A confession: there’s a dish in Richmond that deserves a lot more attention than I gave it last time round. When I wrote about it during 365, it was a small part of a much larger post, in which I toured a group of Italians around Richmond. There was just so much I wanted to show them – we ate as though there was no food left in Italy, and if they didn’t get their fill while in Canada, they’d perish.
In that post, there was one dish that only got a small amount of screen time, but really ought to have had a much greater fuss made about it. So now I will.
This, my friends, is Beggar’s Chicken!
This dish is a real show-stopper, a knockout, a big shot. It’s the kind of dish that draws the attention of the entire table, and diners at ever other table. A dish that, when ‘revealed,’ invites genuine gasps, hand clasps, and plenty of iPhones held above the table for a picture.
This is one of Suhang’s specialties, and must be ordered at least a day in advance; it not only takes awhile to construct, but also a long time to bake.
Beggar’s Chicken, or “jiaohua ji,” originated in Hangzhou; like all good showstoppers, it has a legend (or should I say, many different legends) behind it. Folklore dictates that a poor beggar lucked into (or stole) a wild chicken, but had nothing to cook it with. Therefore, he covered the chicken in clay before baking it in hot coals. A noble (some say, emperor) passed by and smelled the finished chicken, rich with flavour. He tried it, loved it, and made it a favourite of the Imperial court!
I’m sure some places in China still opt for the clay version, but most now use lotus leaves and bread dough as a casing.
At Suhang, the bird itself is stuffed with a mixture of sticky rice, soy sauce, water chesnuts, egg yolks, and edamame before being wrapped up. It’s baked until the exterior is practically black, paraded out to the table to be cracked open, then taken away to be re-plated. It all feels very grand and ceremonial.
In the same manner as tamales or lo mai gai, Beggar’s Chicken is extraordinary because of its dense flavour. The wrapping of clay, leaves, and/or bread means there’s nowhere for the chicken juices to go but back into the bird itself; by the end of the cooking process the meat is fork tender, and the stuffing richly seasoned.
At Suhang, this is an excellent dish to order for a group, along with any other sides you’re in the mood for. Because the meat and stuffing are so rich, I’d suggest eating it with plenty of vegetables.
I did not take my own advice, and only brought one friend, Heather, along for my latest meal at Suhang. As you can see, the chicken was approximately the size of…….her.
We ate it with spicy green beans and xiao long bao, and managed to put quite a good dent in all of it.
So there you have it – a proper celebration of Beggar’s Chicken. Thanks to Heather for bringing such an impressive appetite, and to Suhang for another wonderful meal!