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Jul 27, 2001 04:16 PM

Beggar's Chicken?

  • m

With mentions of Beggar's Chicken by both Mike Lee and Limster, a little explanation of this dish might be in order. Legand has it that a thief stole a chicken from tne royal kitchen, wrapped it in a leaf and some clay to disguise it, and then cooked it by throwing it into a hearth.

I've had this dish only once, prepared by one of my aunties. The chicken was seasoned then wrapped in lotus leaves, sealed in clay and baked. I remember what a mess it was at the table to break it open. However, it was well worth it for the wonderful aromatics and succulent flesh.

Mike, you mentioned that the version you had at Shanghai Beach (Daly City) was not traditional. Could you describe the dish?

Any other restaurants that make this dish?

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  1. Well the only non traditional part beside it not wrapped in mud is that i had a hard time believing the chicken was wrapped with clay. To me, the chicken seemed to be wrapped with cooking dough more or less. But my intuition did not allow me to actually try the dough to see if it was clay or dough.

    And aside from Shanghai Beach, i have not seen such a dish on any menus around. Maybe i am able to get some more information as to some hidden gems with such a dish.

    10 Replies
    1. re: Mike Lee

      I've seen some recipes that make a dough from flour, salt and water. Also using aluminum foil or parchment paper instead of the lotus leaf, which is a shame because the leaf imparts a special aroma. My aunt bought some special cooking-grade black mud to make hers. We had to whack it with a hammer at the table to break it open.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        I think the seasoning and the leaves are the secret, not the clay. Many recipes will use a flour/water/salt dough to seal the dish. There is a Southern recipe for Smithfield ham that calls for cooking in a casing of dough with a plug hole, after the dough is hard, fill with raisin wine, replug and finish baking. Never tried it, but how about a chicken in dough, finished with Chinese whiskey...Drunken Beggars Chicken???

        1. re: Jim H.

          We savored Beggar's chicken at the now defunct Wu Kong at the Embarcadero as part of a pre-wedding banquet for my son and his bride-to-be. When the clay was cracked open by the waiter the aromas wafted around the room and were tantalizing. As I remember, maybe a five-spice like combination of spices were used? Anyway, I thought it was one of the best dishes we had.

          Melanie: what part of China would this be from? I looked in some of my Chinese cook books but could find nothing.

          1. re: Kit H.

            Not far from Shanghai, the City of Hangzhou is one of China's ancient capitals. Beggar's chicken is part of the local repetoire.

            Please check out Jim Leff's report on a Hang Zhou dinner, if you haven't already.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              very interesting to come across this thread this morning as i just got an email from Jerome, a fellow chowhound in l.a. talking about beggar's chicken.

              he wrote about a visit he'd made to a place on clement and fifteen called forutune village? fortune something at any rate and went on to describe foods that definately put this restaurant on my list of places to try and a possible for a chow outing in the future.

              the awning states that they serve traditional jiangsu and zhejiang province dishes, these are areas near shanghai. he mentioned they also do cantonese, but you are better off to steer clear of these as they are not the restaurants strong suit.

              among the dishes he described were: beggars chicken stuffed with lotus seeds wrapped in leaves but baked without clay (fear of lead content), braised eel with yellow chives (jiu-tsui), xiao long bao dumplings with crab, bao bao fan (sticky rice) and a sweet dessert soup with osmanthus flowers and little rice dumplings.

              he also lamented the loss of silver wing to the peninsula which i thought interesting as it has gotten quite a bit of press on this board lately.

              1. re: Rochelle

                That sounds wonderful. I've checked for "fortune" and come up with no matches for a restaurant at that address. So, please let us know the coordinates when you visit.

                Silver Wing was highly praised by critics, including Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl, during its time in the Southland. Hasn't seemed to have made as big a splash up here. Maybe still looking for its audience.

              2. re: Melanie Wong
                Raimund Homberg

                I am working on various Village Development Projects in Thailand [Tak province].
                For a fundraising purpose we would like to prepare and sell food in mud.

                Could you kindly advise us - as we have no experiences in this field.

                Thanks in advance.
                best regards



            2. re: Jim H.

              Actually i would have to disagree with you about cooking clay, mud, or dough which to me does make a difference. The following is just my opinion and my cooking experiments with using the following materials while cooking and does not offer the correct statement so if someone actually knows the real case please speak up.

              In the beggars chicken, there is suppose to be stuffings inside the chicken and the chicken should be seasoned with herbs and salt and the lotus leave gives the aromatic smell and gives the chicken the freshness. The mud/clay/cooking dough is almost like an aluminum foil that locks in the flavor and make sure that many of the flavors does not escape through air or moisture. The difference between choosing mud or clay or cooking dough will affect the taste of the chicken by the absorption factor. Different chemicals in mud, clay, and cooking dough will allow different flavors and moisture to be absorbed and passed through the cooking process. And cooking dough often will give the chicken a different distinctive taste because cooking dough often contains flavor. Now the difference between clay and mud is the taste. Clay and mud both have similar absorption abilities but by wrapping the chicken with mud, it offers a more distinct distribution of taste. So actually i think the taste factor change with what the chicken is used as the seal.

              1. re: Jim H.

                That's an idea! There is a classic dish called drunken chicken using copious quantities of shaoxing wine that's prepared for new nursing mothers. Soothes her nerves and the baby's.

              2. re: Melanie Wong
                Caitlin McGrath

                It seems like the flour/salt/water mix would be a good enough substitute for clay. This mix is what is known as baker's clay: a pliable substance that can be shaped, then dries and hardens under dry heat in the oven (used in arts and crafts, it is painted after shaped and baked hard).

            3. Beggars chicken has always been a food of Southern China as far as I know. It hails from a time when the poverty of the South forced many landless poor to take to the roads and eat whatever they could steal or find.The myth about a theft from the Imperial kitchen was something these vagabonds came up with to dignify their actions, and hence the dish which subsequently became a local favorite. Although Southern in origin there are versions cooked in provinces as far West as Hunan and Sichuan.

              7 Replies
              1. re: Panpan

                Panpan, I've also heard the version where the thief stole the chicken from a farmer, wrapped it in leaves and hid it in mud on the river bank.

                Where would you draw your North-South boundary? Where does the region around Shanghai fit in that picture?

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  I was in Hangzhou last month and our guide told us that the story is a beggar had stolen a chicken and used the only ingredients he could find to cook it. The aroma was so good that the king or emperor smelled it and went in search to find it. He saw the beggar and pretended not to be royalty and asked to join him for dinner. The beggar was very generous and after the dinner, they parted ways, but the king could not stop thinking about this chicken. Eventually, he had people go find the beggar to have him make this chicken again.

                  I suspect there are many different versions of the Beggar Chicken legend!

                  1. re: HKL

                    I've heard that one too! One more - the reason it's cooked in clay is that the aromas don't escape during cooking to betray the thief.

                    So, did Hangzhou claim this dish as its own?

                    When I was reading the latest What Jim Had for Dinner, I skimmed his account of the recent Hang Zhou banquet again. He mentions a roast chicken cooked in lotus leaves. I wonder if this was beggar's chicken prepared without the clay covering (as some now do).

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Yes, the guide in Hangzhou said it was a local dish and it seems very popular. I also remember him saying that the meat is so tender that the beggar did not have to use chopsticks. I have to say that I wasn't too impressed with the restaurant that we went to, but I'm sure it can be a delicious dish!

                  2. re: Melanie Wong

                    Melanie, as you probably know, classically the food of Shanghai falls into the eastern school of chinese cooking but as I am someone who has spent most of my time in Manchuria(Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang)I see Shanghai as being south of my location. Most northerners would determine the cut off point to be the southern borders of Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Shandong.Everything under is the beginning of the south. Cantonese, however, would see Shanghai as being above them, and therefore northeast of their location.I guess it is all relative, depending on where one is from.

                    1. re: Panpan

                      Ah, you were waaaay up north.

                      You've framed that well. Culturally, I can imagine that Shanghai would be considered part of the rebellious South. (g)

                      On the International board, there's request for information for an upcoming visit to Beijing (link below). Perhaps you have some suggestions for him to post on that thread.


                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        Thanks Melanie. I have posted some info. Im not sure whether its too helpful as whilst the monuments dont change the restaurants do!

                2. The "Beggar's Organization" (Gai Bang) in China originated around the Tang Dynasty and existed for several hundred years. They are mostly beggars who helps the oppressed. They travel in rags, and carried very little material things.

                  The chicken back then were sold (or stolen)live with feathers in tact. The beggars of course do not travel with their kitchen. Meals were prepared with campfire and minimal processing. Here's a very rough translation of a paragraph from a Kung fu novel that describes the technique:

                  "Huang Rong used her Er-Mei fork(her weapon) to cut open the stomach and washed out the innards, but does not pluck the chicken. She mixed water and some mud to cover the whole chicken, and started to roast it over campfire until the aroma seeps through the mud. She waits for the mud to dry completely. Then as she rips of the dried mud, the feathers fall off with it, leaving the tender white chicken with the thick and wonderful aroma wafting to the nose...She was about to tear the chicken apart when someone behind her said, 'Tear it into 3 parts, give me the part with the chicken butt'....It was this beggar shouldering a gourd (filled with wine), who was almost drooling, with ape-like impatience, as if he's about to rip the chicken away from her....(Huang Rong gives him the part with the chicken butt)The beggar, overjoyed, eats up a storm, praising as he eats, 'Wonderful! Wonderful! Even the ancestors of Gai Bang couldn't make a Beggar's Chicken this Good!!!......."

                  So, it seems that one could fill the inside of the chicken with perhaps freshly picked mushrooms, or whatever's on hand, but the whole purpose of the mud is for to skip the feather plucking process, as it also seals in the chicken's natural flavor. This is not a dish you use utensils on nor one where you worry about dirtying the table cloth.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: HLing

                    Thanks so much for that literary explanation. Now to respond to Panpan, from which region did this dish originate? I'd thought Hangzhou which was the capital during the Southern Song dynasty. Would appreciate confirmation or correction.