Summer is the perfect time of year to investigate dishes which emphasize light flavors, crisp textures, and use the produce from prolific vegetable gardens. Cantonese cuisine, which is known for its skillful use of minimal seasonings, its emphasis upon contrasting textures and flavors, and colorful, artistic presentation, is a natural fit to the summertime cooking looking for something new and different to present to family and friends.
Cantonese minced chicken in lettuce cups is a dish I have long wanted to recreate in my kitchen, but for some unknown reason, had never gotten around to until this year. It is a lovely dish to look at, with the contrast between the tender white meat chicken and the crisp green lettuce leaves, but more importantly, it is a delicious and light entree for times when it is almost too hot to eat.
Having cooked similar Thai dishes, I was not intimidated by the thought of hand-mincing the chicken as I was directed to in Yan-Kit So’s cookbook, Yan-Kit’s Classic Chinese Cooking, but I decided to check out a couple of other cookbooks and synthesize my recipe from several sources, as well as my own experience eating the dish in one or two restaurants.
Not surprisingly, I found that there are probably as many different recipes for this dish as there are cooks in Canton; in my collection of Chinese cookbooks, I stopped seeking recipes to consult after I found nine variations on the typical dish.
Before I continue, I have to explain that Minced Chicken in Lettuce Cups is based upon a classic, luxurious Cantonese banquet dish, Minced Squab in Lettuce Cups. The original recipe includes oysters, and minced or finely diced pigeon meat, delicately seasoned and presented with lettuce leaves which diners used as wrappers for the rich filling.
It is hard for most Americans to think of eating pigeon meat without grimacing; even though the rock doves who live feral in our cities were brought here for human consumption, they have become at best nuisances and at worst, health hazards. They have an appalling reputation as dirty birds, in large part because of their eating habits which consist of eating whatever waste food is spilled on the ground or into dumpsters. I have even heard them called “winged rats,” or “air vermin,” by city-dwellers who have no patience with these ubiquitous birds.
However, suffice to say that our wild pigeons, while they are genetically the same as the rock doves raised for meat elsewhere in the world, are a far cry from what would have been considered a luxury meat in Canton. The domestic birds raised for the table in China were kept in clean dovecotes and were fed dainty diets, and so produced meat that was both delicately flavored and rich, and was truly fit to be paired with oysters.
The variant based on chicken came about as home cooks, street vendors and the proprietors of less exclusive restaurants copied the recipe using cheaper, more common ingredients. Chicken breast was an obvious substitute for squab, and while oysters were still used in some versions of the dish, often they were replaced with a touch of oyster sauce, or were left out altogether. While the original recipe was finely diced into minute cubes, the chicken version was most often made using meat freshly minced by hand.
Mincing meat by hand can be accomplished using only one Chinese cleaver, but it is faster and more fun when the cook uses two cleavers, one in each hand. The technique is not only faster and easier, it never fails to look flashy and impressive, meaning that if you have guests who arrive early, you can entertain them with your expertise in wielding two large chunks of sharp metal.
Basically, in order to mince boneless, skinless chicken breasts by hand, you start out by trimming away any membranes, tendons or fat from the flesh with one cleaver, held in your dominant hand, in the proper fashion. Then, you roughly dice the meat into 3/4 inch cubes, and set it all into a pile in the center of your cutting board. Then, rinse off your off hand, which has been used to hold the chicken, and dry it completely. Take up a second cleaver, which is as close in size and weight to the first cleaver as possible, and holding the two knives about one inch apart, start lifting them and allowing them to fall, alternately, into the pile of chicken cubes.
The motion is primarily in the wrist; keep the shoulders relaxed and the forearms supple, letting the wrists do the majority of the work. You don’t have to raise the cleavers up high, nor do you use much force in bringing them down–allow gravity to pull the edge of the knife down into the chicken. Move around the pile, continuing to mince, by stepping around the cutting board as you go, making sure to get over all of the pile.
After you have no more distinctly diced pieces, using the cleaver in your dominant hand, hold it parallel to the cutting board, scrape it under the chicken, and flip over the mass of meat. Use the butt end of the other cleaver, if necessary, to scrape all of the chicken off of the first cleaver.
You continue as necessary.
This technique is my preferred method of mincing any meat for Asian foods; grinding meat results in too uniform a result. The hand minced meat comes out with a variety of sized and shaped pieces which add textural interest to any dish in which it is used.
The two strongest flavorings used in the dish appear to be minced Chinese black mushrooms and Sichuan preserved vegetable. I found the mushrooms in all nine of the recipes I surveyed, while the Sichuan preserved vegetable was found in only two, but since I happen to like that flavor, I went ahead and used it. Scallions are commonly used, as is ginger, and in a few recipes, there was some garlic. I used a little bit of scallion and a decent amount of ginger, with only one clove of minced garlic.
The other flavoring ingredient that was universal was Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry, so it was my main liquid flavoring ingredient. I also used light soy sauce, and at the end, sesame oil and the tiniest amount of oyster sauce to impart a whisper of the original, richer recipe that contained oysters.
Finally, there came the matter of adding vegetables. Water chestnuts or bamboo shoots appeared in nearly every recipe. Since I had no fresh water chestnuts, and I will only use canned ones under duress, I used jicama instead, and did not use bamboo shoots. I was interested to see peas in some variety appear in many recipes, though Irene Kuo and Barbara Tropp’s recipes did not use them at all.
I decided to use the sugar snap peas I had in the refrigerator, as well as the last of the fresh baby carrots, to add color and textural interest to the dish, as well as adding a heaping dose of fresh summer sweetness. In addition, I found three small ears of sweet corn in my refrigerator, and cut them from the cob. I adore stir fried fresh corn, and figured that the sweetness of the corn and the texture of it would blend well with the minced chicken.
The finished dish turned out quite well, and though neither Zak nor Dan ate it rolled in the lettuce leaves and instead ate it on top of steamed rice, I found the combination of the cool, crisp leaves and the warm, minced chicken to be outstanding. Instead of the usual iceburg lettuce as most of the recipes called for, I used fresh green leaf lettuce, though I suspect that a nice head of Boston lettuce would yield very pretty curved cup-like leaves that would make lovely individual presentation.
1 1/2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
3 tablespoons Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
peanut or canola oil for stir frying (about 4 tablespoons)
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 scallions, white part only, minced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons Sichuan preserved vegetable, minced
6 black mushrooms
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
1/2 cup fresh jicama, peeled and finely diced or chopped (or 6 water chestnuts, peeled and diced)
1/2 cup peeled, sliced baby carrots
1/2 cup stringed, sliced sugar snap peas
3 small ears fresh sweet corn, cut from cob
3 scallion tops, thinly sliced
1 handful cilantro, chopped roughly
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons oyster sauce
Trim chicken breast pieces of all membranes and fat. Mince as directed above by hand (you can use one cleaver for this–but two are faster), then mix with wine, soy sauce, sugar and cornstarch and allow to marinate while you prepare all other ingredients. (You can also allow it to marinate for several hours, if you want the wine flavor to be stronger.)
Prepare all other ingredients–in order to prepare black mushrooms, rehydrate in warm water to cover. When softened, squeeze out excess water and remove the stem, which is too tough to be used in this recipe. If you wish, you can reserve mushroom soaking liquid and stems to make soup or stock by straining them and putting in the refrigerator, where they will keep a week, tightly covered. Mince the mushroom caps finely.
Heat cast iron or carbon steel wok until it smokes, then add peanut or canola oil. Wait until the oil ripples, then add ginger, scallions and garlic, and stir fry for thirty seconds, or until very fragrant. Add sichuan vegetable and black mushrooms, stir frying for another thirty seconds.
Add marinated chicken, and spread minced chicken over the bottom of your wok and leave it undisturbed for about a minute, to allow it to brown on the bottom. Then, stir fry very vigorously, using chopping motions with your wok spatula in order to get the pieces to stop clinging to each other. When meat is halfway cooked–when half of it is white and half still pink, add soy sauce and wine, and keep cooking. When most of the meat is white, add jicama and carrots, and stir fry thirty seconds, then add snap pea slices and corn, stir frying for another thirty seconds.
Add scallion tops and cilantro, stir well, and if chicken is done, remove from heat. Stir in sesame oil and oyster sauce, then serve on a platter lined with lettuce leaves.
There is a classic presentation of this dish which is spicy–to make this dish, use Chinese chili garlic paste to taste and add it with the ginger, scallion and garlic–I would use about a teaspoon to start out with. Or, to preserve the pale color, use minced fresh Chinese or Thai chilies, also added with the ginger, scallions and garlic.
Do not use too much oyster sauce with this dish–you do not want to color the chicken with its dark color, nor do you wish to overpower the fresh flavors in this dish. You want to just add a hint of oceanic oyster flavor. Also use a very good quality oyster sauce–the more expensive brands are more flavorful and less gloopy than the cheaper brands. I like Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce, myself.
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