Chengdu Challenge #22: ‘Saliva’ (Mouthwatering) Chicken (Kou Shui Ji), or Bobo Chicken, or Bang Bang Chicken, or…
You Know You Want It: ‘Saliva’ Chicken~~
Which name do you prefer for Sichuan cold chicken in red-hot chili oil? Saliva chicken (let’s translate it as “mouthwatering” chicken)? Bobo chicken? Bon bon chicken? Bang bang chicken? Or just plain old cold chicken? From what I can tell from multiple Sichuan restaurants, cookbooks and the Web, the names are almost interchangeable, and there’s no real consensus on the ingredients and proportions in each.
They are all based on homemade, high-quality chili oil (hong you), of course, and from there include varying proportions of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, Sichuan pepper and, often, Chinese sesame paste.
The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine cookbook includes all of the above except vinegar in its bobo chicken and says it is named bobo after the clay bowl it is traditionally served in. Fuchsia Dunlop’s bobo chicken is very similar. “The Good Food of Szechwan” has all of the above ingredients in only slightly varying proportions from each other in both its hong you chicken and strange-taste chicken. However strange-flavor chicken—which Fuchsia says is basically synonymous with bang bang chicken—generally has a much greater proportion of sesame paste to chili oil than the true red-oil chicken dishes. Also, in those dishes the chicken is usually shredded, while in the red-oil dishes it is cut in slices or chunks.
In Chengdu, there’s a chain of take-out restaurants called Bon Bon that serves only cold meats in red oil. I ordered the chicken and Fong Chong ordered the chicken feet, and they were both in a clear chili oil-sesame seed concoction, no sesame paste in sight. In the San Gabriel Valley, Spicy City’s saliva chicken had not only sesame paste, but some other thicker, heavy-bodied ingredient. However it didn’t—and shouldn’t—taste like a sesame sauce; the sesame paste is just there as an accent.
No matter what you call them, all the chicken-in-chili-oil dishes are in the same family and all delicious. My earlier recipe for Sichuan pepper cold chicken, jiao ma ji, is also in this family, though decidedly heavier on the numbing spice. I agree with Fuchsia when she says in her most recent book, “Every Grain of Rice,” that she doesn’t even use a recipe most times when combining these ingredients for cold chicken, she just does it by feel and to taste.
Having said that, I promised a couple months back to try and replicate Spicy City’s saliva chicken, since it was indeed drool worthy, so that is what you’ll find here.
I started with the usual suspects, some of which are on display below. Along with ground Sichuan pepper, I used Sichuan pepper oil. Please try to use a Chinese sesame paste, which is dark and intense, or, failing that, tahini. Peanut butter is not a good substitute.
Also, you may notice that above I featured a dish of chicken breasts, while below in the process photos I am showing chicken thighs. I like both or either as a cold chicken dish.
The one thing I do differently than all of the recipes I’ve seen for these dishes is that I steam the chicken instead of poach it. I guess Sichuanese always poach, but I just prefer the taste and texture of steamed chicken. Plus—and this is a big plus to me—instead of losing the chicken essence to the poaching water, you get a good batch of undiluted chicken juices when you steam it, like a really concentrated broth. I then use those chicken juices, flavored with the wine-ginger-salt marinade, as the secret ingredient in my saliva chicken. I spoon some of the fat off first, but adding a good helping of the fatty chicken juices helps me achieve the cold chicken ideal of chicken absolutely floating in chili oil without using up all my chili oil or burning everyone’s mouths.
(Bag up the rest of the juices for the freezer, so you’ve got it on hand for the numerous Chinese recipes that call for a bit of chicken broth.)
I hope your mouth is watering now.
- 2 pounds chicken breasts or thighs (skin-on, bone-in)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- 2 tablespoons grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) homemade chili oil, including a lot of the flakes
- 3 tablespoons chicken juices from steaming (with or without the fat)
- 1 tablespoon Zhenjiang rice vinegar
- 4 teaspoons Chinese sesame paste
- 4 teaspoons Chinese soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper oil
- ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) MORE homemade chili oil, including a lot of the flakes
- 2 tablespoons crushed peanuts
- 1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
- 2 finely sliced scallions
- Wash and dry chicken and place in a bowl or dish such as a pie plate that fits in your steamer. Pour 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine over the chicken. Mix grated ginger and salt to make a paste and spread it over the chicken and under its skin. When the water begins to steam, carefully place the bowl in the steamer and cover. Steam for 35 minutes for breasts and about 40 minutes for thighs. Prick the chicken with a sharp knife to make sure the juices run clear and not pink or bloody. Turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for five more minutes. Remove chicken pieces from the bowl and let cool. Reserve the chicken juices.
- Mix together the ingredients listed under Sauce.
- Cut chicken off the bone in slices or large bite-size pieces. Arrange in a serving bowl that holds them fairly snugly. Pour sauce over chicken and let settle. Add additional chili oil so that it floats on top of the sauce and rises up to make a pool of visible red oil. Garnish with crushed peanuts, sesame seeds and scallions. Serve at room temperature. Eat by plucking the chicken bits out of the sauce.