Chichi's Chinese: Sichuan-Style Chicken Salad
Chinese cooks dress poached chicken in a number of ways. There is always oil, such as sesame or chili oil, and usually soy sauce and vinegar. But the rest is really up to the cook. If you add sesame paste and seeds, and Sichuan peppercorns, you get the popular dish "Strange-Flavor" chicken. Strange in this case meaning distinctive or special, not weird.
I have heard many a Chinese cook say that the way to poach a chicken is to plunge the bird into boiling stock, bring the liquid to a boil again, and then turn off the stove and let the residual heat do the work. The chicken is done when the flesh is barely cooked, and the faintest trace of pinkish juices run from the thigh joint when it is pierced.
Now I tend to be safer and poach the chicken the old-fashioned way—that is, in broth or water with rice wine and ginger that's barely simmering. The result is the same: very tender chicken that's still firm and juicy.
Though "strange flavor" chicken is a standard in Sichuan cuisine, no two versions are alike. Just as vinaigrettes made for salads always vary—same idea here. (In fact, if you add pickled chili paste and minced garlic, you end up with a dish called "Fish-fragrant" chicken, instead of "Strange-flavor" chicken.)
The idea is to concoct a beguiling mixture of flavors to adorn the chicken slivers. This is one of those dishes that does not need too much know-how, but some amount of care. If the chicken is poached just so, and the vinaigrette is mixed just so, then it alls comes together in a very good way.
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.