Mala (Spicy & Numbing) Dry Pot Chicken (麻辣干锅鸡 Ma La Gan Guo Ji)
October 24, 2020
With the weather getting cooler, it’s a great time to enjoy some Mala Dry Pot Chicken. Mala dry pot dishes have gained huge popularity since the beginning of 21st century in China. A typical mala dry pot dish usually has one or two proteins, first fried then stir fried together with several different vegetables in hot and numbing spices and sauce. Despite the long list of ingredients and sauce, it’s not a complicated dish. It takes some preparation and patience. But you will not regret spending the time to make this authentic, mouth watering, hot and numbing dry pot dish. Once you start eating it, you cannot stop until you finish!
Mala (麻辣) in Chinese literally translates into numbing (麻 ma) and spicy (辣 la). The mala flavor is a signature flavor in Sichuan cuisine (川菜). Many famous Sichuan dishes use some variation of mala sauce as their main flavor. The effect of mala can be super addictive. For those who have not tried it, it’s not the kind of hot or spicy that you find in Indian, Thai, or Korean cuisines. Mala makes your tongue tingling, numb, and hot—all at the same time. You might not feel your lips or tongue after eating mala dishes, but you simply can’t stop eating. That’s how addictive mala flavor can be on a dish.
Unlike restaurant versions, this homemade version of Mala Dry Pot Chicken does not require first frying the chicken. Frying is a quicker way to cook meat and remove water from the chicken, but it’s not the healthiest option for me. In my homemade Mala Dry Pot Chicken, the chicken is first cooked with a little oil under medium heat until all the water evaporates. Then the cooked chicken and other vegetables are stir fried together with a mala flavored sauce that includes mixed spices.
I would consider the spiciness of this recipe to be 7 out of 10 (with 10 being the hottest). If you are into spicy food, you can certainly add more fresh hot chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. But if you have a low tolerance to spicy food, you should probably reduce the amount of the hot chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns by half.
Another fun anecdote, because my hubby and I both enjoy spicy food very much: we are starting to train our 4 year old to eat spicy food. He had two pieces of this Mala Dry Pot Chicken and immediately cried out for water. When asked, however, he said he liked the flavor! It’s definitely a work in progress, but we are determined to make him like spicy food. Plus, it’s hilarious to watch him trying each spicy dish.
Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes
Servings: 4-6 people
- 1/2 young organic or free range chicken (about 2 lb or 900g)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon cooking wine
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 2-inch (or 5cm) long piece of ginger
- 3 green onions
- 6-10 garlic gloves
- 2 fresh Thai or other hot chili peppers
- 2 star anise
- 1/2 cup dried chili peppers
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns1
- 1 tablespoon fermented chili bean paste (Pixian Doubanjiang)2
- 1 large onion3 (flexible)
- 3 celery stalks3 (flexible)
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce4 (optional)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons hot water
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Chinese dark vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- Cut the half chicken with a cleaver into small chunks (about 1 inch or 2.5 cm wide) and put all the pieces in a deep bowl. Add the 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of Chinese cooking wine or rice wine to the chicken chunks, mixing well. Let the chicken marinate for 20 to 30 minutes on the kitchen counter.
- While chicken marinates, prepare all the other ingredients. Mince the 2 inch (5 cm) long piece of ginger (mince as tiny as possible). Cut the 3 green onions into long pieces, the garlic gloves into thin slices, and the Thai chili peppers (or other fresh spicy chili peppers) into small pieces. Put the ginger mince, green onion pieces, garlic slices, Thai chili peppers, and the 2 star anise together in a small plate and set aside.
- Cut the dried chili peppers in half or thirds and set aside. Cut the onion and the celery into thin long pieces and set aside.
- In a separate small bowl, prepare the sauce by adding everything listed under “sauce” (see ingredients above) except the Chinese dark vinegar or balsamic vinegar. This includes the 2 tablespoons of light soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of water, and 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Thoroughly mix the sauce so the sugar and the oyster sauce are evenly dissolved.
- Heat a large wok or skillet under medium-high heat. When the wok is getting hot, add 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. After a few seconds, add the chicken pieces. (The oil only needs to be warm but not hot when adding the chicken.) Lower the heat close to medium to slowly cook the chicken. Stir and toss often to prevent burning. After a while, the chicken pieces will shrink and become tight. Some water and oil will come out from the chicken as a result. Be patient here! It takes at least 10-15 minutes for the chicken to cook through. Make sure no more pink blood is oozing out. Alternatively, chicken pieces can be fried or double fried like in restaurant versions of this recipe.
- Transfer the chicken to a plate, leaving any oil behind. Clean the wok and put it back on the stove under medium-high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. When the oil is getting hot, add all the Sichuan peppercorns to fry. After about 30 seconds to a minute, as the Sichuan peppercorns become dark, transfer them to a small mortar, leaving the peppercorn-flavored oil in the wok (to be used in the next step). Turn off the heat. Use a pestle to grind the peppercorns to small bits. (Do not skip this step, as the ground Sichuan peppercorn is the key to producing the tingling numbing sensation in the mala flavor.)
- With the same wok and oil from step 6, set the heat back to medium-high. When the oil is getting warm to hot, add the set-aside plate from step 2 with the ginger, green onion, garlic, Thai chili peppers, and star anise. Toss and stir for a few seconds to release the fragrance of the ingredients. Then add the dried chili peppers, the ground Sichuan peppercorns, and the 1 tablespoon of fermented chili bean paste. Keep stirring for a few seconds to mix all the spices.
- Turn up the heat to almost high. Add back the cooked chicken pieces and the sliced onions and celery sticks, quickly mixing everything. Then pour in the sauce from step 3, stirring and tossing to distribute the sauce evenly. Continue stirring for 1 to 2 minutes then turn off the heat. Add the 1 teaspoon of Chinese dark vinegar or balsamic vinegar to the wok and give it a last stir to mix evenly. At this point, the Mala Dry Pot Chicken is ready to be plated.
- Transfer the Mala Dry Pot Chicken to a large plate or a deep bowl. Or you can transfer the dish to a smaller pot and put it on top of a portable gas stove to keep it warm on the dinner table. The latter option is especially great for an intimate dinner party.
- Sichuan peppercorn can be found in most Chinese or Asian grocery stores. There are two types of Sichuan peppercorns, the red and the green type. The red type has more heat and the green one is more numbing. For this recipe, I used red Sichuan peppercorns. Unfortunately, there is no real substitute for Sichuan peppercorn that can produce the tingling and numbing effect.
- Pixian Doubanjiang (郫县豆瓣酱) is a fermented chili bean paste that is characteristic and ubiquitous in Sichuan cuisine. You can find it in most Asian grocery stores. Pixian (郫县) is the location in Sichuan Chengdu where the Doubanjiang or fermented chili bean paste is produced. If you can’t find Pixian Doubanjiang, other brands of spicy Doubanjiang should suffice.
- Feel free to add or substitute other vegetables. But make sure to cut them into either thin long pieces or small pieces so they are easy to cook through. I’ve also used napa cabbage (cut into long strips) or bean sprouts and both came out nicely. Other options can be but not limited to carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and lotus root.
- Oyster sauce is optional here. It adds more umami to the dish. But it’s not a must-have ingredient like Sichuan peppercorn or Pixian Doubanjiang.