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陳坤與文昌雞 Chen Kun on Wenchang Chicken

陰化陽生五德

蒼蒼海氣感來

雄飛雌伏尋常事,

饕餮何勞苦用[1]

Transformed from yin and born as yang is the Fowl of Five Virtues.[2]

Vast blue ocean breeze inspires [my] deep contemplation:

Cocks fly high, hens sit low – this is how it is.

Why does the gourmand [3] bother to deliberate over it?


文昌縣屬有一種雞,牝而若牡,肉味最美。蓋割取雄雞之腎,納於雌雞之腹,遂不生卵,亦不司晨,毛羽漸殊,異常肥嫩。以其法於他處試之則不可,故曰文昌雞。

There is a type of chicken in the town of Wenchang.[4] The hen tastes like a cock and has a most beautiful flavour. It seems that [the locals] remove the testes from cocks and put them into the abdomen of hens which then don't lay eggs or crow in the morning. They gradually differ [from other hens] in feather and become extremely fleshy and tender. [5] The method doesn’t work when tested in other places, so [this type of chicken is] called Wenchang chicken. [6]


* From Chen Kun’s 陳坤 (fl. 19th century) Lingnan zashi shichao 嶺南雜事詩鈔, Rubujizhai huichao 如不及齋會鈔 edition (19th century) in Guangzhou dadian 廣州大典 (Guangzhou: Guangzhou chubanshe, 2008), vol. 6, 380.


[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] It is believed that chickens represent yang force, especially because their crowing signals the coming of daytime. They are also associated with five virtues: civility (for they wear a “hat”), martial spirit (for their feet), bravery (for they can fight), kindness (for they call over their kind when they find food), and credibility (for they crow in the morning); see Hanshi waizhuan 韓詩外傳: https://ctext.org/han-shi-wai-zhuan/juan-er (passage 23). [3] Taotie 饕餮 here refers to the legendary monster that is greedy for food.

[4] Wenchang (a county-level city today) is located on the eastern coast of Hainan island, which was part of Guangdong province during the Qing and often featured in accounts about the South of the Ridges. [5] Alternatively, this passage may read, "It seems that [the locals] remove the testes from cocks and put them into the abdomen of hens. Then the hens don't lay eggs, and the cocks don't crow in the morning. They gradually differ [from normal chickens] in feather and become extremely fleshy and tender."

[6] Nowadays "Wenchang ji" 文昌雞 (Wenchang chicken) may refer to this type of chicken as well as a local dish in Wenchang. The "Wenchang chicken" in this blog is used in the former sense.

 

Chen Kun’s account of Wenchang chicken is obviously talking about caponisation, although the part about putting the removed testes into the hens is rather curious. Capons are still widely sought-after in the market nowadays because of their tender meat. As far as I know, they are always castrated cockerels instead of hens. We don’t know whether Chen Kun’s informant was simply trying to create mystery around Wenchang chicken, or whether he actually caught sight of a tradition that is now lost. Today, Wenchang chicken may be a cockerel or a hen, and the secret of their tender meat, some believe, is that they are fed with coconuts, another speciality of Hainan island.


Notwithstanding the discrepancies in the perception of the secret of Wenchang chicken, I, as many people would, agree with Chen Kun on the impressive taste of their meat. After all, Chen Kun was the District Magistrate of Chaoyang 潮陽 in the Chaoshan region. As I’ve just recently had a taste of the great culinary culture of the region, his testimony about food means a lot to me.


More importantly, Chen Kun’s last line reveals a truth: astonishing things may happen when a foodie starts to think. The dish yeziji 椰子雞 (coconut chicken) is a good example. It’s typically made from two authentic Hainan ingredients, coconuts and Wenchang chicken, but I was told that this dish was not a Hainan tradition but an invention from a few decades ago by a Cantonese restaurant owner in Shenzhen.


I went to Hainan once a few years ago, but on that trip, I was occupied with seafood markets in Haikou and didn’t try Wenchang chicken. This time, when I left Shantou for Shenzhen to visit my friend there, I didn’t know my first encounter with Wenchang chicken would become the most memorable thing of my first trip to the city.


My friend took me to her favourite restaurant Runyuan Siji 潤園四季, and it only took me one sip of the soup to see why the coconut chicken quickly rose to fame and became Shenzhen’s signature dish. The fresh sweetness of the soup was such a delightful breeze. The dip, a mix of minced chilli, aromatic ginger and garlic in soybean sauce and the juice of a green round kumquat, worked magic into the tender chicken infused with a subtle coconut flavour. The person who first brought them together is a genius indeed!


When I recovered from the astonishment and started to think about it, the dish actually has a very simple recipe. Basically, it is a pot of nicely cut chicken pieces cooked in pure fresh coconut juice. About two to three coconuts for one whole chicken. You also put in the coconut’s white flesh and some pearl water chestnuts. The pot doesn’t even need any serious seasoning, because everyone is expected to prepare his or her own dip. That’s it. However, such a simple recipe perhaps makes it even more difficult to get a good result, because the right ingredients mean everything.


I wish Chen Kun had elaborated on his Wenchang chicken recipe as he did for many other cooking ingredients from the South of the Ridges. However, the tender meat and curious caponisation process are all he has said about Wenchang chicken. It’s most likely that he didn’t have more experience to share. His Lingnan zashi shichao 嶺南雜事詩鈔 (Poems and Jottings on Various Matters about the South of the Ridges) has a long passage about coconuts, detailing the characteristics of the plant, how the locals on the island drank coconut juice and how to choose good coconuts, but there is no mention of their culinary use at all. If he had had the chance to try the incredible combination of Wenchang chicken and coconuts, I’m sure he would have considered it as another occasion to celebrate a gourmand’s deliberation.


(Left) Depiction of the Fowl of Five Virtues by Shen Zhou 沈周 (1427-1509).

Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei

(Right) The coconut chicken I had uses young coconuts with tender flesh and relatively clear juice, instead of old coconuts that have more intense flavour and cloudy juice.

 

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