In Chinese, Beggar’s Chicken is called “叫化鸡” (Jiào huā jī). Made with a whole chicken, the bird is marinated, seasoned, and then stuffed, after which it is wrapped in lotus leaves, then coated in clay, and finally baked. The best part is that when it has finished cooking, you take a hammer and crack the clay to reveal a perfectly cooked chicken inside. There are various origin stories for Beggar’s Chicken, but the recipe is widely believed to be more than two thousand years old, originating in Hangzhou, China. Since it is such a popular dish in China, there are many variations, but I decided to use Cecilia Chiang’s recipe from her book ‘The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey From Beijing to San Francisco‘. (Amazon affiliate link). I did change a few of the ingredients and steps to make it feel a little bit more authentic.
- 3 ½ lb. whole chicken
- 1 gallon water
- 1 C. Kosher salt
- 1 tsp. 5-spice powder
- 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
- 2 tsp. unrefined sugar
- 2 tsp. oyster sauce
- 2 tbsp. water
- 1 tbsp. mushroom sauce
- 1/2 tbsp. dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp. xiao shing wine
- 1/2 C. sliced water chestnuts
- 1/2 C. sliced bamboo shoots
- 1 bunch of green onions, cut into 2” lengths
- 5 slices peeled fresh ginger
- 11 small dried Shiitake mushrooms Reconstitute in hot water for 15-20 minutes, drain from soaking water & trim stalks
- 1/4 C. ham sliced into ½”x 2” lengths
Wrapping the chicken
- 3 dried lotus leaves
- 2 sheets of newspaper
- 10 lbs. air-dry clay
- 1/4 C. chicken broth
- 3 tbsp. regular soy sauce
- 2 tbsp. oyster sauce
- 2 tsp. unrefined sugar
- 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
- 2 tsp. corn starch
- 1 tbsp. water
- To 1 gallon of water in a large pot add 1 c. of Kosher salt.
- Add your chicken and brine for 3 hours.
- Take the chicken out of the brine and use paper towels to pat the chicken dry.
- In a large bowl, add 5-spice powder, sesame oil, sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, water, mushroom sauce, dark soy sauce, xiao shing wine. Use a whisk to combine.
- Add chicken and turn to coat. Make sure to get the marinade into the chicken cavity as well.
- In a large bowl add all of the stuffing ingredients and mix well.
- Take the marinated chicken and stuff the cavity tightly with the stuffing.
- Truss the bird with butcher’s twine to keep the stuffing mixture from falling out.
Preparing the Lotus Leaves
- Separate 3 lotus leaves and place them into a stoppered sink.
- Cover them with hot tap water and allow them to soak for 15-20 minutes.
- Dry the leaves of excess water with a towel.
Wrapping the Chicken in Clay
- On the counter top, arrange the lotus leaves into a triangle pattern. Make sure the leaves overlap.
- Place the chicken in the center of the triangle and fold the edges over forming a tight package.
- Use butcher’s twine to secure the leaves around the chicken.
- Wrap the entire package in 2 sheets of newspaper.
- Next cover the newspaper with a ¼” thick layer of clay, taking care to seal any cracks.
- Use the tips of your fingers to create decorative furrows in the clay.
- Place the clay wrapped chicken on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake in a preheated 450˚F oven for 1 hour.
- Reduce the temperature to 350˚F and bake for an additional 2-3 hours.
Removing the Chicken from the Clay
- Use a mallet to break the hardened clay.
- Remove the clay to reveal the newspaper, peeling back to get to the lotus leaves.
- Use a pair of kitchen shears to cup open the lotus leaves.
- Serve with dipping sauce.
- In a saucepan combine the chicken broth, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and sesame oil.
- Bring to a simmer.
- In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch and water.
- Add the cornstarch slurry to the sauce and boil until thickened.
- Serve with chicken.
How Does it Taste?
The first thing you will notice when you bite into it is the tenderness — after baking for three hours in the clay, the bird has become super moist. There’s a good touch of five-spice flavor from our marinade, which our sesame-soy sauce echoes nicely.
The stuffing, which consists of ham, bamboo shoots, onions and shiitake mushrooms has a nice, smoky flavor, the shiitake mushrooms, for me, being the star of the show.
You could add a little additional salt if you like. And I think the dish would be equally delicious served over rice.
When Would I Ever make This Dish?
Beggars’ Chicken is a dramatic, show-stopping dish that would be really fun to present to a group of people. You could even have one of your guests take the mallet and crack open the chicken.
You do have to invest a little bit of time, and you probably have to search for some of the ingredients such as the lotus leaves, but it is definitely well worth it. And while I harvested my own clay from a site nearby my house, I know most people are not going to do that.
Where Can I Find Clay?
If you’re trying to recreate an experience, you could harvest your own. You can find clay deposits near streams or rivers. Our area used to have several brick-making sites, so clay is relatively easy to find.
Or you could just use air dry clay, available at your local art supply store.
Whatever you do, I highly recommend this recipe: it’s not only fun, but it’s tasty too!