Chichi's Chinese: Steamed Chicken and Shiitake
Here's a Chinese classic: steamed chicken and shiitake soup. Cut-up chicken is steamed rather than simmered, along with shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and rice wine. The dish is done in about 20 minutes. The meat steams just so it's cooked through, the broth light, yet full of chicken flavor. Just about every Chinese person I've talked to about home cooking has fond memories of mothers and grandmothers serving bowls of this steaming chicken soup.
Too bad, then, that the memories are more heartwarming than the dish. I must not be the only one who thinks that the best part about chicken soup is the broth. I've always found poultry meat in soup lacking character, as though the bird has surrendered its essential goodness to the broth and so has nothing left for itself. It's the meat/broth conundrum, which is not as bad for pork and beef. But tender chicken meat in a soup preparation always tastes to me like a shadow of its former glory, a second-rate bite of food compared to chicken that's roasted, braised, or fried.
My favorite version of steamed chicken and shiitake forgoes the broth altogether. No liquid is added to the bowl, just a tablespoon or so of rice wine. The only liquid in the bowl is that which the chicken produces itself. A few tablespoons of very concentrated, ginger-infused chicken stock pool at the bottom of the bowl, perfect for spooning over rice. To garnish, the usual suspects: toasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns, chili oil, sesame oil. A sprinkling of thinly chopped scallions or cilantro.
This is one of those dishes I'd categorize as minimal input/maximum output. The returns you get on your investment are very fine indeed. Steaming the chicken without any additional broth or water completely changes the texture of the meat. It's so juicy, so good. Instead of chicken meat that tastes like it's been stewed for soup, the texture is more resilient. (It's even better if you can manage to salt the meat night before.)
The best type of meat to use for this preparation is dark chicken meat on the bone (so, wings and thighs) that have been hacked into small-ish pieces. I always knew when my mother was going to make this dish by the resounding thwacks of her large cleaver coming down on the board. If you buy your chicken from a butcher who's breaking down meat behind the counter, then you may be able to get your butcher to chop the wings into 2-inch pieces for you, which saves on your prep time and reduces the possibility of cleaver-related injuries. All good things, I'd say.
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.