Actually Pretty Awesome: Betelnut’s Beggar’s Chicken

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Photo: J. Barmann/Grub Street

We had something last night from chef Alex Ong at Betelnut that we'd never had before, and it was goddamn delicious. Beggar's Chicken, a Chinese version of roast chicken that supposedly dates to the Qing dynasty, involves wrapping a whole chicken in lotus leaves and then encasing it in clay. When cooked, the clay hardens around the chicken and has to be cracked open with a mallet before revealing a fantastically juicy bird inside.

As legend has it, a starving beggar in Zhejiang province supposedly stole a chicken, and while escaping from the chicken's owner, he buried the bird in the mud of a riverbank. He came back that night to retrieve it and rather than clean the thing off, he just threw it an open fire, which hardened the clay-rich crust around the bird, and resulting in a succulent roasted bird. He then started preparing and selling chickens that were cooked this way, and made himself rich in the process, while creating a Chinese culinary tradition.

Ong stuffs his with mushrooms and smoked pork belly, and the chicken — which he served as part of the Street Feast dinner last night at Tacolicious, which he tagteam-cooked with Tacolicious chef Telmo Faria and 4505 Meats chef Ryan Farr as part of the build-up to SF Chefs — came out redolent of bacon, earth, and the deepest, most ideal chicken flavor you can imagine.

Below, a couple more photos of the process, and the resulting, gorgeous dish.