In 2018, Food & Wine named this recipe one of our 40 best: Scholar of Chinese culture and cookbook author Barbara Tropp introduced F&W readers to the rich variety of China’s gastronomic regions, including that of the Hakka of southeast China. This is the most famous of Hakka dishes, a whole chicken that is baked in hot salt and emerges exceedingly juicy and not at all salty. Tropp explained that Hakka cooks have one hand in the north and one in the south; the northern hand reaches for garlic, ginger, and an extra shot of rice wine, while the southern hand opts for light-colored sauces and favors steaming over stir-frying. This chicken, while subtle, is served with bold dipping sauces, including a northern-style one made with plenty of fresh ginger. The quality of the bird is what makes or breaks this dish—seek out the best you can find. (Rose-scented rose dew liqueur, mei kuei lu chiew, is available in Chinese liquor stores, but the dish can be made without it.)
One 3 1/2 - to 4-pound chicken, preferably free-range, rinsed and patted dry
1 1/2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
5 quarter-size slices of fresh ginger, lightly smashed
2 scallions, lightly smashed and cut into 1 1/2 -inch lengths
5 cilantro sprigs, plus additional cilantro leaves for garnish
1 star anise pod
1 tablespoon Rose Dew Liqueur or extra-dry vermouth
Rub the cavity of the chicken with the rice wine and stuff with the ginger, scallions, cilantro sprigs and star anise. Place the chicken, breast up, on a rack and brush the outside with the liqueur. Let the chicken stand in a cool, airy place until the skin is dry to the touch, about 2 hours.
Truss the chicken with string. Wrap the chicken in a single layer of cheesecloth; bring the ends around and tie them together on top of the chicken breast with string. The chicken should be tightly wrapped in a neat ball.
Pour the salt into a large heavy stockpot or spun-steel wok that will hold the chicken snugly. Turn the heat to moderately high and stir the salt frequently until it is very hot to the touch, about 10 minutes. Carefully pour all but 1 inch of the salt (about 6 cups) into a heatproof bowl. Set the chicken in the pot, breast up, and cover completely with the reserved hot salt. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to moderate and cook the chicken undisturbed on top of the stove for 1 1/2 hours. Check for doneness by brushing off the salt and piercing a thigh with a sharp knife. If the juices are still pink, re-cover with salt and continue to cook for another 15 to 30 minutes.
Push the salt aside and carefully remove the chicken, holding it by the knotted cheesecloth; try not to tilt the chicken and spill the juices. Set the chicken on a large platter and remove the cheesecloth and trussing strings. Discard the salt. Carve the chicken or use a cleaver to chop it Chinese-style into bite-size pieces. Serve hot or at room temperature, garnished with cilantro leaves and accompanied by the Hakka Dipping Sauces.
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