
So the second time I steamed marinated, bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, which I hacked into pieces afterward, bone and all. The chicken was way more moist and flavorful steamed than poached, but as much we love chicken thighs, we all preferred the white meat for this recipe. So the third time—and there can never be too many times because we all love this and it’s wonderful left over straight from the fridge—I steamed skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts, rubbed in a ginger/kosher salt paste. Third time was a charm!
In fact, it was so good, it wasn’t enough, so I have tripled this recipe. It may seem like a lot of oil, between the jiao ma paste, chili oil and Sichuan pepper oil, but the oil is just there for color and flavoring, not drinking. Pluck the glistening chicken chunks from their moisturizing oil bath and enjoy without guilt!
As for those oils, the recipe calls for chili oil without flakes, its bright-red color a great contrast to the scallions. But I like the crunch of the flakes, so I sometimes use clear chili oil and sometimes homemade chili oil with flakes, or sometimes both. I use Sichuan-made, store-bought Sichuan pepper oil instead of homemade, since it is made with fresh green peppercorns instead of the dried, irradiated ones we get here in the U.S. The freshness gives it a fresher, tangier bite than that you can make from dried peppercorns at home. But really it’s all about the jiao ma paste. There’s got to be other uses for this elixir. What do you think? Any ideas? Jiao ma noodles?
- 1½ pounds bone-in chicken breast with skin (two split breasts)
- 2 tablespoons grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion
- ½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn (not roasted)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
- 6 to 8 tablespoons chili oil
- 4 teaspoons soy sauce (Chinese light soy sauce)
- 2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper oil
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Make a paste of grated ginger and kosher salt. Rub all over chicken and under skin and marinate for 30 minutes. Put chicken pieces in a bowl set on a rack in a steamer and steam for about 40 minutes, until just cooked through. Allow to cool a bit and then chop into large chunks, skin, bone and all. Arrange in serving bowl or plate.
- Make jiao ma paste by mincing the scallions and Sichuan pepper together and adding just enough peanut oil to cover.
- Mix the jiao ma paste, chili oil, soy sauce, Sichuan pepper oil, sesame oil and salt together and pour over the chicken till oil pools in the bottom of the dish.