Posted in Notable Nosh

Notable Nosh: Palais Imperial Style Kung Pao Chicken

PI StyleKung Pao

This dish appears on the menu of Ottawa’s Palais Imperial as ‘Imperial Style Chicken (spicy)’. However the Chinese character entry (reproduced in the inset in the above picture) reads Gōngbǎo jīdīng, and translates, in its most common spelling form as Kung Pao Chicken (Cubes).

For ages, I have rather thought of starting an ongoing blog feature here called ‘The Kung Pao Chronicles’ as I find this a very interesting dish indeed. I still may get around to doing that someday (maybe), but, for now, I am going to continue trying this widely variable dish wherever, and whenever I get the chance and I may, occasionally, share the experience here.

My interest lies mostly in the fact that I have come to regard ‘Kung Pao dishes’ as being a good way to assess a Chinese restaurant. This is because you typically find it reproduced it three ways:

  • Chinese style;
  • Westernized Chinese style; and,
  • Straying so far from the basic theme as to be neither of the first two.

I am not going to go on at great length about the characteristics of these, except to say that the latter case will generally consist of some chicken with peanuts, or cashews, in some sort of hot sauce. This is true of all three cases, of course, but the basic Chinese tradition has certain other essential features as well. In today’s case, Palais Imperial follows the essential idea pretty well…

The one thing that is to be noted is that there is a lot of ‘bulk’ here in the form of vegetables, and indeed, this could really be called ‘Kung Pao Veggies with a Bit of Chicken Added’. Most recipes will often only include some green onion along with the chicken and peanuts, but here, the Palais Imperial includes red and green bell pepper, water chestnuts, celery, carrot, bamboo shoot, baby corn, and mushrooms. To be fair, of course, a restaurant has to be cost conscious, and a certain amount of filler is to be expected. Here though, it really was quite a lot at the expense of the chicken quantity.

The chicken in this dish was actually cut more in slices (piàn), rather than dice, or cubes (ding), but this is hardly fatal to a ‘proper’ Kung Pao dish, and I note that Palais Imperial used the darker thigh meat, which is more in keeping with Chinese tradition, as opposed to the white breast meat more commonly used in westernized versions.

The ‘heat’ for this version comes from the addition of Thai style dried red chili and this restaurant has given the dish the one of the signature ‘Kung Pao’ flavor elements, which is a ‘scorched’ chili flavor obtained by frying the chilies in the cooking oil until they darken before adding the other ingredients. This allows the unique flavor, and the heat, to permeate the finished product.

Beyond the chili heat, a Kung Pao dish is also slightly sweet and sour. In westernized versions, both elements tend to get exaggerated, of ten to the point that the sauce is pretty much the same sort of ‘sweet and sour sauce’ typical in these restaurants. The Chinese version is much more understated but, funnily enough, this place has actually gone to the other extreme. There is a tiny bit of sweetness, but very little ‘tang’. All in all, though, the dish I was given was delicious, with just the right amount of heat for me. They seem to cleave pretty close to the traditional Chinese original, with the deviations being no more than their proprietary, individual touches…

 

Posted in Notable Nosh

Notable Nosh: General Tso’s Chicken Palais Imperial Style

imperial general tso 1

It is still only about a year and a half since I tasted a dish of General Tso’s Chicken for the very first time. Since then, I still only managed to sample just a couple of other versions, but my plan is to try a good range of them, from as far afield as I can, in hopes of getting a handle on this highly variable menu item. The one pictured above was served to me at the Palais Imperial Restaurant in Ottawa a little before this past Christmas. The last version I had before it, a Japanese Restaurant General Tso’s Chicken, was pretty awful, but this current one was pretty decent…

The chicken (probably thigh meat) was very juicy, in large chunks, and was deep fried in a light batter coating. The sauce was very thick and, while sweet, was not overly slow. It was, I would say, ‘Oyster Sauce sweet’, rather than , say, Hoisin Sauce. It had a tang to it, probably rice vinegar, and there were a fair number of scorched red chillies throughout. These chillies (Thai, or African Birdseye) were indeed hot when bitten in to, but they only lent the sauce a sort of background heat, somewhere about the level as if a splash of Tabasco had been added.

The only criticism I had was that the dish had just a bit of a burnt taste and there were black flecks on the chicken. This was not, I am fairly sure, from scorching the chillies, nor intended, rather I think that the oil being used had not recently been changed. Aside from that, which in no way ruined the dish, I thought this very well done. I think I shall use this as a basic model when I come to attempt this dish at home.

Posted in Notable Nosh

Notable Nosh: Japanese General Tso’s Chicken

Japanese General Tso

General Tso’s Chicken (or some spelling variant thereof) has become so ubiquitous that most people who have dined in a Chinese restaurant have had it at one time or another. Surprisingly, though, even though the dish has been popular for a decade or so, it was only last year that I tried it for the first time. There are many different variations on the basic theme, of course, and one can almost so that no two representations are more than passingly similar. After my first try, I decided to order it in various locations and see if I could get a handle on the range of different preparations …

My first experience was in a fairly westernized Chinese restaurant in Vancouver. Just recently though, I was down in Ottawa and I came across an appetizer version in a Japanese restaurant. It was an ‘All-You-Can-Eat’ Sushi place and it had a small section of ‘Chinese Food’ listed on its extensive menu.

Anyway, the result you see here was … well, interesting. Even in my limited experience with this dish, I can pretty much guess that experienced aficionados would probably say that, whatever this dish is, it is NOT General Tso’s chicken. There are no vegetables in the mix (although, to be fair, this was meant as an appetizer so ‘filler’ was not needed), but the sauce that covered the chicken was completely off base. The chicken itself was actually pretty good… it was only dusted with flour rather than being battered (which is a plus to mind), and it was fried to the point of being nicely crispy on the outside. As for the sauce?

Well, as far as I have been able to tell, General Tso’s Chicken is supposed to have a bit of a fiery bite to it. It is not a ‘hot’ dish, as such, but it should have a little chili somewhere in the mix to give it a little spark. Here, though, the spicy heat quotient was zero (zip, zilch, nada, nyet, niente… etc.). The actual result was much more like the sort of sweet and sour sauce poured over chicken balls in the lower end ‘Chinese’ restaurants. It was, to my mind, quite a bit like ketchup diluted with a little vinegar, and with extra sugar added. Not horribly bad, at all… just not right. I rather think the good General might be rolling over in his grave at the thought of this production in his name…

Posted in Dim Sum

Dim Sum: Chicken Feet 鳳爪

Chicken Feet 1

Chicken’s feet are a popular snack in many parts of Asia and are a regular item on the menu at dim sum restaurants where they are often not identified as ‘chicken feet’ but rather appear, in writing’ as 鳳爪 (fèng zhǎo), which translates to the slightly more poetic ‘Phoenix Talons’. I first tried them in Toronto about 30 years ago (as part of my first dim sum experience, as it happened) and, as with many westerners, the idea of actually eating the feet seemed a little strange but, after a while, they don’t relay seem that much different from eating wings (although the texture is quite different).

Feet are invariably served in steamer baskets in dim sum restaurants (and this is how they keep them hot), but they are first deep fried which not only gives them some color but also causes them to puff up slightly. Afterwards they are stewed in a simmering sauce that often contains bean paste, sugar, and, quite often whole black beans (though other ingredients and flavourings can be used as well).

The ones in the main picture above, which I recently had in Vancouver)  appeared on the menu as 豆豉鳳爪 (dòu chǐfèng zhǎo), meaning that they are prepared with Chinese Salted Black Bean. Actually, very few beans were apparent (you can just make out a couple), and the usual black bean flavor wasn’t very apparent. The ones in the inset (which I believe I had in Ottawa), were also made using black bean, although the paste rather than whole beans) and they were also really garlicky, as well as being very plump and tender.

There is almost no meat in chickens feet (in contrast to the wing), and it is the skin that gives them the very gelatinous quality that is much loved by the Chinese and favored by me as well. Another factor that distinguishes the feet from the wing is the sheer number of tiny bones. The general approach is to suck larger pieces into your mouth and then work the plump, unctuous skin away from the little bones and then spit these out. In a Chinese restaurant, you will often see people doing this right onto the tablecloth … it’s all part of the experience J

Posted in General, Recipes

Chrysanthemum Chicken

chrysanthemum-chicken-01

One of my oldest cookery books, ‘The Great Book of Chinese Cooking’ contains a recipe for something it calls ‘Chrysanthemum Chicken’; so named, apparently, because the appearance is supposed (with some poetic license, one presumes), to resemble the bloom of that particular flower. Now, I have to say that, as far as I am concerned, any such resemblance in that regard is a faint illusion at best. Moreover, every other recipe for Chrysanthemum Chicken I have ever come across derives its name from the fact the Chrysanthemum petals, or greens, are used as an ingredient, and not because of any particular floral quality in the presentation. Anyway… today’s dish is inspired by that old recipe and, though I have departed from the flavorings a little, my result looks quite a bit like the picture of the original…  Continue reading “Chrysanthemum Chicken”

Posted in General

Kung Pao Dragon & Phoenix

kung-pao-dragon-phoenix-1

As I have mentioned before, any dish with ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ in the title generally means that it is made with shrimp and chicken. I put together this particular combination in order to show you the use of my homemade Simple Chili Oil as a dish ingredient rather than as a condiment and I have called it a ‘Kung Pao’ dish even though I stray from the traditional cookery methods a little. In the proper Sichuanese versions of Kung Pao cookery, chilies are fried in very hot until almost black, and the result is a characteristic scorched chili flavor with which the other ingredients are infused… my homemade oil definitely has that quality Continue reading “Kung Pao Dragon & Phoenix”

Posted in Recipes

Chicken with Peppers and Almonds

Chicken with Peppers 1

 

This dish is a bit like the ‘Almond Soo Guy’ or ‘Almond Guy Ding’ you often used to see on Westernized Chines restaurant menus back when ‘Chop Suey’ also used to be regularly featured. I never had either that I recall but ‘Soo Guy’ and ‘Guy Ding’ are phonetic representations of the Cantonese for ‘cooked chicken’ and ‘chicken cubes’ so today’s dish fits the bill either way. It’s quite sweet, with no other particularly exotic flavors, so it is a generically ‘Chinese Restaurant’ production if not especially Chinese beyond the appearance. It is, however, very easy to male… Continue reading “Chicken with Peppers and Almonds”

Posted in Recipes

Baked Celery Chicken

Baked Celery Chicken 1

Way back last summer, I found myself the only guest at the Tujormovik Hotel in Igloolik and, on the weekend, I ended up cooking for myself. I had some chicken pieces but, lacking a wire rack to bake them on, I improvised using celery stalks I found in the fridge. I only meant to use the celery to keep the pieces from sticking to the pan but, as it happened, the result of the stalks baking in the chicken juices was delicious and I made a note to experiment with the idea in the future.

Yesterday, I finally got around to playing around with the basic theme again, this time using chicken drumettes, which are the end part of the wing that looks like a little leg. Instead of using whole celery stalks, I cut the celery into short batons and spread them over the bottom of a baking dish. I was aiming for a vaguely Asian end result here and to keep the celery moist an add a little flavor, I sprinkled these with a tablespoon or two of dry sherry (having no rice wine at the time). Next, I tossed the drumettes with a little salt, garlic puree and Hoisin Sauce, and arranged them in a circle on top of the celery and sprinkled everything with just a little finely diced red pepper. This last step was more for appearance than anything else but you could easily substitute fresh red chili for an additional flavor boost.

Anyway, I baked the dish in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes and the result was delicious. I ate every piece of chicken and every bit of celery all by myself with just a little bread to mop up the juice. Once again, the celery baked in chicken juices really turned out nicely. I think a little more could be done to make the final dish a little more visually appealing, maybe, but the idea is worth working with and you could easily adapt the general idea with a whole host of other flavorings…