Firecracker poussin with chillies
The chillies are 'tingly with Sichuan pepper' © Greg Funnell

At midnight on New Year’s eve, Chinese villagers rush out of their houses to light fireworks to banish evil spirits and welcome the coming year. Whole valleys echo to the sound of squibs and rockets, and long strings of bright red firecrackers explode like artillery fire. The celebrations are the end of a long evening (January 30 this year) that begins with sacrifices to ancestors and the traditional family dinner – the most important meal of the year. On the table will be plenty of pork, a whole fish (the Chinese word for “fish” is a homonym of the word for “surplus”, so it symbolises a year of wealth and plenty) and usually a home-reared chicken.

The following recipe is a gorgeous firecracker of a dish, a great pile of deep red chillies, all tingly with Sichuan pepper, from which you must use your chopsticks to extract delectable morsels of deep-fried chicken. It’s a speciality of Gele Mountain in Chongqing, the hilly megalopolis that was until recently part of Sichuan province and which is infamous for the intense mala (numbing-and-hot) character of its food. Mostly, it’s a restaurant dish, extravagant with the oil and chillies, but what better occasion to cook it at home than the traditional feast for Chinese New Year’s Eve?

This recipe requires what might seem like a ridiculous amount of chillies – but they are there for the dramatic spectacle and to lend their aromatic heat to the cooking oil, not to be eaten. Make sure you use only medium-hot chillies of the kind you can buy in enormous bags in good Chinese supermarkets (I buy mine in New Loon Moon in London’s Chinatown). Look out for larger, longer chillies with a good red colour, not hot little bird’s eyes, which will make the dish unpalatably fiery. You may find chillies pre-cut into sections, which saves time in the kitchen.

In China, restaurants use small local chickens for this dish, so I’m suggesting you choose poussin instead of our fleshy European birds. The whole point of the recipe is to cut the fowl into very small pieces that become crisp and fragrant in the hot oil, so you want a larger than normal proportion of skin to meat. You will need a heavy chopping knife or a chopping cleaver to cut the poussin into small pieces. If this is too much of a palaver, a simplified chicken-wing version of the dish can be found online.

Fuchsia Dunlop is author of ‘Every Grain of Rice’ (Bloomsbury)


Red chillies, spring onion and sliced ginger
Red chillies, spring onion and sliced ginger © Greg Funnell

Firecracker poussin with chillies

1 poussin (450g)


½ tsp salt

2 tsp Shaoxing wine

20g ginger, crushed slightly

1 spring onion white, slightly crushed

Other ingredients

50g medium-hot dried chillies

2 tsp Sichuan pepper

½ tsp sesame seeds

About 500ml groundnut or rapeseed oil for cooking

½ tbs Sichuan chilli bean paste

10g ginger, peeled and sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

2 spring onion whites, slightly crushed

A dash of Shaoxing wine

¼ tsp salt

½ tsp sugar

1 tsp sesame oil

2 tbs finely sliced spring onion greens

1. Pull out the leg and wing joints of the poussin and cut legs and wings away from body. Chop off and discard wing and drumstick tips. Cut down to the bone along each leg, and wiggle and cut out the thick leg bones. Cut each wing into two joints. Chop legs and wings evenly into 1-2cm chunks. Cut along both sides of the bird to separate breast and back. Lay the back flat and chop lengthwise on both sides of the backbone. Discard backbone and cut the rest into 2cm chunks. Cut breasts away from breastbone and cut the meat into 2cm chunks. Keep any fragments of skin. Place all the meat in a bowl, add marinade ingredients, mix and leave for 10-15 minutes.

2. If you have whole chillies, cut into 1-2cm sections, discarding seeds as far as possible.

3. Toast sesame seeds gently in a frying pan until tinged with gold.

4. Remove and discard ginger and spring onion from the chicken. Heat 400ml oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame to 190C. Add chicken, stirring to separate, and deep-fry for four minutes until golden. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon.

5. Reheat oil to the original temperature, add chicken and fry for another three to four minutes until golden and crisp. Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon. Brush out the wok if necessary.

6. Add 3½ tbs fresh oil and return to a medium heat. Add chilli bean paste and stir until the oil is red; then add ginger, garlic and spring onions and stir-fry briefly until they smell delicious. Add chillies and Sichuan pepper; stir until slightly scorched and aromatic, taking care not to burn them.

7. Add the chicken and stir briskly to clothe in the fragrant oil. Add a dash of Shaoxing wine, with the remaining salt and sugar.

8. Finally, off the heat, stir in sesame oil. Turn on to serving dish and scatter with sesame seeds and spring onion greens. Serve with greens and white rice.

Easy version:

This cuts out the chopping and deep-frying of the traditional recipe, yet allows the spicy, aromatic oil to permeate the roasted chicken wings. You may be able to find packages of small chicken wing sections in the halal section of your local supermarket.


500g chicken wings

Marinade ingredients

¾ tsp salt

1 tbsp Shaoxing wine

20g ginger

2 spring onion whites, slightly crushed

Other ingredients

15g ginger, peeled and sliced

2 cloves garlic, sliced

2 spring onion whites, slightly crushed

50g dried red chillies, cut into sections

2 tsp Sichuan pepper

a dash of Shaoxing wine

¼ tsp salt

½ tsp sugar

1 tsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted

2 tbsp finely sliced spring onion greens

About 500ml groundnut or rapeseed oil for cooking

1. Set the oven to 220C.

2. Make three or four shallow cuts across each side of each chicken wing. Place all wings in a bowl, and add the marinade ingredients. Mix well and leave for 10-15 minutes.

3. Place the wings in an oiled baking tray in the preheated oven, and cook for about half an hour until crisp and browned, turning halfway through the cooking time.

4. Follow steps 6-8 of the main recipe, substituting the chicken wings for the chopped poussin.

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