Sichuan Mala Chicken (La Zi Ji)

Marinade
1 pound (450 grams) skinless boneless thigh (or breast), cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce (or soy sauce)

Coating
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon cayenne powder (*Footnote 1)
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns (*Footnote 2)
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

Spice mix (*Footnote 3)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, and more to garnish
1 to 3 cups whole dried red Sichuan chilies (*Footnote 4)
2 tablespoons Sichuan chili flakes
1 teaspoon sugar

Cook
1/3 cup peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
2 teaspoons red Sichuan peppercorns
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
4 green onions, roughly chopped
(Optional) 1 cup chopped cilantro for garnish

Combine chicken pieces, Shaoxing wine, and soy sauce in a bowl. Mix well and marinate for 10 to 15 minutes. If you’re planning to marinate the chicken longer, cover with plastic wrap and transfer to fridge overnight.

Add cornstarch, cayenne powder, ground Sichuan pepper and salt in a large sealable bag. Shake to mix well.

Mix all the spice mix ingredients in a big bowl.

Mix ginger, garlic, and green onion in a small bowl.

When you’re ready to cook, drain the chicken pieces and discard the marinating liquid. Transfer the chicken pieces into the bag with the cornstarch mixture, and shake until they are lightly coated.

Heat a wok (or a large deep skillet) over medium-high heat until wisps of smoke start to rise. Add oil. (Or add oil in the pan and heat together if using a nonstick skillet.) When oil is hot, spread out the chicken pieces without overlapping (*Footnote 5). Use a pair of tongs or chopsticks to separate the chicken pieces, and allow the chicken to grill undisturbed. When the bottom of the chicken turns golden brown, flip to cook the other side until golden. Stir a few times to make sure the surface of the chicken is evenly cooked.

Remove your pan from the stove, turn to medium heat, then transfer the cooked chicken to a large plate. This step will let your hot pan cool off a bit, so you won’t burn anything later.

You should still have some oil in the pan. If not, add 2 tablespoons oil.

Add the Sichuan peppercorns. Cook and stir until the color turns dark brown. Remove them from the pan and save for later. (*Footnote 6)

Add the garlic, ginger and green onions. Stir a few times to release the fragrance. Stir-fry vigorously from now on, as you don’t want anything to burn. Add the bowl of spice mix with the peppers. Quickly stir until the peppers just turn a bit darker without turning black.

Add back the chicken. Cook and stir until well mixed. Remove the pan from stove and transfer everything to a plate with chili peppers prominently displayed. Top with cilantro for garnish, if using.

Serve hot (and ‘hot’!) over steamed white rice as a main.

NOTES
1. The original recipe (at MaLa Project) calls for 1 tablespoon cayenne chili powder and 1 tablespoon roasted ground peppercorns, which can produce a very hot dish depending on the product you use. I reduced the amount and the result was great for my taste. Note: you need to increase or decrease both spices, so the flavor of the dish stays balanced.

2. Although many Sichuan recipes suggest dry toasting Sichuan peppercorns and grinding them, I personally prefer to cook them in a bit of oil until turned brown, drain the oil, then grind the Sichuan peppercorns. It eliminates the raw numbing zing and gives it a more rounded aroma. The peppers will be less potent so you can use more to add fragrance.

3. In the original recipe, Taylor followed the authentic way of cooking, adding each spice separately so the different types of peppers are toasted just to the right degree. However I found this process very challenging on an electric stove without burning anything, so I decided to mix the spices and add them all at once.

4. Choose fat and large chili peppers that have a milder taste. If you cannot find Sichuan chili peppers, you can alternatively use Korean chili peppers. Do not use Thai Bird’s eye chili peppers. I know 3 cups sounds like a LOT of peppers if you cook the dish the authentic way. Alternatively you can use 1 cup chili peppers, which affects the dish’s appearance but not the taste.

5. You might need to cook the chicken in two batches if using a smaller pan.

6. In China, whole Sichuan peppercorns are always left in the dish. However you do need to pick them out of the dish when eating because it’s not very pleasant if you accidentally bite into them — I infused the peppercorns in the oil and then removed them. Do not throw away the cooked Sichuan peppercorns; instead, blot the residual oil with paper towels and grind them into powder. Store in the fridge and use in any recipe that calls for toasted ground peppercorns.

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