I love crumbly cinnamon bark with its distinctive sweet-strong flavor. One day I rubbed a generous amount of it over the skin of a marinating chicken and—voilà!—the scrumptious “Cinnamon Bark Chicken” was born. It is a variation on Fragrant Crispy Chicken, one of many Szechwanese classics known not for a fiery seasoning, but for a uniquely interesting texture. This is a chicken whose bite is as good as its bark. You will want to eat it all, including the delicate, crispy bones.
Clean the chicken thoroughly as directed. Pat dry inside and out. Put the chicken on its back, then press firmly on the breastbone with two hands to break the bone and flatten the bird.
Combine the ingredients for marinating the chicken in a heavy skillet. (Use the larger amounts for the bigger bird or if you like a more intense seasoning.) Set over moderate heat and stir until the salt turns off-white and the mixture is fragrant, about 4 minutes. The peppercorns will smoke; do not let them or the cinnamon bum.
Grind the spices continuously for 3 minutes in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, or in a mortar. The anise will not break up completely, so be careful when you rub the chicken not to pierce the skin with the pointy bits. Rub the chicken evenly with the mixture, using ⅔ on the outside and ⅓ in the cavity. Do not miss the spots under the wings and thighs. Put the chicken breast side up in a Pyrex pie plate or shallow bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap and put aside to marinate 3 hours to overnight at room temperature. Turn the bird once, midway through the marinating.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Drain and discard the accumulated liquids. Rub the outside of the bird with the wine, then place it breast side up in a Pyrex pie plate or shallow bowl at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. Lightly smash the ginger and scallion to release their juices, then spread ⅔ on top of the chicken and the remainder in the cavity.
Fill the steamer with water to within 1 inch of the steaming rack, then bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Put extra water on to boil if the steamer will need replenishing. Place the bowl in the steamer, wait until the steam begins to gush around the chicken, then cover the steamer. Steam over medium heat 1¾ hours. Every 30 minutes, check the level of the water and remove most of the juices surrounding the chicken, using a gravy-type ladle or a bulb-top baster.
For straining, storing, and using the juices in other dishes.
Carefully remove the bowl from the steamer, then tilt to decant the remaining juices. Wait a few minutes for the chicken to cease steaming, then discard the scallion and ginger, using chopsticks to retrieve the pieces in the cavity. Brush off the peppercorn, cinnamon, and anise bits, then smooth the soy evenly over the outside of the bird to impart flavor and color.
Gently transfer the bird breast side up to a rack to cool. Put a baking sheet under the rack to catch the drippings, then place the chicken in a drafty place or direct a fan on it, for about 3 hours, or until dry. The chicken may be left to air-dry up to 8 hours. Turn the bird and rotate the rack periodically, to insure even drying.
Have the chicken, a tray lined with a triple thickness of paper towels, some extra paper towels, a long-handled ladle, and a large Chinese mesh spoon all within reach of your stovetop.
Heat a wok or a wide, deep, heavy pot over high heat until hot. Add the oil, then heat to the upper end of the light-haze stage, 375° on a deep-fry thermometer. Test the oil with a pinch of the chicken skin. If it foams gently within 2 seconds of contact, then the oil is ready. Adjust the heat so the oil temperature does not climb above 375°.
Dip the mesh spoon into the oil to heat it through and prevent it from sticking to the chicken, then lower the bird into the oil on the spoon. Use the ladle to baste the bird continuously as it fries and to move it slowly and constantly so that it does not stick to the pan. When the underside of the bird is golden, after 1½–2 minutes, turn it over gently, bracing the sides with the ladle and the spoon. Continue to baste and move the bird until the other side is golden, about 1 minute. Remove the chicken promptly to the paper-towel drain.
Raise the oil temperature to the dense-haze stage, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a bit of chicken skin foams immediately on contact. Fry the chicken a second time, for only about 15 seconds on each side, until the bird is a rich golden brown. Remove and drain on fresh paper towels.
Serve the chicken whole on a heated serving platter rimmed by the steamed buns and accompanied by small dip dishes of pepper-salt. Do not attempt to carve or chop the bird. It is so crunchy it will shatter. Instead, invite your guests to partake of the bird in the traditional manner, tearing the soft meat from the bones with their chopsticks, dipping it lightly in the seasoned salt, then encasing it in a plush fold of warm bread.
Leftovers are delectable at room temperature.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.