Clay Pot Cooking: Yunnan style Steampot Chicken.
Admittedly it’s a bit late in the year to write about celebrating 2014’s Chinese New Year’s Year of the Horse that started on January 31st, but having just cooked my first Bruny based Yunnan style clay pot chook or Qiguo Ji, now is just the time!
One of the first blog stories on this site was about my travels with good mate Wendy back in 2011 when we spent a month ‘doing’ China! China Diners…...….and Culture Vultures was a brief introduction into this fascinating country – from Shanghai to Beijing, and many stops in between.
Brunyfire’s particular interest was in the street food of the regions we traveled through and our all too short a sojourn into Xian’s Muslim Quarter, in ShaanXi Province, revealed just a glimpse into the plethora of fabulous morsels that forms part of China’s cuisine. The tightly packed street stalls not only dished up tasty servings of different foods, but the street also yielded a rich harvest of small shops selling a wealth of products from hand made paint brushes to traditional hand-cut paper art. Such as this one – from a book of cut outs on some of the culinary peculiarities of ShaanXi Province – in this instance, the celebration of the chilli. Heat was predominant in much of the food we ate throughout our travels in different degrees of intensity, depending on the region we were passing through, and so it was with a sense of relief when we arrived in Kunming to be introduced to some of the more delicately flavoured dishes of Yunnan Province.
Kunming is the capital and largest city in Yunnan Province in Southwest China – it is home to the majority of China’s ethnic minority. We were to glimpse some of the colour and warmth of these people when we visited the famed Stone Forest………………where many of them were out in their finery, and were as eager to be photographed with us………….……….as we were keen to photograph them!That evening after our return from the Stone Forest, we tasted our first ‘over the bridge noodles’ (guòqiáo mĭxiàn) and, joy of joys, we were presented with the traditional Yunnan steam pot chicken (Qiguo Ji)……….……… and I was finally introduced to the fabulous pot in which this dish is cooked. In terms of cooking pots for my collection, I was particularly keen to acquire an example of the famous earthenware Yunnan steam pot and when I finally found one, managed to travel back to Os with it stashed in my carry on – a hard task to look casual when you’re weighed down.
The Yunnan steam pot is a type of casserole with an internal cone-shaped funnel………. …………that opens at the base and enters into the casserole itself. Steam enters through this funnel from the pot of boiling water that the steam pot sits upon when cooking and the steam then condenses on the lid with the moisture running back into the casserole, creating a natural broth (without the need to add extra water during cooking) thus retaining the vitamins and nutrients of the natural ingredients.
In Ken Hom’s 1990 book The Taste of China, Hom outlines his Kunming hostess’s recipe for clay-pot steamed chicken as containing no liquids – she develops the delicately flavoured broth purely from the steam that condenses on the lid of the pot during the lengthy 4 hour cooking. During his travels through China in preparation for this book, Hom was accompanied by highly respected Hong Kong based photographer, Leong Ka Tai whose shot below illustrates the steam pot in action outside a restaurant in Kunming that specialized in Yunnan chicken. The use of this photo is especially appreciated as it highlights just how these vessels work – in this ingenious example, the stack of pots all feed each other, from a single heat source. Just when all my searches failed to clarify just how the pot was supposed to function, I found a copy of The Taste of China in my favourite Vinnies store (for the princely sum of $4) and Leong’s images of this intriguing pot. Thankyou Leong!!
So to carry out my own version of Qiguo Ji, I acquired another Chinese sand pot onto which I could place my Yunnan steam pot sealing the two together with a strip of cotton dipped in flour and water mix……….……..sealing the two pots during the cooking process.The heat source, red gum charcoal, was fired up in an old deep fryer basket (from the local tip shop!) in the firepit………..………and then transferred to my Thai knom krok brazier.
The recipe used in this instance was pretty simple – basically, a whole organic chicken was chopped up and laid into the pot along with some Shitaki mushrooms, carrots, onions, garlic – some bok choy and star anise along with a little freshly made chicken stock and left to steam for about two and a half hours.These unique clay steam pots come from family run workshops in the pottery village of Wanyao just outside Jianshui, an ancient town in the Honghe Prefecture of Yunnan Province. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Jianshui was producing celadon ware and then later during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) – blue and white ware; in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) they produced a more robust kind of pottery until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911/12), when Jianshui started to produce the now famous purple pottery, otherwise known as ‘Southern Yunnan Red Jade’.
Whilst Jianshui potters make a range of ware using the rich local red, yellow, black and white local clays and a broad range of techniques, the steam pots themselves are thrown on the wheel…..………..and turned and burnished with river stones. Often decorative elements are carved……….
…………and infilled with a contrasting white engobe and scraped back to produce complex……..………..or simpler decorative effects with direct scratch marks in the leatherhard clay, infilled with a contrasting clay. The final pieces, once burnished at the leatherhard stage are then fired unglazed to about 1200 degrees c, with a final grinding and polishing afterwards to achieve the characteristic matt, satin smooth and slightly porous finish.
………..the soup is pretty damned good too…………