Lunch in Yantai/ Fragrant Chicken and Potatoes

Yantai, China, where the Gourmand Book Awards were held, is just across the water from Korea, both North and South–so near in fact, that if you look closely you can see its shadow just over my shoulder on this not very flattering selfie. 2015-06-11 03.56.03 The event itself took place away from the center of town, in a charming complex of buildings, gardens, artisan workshops, restaurants and bars, leading down a hill to the beach. The area so swiftly being developed that skyscrapers with cranes on top mark the landscape and in the course of the week we were there, we noticed huge changes. It was kind of staggering how quickly things sprang up: one day the road was dirt, the next day the cranes and diggers were at work, and by the time we left it was a super smooth roadway. Buildings were springing up, starting with a dry emply plot of dirt. Halfway through finishing the landscapers came in with gardeners and trees, bushes, grass, suddenly appeared; before the buildings were even finished the area was livable. Areas of run down huts were being replaced by high rises and luxury. I nearly cried when we drove to the airport and across from the terminals, in a triangle surrounded by motorways/freeways, a weather-beaten cowherd watched his small herd.

With tradition life disappearing so quickly, there is the sadness of bye-bye charm. On the other hand: for the people who live there, hello more comfortable life.

One afternoon I set out with Barcelona’s Laura Gosalbo–her book of food memories of her mother and grandmother had won a Gourmand Award–searching for lunch. We turned towards the beach and found a little strip of shops and restaurants: I had heard there was some wonderful food here but had no further clues as to where. Unable to read the Chinese signs, we had little idea of what was going on inside or even which storefronts were restaurants. We decided to pop into each and see, then make our decision after we had visited them all.

The first was a laundry. The second a sort of convenience shop. The third was an empty room with formica tables, a sign advertising cherries (it was the season in Yantai). It looked grim but it smelled FABULOUS. We next found our pottery master, the resident artisan in the complex, who had been teaching us to throw clay on his wheel; he ushered us into a stark and rustic-elegant room with a long low table and a zillion teas. It was the most zen place I’ve ever been to. Our pottery master stayed for tea but we mimed eating and set out to continue our search for food. One restaurant looked perky and clean and promising, with photos of the enticing things we could eat. The last restaurant on the row was appealing, brightly coloured, and Korean. It was such a difficult decision, they all looked promising.

2015-06-11 02.11.44In the end we chose the one that smelled wonderful, that had been empty first time around. Now, 20 minutes later when we returned, it was packed. And it smelled even better with bowl after bowl of noodles and stir-fries, soups and huge sesame-flatbreads on each table. A woman–the owner?– sat at a corner table peeling a mountain of garlic. She took a break for a bowl of noodles, and I noticed her eating a clove or two of the garlic as she slurped her noodles and soup. 2015-06-11 02.02.03

First we ate a big crisp sesame-coated flatbread with chilli sauce and a plate of spicy crunchy potato salad. I have eaten this salad in Flushing, New York, and wondered how the potatoes stayed so crunchy yet shoestring thin. We they cut and then par boiled or were they par boiled and then cooked? or possibly, were they stir fried gently? Yantai seemed to be the epicenter of this particular dish: it was on every table and menu, every meal from breakfast to dinner. And yet: I still don’t know how to make it. On my next visit to New York food writer Tia Keenan and myself are going to look ourselves in her kitchen with the largest bag of potatoes we can find, and not emerge until we have cracked the code. 2015-06-11 01.12.39 We drank cooling local beer–Tsingtao beer is made nearby, in the town of Quingdao, introduced by the Germans, and has spawned a whole industry of refreshing local light lagers: 2015-06-11 01.14.41good with the crisp sesame flatbreads and chilli paste. 2015-06-11 01.11.12 Somewhere along the way there were chewy, hand-rolled thick noodles in soup.

But clearly, the winner of the day, possible the whole trip, was the mystery dish we had just pointed to or were we told by the waiter that this was what we were having? It was hard to tell. In any event, its the big platter in the large photo above: chicken and potatoes, long simmered, tasting of spices, golden with turmeric, and spunky with hot chilli and studded with long strips of fresh ginger. There was, unsurprisingly, garlic galore. It was divine.

So, when I stepped off the plane, and hours later found myself in my own kitchen with a hungry self and husband as well as a package of chicken breasts, I whipped up my own version of the dish. It wasn’t the same, exactly, I used chicken breasts instead of a whole chicken’s worth of parts, so my version cooked for less time. Other than that, it was wonderful. So wonderful I really want you to make it. I know I want to make it again. and probably again.

Chicken and Potatoes from Yantai, China
Serves about 4
PS: I used olive oil instead of whichever oil the restaurant used: chicken shmaltz/fat would also be delicious instead.

2 tablespoons oil of choice, less (or more) as desired
2 onions peeled and cut into chunks
8 cloves of garlic, thickly sliced or in chunks
1 carrot, coarsely diced
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 medium large waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 green pepper, cut into thin strips
About 1 inch length peeled ginger, cut lengthwise into paperthin slices/strips
1 fresh not too hot red chilli pepper, sliced (seeded if you wish it milder, keep the seeds and add more chilli if you want it hotter)
3 plump boned chicken breasts, cut into large chunks–say, each breast cut into 3 or 4 pieces
Salt and black pepper to taste
5-6 black cardomom pods, whole
2-3 tablespoons paprika, preferably smoked but not hot, paprika
20-25 cherry/grape tomatoes, halves
Pinch Chinese five spice
1/2-1 teaspoon turmeric powder or about a teaspoon or more, finely chopped/shredded peeled fresh turmeric root
Juice of 1/2 to one lemon, to taste
Water or mixture water and chicken stock/broth, to cover
Fresh coriander leaves/cilantro to serve
Thinly sliced green/spring onions
Extra lemon if desired

In a wok or other heavy frying pan, heat the oil to medium hot, then add the onions, garlic, carrots and cumin seeds; lower the heat to low, and cook for a few minutes slowly until the vegetables soften and are gilded with the oil. Add the potatoes, green pepper, ginger, chilli pepper, and chicken, raise the heat slightly, and stir-cook (not so hot as to stir-fry) until the potatoes are coated with the spices. Season with salt and pepper. Chicken should not be cooked through.

Add the black cardomom pods, paprika, cherry/grape tomatoes Chinese five-spice, turmeric, and half the lemon Cook together, stirring, a few minutes then remove the chicken to a plate. The chicken should not be cooked through at all. It should still be mostly raw.

Add the water or water+broth mixture, cover with lid, and raise the heat. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes or long enough to cook the potatoes almost through.

Return chicken to pot, cover and continue simmering, stirring once or twice, until chicken is done. You want the potatoes–truely the best part of this dish–you want the potatoes to be cooked through but not falling apart.

Serve garnished with green/spring onions and coriander leaves/cilantro; if desired, squirt in a little extra lemon.

One Comment

  • This lunch was a delicious surprise and an unexpected pleasure. I am very happy we had the opportunity to share all these tasty discoveries and such a good fun!
    Congraulations for your Gourmand Award too.
    Meet again soon!

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