Ah the full moon – hands up if you have ever gazed up at it wondering if someone you love is, at that very moment, watching the same moon somewhere.
The Full Moon or Mid-Autumn Festival – Zhongqiu – is an important event in the Chinese calendar, a lunar harvest festival with rituals of dancing and story-telling dating back 3,000 years. It reminds me of our own Irish harvest Festival of Lughnasa as described in a recent blog post by Felicity Hayes McCoy..
The festival is held on the fifteenth day of the eight month in the Chinese calendar, close to the Autumn equinox. It is a welcome break from work before the onset of a cold, hard winter and a time of family togetherness. Even if your family are not close by you can still think about them as you watch the moon rise and disappear and celebrate the occasion by cooking a special meal for your friends.
When Shan came to visit us in Ireland for the first time last Christmas, she arrived armed with Sichuan pepper and star anise and one night she kicked me out of the kitchen so that she could prepare her signature dish for us, a dish that is now set to become part of our family Christmas rituals. Since then I’ve been trying, with some difficulty, to extract the recipe for that delicious meal from her and here it is. I will let Shane take up the story from here…
Shan’s Xinjiang Big Plate Chicken – xin jiang da pan ji – 新疆大盘鸡
“In the glow of a full moon and enjoying one of the rare National Holidays in China, this Mid-Autumn Festival, we invited two of our good friends over for dinner.
Our friend Carl recently has had myself and Shan over to his house (more than once) for a Sunday roast chicken dinner. Being so far from home and without a sufficient oven in my apartment to attempt such a spread myself, his roast chicken, spuds, garlic and gravy are heaven on a plate. Although we recently raided our freezer and treated him and his girlfriend to an authentic Irish fry-up brunch, we felt it was only fair to man-up and try to repay the favour with a proper O’Neill-Gao Sunday dinner experience.
After much persuasion, Shan finally agreed to teach me her signature dish, but with the footnote that it’s only because hers “will always be better anyway.” She has since qualified that statement by explaining what she really meant…
Throughout all of our childhoods there was one dish that was a speciality of a Mum or a Granny, that although often copied could never be equalled. She promises that while her speciality will likely be reproduced by many members of our ever growing family, this will be the delicious plate that everyone agrees ‘Granny cooked best’ many years from now.
This was also the first meal Shan cooked for our family in Ireland on her Christmas visit, and the very first meal she cooked for me in our shared home in Beijing.
So, we went to our local markets and picked up some fresh meat and veg, then with notebook and pen in hand, I watched and learned (and chopped and stirred when ordered).
The result is my best attempt at the recipe for you all to try at home and enjoy…
- 3 medium boneless chicken breasts and 12 chicken wings (we do it this way to complement my preference for breast and Shan’s for wings but feel free to use any combination of chicken pieces, skinned)
- Vegetable oil or groundnut oil for cooking
- 2 tsps Sichuan pepper
- 1 small onion
- 1 leek
- Chunk of ginger
- 3 fresh chillies
- 1 bulb garlic
- 1 tsp sugar
- About 3 peppers – any combination of red, green, orange, yellow
- About 3 celery stalks
- 1 tbs dark soy sauce
- 1 star anise
- 1 large tomato
- 2 medium potatoes or 1 large potato
- 2 large carrots
- 1 can or bottle of beer (stout or lager)
- Salt and white pepper
- Light soy sauce
- Rice to serve
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil. While you are waiting, cut the chicken breast into large cubes (about 3 or 4 per chicken breast).
- Add all the chicken pieces to the water and bring back to the boil then simmer for 1 minute, remove from water and drain.
- Peel and slice the onion and leek into thick slices. Peel the ginger and cut into three thick slices. Cut the chillies in half and de-seed. Peel and finely chop one clove of garlic from the bulb.
- Cut the peppers into triangle shapes. Slice the celery into chunks.
- Chop the tomato into small cubes.
- Bash the remaining cloves of garlic with the side of the cleaver and peel.
- Peel potato and carrots and chop into large chunks (remember this is a stew, so you don’t want those pieces to disintegrate during cooking).
- Heat your wok and add a generous amount of cooking oil. When hot add the Sichuan pepper and cook for a moment to release the aroma. Once the oil gets really hot add the onion, leek, chillies, ginger and chopped clove garlic.
- Stir-fry for a minute on a high heat, then add the drained chicken.
- Fry this until the chicken is a little brown, stirring all the time to mix while keeping the mixture relatively dry.
- Add the sugar and stir through, then throw in the peppers and celery.
- Add the dark soy sauce and keep stir-frying on a high heat for about 5 minutes, then add salt and pepper to taste.
- Give it a good stir then turn the heat down and cover for 2 minutes to let the chicken and vegetable flavours combine.
- Remove most of the vegetables and keep in a bowl for later (they are cooked already, so you want to keep them a little crunchy).
- Turn the heat back up. Add the chopped tomato, a single star anise and the bashed garlic. Cook and stir as the juice of the tomato gets you stewing.
- Add the chunks of potato and carrot and keep stirring.
- Now the fun bit, pour in a can or bottle of beer. We used a small can of Tsingtao, but when Shan made it in Ireland she cooked with Guinness – you can use any beer really which will add a little kick to the flavour, the alcohol will completely cook off. The beer should be sufficient for the liquid to just about cover all the vegetable. If it doesn’t you can add a little more beer or top it up with water.
- Put the wok back on a high heat and bring to the boil for 2 minutes, then reduce heat to simmer for 15-20 minutes, lightly covered, stirring occasionally, until the potato and carrots are nicely cooked. You can then start cooking rice, we have a rice cooker so it’s just rinse rice, add water and push the button.
- Taste the soup. It should taste a little salty. If it doesn’t, add a little more salt or light soy sauce to taste.
- Add back the vegetables you took out earlier, stir for half a minute or so and it’s ready. Remove the star anise and chunks of ginger before serving.
- Serve with rice. We gave everyone a bowl of rice and had the stew in a nice pot in the middle of the table for everyone to dig in.
We served this with a Beijing favourite cold dish – Pai Huang Gua (Bashed Cucumber) / 拍黄瓜 – with a bit of improvisation on the usual ingredients. This is so quick and easy to prepare it barely needs a full recipe.
A delicious feast enjoyed by all, and plenty spare in the fridge for tomorrow’s lunch. Perhaps I’ll be allowed to make it by myself next time, but no doubt it ‘won’t be as good as…’
This year we managed to avoid eating the traditional moon cakes (which do not appeal to any of our taste buds) but luckily had some moon-cake-shaped Godiva chocolates and red wine to top off our meal.
We’re going to go enjoy the rest of our National Holidays and a rare bout of fresh air in Beijing, and hope you enjoy trying this dish at home with fresh local ingredients.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival and happy stewing!
Footnote from Ireland
When we cooked this at home for the fist time, I used a combination of skinned chicken drumsticks, thighs and chicken breast from James Whelan Butchers. I left the drumsticks whole, chopped the thighs in two (with my cleaver) and the chicken breasts in 3.
I used O’Hara Irish Stout from Carlow Brewing Company in Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow which gave a lovely rich flavour and colour to the dish. I didn’t need the full bottle so I drank what was left!
Most of the vegetables I used were organic from Marc Michel in Kilpedder, Co. Wicklow and picked up at Donnybrook Fair.The quantities of vegetables in the recipe above are a guidelines only and can be varied to personal taste.
The recipe for Pai Huang Gua (Bashed Cucumber) is in the previous post.
The end result was delicious and while it might not have tasted exactly as Shan would have cooked it, it brought back happy taste memories of her first visit to our home.
So thank you for your signature recipe Shan and for coming into our lives. May your Big Plate Chicken be part of the O’Neill/Gao family tradition for many generations to come.