Running fowl of the law has its benefits

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2011, 12:00am
 

Cooking food in a clay mould or casserole dish was documented in China in the Zhou dynasty (1046-256BC). However, beggar's chicken, a dish that involves the fowl being cooked in a clay crust, wasn't invented until the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912AD).

While all tales pertaining to this dish involve a beggar, one of them is about a desperate, homeless man in Changshu, a town northeast of Suzhou. The man stole a chicken from a farm, but had no kitchen in which to cook it. Fearing that cooking it with an open fire would create too much smoke and lead the city's guards to him - who would then arrest him for theft - he dug a hole and filled it with hot ashes. He hastily smothered the chicken, feathers and all, in a thick layer of mud, before throwing it into the hole and covering it with soil. The chicken remained for an extended period of time, while the beggar left the scene, in case people wondered why he was hanging around a deserted patch of land. He returned in the evening to retrieve the chicken, by which time the wet mud had been baked into a hard crust. He cracked it open and the feathers came off the chicken along with the casing, revealing a succulent bird that had retained its juices and flavours, and, after slow cooking, yielded tender flesh that fell off the bone. Legend has it that the chicken was so fragrant that it attracted villagers nearby, who asked him to sell the chicken to them, and so began the entrepreneurial chapter of the man's life.

Modern recipes are far more refined, using a plucked chicken wrapped in lotus leaves for added aromas, and also call for a stuffing of various herbs and mushrooms, and to be washed in wine prior to cooking. Some Chinese diners think the name is inauspicious so on certain menus it is now called 'wealthy chicken', or fu guai gai, in Chinese. Nonetheless, 'Famous Beggar's Chicken' is the moniker for this dish at Shanghai Jade, Shop 402, 4/F, Exchange Square Podium, Central.

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