Ma-La Cold Chicken


I discovered this jewel in a tiny, unpretentious restaurant on one of my interminable food treasure hunts through San Francisco’s Chinatown. It is a playful variation on a classic Szechwanese cold dish, a lovely example of the art of yin and yang. Striking and light enough for a nouvelle cuisine dinner, it also makes a satisfying lunch.

  • Ma-La means “numbing and spicy,” the qualities of the Szechwan peppercorns and red chili infused in the oil. The oil or either sauce will alone make the chicken memorable. As a threesome, they are devastatingly good.
  • Cucumber traditionally partners cold chicken, but this dish deserves something special. I use thin asparagus or Chinese longbeans, fresh tiny snow peas, tender string beans, or “clouds” cut from broccoli stems. Blanch the vegetable until tender-crisp, then chill to set the color.
  • With the chicken and sauces on hand, this is a 5-minute dish. Without the sauces, you can prepare it in 1 hour. Everything may be refrigerated overnight for easy assembly the next day.

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  • pounds fresh whole chicken breasts, with skin on and bone in
  • 1 quarter-size slice fresh ginger
  • 1 thin whole scallion, cut into 3-inch lengths
  • teaspoon Szechwan brown peppercorns
  • 1 pound pencil-thin asparagus, woody ends snapped off, or ¾ pound Chinese longbeans, trimmed and cut into 3-inch lengths
  • scant ½ teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil

For making Ma-La Oil

  • tablespoons Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
  • tablespoons fresh corn or peanut oil
  • 1 rounded tablespoon thin-cut green and white scallion rings
  • 2 nickel-size slices fresh ginger, lightly smashed
  • ¼ teaspoon Szechwan brown peppercorns, twigs removed
  • ⅛–¼ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
  • ¾ teaspoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • ⅓–½ cup Dijon Mustard Sauce
  • ⅓–½ cup Chinese sesame sauce of your choice


Preparing “no-poach” chicken

Rinse the chicken briefly under cool water, and remove any blood clots that might mar the stock. Fill a small, heavy pot that will hold the chicken snugly with enough cold water to cover it by 2 inches. Spank the ginger and scallion with the handle end or broad side of a Chinese cleaver or chef’s knife to spread their fibers and bring their juices to the surface, then add them to the cold water with the Szechwan peppercorns.

Cover the pot and bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. Turn off the heat, add the chicken, poking it beneath the liquid with a wooden spoon, then replace the cover.

Leave the chicken in the covered pot for 2 hours. If more convenient, you may leave it in the pot until the water is completely cool. (Once the 2 hours are up, the water will not be hot enough to further cook the chicken.)

Remove the chicken from the liquid. At this point, it may be refrigerated 1–2 days before using, sealed airtight. If you wish a light unseasoned stock, ideal for use in stir-frys and soups, strain the poaching liquid then reduce it over moderate heat by about two-thirds or until tasty. “No-poach chicken stock” may be kept in the refrigerator up to a week, or frozen indefinitely.

Slicing the chicken

Remove the skin, then remove the meat carefully from the bone in one piece. Separate the fillets from the main breast pieces and remove the membranes covering them. Use a small, sharp knife to cut off any cartilage clinging to the main breast pieces. Make an incision and remove the tendon from the fillets.

With a sharp, thin-bladed Chinese cleaver or chef’s knife, cut the breast pieces and fillets crosswise on a diagonal against the grain into thin strips ¼ inch wide. Keep each piece of chicken intact after cutting, so that you can transfer it to the bed of greens in a neat, pretty pattern.

If you are working in advance, put the chicken aside on a plate or baking sheet and seal it airtight with plastic film. I prefer to cut the chicken just in advance of assembling the salad, but it will keep nicely in the refrigerator overnight if it is more convenient to work in advance. Bring to room temperature before using.

Preparing the vegetable

Roll-cut, blanch, and chill the asparagus as directed. For Chinese longbeans, blanch for 1 minute in boiling, unsalted water to cover, then drain immediately under cold running water to stop the cooking and set the color. Pat the vegetable thoroughly dry. Chill until serving, overnight if desired.

Making the seasoned oil

Just before assembling the salad, put the 2½ tablespoons each of sesame and vegetable oils in a small pot and swirl to combine. Add a single scallion ring, then heat over moderate heat until the scallion sizzles. Let it sizzle 5 seconds, then remove the pan from the heat. Add the scallion rings, ginger, peppercorns, and red chili flakes, then swirl the oil to mix. If the ingredients bum rather than sizzle, then the oil was too hot and you must begin again with fresh oil and seasonings. Put the pot of seasoned oil aside to develop while you assemble the salad, and cover the pot to keep the oil warm.

Assembling the salad

Just before serving, toss the chilled vegetables with ¼–½ teaspoon sesame oil and arrange in a bed on a large plate of contrasting color. Arrange the chicken evenly on top, leaving a border of green showing underneath. Remove the ginger from the oil, then whisk in the soy. Spoon the oil to taste over the chicken, scattering bits of the chopped seasonings on top. Place mustard sauce at one end of the platter and sesame sauce at the other. If you are using Sweet and Silky Sesame Sauce, thin it, if needed, to a smooth pouring consistency.

Invite the guests to help themselves to salad and to some of each sauce. I love taking a bite of first one and then the other. The contrasts are delightful.

Leftover salad is good cold. Leftover Ma-La Oil may be refrigerated, for use on cold noodles, cold meats, or Western salads. Strain the oil before storing to insure clarity. Serve at room temperature for fullest flavor, and add a pinch or two of Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt if you wish.