Lettuce-Wrapped Spicy Chicken


Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Serves


    as a main course .

Appears in

I call this dish “the poor man’s minced squab,” in homage to the renowned Cantonese dish from which it is derived. The chicken version is a fraction of the labor and cost and is equally tempting and more fearlessly seasoned. It is a wonderfully versatile dish, appropriate for a festive occasion or a quiet dinner for two.

  • Yin-yang contrast is the key to its beauty. The chicken should be steaming hot and glossily white, and the lettuce a chilly bright green. When you wrap one inside the other, you taste spice, cool, crisp, hot, and tender all at once.
  • Chinese chili sauce is ideal here. Its light oil base keeps the chicken white and provides just the right blend of subtlety and spice. Do not use hot bean paste; it would overshadow the chicken. Lacking the chili sauce, substitute a sprinkling of fresh chili threads cut hair-thin or ¼–½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes, and add them to the pan with the ginger.
  • This is an excellent dish for a party. You may do everything short of the actual cooking up to 1½ days in advance, then stir-fry and serve the dish within 5 minutes.

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  • ¾ pound skinned and boned fresh chicken breast, carefully trimmed of membranes, cartilage, and fat (weight after trimming; equal to 1 pound 6–8 ounces with skin on and bone in; for easy, 5-minute boning)

For marinating the chicken

  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • ½ ounce bean threads (glass noodles)
  • 8–16 perfect lettuce leaves, curly-edged red variety recommended
  • 3–4 cups fresh corn or peanut oil, for deep-frying the bean threads

For stir-frying the chicken

  • 4–6 tablespoons corn or peanut oil
  • teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
  • 1½–2 teaspoons Chinese chili sauce
  • teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water or cold chicken stock
  • ¼ cup coarse-chopped walnuts, toasted pine nuts, or freshly toasted chopped almonds


Shredding and marinating the chicken

Separate the fillets from the main breast pieces, remove membranes and tendons, then seal each piece of meat individually airtight in plastic wrap. Spread the pieces on a flat tray or plate, press gently to flatten, then chill in the freezer until rigid enough to be sliced neatly. Check frequently; timing will vary depending on the freezer. Do not freeze the chicken solid, which would injure its texture and taste.

When the meat is firm enough to slice neatly, remove the first piece from the freezer. Holding your knife parallel to the board, cut it through the middle into even slices ⅛ inch thick, then stack the slices and cut them crosswise, against the grain, into even shreds ⅛ inch thin. Cut the longer shreds into 1½–2 inch lengths. Repeat with the remaining pieces of chicken. (If you are new to this style of shredding, read about “flying fingers” and “curved knuckles”. Once you get the knack, it is a 4-minute job to shred a whole breast with Chinese-style precision.)

Blend the marinade ingredients until smooth and thick in a food processor or blender. Process 30–60 seconds to achieve a rich consistency. Pour the marinade over the chicken, then stir well with your fingers to coat and separate the slices. Cover and put aside at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is supple. Then seal the mixture airtight and refrigerate it for at least 1 hour, to set the marinade and infuse the chicken with its flavors. If you like, the chicken may be left to marinate for 1½ days.

Frying the noodle nest

Use sturdy scissors to cut the dry noodles into 4–5-inch lengths, then pull the individual strands apart inside a large paper bag so they do not fly all over the kitchen. Have the noodles, a paper towel-lined tray, a large mesh or slotted spoon, and a pair of chopsticks or wooden tongs alongside your stovetop.

Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat until hot. Add oil to a depth of 2 inches or more, then heat to the dense-haze stage, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer. Turn off the heat so the oil does not bum. Test the oil with a single noodle. If it curls and puffs instantly, then the oil is ready.

Add half the noodles to the oil, wait for a split second while they puff, then quickly turn the nest over to puff the other side. Press the nest lightly into the oil for only an instant to insure that every strand is fried, then swiftly remove the nest to the tray to drain. Repeat with the remaining noodles. Fry them as speedily as possible, so they do not get oily. Once drained, break the noodles into bits with your fingers.

The noodles may be fried up to 1½ days in advance. Store them in a paper bag, or keep them in the oven with the pilot lighted if your kitchen is humid.

Once the oil cools, strain, bottle, and refrigerate it for frying nuts or noodle nests.

Preparing the lettuce

Up to a day in advance of serving, wash, dry, and trim the lettuce of any coarse stems or imperfections. If you are working ahead, leave the leaves slightly damp. Stack them in order of size, then refrigerate wrapped in a damp tea towel or in a plastic bag lined with damp paper towels.

An hour or two before serving, dry the lettuce and arrange it in a flowerlike spiral on a large plate or lightweight serving tray. Start with the larger leaves on the outside, then work the smaller leaves into a cluster in the middle, putting the lettuce heart in the very center as a decoration. Bag the tray or cover it with a slightly damp cloth and refrigerate it until the moment of serving.

Stir-frying the chicken

About 15–20 minutes in advance of serving, spread the noodles on a large serving platter and place in a low oven to warm. Have the chicken and all the ingredients for stir-frying within easy reach of your stovetop. Stir the chicken to loosen the shreds.

Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 4 tablespoons oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one bit of ginger, add the ginger. Stir to diffuse it in the oil, adjusting the heat so it foams without browning. When it is fully fragrant, about 10 seconds, add the chicken to the pan.

Stir-fry briskly just until the chicken turns white, dribbling in more oil from the side of the pan if the chicken is sticking. Be sparing with the oil, and if you add too much, wipe it away with a paper towel. As soon as the chicken turns white, reduce the heat to low, then fold in the chili sauce with a few quick stirs. Taste, and add more chili if desired.

Quickly stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine it, then pour it evenly over the chicken. Stir until the mixture becomes glossy and slightly thick, 3–4 seconds. Mound the chicken in the center of the noodle nest, then sprinkle with the nuts.

Serve the chicken immediately, accompanied by the platter of chilled lettuce.

Eating a lettuce-leaf package

Invite each guest to take a lettuce leaf and fill it with a dollop or two of the chicken mixture. To eat it in traditional Chinese style, wrap the lettuce in a tube-like cylinder around the chicken with the help of your chopsticks. Hold the package shut at the far end with chopsticks and at the close end with the thumb and first finger of your other hand, then daintily steer it into your mouth to take a bite.

If you are happy using your fingers and don’t care about elegance, then eat it American-style. Roll the lettuce around the filling, crimp the cylinder shut at both ends with your fingers, then eat it like a hot dog.

Leftovers are good cold, or resteamed in a tightly covered bowl until hot. Either way, they are slightly oily, extra-spicy, and superb for midnight munching.