Monday, June 8, 2009

Black Chicken - A Chinese Medicine Meal

OK, let me start by telling you that I haven't a clue what makes it black. But if you have access to an Asian supermarket, you just might be able to score one of these chickens. I found mine in the freezer section. It was small and, yes, when it thawed out, it was black. I'm guessing it's the kind of bird, and perhaps something about the food it lived on. I mean, flamingos turn pink because of their food, right? Maybe these chickens turn black because of theirs. I don't want to know. All I know is that because it's black, it's considered a tonic for the kidneys in Chinese medicine. So why not, I asked myself? I hadn't been paying much attention to my kidneys lately - maybe it was time to give them a boost.

But when I saw this baby in the freezer, I decided to try and replicate an idea I had been exposed to a number of years ago when I was still teaching at the Oriental medical college here in San Diego. I had a student from Vietnam, and she invited a few of us over for dinner one night. She made a black chicken and put some Chinese herbs in it. This is not unusual, actually, in Chinese cooking. There's a dim sum place here in town where you can order a soup made with Chinese herbs. They don't use the more........shall we say "earthy"? ones in their cuisine. The use some flavorful ones that add depth as well as medicinal value. The dinner that night many years ago was delicious, and, as an added benefit, it was also designed to leave us all healthier than when we walked in. What follows is my tale, rather than a specific recipe. For those of you adventurous enough to attempt this, don't be surprised when you discover that it's actually quite delicious.

I made my pilgrimage to the Vietnamese supermarket last week where I scored this chicken and some kaffir lime leaves. Around the corner from the grocery store is the Chinese herb store where I send my braver patients. I stopped off and got some goji berries as well as some longan. Many of you might be familiar with goji berries - they have become quite fashionable in Whole Foods market. They are marketed as Himalayan goji berries and sold either separately or in trail mix. In Chinese medicine they are considered a blood tonic, as well as benefiting the lungs as well as the kidneys. They are bright red and beautiful, and I remember as a student, we used to go into the herb pharmacy at school and grab handfuls of them to munch on. If anyone's interested, they are known as Lycium barbarum L., or Fructus Lycii.

The longan is a fruit I became familiar with when I went to Vietnam a few years ago. We were in a boat on the Mekong Delta, motoring through the narrow passageways between pads of thick jungle. Periodically we would spy a young girl on a bicycle pedaling along a pathway which ran parallel to the water. She would smile at us when we waved to her. And then we rounded a corner and motoring in the opposite direction was this boat, loaded with longan fruit.I became fairly addicted to these "dragon eyes" as they are commonly called. They are sweet and not unlike a fresh lychee. Longan (Arillus Euphoriae Longanae) is used in Chinese medicine as a blood tonic as well, and is often used for insomnia, especially in people who can't "let it go".

So armed with my chicken, my Chinese herbs and my lime leaves, I set off to make something for dinner. Even though kaffir lime leaves are usually used in Thai cuisine, I decided that I didn't want to be constrained by ethnicity, but merely by my imagination. I have no memory of what ingredients other than black chicken Dong Phuong put in her dish that night, but it didn't matter. I was constructing something from what was fresh and available. I chose my herbs based on color, flavor, and the fact that women, in Chinese medical thinking, are advised to nourish their blood regularly.

So how to cook this odd assortment of ingredients? Well, you start with onion and garlic, of course - the way I start almost everything I cook. Then I added the (cut up) chicken. Oh - I should warn you - these chickens come whole. I mean, WHOLE. No gizzards (oddly), but with head and feet attached. It was a bit of a shock at first, but by then the chicken had thawed out and I was committed. (Thank you, Terry B over at Blue Kitchen, for getting me to sharpen my knives each and every time I use them! I couldn't have done this with even a slightly dull knife!) When the chicken pieces have been slightly seared on the outside, add some chicken stock, the lime leaves and reduce the flame. Cover and simmer while you pour yourself a glass of wine, fire up some rice, and boil some water to pour over some dried shitake mushrooms. You could use fresh ones if you wish, but they are much more expensive. I get the giant bags of dried shitakes from Costco, and they work just fine. When the rice starts cooking, add the goji and longan. When the shitakes are soft, you may cut them up some more, or just add them as is. (Costco's come pre-sliced.)

Knowing me, I probably threw some fresh or dried culinary herbs in there, but I honestly couldn't tell you what I used. I do remember throwing some fresh thyme into the rice. And I can tell you that this dish more than met my expectations. The sweetness of the longan and goji played nicely off the citrus undertones of the lime leaves.

And I slept like a baby that night.

I'm submitting this post to Weekend Herb blogging, for the first time in many, many months. In fact, it's been so long since I participated in this event, that I just discovered that the mantle has been passed to Haalo at Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once. This week it's being hosted by Katie from Eat This. I want to add a personal note of thanks to Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen for all the work she did to create and sustain this event.

13 comments:

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

Wow, what an interesting post - I learned about so many things I had never heard of before - black chicken, dragon eyes, etc. It all sounds so unique.

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

That is fabulous! I love your remark "didn't want to be constrained by ethnicity" that is really wonderful.

toni said...

Jenn - Better than unique, it actually tastes good! What's the point of eating if it doesn't taste good?

Tanna - Well, that's me. Eclectic describes my thinking!

Terry B said...

Even more fascinating post than usual, Toni! And thanks for the shout out about knife sharpening--it really does make a difference over time, doesn't it? Regarding black chicken, it's an actual breed, called the Silkie. Its black skin is just one fascinating thing about it. Photos on that "impeccable" source of information, Wikipedia, show that their fluffy feathers make them look almost like poodles--and in fact, they're raised for showing too.

Toni said...

Terry - Thanks for the info on the chicken. One of the great things about the food blogging world is how much I've learned from everyone who shows up!

Cynthia said...

I'd really like to give black chicken a try. I saw it an Asian supermarket last December whilst in the US. The next time I will definitely pick it up and give it a try.

Sri Lalita said...

It's the skin that's black. (You said you weren't sure what makes the chicken black.) The feathers aren't necessarily black. You said you weren't sure what makes the chicken black.

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Anonymous said...

The chicken variety you are looking for is a "Silkie".
I have some - they actually have black flesh and skin, regardless of what they eat, they just come that way (they also have more toes and different feathers than normal chickens).

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