KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 11 — One of the most luxurious dishes on the menu of fancy Chinese restaurants sounds as though it’s created for peasants rather than aristocrats. Beggar’s chicken (or jiao hua ji in the Shanghainese dialect) supposedly comes from Changshu in the Jiangsu province of China and was a staple at imperial banquets.
If this is a dish cooked for princes, how on earth did it get its pauper’s name then?
Legend has it that the dish was the invention of a beggar who came across some wild fowl in the forest. Without a kitchen or any cooking utensils, he came up with the idea of covering the chicken with mud and baking it over some hot coals. When he dug it out and cracked open the mud parcel, the aroma of the chicken attracted the attentions of a passing nobleman.
The nobleman found the mud-baked chicken so delicious he brought the beggar’s cooking method back to the Imperial Court. (No mention of whether the beggar got any royalties for his discovery, beyond the name of the dish, of course.)
We learn this at New Heong Kee, a fuss-free and decidedly not fancy restaurant located just off the MRR2 (Middle Ring Road Two). Hidden amidst some greenery is a nondescript bungalow, home to both the 40-plus-year-old restaurant and its unconventional outdoor “kitchen.”
At New Heong Kee, the chicken is first marinated in a blend of soy sauce, spices and Shaoxing rice wine before being stuffed with secret ingredients (which we will investigate later). Next the bird is wrapped, first in cooking foil, then wax paper, and tied with string. The final step is encasing the entire package in a “dough” of mud (likely a mix of laterite soil and water).
The oblong parcels of beggar’s chicken are laid out in a row, ready to be lifted up by a shovel and thrust into the heart of the charcoal ash-filled kiln. To be honest, the entire “oven” area looks more like a construction site than a professional kitchen, but therein lies its authentic charm. Most restaurants would use conventional pastry in place of the more traditional mud for the “dough”, after all.
Eight hours later, it’s time to dig these parcels out. The fun part is in breaking open the mud parcel: one quick whack with a hammer and it cracks open, revealing the treasure within. From start to finish, the entire process of creating beggar’s chicken the time-honoured way is painstakingly detailed and long. Is it worth the wait though?
Thanks to ordering the dish a day in advance, we discover the answer soon after our arrival. Steam wafts from the chicken, its skin a delicious golden brown from the hours of baking. The flesh, as expected, is melt-off-the-bone tender.
A dark gravy dribbles out as we tear into the bird, the stuffing infusing its natural sweet juices with a savoury, herbal flavour. Ingredients for the stuffing vary: here, we detect the presence of dried shiitake mushrooms, Chinese sausage, star anise, five-spice powder and cinnamon.
Another signature dish at New Heong Kee is their Fried Boneless Mackerel. Looking deceptively like a whole fish, this is actually mackerel fish paste stuffed into fish skin then fried, with both head and tail intact. One can only imagine what skill is needed to prepare this crispy treat.
Also don’t miss their Longevity (chang sheng bu lao in Mandarin) Soup. A hollowed-out winter melon serves as a nutritious vessel for a herbal broth chock-full of winter melon, white fungus and red dates. Their Oyster Rice, a fragrant treasure of steamed glutinous rice and dried oysters wrapped in lotus leaf, will satisfy any craving for carbs.
Bellies full (and belts straining), we leave New Heong Kee happy and substantially heavier customers, feeling more like princes than paupers.
Restoran New Heong Kee
446, Batu 7½, Jalan Ulu Klang, Selangor
Open daily 12pm-10pm
Tel: 03-4106 8698 & 016-393 2632