Mr. Chen was a close friend of my father. They went to university together in central China.
Mr. Chen had a difficult time while he was growing up. During the culture revolution, his family was labeled as the enemy of the state. His house was thoroughly searched and all wealth stripped. When his father was prosecuted and thrown into jail, Mr. Chen found himself without a job or means to support himself. Like many others ahead of him, he took the dangerous journey to the Pearl River Delta, jumped into the river, and swam across the sea to seek freedom. He was shot at by the soldiers, but fortunately landed safely in Hong Kong. Worked as an engineer, he married a lady 10 years younger. He was very fond of Mrs. Chen and constantly praised her achievements. She spoke fluent English and had worked as an executive assistant to a hotel general manager.
The Chens migrated to Australia in early 1980s. With their savings, they bought a small grocery store at Rose Bay and an apartment at Point Piper, both the wealthiest suburbs of Sydney. Their apartment, although had wonderful views of the Sydney harbor, was dark, miserable, and quite a mess.
Whenever Mr. Chen had the opportunity, he loved to talk about Chinese politic. He spoke with the deepest anger and hatred, teeth crunching and fist waving. He yelled at me from time to time, for my lack of interest of his topics, and I was obviously not good at keep my mouth shut.
In late 80s, I worked as a casual waitress at a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant specialized in mid-north cuisine, such as Peking ducks and spicy Sichuan dishes. The Chens had dinner in the restaurant one night, and particularly liked the Shandong shredded chicken. They asked me to get the recipe, which was refused by the chef. The Chens did not speak to me ever since.
I found out some years later, that Mr. Chen told my parents, who were afar, that I was very naughty – I enjoyed working as a waitress; and I went out for suppers with with co-workers after work.
The last time I heard of the Chens, they were running a small restaurant in a suburban office park. Every morning at 3am, Mr. Chen, then 78 of age, got out of bed to collect supplies; then he joined his wife at the restaurant to work.
I can’t say that I appreciated my experience with Mr. Chen. But I sincerely hope they are enjoying their life, and are happy.
And here is my version of a Shandong chicken, recalling the ingredients and method I learnt from the restaurant. I first placed the chicken in brine overnight, then shallow-fried the chicken with soy sauce, steamed the chicken, shredded the chicken, and served the chicken with a tangy and spicy sauce.
The most important element of this dish is the sauce. It is sweet, sour, salty and spicy – just like life, never boring.
Recipe and easy steps are as follows:
- a medium free range chicken
- for the brine – 1 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp sugar, 2 star anise, 6 cloves
- for the sauce – 2 tsp dark soy sauce, 2 tsp light sauce, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp sugar. (FODMAP option: use apple cider vinegar instead of balsamic)
- for rubbing – 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp garlic and ginger paste (FODMAP option: use 1 tsp minced fresh ginger instead)
- for the spicy oil – 1 tsp Sichuan pepper, a little dried chili flake (optional)
- 1 fresh chili, remove seeds, sliced
- some shallot (scallion), cut into 2 inch length, then thinly sliced lengthwise (FODMAP option: use green part of the shallot only)
- cooking oil
- sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
- Cut the chicken in half, lengthwise.
- Brine – in a container, add 1 tbsp salt, 1 tbsp sugar, 2 star anise, and 6 cloves; mix well, add the chicken; top with water; close the lid and refrigerate overnight.
- Dry chicken with a paper towel; rub 1 tbsp of dark soy sauce over the chicken.
- Heat up some cooking oil in a frying pan, add chicken; pan fry both sides until brown.
- Remove the chicken and place them, skin side up, in a dish (a dish with some depth to catch the juice).
- Mix the sauce – 2 tsp dark soy sauce, 2 tsp light sauce, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tsp sugar.
- Rub ginger and garlic paste over the chicken; pour half of the sauce over the chicken. place half of the sliced shallot on top of the chicken.
- Steam the chicken for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked; remove the chicken from the steamer, set aside to cool.
- Hand-shred the chicken into small pieces; place the chicken pieces on a plate; reserve the juice; place remaining sliced shallot and fresh sliced chili on top of the chicken.
- In a small frying pan, heat up some cooking oil; remove the hot oil from heat, add Sichuan pepper and chili flake (if used); while the oil is sizzling, pour the hot oil on top of the chicken through a small sieve (to stop the pepper and chili). The oil should be quite hot and you may hear the shallot sizzles.
- Mix the remaining sauce with some of the juice from the steamed chicken; pour over the chicken.
- Garnish with sesame seeds (optional).