Mythology of the Phoenix
It is believed among the Chinese that many foods are symbolic and are actually metaphors for aspects of life. In Chinese religions, folklore, allegory, and mythology, particular foods often have meanings and significance beyond satisfying hunger. Chicken, historically, is such a food.
To the Chinese the chicken is the embodiment of the phoenix, the mythological bird that rose from its ashes, symbolizing rebirth and reaffirmation. It is also a female symbol and is paired with the dragon, the male symbol, as a recurring image of marriage. Chicken is also believed to be a food that promotes longevity as well as a tonic that possesses recuperative powers (a concept shared with a number of cultures around the world).
As such it is part of every Lunar New Year celebration, every wedding feast, every birth of a child, every birthday and anniversary dinner in China. Chickens are offered whole to ancestors in temples and at graves. The whole chicken suggests that the lives of those departed were felicitous from beginning to end.
The chicken has always been a most honored food in China. It is highly regarded for its eggs, later its meat, still later for the life and flavor it provides for stocks and broths when it becomes too old to produce eggs and too tough to eat. The Chinese even distinguish between a chicken, an old hen, and an old and tough black-boned chicken. Each provides flavor for soup as well as nourishment, but the old hen is deemed better than the chicken, the black-boned chicken better than the old hen. In all of its varieties it is a most useful, necessary, and esteemed bird, one that began its existence as a wild bird and was first domesticated in China thousands of years ago.
The whole chicken is a most versatile ingredient in the Chinese kitchen. The chicken is steamed, boiled, baked, stir-fried, deep-fried, braised, roasted, and barbecued. It is chopped, sliced, ground, and minced and cooked with rice and noodles. Often, in classic and traditional dishes, chicken is cooked using several processes for a single dish. Chicken is the basis for stocks and sauces and is often cooked with other ingredients. It is eaten hot or cold or at temperatures in between, in salads and in stews. Chicken fills baked and steamed buns and breads, is wrapped into dim sum dumplings and pastries, and is the inspiration for sculpted dough dumplings. No part of a chicken is wasted, from the meat and bones to the skin, the fat and the innards, and even the feet, which are a delicacy in China.
It is rare in China to come upon a region, a city, a town or village that does not have its own way of preparing chicken. Indeed, if you ask the chef in any restaurant how chicken is cooked in a particular area, you will be told that it is cooked "our way." In Beijing, chicken might be cooked in strips with sautéed leeks; in Guangzhou, simmered in soy sauce or roasted to a parchment-like crispness; in Hunan, cooked with chilies and bits of dried tangerine skin. In South China, chicken is often combined with the local tropical fruits; in Shanghai, it might be sweet and oily, or "drunken" with a marinade of rice wine; in Fujian, chicken is cooked together with rice. In dim sum teahouses it is stuffed into steamed dumplings or even into cakes of bean curd. Chicken might be sliced and ladled into rice congees, and in Hangzhou chicken could come wrapped in clay or pastry in a well-known dish called beggar's chicken. The number of chicken recipes is truly infinite.
Chickens, along with pigs, are believed to be the first wild animals to be domesticated. In their wild states, both animals were important foods for the P'ei-li-kaang, a prehistoric people who lived in what is now the central valley of the Yangzi River.
The chicken is mentioned as a domesticated bird in the oracle bone writings of the Shang/Yin dynasty, which spanned the period from 1766 to 1122 B.C., and chicken bones have been found in archaeological excavations of that period. It is believed that the chicken became a largely domesticated bird in those Shang years.
Excavations of Han dynasty tombs in Hunan in the last century have yielded much knowledge of the early Chinese kitchen and its foods. In one uncovered tomb, the preserved body of a woman, thought to be the wife of a nobleman, was found along with forty-eight bamboo boxes that have provided food historians with extensive information on Chinese eating and drinking in that 200 B.C. period. More than fifty pottery containers filled with various foods, including chicken, were found in that tomb as well. There were remains and writings about what were initially called "bamboo chickens," later "black chickens," terms for wild chickens, as well as notes on their domestication.
In another Han dynasty tomb, there are wall drawings of two chickens. In still another there is a detailed wall drawing of a kitchen scene that includes a rack on which hang two chickens.
Among the Han, an important feast always included a chicken dish. At the same time the Han rulers urged rural people to raise chickens, thus making them more accessible and no longer a food available only to nobility. The Han, according to the classic study Food in Chinese Culture (1981, Yale University Press), always offered chicken to honored guests, a custom so widespread that when it did not occur it was considered notable. Thus, one Han-period writer excuses a wealthy man for not providing chicken to his guests because it was needed to nourish the man's aged mother. Another tale is of an old woman, poor and ill, who steals a neighbor's chicken to cook a nourishing soup for herself and for a presumably ill daughter-in-law.
Through the years of China's various dynasties, particularly the Ming, from A.D. 1368 to 1644, mentions of chicken abound, always with admonitions that they be live and fresh. The Ming, notorious for gastronomic excess, appear to have regarded chickens as special indeed. More than six thousand cooks labored in the Ming imperial kitchens, a number that grew to nine thousand by the middle of the fifteenth century. Among them was a group whose function was to prepare foods for sacrifice to the heavens. Each year this group sacrificed 200,000 animals of which 138,000 were chickens.
Scholars on the subject of food and wine in China's long history were explicit and precise in their writings about chicken. In the Qing dynasty, China's last, which stretched from 1644 to 1912, scholar Yuan Mei wrote a book called Shih-Tan, which stressed the properties of food and the necessity for them to be cooked in such a manner as to balance the systems of those who ate them. He stressed that a chicken must not be eaten too young or too old, but in its prime and that it had to be cooked at precisely the right heat. Another Qing writer, Li Yu, was more philosophical. He valued chickens highly, he said, because they woke humans each day. Still another writer, Shen Fu, wrote warmly of a special "chicken soup with skin" cooked by his wife, Yuen. What is significant, to be sure, is that chicken was deemed sufficiently important to write about.
A banquet menu from the 1754 imperial court of Qian Long consisted of many small dishes, such as snacks, breads, and sweets. The seven main courses all contained chicken: a dish of fat chicken and bean curd; pot-boiled chicken, smoked fat chicken, and court-style fried chicken were a few of the dishes served.
Historically in many parts of China, chickens were eaten only occasionally because the chicken was considered too valuable as a source for its eggs to be killed and eaten for a single meal. Careful note was made of a chicken's age; thus when they became too old -- both hens and roosters -- they were killed for the richness they added to broths and stocks. To this day it is believed, as a matter of course, that old chickens make the best soups. It is true; they do.
Chickens were quite special in my family when I was growing up in the village of Siu Lo Chen, or "Lo's Little Village," in Sun Tak (today it is Shunde), a suburb of Guangzhou. Our family had its own chickens, which we raised from chicks. We would buy chicks, dye their feathers to indicate our ownership and then allow them to run free and to forage. We did not know the term "organic" or "free range," but that is indeed what they were. And even as they grew and we continued to tint their feathers, we would know our chickens and they would know us.
After the chickens ran free all day we would collect them by strewing small amounts of rice kernels while softly calling, "chiu, chiu, chiu." The chickens would come toward us and we would continue saying, "lai, lai, lai," or "come, come, come." Along with the raw rice, we would show them bowls of milled rice husks moistened with water from washed rice. They would run after us, right to their cages, which we would drape with black cloths so that they would rest at night. Each morning, we would free them again.
Our family valued the eggs from our chickens and we ate them in a variety of ways. We boiled them; cooked them in a sweet and pungent soy sauce-based lo soi liquid; and stewed them in sweet and savory custards. A special concoction called sweet birth vinegar, in which eggs were boiled and combined with strong rice vinegar, chunks of ginger, and pig's knuckles, was traditionally fed to women who had just given birth to build up their blood. It is a custom I followed with the births of each of my three children.
We believed that the chicken that gave the egg also conferred health and balance within one's body and helped in the recovery from illnesses. Chicken implicitly was good to us and for us. On its own it is considered a warming food. When combined in soup with cooling vegetables, it will become cooling. When strong herbs are added it will become a warming soup. Cooling soups are believed by practitioners of Chinese medicine to be ideal for reducing the body's temperature; carefully made "neutral" soups are considered perfect for the young as nourishment; warming so...
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