When you are faced with a whole cooked chicken or duck and the question is how to cut it for serving, the answer will differ if you are Chinese, Western, or—like me—something in between. In the West, we typically carve poultry from the bone, and any bone lovers are exiled to the kitchen to vent their passions in private. In China, the norm is to chop the entire bird, bones included, into small rectangular pieces that can be managed with chopsticks and then to reassemble them into the shape of the original bird. The head is anchored in place and the tail is arranged perkily at the appropriate end. In addition to being tricky to master, the final picture isn’t, to Western eyes, terribly attractive.
My own Chinese-style method is a slight variation from the tradition, which would offend no one, I suspect, but aficionados of poultry heads and tails. What is required is a sturdy cutting board, a relatively heavy cleaver designed for chopping through bones, and the chutzpah to whack heartily and happily through some rather thick bones.
First allow the bird to cool slightly if it is fresh from the pot or smoker. Even 5 minutes’ rest will permit the flesh to firm somewhat so that the meat cuts cleanly and you can do a neat job. If you are forced to cut the bird while it is very hot, have a bowl nearby to retrieve any juices and do not be discouraged if some of the pieces are not perfect.
Begin by putting the bird breast side up on the board. Run your knife carefully all around the hump of the leg where it meets the side of the bird, cutting neatly through the skin and into the flesh. When the knife meets the bone all around, then pull the leg back to expose the joint and cut through the joint to free the leg.
Once the legs are severed from the body, turn the bird over and remove the wings in the same fashion.
Turn the bird breast side up, then with a swift blow chop cleanly through the keel bone, dividing the breast in two from the neck to the tail cavities. (If the bird is very hot or your courage lacking, you may approach this in a slower but more familiar manner, by using the knife to make a clean cut down to the bone then cutting through the bone with poultry shears or sturdy scissors.) Gently pull the breast halves apart to expose the backbone, then chop cleanly along one side of the backbone to sever the body in two. Remove the backbone entirely by chopping cleanly along its other side, then discard or reserve it, as you like. (The backbone too may be removed with a shears or scissors, though if you practice with a cleaver it becomes a quick and easy operation.) Finally, place each body half cut side down on the board, then feel with the knife where the rib cage ends and cut each half lengthwise in two.
Now, you are ready for the final chopping that makes the bird easy to eat with chopsticks. Chop each drumstick into three pieces, then reassemble them in their original shape and put the two legs at one end of your serving platter. (Chop heartily, with no hesitation, and the bone will sever cleanly.) Chop the wings into two pieces where they meet at the elbow joint, then reassemble them as well and place at the opposite end of the platter. As for the four body pieces, chop them each crosswise into pieces about ¾ inch wide. (Again, whack heartily and without reluctance and the knife will chop cleanly through the bone.) Then arrange these pieces in between the wings and the legs, keeping them for the most part in their original line but placing the prettiest pieces on top and concealing the less successful bits beneath.
When you are done, push the pieces gently together so the bird mounds nicely on the platter, wipe the rim, then garnish any bald or unimpressive spots with sprigs of fresh coriander.
The same chopping scheme, minus the arranging, is how you chop a whole raw chicken for cooking.
Mostly, chopping poultry is a matter of the proper spirit. A glass of wine or a moment of Zen concentration will usually speed you on your way.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.