A Lesson on Fiery Szechuan Chicken Dish La Zi Ji, from the Front Lines of the Clean Plate Club
The waiter just shook his head. With the cutting stare of a deeply disappointed parent, he snatched up a plain white platter that I had more or less just licked entirely clean, and walked away. Wait. What?
See, I was raised with the universal truth that finishing your dinner was an achievement, a feat of perseverance and non-wasteful behavior rewardable (after loading the dishwasher) with a Chewy Chips Ahoy. Since when was being a proud, upstanding member of the clean plate club a total faux pas? Apparently since the contents of that plate—a fiery pile of Szechuan La Zi Ji—included an unconscionable quantity of dried red chilies that you’re not actually supposed to eat. Nobody told me. It was my first time. They were just sitting there. Spicy. Tasty. Beckoning. What's a clean plate club member to do?
That formative moment firmly catapulted La Zi Ji—aka Chongqing Chicken, Firecracker Chicken, Forager’s Chicken, or Hide and Seek Chicken—into my personal pantheon of favorite foods on the planet. It’s an addictive tangle of crisp fried chicken morsels and dried chilies thrumming with Szechuan peppercorns, garlic, and ginger. The chilies are mostly there for flavor, not for mindless consumption, which is why most recipes call for a certifiably insane amount (it’s called Hide and Seek Chicken because you spend most of your time rummaging through peppers in search of meat…an honorable and completely worthwhile quest).
After cooking this dish for the first time a few months ago (wildly popular, but plenty of room for improvement), I solicited some pro help from chef Kevin Adey, who owns a low-key Szechuan restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn (General Deb’s), not to mention a handmade-pasta mecca around the corner (Faro) that happens to have a Michelin star.
For Adey, La Zi Ji is a nostalgia bomb. “I didn’t know anything about Szechuan food when I moved to New York,” he says. After he and his wife ordered “crappy” Chinese takeout one night, he went to work the next day at Le Bernardin and asked everyone in the kitchen where he could get the good stuff. “40 cooks and 40 different answers” eventually led him to his first ever La Zi Ji at Grand Sichuan on St. Marks. “I was floored,” he says. He started eating it all over the city (“one night you’re on 8th street, next thing you know you’re in a basement mall in flushing”), but the version he cooks now is as close to the “OG” as he can muster.
Adey cooks the chicken in a deep fryer and a wok powered by the same jet engine that launched Elon Musk’s Tesla into space. You don’t need either of those things. A cast iron skillet (that’s what he uses at home) or a wok over a normal human burner will do the trick. What you do need is enough patience to chop and slice the ingredients ahead of time, because there’s no stopping this sizzling stir-fry train once it leaves the station.
You know those delicate dishes that benefit from a light touch? This isn’t one of them. Adey jokes that his food is so good “because I don’t have to chop the garlic.” In other words, take the time to prep copious amounts of this stuff (or be a chef and make someone else do it); you’ll thank yourself later. Lots of garlic (sliced), lots of ginger (not too fine), lots of scallions (the white parts); keeping these aromatics in decent-sized pieces will turn them all into “little flavor landmines” in the final dish.
And don’t even think about skimping on the chilies, which are there, as Adey says, to “swaddle the chicken in fire” (note: this particular brand of swaddling is not safe for babies). Adey suggests red lanterns, or facing heaven chilies, but chilies de arbol are fair game too.
You can do all your slicing and dicing while you marinate the chicken (up to overnight, but as long as you have time for is totally fine). Traditionally this dish might feature hacked up bits of bone-in chicken (by all means…), but chopped boneless skinless thighs are just as good and less of a pain in the ass to prep and eat; about 2 cups is a nice serving for two people (with some rice on the side). The simple marinade of soy sauce, Chinese Shaoxing cooking wine (use sherry if you can’t find it), chile flakes and ground Szechuan peppercorn—about one teaspoon each—gets a flurry of cornstarch (enough to form a thin batter) stirred in right before frying. This yields chicken that’s crunchy but not shatteringly crisp (just how Adey likes it). If you want to up the crunch quotient (I’m kind of into that), add an egg white along with the cornstarch. Shallow or deep fry the chicken, in batches if necessary, until crisp and cooked nearly all the way through. Transfer it to a sheet pan lined with paper towels, and ditch all but a few tablespoons of the oil.
Ready, Set, Go!
Once the chicken is fried, the rest of the ingredients go in fast and furious. Add a tablespoon of chili bean paste (doubanjiang) and cook, stirring, until it infuses the sizzling oil, about a minute. Toss in some sliced scallion whites, sliced garlic, and chopped ginger (as much of each as you like), and cook until fragrant. Maintain high heat and a watchful eye; it doesn’t take much more than 30 seconds for this stuff to burn. Add the chicken back into the skillet, along with about two cups of whole or chopped dried chilies.
If you have a wok, this is where you can start doing that thing where you toss the pan so the stuff inside repeatedly flies up into the air and gets kissed by the flames that may or may not be creeping over the sides (either way, it looks cool). If you’re using cast iron, just stir; that thing is heavy.
Next comes the rest of the flavor all at once: one teaspoon soy sauce, one tablespoon Shaoxing wine, one tablespoon sugar, and one teaspoon each of ground Szechuan peppercorns and ground chile flakes. Stir until everything is incorporated. Adey’s final flourishes are both tasty and optional: the scallion greens, some sliced fresh green chile, a drizzle of chili oil, a few drops of Szechuan peppercorn oil, an extra pinch of ground Szechuan peppercorns, and some sesame seeds. Donezo.
As for how to eat it? Adey likes to start with a pepper then ease off the heat. “It’s like jumping into a pond,” he says. “You don’t want to walk slow. You just want to get in. It’s cold. You know it’s going to be cold. There’s no reason to torture yourself.” Or you can do what I do: eat every last damn chili, lick your plate clean, load the dishwasher, collect your Chewy Chips Ahoy, and thank God that when you cook this dish at home there isn’t any disapproving waiter around to shake his head.