Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, the author of seven books on Chinese cooking, stresses that the preparation of beggar's chicken, this masterpiece of Chinese haute cuisine, is as important to the appreciation of the dish as the finished product. Beggar's chicken is a disguised luxury: Its shell of lotus leaves, newspaper wrappings, and mud evokes a humble culinary history, but the dish has always been a fancy restaurant specialty and has been enjoyed as often by princes as by peasants. The stuffing may vary (the chef of Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel uses nontraditional barbecued pork and hot chiles), and the crust may be altered (parchment and pastry in place of newspaper and mud, as in this recipe), but the respect given to details of preparation, Lo teaches, is essential.
FOR THE CHICKEN:
1 4-lb. chicken
1/4 cup ng ka pay (Chinese sorghum spirits) or brandy
1 stick cinnamon, broken into 4 pieces
2 whole star anise, crushed
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
FOR THE STUFFING:
8 dried black mushrooms
2/3 cup preserved mustard greens
1 tbsp. peanut or vegetable oil
1/4 lb. fatback (cured pork fat), diced
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 red chile, seeded and minced (optional)
1/2 tsp. five-spice powder
1/4 lb. barbecued pork, thinly sliced and
cut into 2'' pieces (optional)
2 tbsp. shaoxing (Chinese rice wine) or sherry
1 tsp. sesame oil
FOR THE CRUST:
3 large dried lotus leaves
4 cups flour
2 large pieces of parchment paper
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 tsp. cornstarch
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1. Rinse chicken, trim and discard any excess fat, then loosen skin with your fingers. Place ng ka pay, cinnamon, star anise, and a pinch each of salt and pepper in a large bowl. Rub chicken with marinade both over and under skin, then place it in bowl, cover, and refrigerate 6 hours, or overnight.
2. Place mushrooms in a bowl. Add hot water to cover and top with a plate. Set aside to soften for 20 minutes, then drain and rinse. Trim and discard stems, then coarsely chop caps. Wash preserved mustard greens thoroughly in cold water. Chop, then set aside with mushrooms for stuffing.
3. Heat oil in a wok over high heat. Add fatback and onions and cook, stirring, until fat is transparent, about 2 minutes. Stir in chile, five-spice powder, barbecued pork (if using), mushrooms, preserved mustard greens, and shaoxing. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds, then add sesame oil. Remove from heat, season to taste with salt, and allow to cool completely.
4. Preheat oven to 325°. Place lotus leaves in a large shallow bowl. Cover with hot water and set aside to soften for 20 minutes. Place flour in a bowl and stir in enough hot water, about 1 3/4 cups, so that mixture holds together. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, about 2 minutes. Roll out into a large round about 1/4'' thick.
5. Remove chicken from marinade (discard marinade), then stuff with mushroom mixture, and close opening with bamboo skewers. Drain lotus leaves, then wrap them around chicken, tying them in place with kitchen string. Lay both pieces of parchment paper on a clean surface, allowing pieces to overlap slightly. Set chicken on top, then gather paper around chicken. Carefully place wrapped chicken, breast side down, in the center of rolled dough, completely enclose chicken in dough, and pinch edges closed.
6. Place chicken, breast side down, in a roasting pan. Cook for 4 hours. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together cornstarch and stock in a small bowl. Heat a wok over high heat, add stock mixture, and stir in soy sauce and oyster sauce. Cook, stirring, until mixture thickens slightly, 1–2 minutes.
7. Transfer chicken to a platter. At the table, break a hole in the crust, then carefully cut through parchment paper and lotus leaves with scissors. Pull meat from bones with chopsticks (discarding bones, crust, and wrappings) and arrange with stuffing on a second platter. Spoon sauce and cooking juices on top and serve.