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.