Tung-An is a county in Hunan, and this dish has all the beauty of refined Hunanese cuisine: It is pungent yet subtle, complexly flavored without masking the primary good taste of chicken. It is an easy dish to turn out, perfect for the beginning cook, and a paradise for the lover of pungent, saucy stir-frys.
Rinse the breasts under cold running water and remove any bloody clots. Smash the ginger and scallion lightly to release their juices, and put them with the breasts in a small, heavy pot to hold the chicken snugly. Add boiling water to cover, return the liquids to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Simmer the breasts 10 minutes. Remove the chicken immediately from the pot with a Chinese mesh spoon or a slotted spoon, and spray with cold water to stop the cooking. Reserve the cooking liquid. Use it to empty your freezer of bones and make stock. The chilled chicken may be sealed airtight and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature prior to cooking.
Soak the mushrooms in cold or hot water to cover until fully soft and spongy, 20 minutes to an hour. Snip off the stems, rinse under running water to dislodge any sand trapped in the gills, then cut the caps into long strips ⅛ inch wide.
Roast the peppercorns in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring for about 1 minute until they are fragrant and begin to smoke. Crush to a coarse consistency with the end of a cleaver handle, or in a mortar.
Cut whole chicken breasts in half to one side of the keel bone. Leaving the skin in place, remove the meat in as much of one piece as possible. (You may discard the chicken skin, if you wish, but it is customary in this dish to leave it on.) Separate the fillets from the main pieces, and remove any membranes, fatty lozenges, and the tough tips of the tendons. (Much of the meat will be red; at this stage it is only partially cooked.) Slice the meat crosswise, against the grain, into strips ½ inch wide. Cut long strips into 1½–2 inch lengths.
Cut the scallion segments lengthwise into slivers ⅛ inch thick, and combine in a small dish with the ginger threads and red chili flakes.
Combine the stock, soy, wine, sugar, and salt, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Preparations may be completed several hours in advance. Seal the ingredients airtight, and bring to room temperature before cooking.
About 10 minutes before serving, have all the ingredients and a Chinese mesh spoon or slotted spoon within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving dish of contrasting color in a low oven to warm.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to gently sizzle a pinch of peppercorn, add the peppercorns and let them sizzle until fragrant, about 5 seconds. Adjust the heat as necessary to prevent scorching. Add the scallion, ginger, and red chili flakes and stir until the fragrance is pronounced, 10–15 seconds. Add the mushrooms, toss to combine, then add the liquids to the pan and raise the heat to bring the mixture to a gentle simmer, stirring. Add the chicken, stir gently until it turns 95 percent white, then remove it promptly with the slotted spoon to the heated serving dish. Move quickly, lest the chicken overcook in the liquid.
Add the vinegar to the simmering sauce, stir, then taste for a good balance of sharp and sweet. True to Hunan taste, it should be on the sharp side. Lower the heat, stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine, then add it to the pan, stirring until the sauce thickens and becomes glossy, 5–10 seconds. Pour the sauce evenly over the chicken and sprinkle the sesame oil on top. Serve immediately, while pungent and aromatic.
Leftovers make an excellent cold topping for a salad of mixed greens or shredded carrots dressed with sesame oil and rice vinegar. Like all dishes made with chili, expect this one to be hotter the second time around.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.