This is real Cantonese cooking—a rich and superbly textured dish without a bit of the glop or goo we associate with Cantonese cooking in America. The chicken is soft and succulent, the chopped nut coating is crisp and flavorful, and the touch of roasted pepper-salt cuts any trace of oil. It is an elegant way to begin a meal and has for years been one of my favorites.
Separate the fillets from the main breast pieces, if you have not already done so, and remove membranes and tendons. Cut the chicken into rectangular pieces about 1½ inches long and 1 inch wide. Do not worry about having irregularly shaped pieces. Holding your knife parallel to the board, anchor the meat with the “flying fingers” technique described and cut the thicker rectangles through the middle into 2 or 3 rectangles a scant ¼ inch thin. Using the broad side of the cleaver or knife, gently smack and flatten any slices that are thicker at one end.
Blend the marinade ingredients until smooth and thick in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife or in a blender. Process the mixture a full 30–60 seconds to achieve a rich consistency.
Combine the chicken and marinade in a small bowl, stirring with your fingers to separate and coat the slices. Seal airtight, and refrigerate 1–36 hours to set the marinade and flavor the chicken. The longer it marinates, the softer and more flavorful it will be.
Chop the nuts in the food processor or by hand, 1 cup at a time, until peppercorn-size. Sift through a colander to remove the nutty “dust.”
Spread a layer of nuts about ¼ inch deep in the bottom of a baking dish or large pie plate. Stir the chicken to redistribute the marinade, then arrange the slices almost next to one another on top of the nuts. Pour another ¼-inch layer of nuts evenly over the chicken, then press on the nuts with joined fingers to help them adhere. Transfer the slices in a single layer to a wax paper-lined tray or plate. Repeat until all the chicken slices have been coated. Put sheets of wax paper between the layers of coated slices. Seal airtight and refrigerate the slices for 1–8 hours before frying.
Extra nuts may be bagged and frozen for future use.
About 15–20 minutes in advance of serving, preheat the
Heat a wok or a deep, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, then heat to the light-haze stage, 350° on a deep-fry thermometer. Adjust the heat so the temperature does not rise, then remove the chicken from the refrigerator. Test the oil with one slice of chicken. If it comes to the surface within 2–3 seconds wearing a crown of white bubbles, the oil is ready.
Fry 10–15 slices at a time, slipping them into the oil one by one, in close succession, so long as the bubbles continue to surround each new slice and they all have room to float. Adjust the heat as required to maintain a steady 350° temperature. When the slices are cooked through, in about 1 minute, the nuts will be gold and the slices will float visibly high on the surface of the oil. Remove them promptly as they fry to doneness, retrieving them one by one from the oil and transferring them to the towel-lined tray to drain. Do not allow the coating to turn brown in the oil, as the nuts will continue to turn a shade or two darker from their own heat while the slices drain.
Between batches, put the tray in the oven to keep the slices warm, and shake the tray occasionally to even the slices and blot up the excess oil. Retest the oil with each new batch, and wait several minutes if needed for the oil to regain its original temperature. If you are frying a double or triple recipe, pause once or twice to dredge the oil of nuts.
Once all the chicken is fried, transfer the slices to a heated platter and sprinkle them lightly with pepper-salt. A dip dish of pepper-salt may be nested attractively in the center or alongside, for those who want an extra dash.
After the oil cools, strain it twice through several layers of cheesecloth. Even so, a dark scum will settle to the bottom of the oil when stored. When you next use it, discard this portion and wipe or wash the container clean.
Any leftovers are good snack food when served at room temperature. If reheated, they grow a bit oily, but will still be snapped up.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.