SINGAPORE: The last time Madam Tang Bee Leng made the dish was more than 20 years ago.
There’s a good reason for that, as well as for the fact that a dish once available in local Chinese restaurants some 50 years ago has since virtually disappeared.
It’s certainly not the taste – deep-fried chicken skin stuffed with minced meat is as sinfully good as it sounds. No, the daunting factor for any homecook or chef is the laborious preparation, one that involves painstakingly removing an entire chicken skin intact, in one piece.
It is a true test of patience as the skin is delicate, some parts more so than others. With knife in one hand, Mdm Tang, 67 - who has been cooking since she was seven - makes small slits in the membrane separating the skin and flesh, then tugs gently at the skin with the other hand.
One wrong cut can ruin everything.
It takes some 20 minutes of meticulous, slow wrestling. With one final victorious slit and separation of skin, “now I strip you naked!”, she crows at the chicken carcass.
The skin will go on to be pinned to a bamboo mat, and a layer of minced chicken spread on top of it, before it’s deep-fried.
The reward for any homecook who attempts it this Chinese New Year, is the surety of impressing their family and guests with what Mdm Tang calls “a forgotten dish”.
“If anyone know where to find this now, please let me know. So I can refresh my memory (of the recipe),” she says somewhat wistfully.
Another of her favourite dishes is Eight-Treasure Celestial Duck - which needs six hours just for steaming alone.
It is a family favourite at every reunion dinner.
Mdm Tang, who posts her recipes on a blog for posterity’s sake, understands that the long preparation time for traditional dishes like these deter people who prefer quick and easy online recipes.
“But I also feel sad, because if we don’t preserve traditional cooking methods, one day when we lose them we’ll regret it,” she says. “There’s a place for tradition and for heritage.”
Here are the recipes for both dishes. Each serves 4-6 people.
MDM TANG’S 8-TREASURE CELESTIAL DUCK
For the duck:
1 tbsp light soy sauce
3 tbsp coarse salt for exfoliating the duck skin
For the stuffing:
20g lean pork
30g gingko nuts
30g dried chestnuts
30g dried lotus seeds
1 piece dried mandarin peel
3 pieces chinese dried shiitake mushrooms
4 slices ginger
PREPARE THE DUCK
1. Remove the innards and pluck any stray feathers using a kitchen tweezer.
2. Chop off the webbed feet, but leave the neck, head and ‘bishop’s nose’ (tail of the duck) intact.
3. Exfoliate the skin using coarse salt. Rinse with water and pat dry with a paper kitchen towel.
4. Rub the whole duck with light soya sauce and leave it for 10 mins. “The duck will change to a light brown colour.”
5. Heat up the wok. No oil is needed – lightly brown the duck on all sides. “This will render the fat from the duck, all the oil will come out.”
6. Remove the duck. Pour the oil into a bowl.
PREPARE THE STUFFING
7. Boil lotus seeds for 10-15 minutes. Once cooled, remove the skin and split into half to remove the core. Wash and set aside.
8. Remove shells from gingko nut using a hammer. Peel the skin and split the nut into half by driving a toothpick through its core to remove it. Wash, drain and set aside.
9. Soak dried mushrooms until soft. Cut into thin strips.
10. Wash the dried mandarin peel and barley. Set aside.
11. Wash and cut the pork into strips.
MAKE THE STUFFING
12. Add 2 tbsp of duck oil into the wok. When hot, add the pork and stir-fry over medium heat for a few minutes.
13. Add ginger and fry.
While the order of the rest of the treasures does not matter, it’s important the pork and ginger be cooked together first, says Mdm Tang.
14. Add the rest of the stuffing ingredients and fry for another few minutes.
15. Remove, drain, and keep gravy separately.
MAKE THE STUFFED DUCK
16. Fill the belly of the duck with the stuffing.
17. Sew up the duck with butcher’s twine and a thick needle.
18. Place the whole duck in a deep pan. Add half a bowl of water and stuffing gravy.
19. Wrap the tray with aluminum foil to contain the aromas from the duck during steaming.
20. Place in a steamer and steam for 5-6 hours. (Mdm Tang likes to use a charcoal stove as it gives the duck a smoky aroma.)
21. Remove the duck. Remove the twine before serving.
MDM TANG’S DEEP FRIED CHICKEN SKIN WITH MINCED MEAT
For the chicken skin:
2 tbsp light soya sauce
For the minced meat spread:
2 chicken breasts
8-10 medium prawns, cleaned and deshelled
1 tsp sunflower oil
1 tsp oyster sauce
2 ½ tsp corn flour
½ tsp sesame oil
2 stalks scallions, chopped
Ground white pepper and salt to taste
PREPARE THE CHICKEN SKIN
1. Using a sharp knife, make a slit in the skin, between the chicken breasts. Peel apart the skin gently on both sides.
2. Flip the chicken onto its side and work on the thigh. When you reach the end of the drumstick, twirl the skin around your finger and pull hard to get the skin off the bone. Repeat on the other side.
3. Now to the back of the chicken, which will take more time. Make small slits in the membrane (between the skin and meat) along to way to help.
4. The chicken wings are the only parts that cannot be removed. Chop the wings with skin attached off the body.
5. Lastly, pull the skin towards the neck and chop off the carcass. The skin should be in one piece.
6. Use the knife to lightly scrape off excess fats under the skin.
7. Coat the skin with light soya sauce. Leave to dry for at least 2 hours.
“If your chicken skin is very dry, it will be very crispy when you fry it.”
PREPARE THE MINCED MEAT SPREAD
8. Remove the breasts. Mince with a butcher’s knife.
“The chicken cannot be too lumpy but don’t mince it so much such that it becomes powdery.”
9. Put the minced prawn and chicken in a bowl. Add the sunflower oil, oyster sauce, corn flour, sesame oil, scallions, white pepper and salt. Mix well.
10. Take the minced meat in your hand and smack it against the bowl, repeating a few times to help bind the ingredients.
PREPARE DISH FOR DEEP-FRY
11. Using toothpicks, pin the chicken skin to a bamboo mat, wings side down. The mat may be found in hardware stores in Chinatown.
12. Spread the minced meat thinly onto the skin.
FRY THE CHICKEN SKIN
13. Fill wok with oil over medium fire. When the oil is hot enough, slide the bamboo mat into the wok – minced meat facing up first.
14. Deep fry each side till skin is golden brown and minced meat is cooked through.
15. Remove from mat and pat both sides with a kitchen towel to remove excess oil.
16. Cut into square pieces. Serve with chopped scallions while hot and crispy.
Click here for more vanishing home recipes at CNA Insider.