As the story goes (and there are many variations of it), a hungry beggar came across a chicken but, with no pot to cook it in, improvised by covering it in clay and burying it in the embers of a fire.
As he was cracking open the chicken, the emperor was passing and stopped to share the meal. The emperor was so taken with the taste that the dish was added to the menu of the imperial court. A lovely story, right?
Now, I don’t believe for a minute that it’s true (an emperor sharing a chicken baked in dirt with a beggar?), but I love that in China there are thousands of stories like this. Food is given its own mythology, from poetic names to elaborate legends, and every dish tells a story about the human condition.
serves 6–8 as part of a shared meal
2 tsp salt
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tsp five-spice
1.6kg whole chicken
2 dried lotus leaves
8 dried lotus seeds
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
100g minced pork
1 Chinese sausage (lap cheong), sliced
½ cup preserved Tianjin cabbage (available in jars from Asian grocery stores)
15g Chinese angelica
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp Shaoxing wine
1kg plain flour
1 cup (315g) rock salt
1 egg, beaten
In a small bowl, combine the salt, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and five-spice, stirring to dissolve the salt. Rub the mixture all over the chicken, then cover and marinate in the fridge overnight. Soak the lotus seeds (for the stuffing) in cold water overnight.
The next day, soak the dried lotus leaves in warm water for 30 minutes, and the dried shiitake mushrooms (for the stuffing) in hot water for 20 minutes. Trim the stalks from the mushrooms and set the caps aside.
To make the stuffing, heat a wok over high heat and add the oil. Fry the garlic and ginger for about one minute, or until fragrant, then add the pork and Chinese sausage and fry, stirring occasionally, for about three minutes, until the pork is browned. Add the shiitake mushrooms, preserved cabbage, angelica, lotus seeds, soy sauce and Shaoxing wine and toss to combine.
Stuff the chicken with the stuffing.
Heat your oven to 160C.
For the dough crust, knead half the flour, half the salt and 700ml water in an electric stand mixer fitted with a dough hook for about five minutes, until a smooth dough forms. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to about one centimetre thick. Repeat with the remaining flour, salt and the same quantity of water to make a second sheet of dough.
Lay the soaked lotus leaves over one piece of dough and place the chicken on top.
Wrap the chicken in the leaves and secure the leaves with string.
Place the other dough sheet on top of the chicken and pinch to secure the chicken in a package without large air pockets.
Brush with the beaten egg, place in a roasting tin and bake for 3½ hours. Remove from the oven and rest for 20 minutes, then crack open the dough and unwrap the chicken to serve.