You may think from the name that chin jiew gai – Sichuan pepper chicken – is a Sichuan dish, but it’s actually a dish in Chiu Chow (Teochew) cuisine. The spice is quite unusual for Chiu Chow cuisine, but fish sauce – which most people associate with Thai and Vietnamese food – is not; it’s used in place of, or in addition to, soy sauce.
The presentation of Sichuan pepper chicken is distinctive, because the chicken is always served surrounded by fried leafy greens – traditionally, Lysimachia clethroides, which is difficult to source, unless you grow it yourself. Restaurants and home cooks usually substitute holy basil or mint.
It’s essential that you do not rinse the leaves before frying them; even if you dry them with paper towels, you’ll be adding more water into the combination, and the results can be dangerous. Use the leaves straight out of the packet.
Sichuan pepper chicken is made with diced boneless chicken. Like all other boneless chicken dishes, it tastes best if cooked with dark meat from the leg or thigh, but many people prefer the breast meat, so that’s what I used in this recipe. Because the breast cooks quickly, I cut the chicken into larger pieces – about 2.5cm (1 in) – rather than the small dice (about 1cm/7/16 in) that restaurants usually use; this way, you lessen the chances of drying out the meat.
Cut the chicken breast into 2.5cm (1 in) pieces, then dry them as thoroughly as possible with paper towels before putting them in a mixing bowl.
Add the salt, sugar and rice wine to the bowl and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle in the cornstarch and mix again. Set aside at room temperature for one to two hours, mixing occasionally.
Put the Sichuan peppercorns into an unoiled skillet and place over a low flame. Shake the pan constantly until the peppercorns are fragrant and toasted, then cool to room temperature. If there are any seeds, remove and discard them. Grind the husks in a mortar.
Put the ground Sichuan peppercorns in a small bowl and mix in the ground black pepper.
In another small bowl, mix the fish sauce with the soy sauce, rice wine and 60ml (¼ cup) of cool water.
Cut the spring onion into 2.5cm (1 in) lengths. Slice the banana chilli on the diagonal into thin pieces.
Pour cooking oil to a depth of about 8cm (3 in) in a wok and heat to 170° C (340° F) over a medium flame.
Put half of the holy basil or mint leaves into the hot oil and stir with a slotted or mesh ladle. Fry until they stop sizzling, then scoop them out of the oil and drain on paper towels. Fry the remaining leaves the same way.
Mix the chicken to redistribute the cornstarch, which sinks to the bottom of the bowl. Put a small handful of the chicken into the hot oil, stir with the slotted or mesh ladle, then scoop them out after about 30 seconds. Continue to fry the chicken in small batches, so it doesn’t overcook before you can take it out of the oil. Drain each batch on paper towels.
Pour off all but about 20ml (4 tsp) of oil from the wok (no need to wash it). Place the wok over a high flame.
Add the ground Sichuan peppercorns and black pepper to the wok and stir once.
Immediately add the fish sauce/soy sauce mixture and stir again, then add all the chicken. Stir-fry until the sauce reduces to lightly coat the chicken. Stir in the spring onion and banana chilli. Taste the sauce for seasoning and correct, if necessary.
Scoop the ingredients onto a serving plate and put the fried leaves around the chicken. Serve immediately with steamed rice and stir-fried green vegetables.