the appetizer:

Seventh Daughter by Cecilia Chiang and Lisa Weiss, features Northern Chinese cuisine from the fabled Mandarin Restaurant, with recipes like Pot Stickers (Guo Tie); Green-Onion Oil-Tossed Noodles (Shanghai Cong Yu Ban Mian); and Tea-Smoked Game Hens (Zhang Cha Zi Ji).

Cookbook Profile

Tea-Smoked Game Hens (Zhang Cha Zi Ji)

Tea-Smoked Game Hens (Zhang Cha Zi Ji)


Serves 8 as part of a Chinese meal or 4 as a Western-style entrée

The process of smoking food has a long culinary history in China, just as it does in the West. Originally, it was a way to preserve food, but later food was smoked strictly for flavor. Nearly every province has its own smoked specialty. Sichuan's Tea-Smoked Duck, with its crispy skin and fragrant meat, is justifiably famous. From the beginning, it was a dish I wanted to serve at The Mandarin; no other restaurant had it on their menu. The problem was that I had no real recipe, only a general knowledge of how it was done. As is true of most of my life, I ran into someone just at the right moment who could help me.

I was attending an art exhibit at Stanford University for a well-known Sichuan artist, Chang Dai-chien (considered China's Picasso), whom I had met briefly during the war, some twenty years earlier. Unbelievably, he recognized me immediately. As we chatted, I remembered that he was also something of a gourmet. I asked him if he'd ever tried to make tea-smoked duck. He hadn't, but one of his students had perfected a home version. The student came to The Mandarin, taught my chef, and from then on Tea-Smoked Duck became one of our signature dishes.

The process of tea-smoking is not difficult to accomplish at home, but because ducks are fatty and large, I decided to substitute Cornish game hens in this recipe.


While none of the steps for smoking food Chinese style are difficult, you need to plan at least a day in advance. It's a three-step process: First, the meat (or fish or poultry) is rubbed with spices and allowed to cure overnight in the fridge. Then it's steamed, and finally smoked.

The smoking can be accomplished in a wok or large enameled cast-iron or stainless-steel casserole, or in a stove-top smoker designed just for the purpose. The only must is a good, strong exhaust system over your stove, otherwise this recipe is a certain check to see if your smoke detector is working. Also, if you're using a wok or casserole, it's a good idea to line it with aluminum foil so that the smoke flavor doesn't permanently permeate the cookware.

Dried orange peel is sold in Asian markets, most often labeled as "Dried Tangerine Peel." Whether from a tangerine or orange, in Sichuan Province it's tossed into many dishes to add flavor as well as to lend its supposed medicinal qualities. It's easy, and much less expensive, to dry your own. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest and not the white pith from an orange or tangerine (or tangelo). Let dry on a rack overnight and keep in a closed container for up to 3 months. —L.W.


Smoking Mixture

To butterfly the game hens, cut them along their backbones, spread them flat to open them up, and then press lightly to flatten them further. Bend back the wings so they are snugly tucked behind the breasts.

To make the rub, stir together the Sichuan pepper, salt, and five-spice powder. Rub the mixture generously over the game hens so they're well coated inside and out. Put the hens in a ziplock plastic bag and refrigerate overnight.

To steam the game hens, remove them from the refrigerator. Put the green onions and ginger on a rimmed plate (like a glass pie plate) that will fit in one of your steamer tiers, top with the game hens, and then place the plate on the steamer tier.

Fill the steamer bottom with a generous amount of water, bring to a boil over high heat, and place the tier with the game hens above it. Cover and steam the game hens 15 minutes, then remove the steamer from the heat. Lift off the tier, plate and all, and set it aside to let the game hens cool. Once cooled, the game hens can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Let the game hens come to room temperature before proceeding with the smoking step.

To smoke the hens in a wok, line both the wok and lid with aluminum foil. Stir together the smoking mixture, then put it on the foil in the bottom of the wok. Place the hens on a round wire cooling rack (like a cake rack) that will sit a few inches above the bottom of the wok. (Or, you can improvise by arranging bamboo chopsticks in a "tic-tac-toe" pattern in the bottom of the wok for the hens to sit on.) Over high heat, heat the tea mixture until it just begins to smoke. Put in the rack with the hens and, cover with the wok lid, pressing it down so it fits snugly. Decrease the heat to medium and smoke the hens 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit covered for 5 minutes more.

Remove the hens from the wok. If not serving them immediately or letting them cool to room temperature for serving, let them cool completely, then cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Reheat the chilled hens, wrapped in foil, in a 350 degrees F oven 10 minutes, or until warmed. If the skin is not crispy you can run them under a broiler.

To serve, put the warm or room-temperature hens on a serving platter and drizzle with sesame oil. Sprinkle with green onions or a few sprigs of cilantro.

Five-Spice Blend

Despite its name, this savory spice blend usually contains more than five ingredients, typically ground star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seed, Sichuan peppercorns, and sometimes cumin, cardamom, coriander seed, and/or ground ginger. Prepared blends are readily available in any Asian market, as well as in the spice section of most supermarkets, but it's easier, cheaper, and far more flavorful to make your own mixture.

To make your own five-spice seasoning, in a dry skillet, put 2 tablespoons fennel seed, 8 whole star anise, 1 tablespoon coriander seed, 1 teaspoon cumin seed, 1 tablespoon white peppercorns, and 14 whole cloves. Stirring frequently, toast over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the mixture is fra- grant, taking care not to scorch the spices. Add 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon. When cool, transfer to a coffee grinder or food processor and whirr until finely ground. The seasoning will keep in a cupboard in a closed container for up to 3 months.

Makes about 1/4 cup.


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This page created January 2008