Beggar’s Chicken

This famous dish originates in the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). The emperor, while travelling in the guise of an ordinary civilian, got lost in the wilds south of the Yangze River. A sympathetic beggar invited the emperor to share a humble meal, which later became famous as “beggar’s chicken”.

As the legend goes, the beggar stole a chicken while wandering around a village in Changshu County, Jiangsu Province. Since he had no cooking utensils, after killing and gutting the chicken, the beggar coated it with mud and straw and baked it over an open fire. When the chicken was fully cooked, the beggar cracked open the hard mud. The feathers fell off with the mud and the chicken smelled rich and savory.

Mud is the key to cooking this dish. The mud seals the chicken flavor while imbuing the meat with its own aromas. The starving emperor found the chicken delicious. Asked the name of the dish, the beggar proudly called it “Aristocrat’s Chicken.” However, the beggar’s appearance definitely suggested the more suitable name, “beggar’s chicken.” The emperor’s praise later made the dish a hit among the ruling class as well as the peasantry.


To cook:

First remove the chicken’s feet and guts from the lower rib cage. Break the bones of legs, wings and neck with the back of the knife. Put the chicken into a jar and marinate in the mixture of soy sauce, Shaoxing yellow wine and refined salt for an hour. Grind some cloves and star anises and sprinkle over the chicken. Bake for 40 minutes.

Lightly fry some spring onions and ginger with lard and remove as soon as the aroma rises. Then put shrimps, gizzard, mushroom cubes, ham cubes and dried shrimps in the pan and stir-fry. Add Shaoxing yellow wine, soy sauce and sugar and stir-fry until all ingredients change color. Allow to cool and stuff the chicken with them. Twist and pull the chicken’s head through and add some cloves under the wings. Wrap the chicken tightly in layers of lotus leaves and tie with string.

When making Chinese wine, pottery wine jars are usually sealed with mud. The mud is consequently rich in the aroma of wine, making it an ideal coating for Beggar’s Chicken. Grind the mud to powder and mix with water until sticky. Lay flat on a wet cloth and put the chicken in the center. Lift the cloth up so that the mud adheres to the chicken. Peel off the wet cloth and wrap the mud-covered chicken in foil. Cut a small hole in the foil and bake the chicken in the oven for half an hour. Reduce the heat and bake another 80 minutes. Lower the heat again and bake for 90 minutes. Take out the chicken, crack open the mud casing and remove the cords and lotus leaves. Serve with drops of sesame oil.

Mud and lotus leaves are essential. The aroma of wine in the mud and the fragrance of lotus leaves enrich the chicken’s flavor. The meat has an amazing taste and is so tender it falls off the bone.