Lijiang, a World Heritage site, is also home to a signature Yunnan dish - the clay pot chicken. Pauline D Loh
discovers the joys of this slow-cooking delicacy
It is a clay pot with a funnel in the middle, a unique cooking apparatus that is the product of generations of local kitchen wisdom. We are talking about the Yunnan qiguo, or the steamer clay pot.
Qiguo ji, the Yunnan potted chicken, is a signature dish of the province. It is served in a terracotta-colored container that looks like any other pot until the lid is lifted. Then you can see that the base has a funnel, very much like a Bundt tin or ring baking pan.
When we first arrived in Yunnan, our welcome dinner with friends featured this dish and it immediately piqued my interest, culinary and otherwise. It was served in the cooking pot and the chicken pieces were chopstick-tender and very tasty.
But what made me most curious was the funnel. Why was there a funnel in the middle?
As we settled in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, I gradually realized the wisdom of this little one-stop cooking pot, which is such a prime example of slow food cooking, discovered long before the idea was even crystallized halfway across the world.
First, the funnel. Most of Yunnan is on a plateau about 2,000 meters above sea level, and the altitude affects the boiling point of water as anywhere else. Steam, however, is not affected.
When food is cooked in the qiguo, steam from the food is captured and retained within the pot, hastening the cooking process and making it a more efficient energy source. It also acts very much like a pressure cooker, which both concentrates the flavor and tenderizes any meat.
And, by serving the dish in the container itself, no heat is lost in the transfer from cooking pot to serving dish. The Yunnan home cook has always been an intelligent conservationist.
We took our annual break at the ancient city of Lijiang recently and encountered what I think is the most luxurious version of the qiguo chicken dishes. As usual, it featured the wonderfully flavorsome silky chicken with its dark bones and meat, and two treasured ingredients - the matsutake or pine mushroom, and tianma, the gastrodia tuber.
Fresh matsutake is the truffle of the East, and in Japan the first pine mushrooms symbolize the beginning of autumn and are treasured as an extremely costly seasonal delicacy. When Japanese tourists first arrived in Lijiang, they were delighted to find fresh and dried matsutake mushrooms on sale at ridiculously low prices. As you can imagine, their great enthusiasm soon drove prices sky-high.
On average, a packet of thinly sliced dried matsutake now costs almost 100 yuan ($14.6). Whole dried wild matsutake mushrooms are rare and expensive and can easily fetch a non-negotiable price tag of a few hundred yuan per kilo.
Lijiang had a bumper crop last year and prices have dipped, slightly, which made us happy enough to hoard a stash we took back to Kunming.
We also bought some tianma, or gastrodia tubers, used widely in Chinese traditional medicine to treat migraines, high pressure-induced headaches, failing eyesight and general well-being. But best of all, it is a slightly starchy root that soaks up the flavor of any meat it is cooked with. Tianma comes in many sizes - from large potato-sized tubers to tiny fingerlings that are only a couple of centimeters long.
I prefer the smaller roots for cooking as they are a lot more palatable.
You can buy a Yunnan funneled clay pot in larger department stores or pottery shops, and in the little village at the foot of our housing estate in Kunming, we bought two, a larger pot for 20 yuan and a smaller that serves two for half the price.
Here is my recipe for a luxurious chicken in the clay pot, Yunnan-style.
Ingredients (serves 4):
1 large chicken, about 1.2 to 1.5 kg
50 g dried matsutake mushrooms, soaked
50 g tianma (gastrodia root)
20 dried lotus seeds, soaked
10 Chinese red dates
2-3 slices of ginger
2 cups water
Salt to taste
1. Clean the chicken and remove all visible fat. If you like, you can also skin the chicken for a healthier dish. Chop the chicken into serving sizes.
2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and blanch the chicken pieces. Rinse and place the chicken pieces in the Yunnan clay pot.
3. Drain the matsutake mushrooms and slice the larger mushrooms into two. Add to the clay pot. Reserve the soaking liquid and add to the pot later.
4. Add the ginger, tianma, lotus seeds and red dates to the pot.
5. Finally, add two cups of water and the mushroom liquid.
6. Place the covered clay pot on a medium fire and wait for it to come to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook for about 45 minutes to an hour, keeping the pot covered all the time.
7. Season to taste with salt and bring the whole pot to the table. Do not remove the lid until ready to serve.
If you do not have or cannot find a Yunnan clay pot, this delicious chicken dish can also be cooked in a regular clay pot or slow cooker. Follow the recipe up to Step 6 and pour the boiling soup into the slow cooker. Cook on medium heat for two hours, turning the heat to low for the last half hour.
Matsutake mushrooms can be hard to find out of season, or if you are away from China. You can substitute with dried porcini mushrooms, chanterelles or cepes but just make sure they are aromatic. Dried shiitake or Chinese mushrooms do not work well with this recipe as its musky flavor will overcome the more delicate tianma.
Gastrodia, Chinese red dates and lotus seeds are all easily available at most major Asian supermarkets.
I used a Yunnan silky chicken for this recipe, because it is probably the best-tasting chicken I know. You must use a larger and older bird for this recipe. Young pullets are too tender and just do not have the same depth of flavor. This is one recipe where age really matters.