The fourth banquet is held in the Vast Glacial [Palace],
Grape wine of dense colour like cinnabar,
Blades running parallel to finely cut heavenly chicken -
[One] returns from the feast, with the saddle clad in moonlight.
* From Songshi chao 宋詩鈔, edited by Wu Zhizhen 吳之振 (1640-1717), Yingyin Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 景印文淵閣四庫全書 edition (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1461, 105.10b-11a.
Written by the musician-poet Wang Yuanliang 汪元量 (1241?-1318?), “Huzhou ge” is a set of 98 songs with narratives about the Southern Song regime submitting to the Mongols. As the poet himself travelled up north with the royal family, starting his journey from Hangzhou, he recorded his sentiments for his lost home country and his experience in the north. The poem above describes one of the ten extravagant banquets organised by the Mongol Yuan emperor to welcome the royal members of the Southern Song and their entourage in the Yuan capital Dadu 大都 (modern Beijing).
Detail of Ma Yuan's 馬遠 (1160-1225) "Huadeng yeyan tu" 華燈夜宴圖 depicting a night banquet.
Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei
But all this doesn’t really explain why this poem is here in my blog. I chose it simply because last week I also had some heavenly chicken in a moon-related place: Banyuezhai 半月齋 (Half-Moon House) in Suzhou. I read an amusing anecdote on the internet saying that the chef-owner of the tea house intended to have the name Panzhai 胖齋 (Fatty House) after the nickname of his son, who is also a chef. However, the person who did the registration made a mistake and thought it read 半月齋. The owner must have submitted the name written in the traditional way (reading from right to left, i.e. 齋胖) to make the mistake possible. Anyway, it was a nice story.
2. To echo its name, the tea house now serves with special half-moon-shaped plates.
There were no other guests when my friend and I popped into the tea house in early afternoon. She ordered three of her favourites: baizhanji 白斬雞 (sliced boiled chicken), luobosi huotui subing 蘿蔔絲火腿酥餅 (stuffed pastry with shredded daikon and ham) and meigui lagao 玫瑰拉糕 (rose sticky rice cake). I had no problem with appreciating the last two delicacies, both of which had fine texture and pleasantly mild flavour, but I must say, the chicken was mind-blowingly good.
In fact, baizhanji (literally “white chop chicken”) isn’t new to me. It’s well-known in the south and almost a must-have dish on a festive menu for many families. In his Suiyuan shidan 隨園食單 (Suiyuan’s Recipes), the famous poet and gourmet Yuan Mei 袁枚 (1716-1797, style name: Suiyuan Xiansheng 隨園先生) names boiled chicken as the most convenient dish, especially when one travels to the countryside or stays in an inn.
Boil the whole chicken, chop it into pieces, and prepare some sauce you like to go with the chicken. Sounds simple enough. But having been exposed to unimpressive baizhanji many times, I must say it’s easy to get it done but extremely difficult to do it well. I have many more memories of facing dry breasts or finding blood in the thicker part of the breast than having something really delicious. My family and relatives are used to seeing the chicken either undercooked or overcooked, and the verdict is only announced when the chicken is cut open. In most (meaning 90% or above) cases, someone will suffer: either from having to chew the dry breasts or from having to re-cook the rawish parts separately (which in essence “rescues” the dish by turning it into another dish). I didn’t think the taste or frequency of success was worth the hassle, so I never really grew interested in this high-risk dish or thought about ordering it in a restaurant.
If I had happened to have tasted something like the baizhanji from Half-Moon House, things would have been completely different. I’m glad that I had not mentioned my reluctance to have this dish before my friend placed the order. When the chicken was put on our table, I thought okay, a familiar humble look, typical of baizhanji. But the first bite just blew me away. Perfection of boiled whole chicken. Super tender, juicy, and flavoursome meat, an absolute delight even without any sauce.
My new revelation about baizhanji has enticed me to watch cooking videos and even consider trying to do it myself, but on second thought, it remains a high-risk dish. I’m sure it’ll take many whole chickens before one can master all the tricks, and it’s definitely preferable to also have a group of guests who are kind or innocent enough to swallow whatever comes out of failed experiments. Given its potential to cost chickens as well as friendship, baizhanji is a rather expensive dish to learn.
At the end of the day, I guess I’ll stay with other heavenly chicken recipes for which I can cheat with modern appliances. Chicken breasts sous vide, for example, are by no means less heavenly – it’s just a different heaven. Meanwhile, I’ll wait for the day to come when I have many whole chickens and nice guests at my disposal.
 Zhang Chuanfeng 張傳峰 argues convincingly that the Huzhou in Wang Yuanliang’s title refers to a marketplace in the north of the southern Song capital Lin’an 臨安 (modern Hangzhou) instead of the city of Huzhou in the southwest of Lake Tai; see Zhang Chuanfeng, “Liang zhong ‘Huzhou ge’ bian” 兩種《湖州歌》辨 in Wenxue yichan 文學遺產, 1996(5): 110-111.  See https://www.sohu.com/a/432532633_349699.  See the entry for “Baipianji” 白片雞: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=33425&page=92.  My top chicken breast recipe is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NmmzYK92oU. With a simple sous vide machine, the recipe is nearly idiot-proof. In my experience, it can even win over someone who always hates chicken breasts. By the way, the sauce is still great with normal butter (instead of almond butter in the video).
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