Chengdu Challenge #21: Dry Pot Chicken (Gan Guo Ji)
My New Favorite Meal~~
“This is my new favorite restaurant!” my friend Carla used to proclaim almost every time we ate somewhere new in New York. That could be construed as fickle, but really it was just enthusiasm. I feel the same sometimes about these dishes—every one I cook is my new favorite. But this one, particularly, truly, is my new favorite recipe and is likely to stay that way for a while.
Why? Because it’s more a method than a recipe, and because it’s easily and infinitely adaptable to any ingredients you like and happen to have on hand. Because it’s pretty hard to mess it up. And because it tastes so much like Sichuan.
Dry pot is exactly what it sounds like—the dry version of hot pot. It takes the flavorings and ingredients of mala Sichuan hot pot and subtracts the oily broth, so all that’s left is your meats, your veggies, your spices and just enough sauce to moisten it all. It’s always served in a wok of some type, and sometimes the wok sits over a flame, which is visually fun but not at all necessary. (I serve mine in the handmade shallow wok I bought on the street in Istanbul—with Carla, come to think of it. Yes, Turkey uses woks!)
Dry pot is not quite as communal as hot pot, because you’re not cooking the food yourself at table, but it almost is, because everyone is dipping into the communal wok to pluck out their tasty bites from an array of surprises. Or at least they are if you eat it the Chinese way.
I’ve only had dry pot a few times in Chengdu, but they were highly memorable, so I kind of obsessed over it when I spent the summer close to the San Gabriel Valley, trying it at every Sichuan restaurant and also at Happy Tasty, a Wuhan restaurant (the capital of Sichuan’s neighbor Hubei Province) that specializes in dry pot. All the spicy provinces in China, as well as Beijing, seem to love it.
So before I get started with my adaptation, here are a few of the dry pots I’ve known:
As you can see, the ingredients can be just about any combo you like, and really any spice mix and heat level you like too. I like the standard Sichuan flavorings of Pixian chili bean paste, chili flakes and Sichuan pepper, plus fennel seed and cumin. While more traditional Sichuan dishes don’t use much cumin, this more-recently invented dish often tastes of it. Also note that, unlike hot pot, dry pot is not served with dipping sauces on the side.
Making dry pot is an easy but multistep process. Everything but the aromatics is cooked in advance. The meats are fully cooked on their own, and the vegetables are parboiled. All is added and mixed together with the aromatics and seasonings in the wok at the end. Add just a splash of soy sauce and Shaoxing wine, and enough chicken broth to keep it moist, but there should be no sauce to speak of.
(Cooking Chinese is often a family affair for us, and this photo proves it. Craig is manning the wok; I am adding in the ingredients; and Fong Chong is photographing every step.)
Crowding the work is normally a no-no, but it doesn’t matter so much with this dish if you crowd the wok a bit toward the end, since you aren’t really cooking but just mixing everything together.
So that’s the method. What ingredients will you put in your dry pot? Or should I say, your new favorite meal?
- 1 pound skinless chicken thighs, cut into small cubes
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks dried tofu skin, broken into pieces, covered with boiling water and soaked for ½ hour
- 1 russet potato, sliced thinly (with a mandoline is easiest)
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced thinly
- Several stalks broccolini, cut into bite-size pieces
- Several stalks celery, sliced thinly on the diagonal
- 1 small onion, sliced thinly
- 1 or 2 hot green chili peppers (to taste), jalapenos or serranos, sliced thinly
- 4 or 5 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
- 1 tablespoon ginger, cut into thin slivers
- 8 to 10 dried whole red chili peppers
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin seed
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon (or to taste) Sichuan or Korean chili flakes
- 1 heaping tablespoon Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- ¼ cup chicken broth (as needed)
- 4 scallions, cut in ⅓-inch lengths
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
- Marinate chicken cubes in 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt while you prep the vegetables.
- Add Sichuan pepper, cumin seeds and fennel seeds to dry skillet and toast until fragrant. Allow to cool slightly, then ground coarsely in a spice grinder or mortar & pestle. Add chili flakes and salt and mix well.
- Heat wok on high until almost smoking. Add enough peanut or canola oil to deep-fry the chicken, and heat to about 375°F. Fry chicken until golden brown, then remove to paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add vegetables: first add the potato slices for about 30 seconds, then the pre-soaked tofu skin, followed by the broccolini, celery and red bell slices. Return to a boil and cook only until the vegetables are just cooked through and still crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop cooking process.
- Clean out wok and return to high heat until almost smoking. Heat 3 tablespoons oil until hot, then add onions. Stir-fry until softened, then add green chili peppers, garlic, ginger and dried red chilies. Stir-fry vigorously so that nothing browns or burns.
- Shove aromatics to the sides of the wok and make a well in the center. Add 2 tablespoons oil and then the spice mixture. Cook briefly, then add the chili bean paste and cook briefly, until fragrant.
- Add the parboiled vegetables to the wok and mix well with the aromatics and seasonings. Drizzle the Shaoxing wine and soy sauce around the edges of the wok. Add the chicken and the scallions and stir-fry briefly, mixing well with other ingredients.
- If wok and ingredients get too dry at any point during the stir-fry process, add chicken broth just to moisten. When all ingredients are mixed and cooked through, plate into a metal wok and garnish with sesame seeds.