Shantung Chicken

Of all the meats I’ve tasted in this world, my favourite remains chicken. I still chuckle to myself when I recall Ingham’s satirical TV ad which apparently offended some factions of non-chicken eaters, “If you don’t like chicken, then there’s something very wrong with you.”

There just might be some truth to it; one can find no end to all the wonderful ways to enjoy this beautiful poultry, and most of all, unlike pork or beef, I’ve never heard of a religion or culture that prohibits the eating of chicken, have you? Talk about a piece of politically correct meat!

While it was easy to establish that most people will usually not protest when being served chicken for a meal, I bet that most, if asked, will argue to no end about the best way to cook it—fried, grilled, roasted, steamed, poached, braised, casseroled, boiled, broiled or a combination of these methods. Which brings me to my chicken craving this week—SHANTUNG CHICKEN.

Shantung Chicken
Shantung Chicken

You see, just as chicken is my favourite meat, Chinese cuisine is always going to be my perpetual favourite. By that, I mean I will hardly ever find myself bored or tired of cooking Chinese. There are so many schools in Chinese cuisine and so many techniques to master that I’m afraid a lifetime is far too short. And one of the best ways to enjoy chicken is really to cook it as Shantung Chicken, a recipe made famous by the Cantonese chefs who are just as famed for their robust style of barbecued and roast meats—my favourite too.

I had been reading up a little on Shantung food and apparently Shantung style cuisine is strongly influenced by one of the best-known schools of Chinese cooking in Northeast China, better known as the ‘Peking (now known as ‘Beijing’)—Shantung School’.

Pounded Szechuan Peppercorns
Pounded Szechuan Peppercorns

While Peking (or Beijing) and the province of Shantung are not geographically close, they have traditionally fostered close ties through migration and trade links over centuries, including a mutual sharing of cultural and culinary ideas and talents. Eventually, apparently even the cooking styles became indistinguishable between the two regions. Peking, however has always enjoyed greater prominence in terms of culinary fame as it was the site of the Imperial Palace and China’s great intellectual and cultural centre. Due to vast wealth, Peking attracted the country’s best chefs and helped propel its status as the ‘gourmet capital of China’ up until the 17th century. World-renowned for its over-the-top gargantuan banquets, some of these unbelievable culinary feats could extend to as many as three days of feasting.

Shantung Chicken
Shantung Chicken

The Peking – Shantung school is distinguished by light, elegant, mildly spiced rather than rich foods characterised by the generous use of condiments and greens like garlic, green shallots, leeks and chives, soy sauce and vinegar. Its most well-known delicacy must be the ‘Peking Duck’. Other wonderful signatures of the Peking-Shantung school would be the spring roll, piquant roasts, wine-cooked meats and its wonderful array of delicious dumplings. Shantung Chicken has the nuances of this style of cuisine–with its sweet, mildly spicy vinegared sauce flavoured with ginger, garlic and green shallots. It just may be another variation of Chicken Shantung!

In Brisbane my favourite Shantung Chicken had been from a little family restaurant, Sun Fay, that seemed to be around forever. From their first restaurant in Toowong which I was introduced to on arriving in Brisbane more than a decade ago, I never dreamed that one day Sun Fay would be my ‘neighbour’ down the street from where we operated our restaurant, Barang, about seven years after I had eaten my first Shantung Chicken at their Toowong site. The owner and chef, Mr Chung, made a lovely moist-inside, crispy-outside Shantung Chicken that was served on a grass of fried crunchy greens that never seemed to come with enough dipping sauce for our fill. We went back again and again ever since and over the years we’ve watched his kids grow up in the restaurant! Today it is still running though I can’t be sure he still cooks at his frail age. Nevertheless, thank you for the memories, Sun Fay. Thumbs up for your Shantung Chicken. Whenever I cook this, it transports me back to a cold, wintry evening in 2000 at Toowong, when your Shantung Chicken warmed me and reaffirmed why chicken has always remained my favourite meat, and my favourite cuisine—Chinese.

Here’s my adapted recipe after experimenting with a few recipes. However, instead of boiling then frying (which is the sworn method of cooking Shantung Chicken), I found that it tasted just as great with less trouble and was much less oily if I roasted first, then grilled the skin to a crisp. The meat was still moist from the squeeze of lemon and the lovely marinade spooned over just before roasting.

Marinade: (for 4 Chicken Maryland or 1 whole small chicken)
2 TB light soy sauce
1 garlic clove, smashed and diced finely
1 knob fresh ginger, skinned and diced finely
2 TB Shaoxing Chinese wine
2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns (ground or pounded)
1 tsp coriander seeds, (ground or pounded)
1/2 TB five spice powder
drizzle of sesame oil
1 tsp salt
squeeze of lemon

Rub the chicken with the marinade and leave refrigerated overnight for the flavours to infuse.

Once ready to cook, cover the top of your chicken with parchment then with foil. Roast the whole chicken (or the Maryland) on a rack at 200℃ for 50 minutes, turning once midway. Remove the foil and parchment. Switch your oven to the grill function to crisp the top of the chicken skin for another 10 to 15 minutes at 180℃. Once the skin has become well browned and has been grilled to a crisp, remove chicken from oven and let it cool. Chop the chicken pieces with a big cleaver and drizzle the Shantung sauce over on the top. Serve with jasmine rice.

Note: You can either make the Shantung sauce dip in advance and refrigerate or make it while the chicken is roasting the next day.

Shantung Chicken Sauce Dip: (adapted from Women’s Weekly recipe)
4 TB caster sugar
1/2 C water
2 TB white wine vinegar
1 TB black vinegar
1 TB light soy sauce
1 large fresh red chilli (chopped finely)
1/2 C coriander (chopped finely)
1 stalk spring onion, chopped finely

Directions for Shantung Chicken Sauce Dip:
In your smallest saucepan, bring the water to a boil, add the sugar and leave it to simmer and dissolve in the boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes to a syrupy texture. Remove from the heat, add the vinegars, soy sauce, chopped chillies, coriander and spring onion. Season to taste. Add a little more vinegar if you find the sauce too sweet but note that it is meant to taste rather sweet.

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