Sweet fire: Chicken, chili paste and maple syrup?

by Terry B on March 26, 2008

East meets Nor’east in an improvised Chinese chicken dish that gets its heat from potent chili paste, its complexity from five-spice powder and its subtle sweetness from New England maple syrup. It’s paired with another improvisation, my first attempt at Szechuan green beans with garlic. Recipes below.

The first full day of spring in Chicago saw snowflakes the size of dinner plates. Lots of them. Just to the north of us, near the Wisconsin border, they got 11 inches of the heavy “heart attack” snow. Having lived here as long as I have, I’m not even surprised by this anymore. I am annoyed by it, though.

My first thought for this week’s post was something hearty—a soup, a stew—something that reflected the actual weather, not the calendar. But then I decided to turn up the heat with spiciness instead. My patented poking around—online, at the library, in our cookbook collection—got me started down the path to making something Chinese. When I found a pork dish that combined chili paste [you can also use chili sauce with garlic—see Kitchen Notes], five-spice powder—both Chinese staples—with maple syrup[?], I was intrigued. But having just served up pork here last week, I decided to adapt it for chicken.

The main course sort of nailed down, I started thinking vegetables. Just about our favorite restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown is Lao Sze Chuan [the only reason I slightly hedge my bets here is that owner/chef Tony has recently opened two new restaurants, also wonderful, Lao Shanghai and Lao Beijing]. And one of our favorite vegetable dishes at Lao Sze Chuan is the Szechaun green beans, crisp and garlicky. I knew I wouldn’t match these, but I thought I might find a recipe to help me come close. What I found was a bewildering array of recipes, none of them even sounding vaguely close to this pared down dish. So I improvised, coming up with something very different but pretty good, if I say so myself. Best of all, the most exotic ingredient in it is soy sauce. So if the chili paste and five spice powder have put you off the chicken, give these a try.

But first, about those exotic ingredients. Living in Chicago, I have access to a dazzling array of ingredients from many cultures and cuisines. And in many cities, both these ingredients are available in Asian markets and in a growing number of supermarkets.

Chili paste or sauce is made of crushed chili peppers, oil, vinegar, seasonings and sometimes garlic. It has been accurately described as fiery hot, but you can control the heat by adjusting the amount you use.

Five-spice powder is a dry spice blend that incorporates the five basic flavors of Chinese cooking—sweet, sour, bitter, savory and salty. Used widely in Chinese cuisine, there are many variations on the theme. But a fairly standard recipe calls for fennel, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns. It is a very intense spice mix, not in terms of heat, but in terms of flavor. Recipes tend to call for fairly small amounts. Trust them.

I searched the Internet for what seemed like minutes for substitutes for these ingredients. Alas, no luck. The couple of recipes I found for chili paste sounded pretty dubious. And every recipe for five-spice powder called for Szechuan peppercorns. If you can find those, finding actual five-spice powder should be a breeze. And as Lydia over at The Perfect Pantry rightly points out, they’re not even really peppercorns, so substituting regular peppercorns will yield something that falls far flat of the real thing. If anyone out there has substitutes they’ve tried and like, please leave a comment.

Well, blah, blah, blah. How about some recipes?

Spicy Sweet Chicken
Serves 2

12 ounces to 1 pound skinless boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 tablespoon canola oil [or other neutral-flavored oil]
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup low-salt chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon chili paste [or less—see kitchen Notes]
1 green onion, chopped

cooked white rice

Sprinkle chicken with salt, pepper and five-spice powder. Toss to coat.

Heat oil in large skillet over high heat. Add chicken; cook until browned, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes or 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring to keep from burning.

Add next 3 ingredients to skillet. Boil until reduced slightly and chicken is cooked through, stirring frequently, about 3 or 4 minutes minutes. Serve over rice; sprinkle with green onion.

Kitchen Notes

Chili paste: how much, what kind? Heat is subjective. If your eyes are bugging out and you’re chugging water when others are asking the waiter for a bottle of hot sauce, you might want to go with a half tablespoon rather than the whole tablespoon. But if you’re the one in the Thai restaurant saying “bring it on”… well, bring it on. Use the whole tablespoon. It is hot, though. Marion and I like our spicy food fairly hot, and the tablespoon delivered plenty of heat. Regarding what kind to use, this is easy: Use what you have or can find. We had chili paste in the house, so I added fresh garlic to the dish for the hit of garlic I wanted. If you have chili garlic sauce or paste, just omit the fresh garlic.

So how was it? Making this dish for the first time, I expected [feared?] that the maple syrup would play a bigger role than it did. Instead, the sweetness was wonderfully subtle. No hint of pancakes here. If anything, as Marion pointed out, its sweetness was more restrained than if I’d used honey or even hoisin sauce. We’ll definitely do something with this sauce again. Maybe boil it down into a thicker version and serve it over pork, as the original suggested, or over some kind of steamed or sautéed white fish.

And now, on to the green beans. After looking at umpteen wildly varied recipes from various sources and discussing Lao Sze Chuan’s delicious beans with Marion, I heavily adapted a recipe for sautéed green beans from Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine.

Szechuan Green Beans with Garlic
Serves 2

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed
1 tablespoon canola oil [or other neutral-flavored oil]
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon soy sauce [we use low-sodium]
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add beans and cook for just 2 minutes. Drain and plunge beans into cold water to stop cooking. Drain and set aside.

Heat a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add oil. When it begins to shimmer, add beans and toss to coat. Stir fry for 2 minutes or so, then add garlic and crushed red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Stir in water, soy sauce and sugar [I pre-mixed them in a ramekin to let sugar dissolve]. Toss to coat beans and cook sauce down slightly, stirring constantly, about a minute or so. Adjust seasonings [taste before salting—there’s soy sauce in there] and serve.

Kitchen Notes

These aren’t Tony’s beans. We suspect that, as Susanna Foo says about the classical dish twice-cooked green beans, Tony’s are deep-fried, then stir-fried to finish. That said, they were quite good. I’ll make them again and perhaps ramp up the heat with more pepper flakes. The key is to not overcook them.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 3/26/2008

Thank you, Benjamin Franklin. Sure, he was a founding father, inventor, statesman, author… but even cooler, he gave us public libraries. Read all about it, at WTF? Random food for thought.

Big band giant thinks small, plays big. When big band legend Duke Ellington downsizes to a quartet with quintessential avant garde sax player John Coltrane, big things happen, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?


{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen March 26, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Chinese five spice powder is easier to find than you’d think. It can actually be found in a number of mainstream grocery stores now, although it’s often under a layer of dust.

I’ve already bookmarked the green bean recipe. I love my neighborhood, but its option for Chinese are… limited.

Terry B March 26, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Kristen—Yeah, but you live in New York. You can find anything there. For those of you having trouble finding five-spice powder, it’s available online in the US, Canada and Mexico from The Spice House. If you want to explore Chinese cuisine, this blend shows up in lots of recipes. I’ve also seen it on Amazon.com.

Ronnie Ann March 26, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Laughing about the maple syrup. I remember my first trip to Canada. Some friends and I were staying in Montreal. They decided to take a day trip north of the city and came back with tales of maple syrup in every recipe. They told it as a horror story. Although I always loved maple creme cookies, haven’t ever tried it in a main dish recipe myself. But after reading this post, I have to say I am now maple curious. Sounds yummy. Oh…love the chopsticks photo.

Maya March 26, 2008 at 7:19 pm

That chicken looks good! IT has been a little cool here in NY and that would be perfect tonight!

Ron, England March 26, 2008 at 7:27 pm

Chicago has a Chinatown? And you can’t buy 5-spice powder? Hmm…

Ron, England March 26, 2008 at 7:36 pm

The Broadway Supermarket
4879 N Broadway St
(between Ainslie St & Gunnison St)
Chicago, IL 60640

A Chinese store highly recommended online for everything you need.

Terry B March 26, 2008 at 7:47 pm

Ronnie—Great story! In my travels through Canada with Marion and the girls, the most alarming thing I found was strangely flavored potato chips. Specifically ketchup-flavored and pickle-flavored ones. Yikes.

Maya—Thanks! I just checked out your blog and will be looking for banana leaves post haste.

Ron—No, we have sources galore for all things Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai… I was talking about these ingredients and ways to find them because readers in smaller cities may have problems tracking them down. Thanks for your efforts in tracking down a source here, though. It just goes to show what an open, friendly community the world of food bloggers is.

Mike of Mike's Table March 26, 2008 at 7:54 pm

Looks delicious! I have to admit that I was surprised by the inclusion of maple syrup, but reading more about the dish, it sounds like it should taste awesome and now I want Chinese for dinner 😮

the italian dish March 26, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Wow, this sounds fabulous. This is going on my menu this weekend. Thanks!

Sean March 26, 2008 at 8:41 pm

The first dish sounds delicious. I don’t know about the second one, though. I don’t particularly like green beans. I’ll have to try them both some time.

Kristen March 26, 2008 at 9:56 pm

No, that’s just it — I remember seeing Chinese Five Spice powder (from Spice House, actually) in the Super Stop & Shops when we lived in the suburbs of Massachusetts.

(I know, you’re gobsmacked to find I was not always the urbane cosmopolite you know now…)

Jerry March 26, 2008 at 10:46 pm

Yummy! Now too bad the people I live with hate spicy food!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) March 26, 2008 at 11:28 pm

Chili paste and maple syrup together? How can I resist trying this?! There’s always five-spice in my pantry, too, though it’s as likely to be from Penzeys as from the Asian grocery store. Thanks for these two great recipes.

Terry B March 26, 2008 at 11:44 pm

Mike—I was a bit surprised myself by the idea of maple syrup. I half expected to crave bacon with this dish. Well, more than usual, I mean. But the sweetness it adds is quite subtle and delicate.

the italian dish—[first, your name is so fun to type] Thank you! I hope you enjoy it.

Sean—The flavor of the green beans is pretty interesting. But I also thought asparagus would be tasty in this.

Kristen—You? Massachusetts? I’m gobsmacked indeed. Unfortunately, some readers live in towns where cottage cheese is stocked in the gourmet section of the store. I love how formerly exotic ingredients are becoming more generally available, though.

Jerry—Do they ever travel without you? As Mike of Mike’s Table will attest, that’s a great time to cook things that only have to please your palate.

Lydia—I would love a visit to your pantry sometime. A real visit, not the regular virtual visits you give us. Those are lovely too, of course.

Kevin March 27, 2008 at 12:17 am

That dinner looks really tasty. I have never used Chinese five-spice powder. I will have to look for it again. I like the sound of the chili paste and maple syrup combination!

Anticiplate March 27, 2008 at 4:19 am

Ha! We have similar taste in food. I have a recipe almost identical to this, but instead of maple syrup, I use brown sugar:)

Helmut March 27, 2008 at 10:27 am

The chicken and rice photo looks so delicious. Oh, how I would love to be a guest when you prepared it.

cookinpanda March 27, 2008 at 11:53 pm

Intrigued by the maple syrup addition. Will be trying this flavor combination. Thanks!

Pam March 28, 2008 at 6:45 pm

Love the chopstick rests – very cool!

Jennifer Hess March 28, 2008 at 7:28 pm

Time to restock the maple syrup, methinks…

Terry B March 28, 2008 at 9:30 pm

Anticiplate—I can see brown sugar having a similar flavor in this.

Helmut—If you ever get back this side of the Atlantic, we’ll see what we can do.

cookinpanda—Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to seeing what you do with these flavors.

Pam—Daughter Laurel was quite into origami at one time, so when we saw these faux origami ceramic rests, we had to have them.

Jennifer—Methinks you’re right! We just get some nice organic maple syrup at Trader Joe’s. No need to go all esoteric here.

Toni March 29, 2008 at 6:26 pm

The maple syrup is an interesting kind of “sweet” taste to add to this dish. But if you’re going to have fire in your food, sweet is what cuts it. No amount of water in the world is enough to revive your tongue when it’s been fried by chili. That’s why they always serve sopapillas with honey with your chili in New Mexico.

Those chopsticks are way cool! Are they made of coconut wood?

Marc March 30, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Heya Terry

Got into the kitchen and whipped both of these up last night. Delicious, and also I’ve got to say QUICK, which is always a great thing in this time-pressed world. We used a wok, but we had fun calling it a skillet.

My gorgeous partner Yang (who’s Chinese and a whiz in the kitchen) asked me to pass on some feedback…

He says that as a kind of unspoken universal rule in Chinese cooking, ingredients like garlic and chilli flakes usually go into the oil before adding the chicken or beans. That seasons or flavors the oil. Not sure how much of a difference that makes, but he swears by it.

Great flavors, love the way the maple syrup disappeared.

=) Marc

ann March 30, 2008 at 3:09 pm

This sounds soooooooo appealing after two weeks in Italy! Seriously! I mean, I love Italian food as much, if not more, than the next guy/gal, but, considering at least half of my work-week meals consist of something Asian, flavors like these were the things I craved most upon landing back in NYC. My first meal back was Japanese ramen, and now I think I’m going to duck out for some pho. And then who knows? Maybe something like this for dinner tonight. Thanks Terry :-)

Terry B March 30, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Toni—You’re right that water does nothing to cut the fire; milk also works—or sour cream or any kind of dairy.

Regarding the chopsticks, Marion picked them up in Paris years ago and only remembers that they were indeed some kind of exotic wood.

Marc—So glad you liked the dishes! I said about the green beans skillet or wok; should have said the same for the chicken. We have a wok [more accurately, Marion has a wok], but rarely haul it out. Thank Yang for the tip on garlic and chili flakes. I tend to add garlic late in the process just because of its tendency to burn. But if you keep stirring everything before adding liquids, you would probably avoid burning it.

Ann—Welcome back! I look forward to great pictures and stories from you. I’ve heard this in the past about Italy, that you pretty much get Italian food when you’re there. That’s something I love about the US, well anyway, big cities in the US. We’re great borrowers; all cuisines are welcome.

Jeremy Hulley April 3, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Made a double batch last night and loved it. The combination of light and heavy at the same time and lots of Garlic.

Good stuff,

Fearless Kitchen April 6, 2008 at 10:00 pm

I really like the idea of combining maple syrup with chili paste. It’s very creative!

CC/DC May 27, 2008 at 2:29 pm

I’ve never heard those yummy restaurant green beans called twice-cooked but I think it must be the dish called “gan bian shi ji do” in Mandarin. It is one of my favorite dishes but I’ve never been able to replicate it. In Queens, where I used to live, I was waiting at the local hole-in-the-wall — you know, the kind where they serve as many orders of fried chicken and fries as they do sweet and sour pork — and I was kind of shocked when she threw my green beans into the french fry fryer…and left them there for almost 10 minutes! Looking forward to trying your recipe!

paulie April 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm

classic with maple sypup again……. i am a newbe to maple syrup and i tried it on bacon a fewmonths ago……well is there any other way to eat bacon ???? wow.. thanks for reciept im about to try it now……

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