In restaurants across Chengdu, China, there is a singular dish the evokes a tingling response — crispy stir-fried chicken on a plate piled high with thin red chilis.
It's called la zi ji, and as intimidating as it looks, it's not nearly as spicy as its appearance intimates. When you take a bite of the chicken, you can feel it in your face, but it's not eye-watering — it's tongue-tingling. The dried chilies impart flavor but aren't even meant to be eaten. The tingle comes from one complex ingredient native to the region: Sichuan peppercorns. They give the chicken a citrusy, floral note, followed by a numbing, almost prickling sensation.
For the cooks at Milk Street, it was a transformative approach to chicken — crisp and bite-sized, but entirely different from heavily breaded American popcorn chicken. And its distinct Sichuan seasoning made it almost addictive.
In this recipe from our book "Milk Street Tuesday Nights," which limits recipes to 45 minutes or less, we first marinate the chicken in soy sauce, rice vinegar and a little sugar. The marinade also includes beaten egg white, which helps a light breading of cornstarch and ground Sichuan to adhere.
Rather than calling for a handful of chilies that won't get eaten, we decided to make a quick chili oil that allows for customizable heat. Toasting the peppercorns before grinding them heightens their flavors, and we turned some of them into a seasoning salt to sprinkle over the cooked chicken, doubling down on the batter's seasoning for just the right amount of tingle.
Crispy Sichuan-Chili Chicken
Start to finish: 1 hour
? cup soy sauce or tamari
3 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
4 tablespoons white sugar, divided
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
264 grams (2 cups) cornstarch
¼ cup Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and finely ground
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 quarts peanut oil
8 scallions, thinly sliced
1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro
6 tablespoons Sichuan chili oil, plus extra to serve
1 tablespoon Sichuan seasoning salt, plus extra to serve
In a large bowl, combine the soy sauce, vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the sugar and the egg whites. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the chicken and stir to coat, then cover and let marinate at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. In a large bowl, stir together the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, the cornstarch, Sichuan pepper and 1 teaspoon salt.
Drain the chicken in a colander. Add ? of the chicken to the cornstarch mixture and toss to coat completely, pressing the pieces into the cornstarch to make it adhere. Transfer the coated chicken to a mesh strainer and shake to remove excess cornstarch. Transfer to the prepared rack in a single layer. Repeat with the remaining chicken and cornstarch mixture.
Set a second wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet. In a large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat the peanut oil to 350°F. Add half of the coated chicken and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until well browned, about 5 minutes. Using slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer the chicken to the second rack. Allow the oil to return to 350°F, then repeat with the remaining chicken.
In a small microwave-safe bowl or glass measuring cup, microwave the Sichuan chili oil on high until just warm, about 30 seconds. Combine the hot fried chicken and scallions in a large bowl, sprinkle with the Sichuan seasoning salt and drizzle with the warm chili oil, then toss to coat. Add the cilantro and toss again, then transfer to a platter. Serve, passing additional chili oil and seasoning salt at the table.
Sichuan Chili Oil
Start to finish: 5 minutes, plus cooling
Makes about 1 cup
This fiery chili oil is delicious on our Sichuan fried chicken, but has many other uses as well. Drizzle it on plain rice and scrambled eggs, or add it to steamed or stir-fried vegetables. If Sichuan chili flakes aren't available, you can use red pepper flakes instead, but the oil won't be as red in color.
Don't use hot water when washing the saucepan after making the Sichuan oil. Rinse the pot with cold water; hot water can cause pepper fumes that irritate your eyes.
1 cup peanut oil
1 ounce whole dried red Sichuan chilies (1 cup)
3 tablespoons Sichuan chili flakes
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
In a small saucepan over medium-low, combine all ingredients. Heat until the oil reaches 275°F, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain out and discard the solids. Store in a tightly sealed jar in a cool, dark place for up to 1 month.
Start to finish: 10 minutes
Makes about ¼ cup
To toast the Sichuan peppercorns, heat them in a small, dry skillet over medium until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool, then finely grind in a spice grinder. Strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove any fibrous pieces.
3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, toasted and ground
2 teaspoons white sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.