Saliva Chicken (口水鸡)

I got two words for you. Saliva. Chicken. 

Okay that might've conjured some sort of disturbing image in your head. Perhaps one of a soggy, featherless chicken covered in thick, translucent slime, a scene that probably belongs more in an Alien movie rather than on a food blog. But then again, I like my weird foods so maybe this isn't too out of place...

But before you think I'm a right weirdo, saliva chicken is the name for an actual, real-life dish. The name is a literal translation of its Chinese name, 口水鸡. Though it might seem like a downright awful name, just thinking about this dish causes me to salivate profusely, so in a strange way I suppose the name is apt. 

Saliva Chicken (口水鸡)

The dish itself is native to the Sichuan region of China, and consists of two main elements - cold cuts of chicken, drenched in a spicy, numbing Sichuan chilli oil-sauce. I know this doesn't sound entirely appealing yet, but bear with me, I'll warm you up to it!

First, let's address the chicken. Serving chicken cold might be a real weird concept to the Western world (unlike the idiomatic cold turkey), but like all things in cooking, there’s a reason for this. We typically envisage chicken served warm/hot as having two textures - crispy/fatty skin and juicy meat. For this Sichuan chicken dish though, right after its cooked through in a pot of water/broth, it's immediately plunged into a freezing ice bath. This process tightens up the skin and causes the fat underneath to get all gooey and gelatinous, creating a third textural element. So you get three very complementary textures in a simple piece of chicken - taut, snappy skin, a gelatinous fat layer, and super succulent meat! 

More remarkable than the chicken itself though, is the sauce. Now I’m not the biggest fan of spicy foods, nor can I tolerate it much (embarrassing to admit as a Malaysian, I know), but the key spice in this sauce is a sure cause for addiction. To me, it's the craziest, most mind-blowing spice of all - Sichuan peppercorns.

Saliva Chicken (口水鸡) Spices

Most peppers have some sort of spicy kick to it, whether it's peppercorns or chilli peppers like chipotle, bird's eye chilli, or the Carolina Reaper *heavy breathing*. The worst peppers take you through a series of hellish trails that goes something like this: tongue-tickling spicy --> head-scratchy spicy --> need-cold-milk spicy --> help-me-I'm-crying spicy --> I-can't-feel-my-face spicy. 

The Sichuan pepper though, fast-tracks you to the final level in one fell swoop, but not in the way you might expect. Instead of being typically fire-burning spicy, they're all about the tingly, tongue-numbing sensation of a level 5 spiciness, but with almost none of the heat. It sounds real weird, but as someone who can't handle much heat, I'm demonically addicted to these peppers.

Here's a science-y segue! For the chemistry nerds out there (myself included), the compound that causes this numbing sensation is hydroxy-α-sanshool. It’s said to excite certain ultra-sensitive touch receptors in our mouths, causing a mechanical reaction (as opposed to a chemical one), which explains why we feel a tingling, pins-and-needles sorta feeling after eating any ma-la (麻辣; literally numbing-spicy) food. Interesting, no? 🤓

In some ways then, the numbing buzz you get from Sichuan pepper is comparable to the buzz you'd get from alcohol or drugs. Well, a really tame, class-D drug at that, for real tame people like me who prefer a quiet night in with a good book over a wild, bumpin night out. (Just let me indulging in my pretend-drug-taking bad-assery k.) 

So for a perfectly legal drug hit, order saliva chicken the next time you're at a Sichuanese restaurant. Or better yet, make you own at home, where you can tweak the level of numbing-spiciness to your liking. Personally, I like mine extra numbing, but with minimal heat. (The recipe below reflects this.) To get your hand on some quality Sichuan peppercorns, try your local specialty spice store as supermarkets/grocers don't usually stock them. For those in Malaysia though, if you can't get them, let me know as I recently received a large pack all the way from Taiwan! (Thanks Asya!) I'm just the dealer though yeah, and I'm not liable for your inevitable addiction... 😉

Saliva Chicken (口水鸡)
Saliva Chicken (口水鸡)
Saliva Chicken

Saliva Chicken (口水鸡)

serves 4-6

Ingredients

Chicken
1 tablespoon salt
1-inch piece of ginger, crushed
2 scallion stems, crushed
2 cloves of garlic, crushed

Marinade
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Sichuan Chilli Sauce
3 dried chillies
2 tablespoons chilli flakes
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 star anise
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon five spice powder
1 tablespoon sesame seed, roasted
110g neutral oil
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons black vinegar, or rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced

Garnishes
2 scallions, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted

Directions

  1. In a large pot, add the whole chicken, salt, crushed ginger, garlic, and scallions. Add water to the pot until the chicken is completely submerged. Bring this to a boil, then turn it down and leave it to simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare an ice bath in a separate deep pot. When the chicken is cooked, immediately transfer it to the ice bath to chill it down quickly. This helps the chicken skin tighten and you’ll get that jellied fat under the skin.
  3. To make the marinade, reduce (boil off) the chicken poaching liquid until halved. Then, take two cups of this liquid and to this add the light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sesame oil. Let the marinade cool down to room temperature, and pour onto a deep tray or container. In the same container, place the chicken breast-side down. Cover with whole container with plastic wrap, and leave in the fridge to marinate for 2-3 days. After the first day, flip the chicken over to get the chicken evenly marinated.
  4. For the chilli oil, first, toast the dried chillies, chilli flakes, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, bay leaf, cumin, five spice powder, and sesame seed in a pan. You’ll know when it’s done when the spices start to become really fragrant, and the pan starts to smoke just a little. Put the oil in a separate saucepan and heat it up to roughly 80°C. Then, dump all the spices into the oil. (Make sure your oil isn’t too hot! If the spices start to bubble and pop in the oil, you’ve gone overboard and it’ll likely burn.) Let the oil cool down to room temperature, then blend it in a blender until the spices are all pulverised. To the spiced oil, add the light soy sauce, vinegar, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, sugar, and minced garlic, and you’ve got a spanking, spicy sichuan chilli sauce! The sauce can last for 2-3 days, up to a week (maybe two!) if you don’t add the garlic in.
  5. On D-day, carve up the chicken (here’s a useful guide), drizzle on the sichuan chilli sauce, and garnish liberally with chopped scallions, cilantro, and sesame seeds. And boom, you've got yourself a Walter-White-worthy meal.