One of the most classic dishes in the Hakka repertoire, salt-baked chicken is also incredibly delicious. Rarely available anywhere outside of the homes of good Hakka cooks (read: grandmas), this is a dish to master and enjoy.
Like so many other recipes from this ethnic group in South China’s hill country, it is both clever and startlingly flavorful. But despite the fact that the bird is packed solidly in a thick layer of rock salt as it cooks, it doesn’t get unbearably salty because the salt doesn’t penetrate the wrapping. Instead, a tight cocoon of lotus leaf and parchment paper seals in all of the juices, so you are left with what can only be described as the essence of chicken. As you unwrap layer after layer, tendrils of steam curl out, greeting you with the scent of nothing less than a perfect roast bird dusted with a few aromatics and the haunting aroma of lotus.
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Truth be told, there is little reason why restaurants should be so lazy about this dish because it really isn’t that difficult. Yes, it does require lots of rock salt, but that can be used over and over and over. Yes, the chicken needs to be wrapped, but that is pretty much the extent of the labor required. And yes, it does mean that a great-quality bird is called for, but charge a little more, I say, and let diners order the dish ahead of time.
Or, you can just give up on ever finding a properly made salt-baked chicken and make it at home.
Long ago, this dish was served by wealthy Hakka salt merchants, whose cooks would actually bury the chickens in hot salt without any wrappers, rinse them off before serving, and offer a sauce on the side for dipping. About 200 years ago, someone came up with the idea of shrouding the bird in layers of paper to keep the salt out and the juices in.
Hakka Salt-Baked Chicken
Yánjú jī 鹽焗雞
Serves 4 to 6
For the chicken:
6 pounds coarse salt (ice cream salt is perfect)
1 smallish chicken (no larger than 4½ pounds)
For the dry rub:
1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper (see recipe below)
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
½ teaspoon ground sand ginger (see Tips)
¼ cup thinly-sliced fresh ginger (unpeeled OK)
3 green onions, trimmed
1 large dried lotus leaf, soaked in hot water until pliable, optional
For the sauce (optional):
¼ cup rendered lard
1 teaspoon dry-fried salt and pepper
½ teaspoon ground sand ginger
1. Before you start prepping the chicken, place the coarse salt in a rimmed baking tray and heat it in a 550 F oven (or as high as it will go); it should be red hot by the time you are ready to use it.
2. Clean the chicken thoroughly, rinsing it out under cool tap water and wiping it dry (inside and out) with paper towels. If you are using the giblets, rinse and pat them dry. Cut 2-inch-long incisions under each wing and then poke the outer two segments of the wings into the body so that the wing drumsticks lie flush against the body and protect them from burning. Place the chicken breast-side up on a work surface and press down firmly on the breast to flatten it so that the chicken is as compact as possible. Mix the salt and pepper, five spice powder and sand ginger together in a small bowl. Sprinkle half into the chicken carcass and rub it around; add the optional giblets to the chicken and then tie the ends of the legs together with butcher twine. Rub the outside of the chicken with the rest of the spices too.
3. Prepare a 30-inch wide sheet of parchment paper, spray it with oil and also have two 30-inch-wide sheets of foil ready. First, dry the lotus leaf, if using, and wrap the chicken in it. Then turn it upside-down on the oiled parchment paper and wrap the chicken up tightly. Turn this again right-side up and wrap it in a sheet of foil — sealing the edges as much as possible — before turning upside-down on the last sheet of foil and again sealing the edges to keep all of the juices in and the salt out.
4. Select a large sandpot or covered casserole that easily holds the chicken with room to spare for the salt. Place a trivet in the bottom of the sandpot and very carefully pour about a quarter of the very hot salt into the bottom. Arrange the wrapped chicken in the center (breast-side up) and very carefully cover it completely with the remaining hot salt. Cover the sandpot and place the pot on the stove; the heat under it should be between low and medium-low so that the salt stays hot and the chicken slowly bakes. Cook the chicken for 90 minutes this way, remove the pot from the burner and let it cool down until you can touch the pot and bird without being burned. When you open the pot up, pour off at least half of the salt and then lift out the chicken to a rimmed plate. Unwrap the chicken layer by layer, discarding any salt that is sticking to the wrappings. When you get to the parchment paper, carefully dust off any salt before opening up the lotus leaf; there will be lots of juices in there, so be sure and keep them all in the plate. Check the chicken’s doneness by piercing the thickest part of the thigh with a chopstick; the juices should run very clear. (Any meat that is still stubbornly pink can be cooked quickly in the last step with the sauce.)
5. To make the optional sauce, melt the lard in a wok and add the salt-and-pepper and the sand ginger. Drizzle in any juices from the chicken and bring the sauce to a boil. The traditional way to serve this chicken is to cut off and hand-shred the meat and skin; if you like to chew on the bones, pile them in the center of your serving plate so that they won’t be seen. Toss the meat and skin with the hot sauce until every piece is coated, and then arrange these on the serving plate. Serve hot or very warm with steamed rice and a simple vegetable dish or maybe a soup.
Dry-fried salt and pepper: Coarsely grind about 2 tablespoons of black pepper and place it in a dry wok (this means no oil). Add about 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt. Mix these together over medium heat, tossing often, until the pepper starts to smoke a bit and the salt is gray. Scoop it out into a bowl, cool to room temperature, and store in a covered jar. This can be used as a simple dip for things like fried chicken or sprinkled on popcorn or any other place where a bit of salt and spice would make life better.
- Sand ginger is a member of the ginger family; its English name is a direct translation of the Chinese name, shājiāng 沙薑. Rarely sold fresh, the sliced dried roots are often available in Chinese grocery stores in the spice aisle or in Chinese herbal medicine shops.
- Lotus leaves are also sold dried here in Chinese grocery stores; the leaf here is my own addition, as it adds nice flavor to the chicken, but can be left out for traditionalists and those who don’t have a Chinese market nearby.
Top photo: The bird, with its seasonings for Hakka chicken. Credit: Carolyn Phillips