Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Jilin Specialty

Jilin City, the second-largest city in Northwest China's Jilin Province, boasts a unique street food known as 糖醋鸡骨架 (táng cù jī gŭ jià). If you know enough Chinese to be able to understand the name of this dish then you might be thinking that this evocative name is meant to be taken figuratively instead of literally. If that’s what you are thinking, you will probably be surprised to learn that you are (mostly) wrong. Because 糖醋鸡骨架 (“sweet and sour chicken skeleton” for those unable to read Chinese) is, in fact, a pretty accurate description of what this is.

I, too, was skeptical when I first heard of this dish; how could a chicken skeleton be considered food? Of course that’s where the “mostly” qualifier from earlier comes into play. This dish is only mostly a skeleton. In other words, there is just enough meat left on the bones to make this an enjoyable culinary experience. To make táng cù jī gŭ jià, you first must remove most of the substantial meat from a whole chicken. Breast meat, leg meat, thigh meat—none of it is welcome here. What you are left with are bones with some scraggly pieces of meat hanging on between ribs, around joints, and in other similar hard-to-reach spots. The skeleton with its bits of meat is broken up, coated with a sesame seed infused, honey-sweet, vinegar-tangy sauce, then blackened on a grill. You, the diner, will receive a pile of chicken pieces that you are expected to eat with your fingers. 

Because the only meat left is fairly insubstantial, you have to do a lot of digging with your teeth and fingers, a process which leaves your hands, lips, and chin greasy and sticky. It is a messy experience, not suitable for finicky eaters. The good news is that the taste more than makes up for the messy face and fingers. The sauce tastes quite similar to Western barbecue sauce (with sesame seeds), which naturally goes well with the charred flavor left by the grill. Honestly, it tastes just like the barbecued chicken you could eat in any United States backyard in July. The only difference is the ratio of sauce (read: flavor) to meat. For people who might prefer that the balance were tipped more heavily towards the sauce, táng cù jī gŭ jià might be the perfect solution. The best and most popular place in Jilin to buy a sweet and sour chicken skeleton is at Du Brothers (杜家哥俩烧). At only 8 RMB per chicken, this is a cheap and flavorful snack or meal. Just be sure to bring some napkins.


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