I first saw these mysterious parcels of chicken at a dinner given by some arty young Chinese friends. Everyone reached right in with their chopsticks to deftly unwrap the paper and exclaim over the tender, aromatic treat inside. Everyone, that is, except me! I was then a vegetarian, and while I was stupid not to abandon my principles on the spot and grab some of that chicken, the smell and look of it were enough to urge me to become a born-again carnivore.
Slice the chicken into thin rectangles as directed.
Combine the marinade ingredients in a shallow bowl, then add the chicken and stir well with your fingers to separate and coat the slices. Put aside for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. For fuller flavor, seal airtight and refrigerate overnight.
For the first set of garnishes, cover the mushrooms with cold or hot water, and soak until fully soft and spongy, 20 minutes to an hour. Drain, rinse to remove any sand trapped in the gills, then gently squeeze out the excess moisture. Snip off the stems with scissors, then cut each cap lengthwise into 3 strips.
And/or, for the second set of garnishes, cut the sausage on a diagonal into 18 thin coins, each ⅛ inch thick. Just before wrapping the packages, steam or simmer the coins until the fat turns soft and translucent, 10–12 minutes.
Line up the sesame oil, cellophane squares, garnishes, and chicken slices. Stir the chicken to redistribute the marinade. Have a plate or tray nearby to hold the finished packages.
Following the illustration, put a cellophane square in front of you turned to form a diamond. With your fingers, spread an even film of sesame oil over the entire face of the cellophane. For garnish #1, place a strip of ham horizontally just above the center of the diamond. Put a strip of mushroom below the ham, black side-down. Just below the mushroom, make a string of 4–5 peas. For garnish #2, put a slice of sausage alongside a coriander leaf in the center of the diamond; put the leaf dark green side down. Place two or three slices of chicken directly on top of the garnishes in a rectangular pattern. If you have several skimpy or odd-shaped pieces, then overlap them to form a neat rectangle. (For proper wrapping, the filling should now be positioned ⅓ above and ⅔ below the midline of the diamond.)
Bring the point of the cellophane closest to you up and over the filling. Crease sharply just below the chicken. Bring the two side points over the filling, crossing one another. Align these overlapping flaps so the sides of the package form right angles with the base. Run your nail along the two sides to crease them sharply. Fold the bottom third of the package, that is the part containing the chicken, up and over, so the package looks like an envelope with the top flap open. Finally, tuck the flap as far as it will go into the envelope between the chicken and the two crossed sides, then crease it sealed just above the chicken. You should now have a neat rectangular package, about 2½ inches long and 1¼ inches wide. Run your nail along each edge to sharpen the folds.
If you are not successful, practice the folds with a 5-inch square of empty paper until you have mastered the shape, and then try it with the chicken. It is easy, once you understand the method.
The finished garnish #1 packages may be refrigerated on the uncovered plate or tray for several hours. Bring to room temperature before frying. Garnish #2 packages must be fried at once while the sausage is soft.
About 15–20 minutes before serving, heat a wok or deep-frying vessel over high heat until hot. Add the oil and heat to a moderate 325° on a deep-fry thermometer, when rapid swirls are visible just below the surface of the oil. Have the chicken, a tray lined with a double thickness of paper towels, and cooking chopsticks, wooden tongs, or a mesh spoon all within easy reach of your stovetop. Adjust the heat so the oil temperature does not rise.
Test the oil with one package. If it rises to the surface in 3–4 seconds surrounded by tiny white bubbles, the oil is ready.
Fry 5–8 packages at a time, slipping them slowly into the oil one by one, checking to see that each rises quickly to the surface surrounded by bubbles and has room to float. Turn the packages gently once or twice as they fry. Remove from the oil after 2–3 minutes, when the chicken has turned white and had an extra minute to exchange flavors with the garnishes and sesame oil. Stand the packages on end on the toweling to drain, then fry the remaining packages. Retest the oil with each new batch, and wait several minutes if needed for the oil to regain its original temperature.
Serve the packages as soon as they are all fried, arranged in a swirl or in overlapping rows on a heated platter of contrasting color, garnish side up. Invite everyone to open his or her own package, with chopsticks or fingers as desired. If you have oiled the paper sufficiently, the envelope will open easily and the chicken and garnishes will cleave together as one delectable morsel.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.