Go ahead, call me a wimp. A wuss. A spoiled city-dweller who couldn’t survive outside of my urban comfort zone. I admit it; it’s true.
While visiting a Chinese supermarket in Flushing, I saw some small, dark chickens for sale. They were so dark, in fact, that they were black. When I asked why the chickens were so dusky, I was told that the birds were silkie chickens, a breed that has naturally black flesh and skin. “Chickens come in different colors,” explained the poultry man, “just like people.”
I learned that the black chickens are considered a delicacy in China, so I bought one and brought it home, hoping to whip up a special meal. Of course, I could have prepared it like any other chicken, but an online search revealed a few recipes designed specifically for the silkie chicken.
I went back to the shops, assembled the ingredients, brought them home and began to prepare Chef Chai Chaowasaree’s Silkie Chicken Soup. I washed the chicken, leaving it whole, chopped the herbs and other ingredients, dropped everything into a large, black pot, turned on the flame and popped the lid on top.
Soon my home began to fill with delicious aromas, and I returned to the kitchen to take a peek inside the fragrantly steaming pot.
I lifted the lid and saw, to my horror, a pair of glassy eyes staring back at me. I clapped the lid back onto the pot and ran from the room.
As I later learned, although silkie chickens are cleaned before they are sold, the head and feet are not removed; instead, the butcher folds them back and tucks them deep inside the cavity. While I rinsed the raw chicken off in the sink (something I’ve done countless times), it never occurred to me to look inside the chicken before cooking to see whether any body parts were hidden there. Apparently, my chicken’s head had become un-tucked during cooking and was now bobbing around in the bubbling pot.
I didn’t know what to do with the half-cooked soup on the stove. I know that all sorts of things happen in restaurant kitchens, but I just couldn’t contemplate eating the little chicken that had stared at me from the big black pot. I was, frankly, just too chicken.
I decided that the best strategy would be to cool the whole pot down, then dispose of the contents. I emptied half the refrigerator to fit the still-bubbling pot inside, closed the door, and went out.
I returned a few hours later, looked into the pot again, and found that the chicken’s head was now surrounded by large yellow blobs of congealed fat, and that its eyes and beak had turned white. Yum.
I took a photo before the mess went into the trash and that night I dined on a simple, cold vegetable salad.
Chef Chai Chaowasaree says extracting the full benefit from a black chicken requires long, slow cooking. His method is similar to poaching, letting the chicken sit immersed in liquid over very low heat. “You don’t want to rush the heat, you want all the nutrition to come out slowly, slowly, slowly.”
He makes soup using ginseng, ginger and garlic, also believed to have healing qualities and which lend the broth a peppery flavor. Don’t bother peeling the ginseng or ginger, he says, and use whole heads of garlic, leaving the paper skins in place.
1 silkie chicken (about 2 pounds), whole or halved
3 thumb-sized pieces ginseng root
6-1/4 cups water
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, smashed
2 large heads garlic, halved
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
Salt or soy sauce to taste
5 dried figs
Sliced green onion for garnish
Cut chicken in half if necessary to fit pot; otherwise leave whole. Soak ginseng in water 1 hour.
Place ginseng and its soaking water in pot; add chicken, ginger, garlic, pepper and salt. Bring to a boil and skim impurities. Reduce heat to a very low simmer (no bubbling at all) and cook until chicken is fall-off-the-bone tender, 2 to 4 hours. Or cook in a crock pot on low heat, about 6 hours. In last hour of cooking, add figs.
Strain soup and debone chicken if desired, or serve with root pieces. Garnish with green onion.
From the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 2002.