April 02, 2011

Sesame Chicken

One of the very first dishes I remember ordering from a Chinese restaurant was Sesame Chicken.  Bits of crispy, batter-fried chicken coated in a sweet, slightly spicy sauce and loads of sesame seeds... to a teenager raised in rural Iowa, this seemed like heaven!   Sesame Chicken has remained a sentimental favorite of mine, and one I've often ordered in restaurants or sampled at Chinese buffets, but I'm a bit harder to please now than I was when I was a teenager and things like fried rice seemed exotic.  I don't know when the last time was that I was satisfied with Sesame Chicken at a restaurant or buffet.  More often than not - and virtually every time in a buffet - the batter is gummy, the chicken is over-cooked and the sauce is gloppy and sweet but lacks any complexity of flavor.  And, worse yet, there's barely even a sprinkling of sesame seeds, and virtually no sesame flavor.

With this disappointment in mind, I decided to study as many Sesame Chicken recipes as I could find, compare and contrast them and then design my own.  I was determined to make some sesame chicken that would remind me why I loved the dish in the first place.

I'm happy to report success.   Using the recipe below, I made up a batch of perfectly-cooked sesame chicken with a light, crisp batter and bold, spicy-sweet sauce packed with sesame flavor and topped with lots of roasted sesame seeds.  I served it along with a big bowl of Vegetable Lo Mein. 

At first bite, Juli didn't even recognize my creation as Sesame Chicken.  Her comment was "This isn't like any Sesame Chicken I've ever had.  This is good!"   I was pleased by her response, and by what I've made.

If it's been way, way too long since you've had really good Sesame Chicken - or if you're one of the poor souls who've never had any outside a Chinese buffet or supermarket deli - give this recipe a try.   If you've loved Sesame Chicken in the past, I'm sure you'll like this, and if you've never liked it before - or never tried it - you just might find yourself with a new favorite Chinese dish.

Sesame Chicken

yield = 4 servings

3              tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2           cup hoisin sauce
3              tablespoons rice vinegar
3              tablespoons soy sauce
3              tablespoons honey
2              tablespoons rice wine
1              tablespoon Asian (dark) sesame oil
1/2           teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1              cup water
2              pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves,
                  sliced into 1-inch pieces
2              cups cornstarch
1              cup all-purpose flour
4              egg whites, beaten
1/2           teaspoon baking soda
1              tablespoon peanut oil (plus more to deep-fry)
8              green onions, sliced thin, white and green parts separated
2              tablespoons fresh, peeled and grated ginger
3              teaspoons garlic

Our Busy Kitchen:
Meal in progress:  Sesame Chicken and Vegetable Lo Mein

Toast sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium heat until golden-brown.  Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Combine hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, soy sauce, honey, rice wine, sesame oil, black pepper and water in a medium bowl.  Whisk to combine.  Add 6 tablespoons of the hoisin mixture to a zipper-lock plastic bag.  Add the chicken, seal bag tightly, shake to coat the chicken with the hoisin mixture and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Combine 1/2 cup cornstarch and 1/2 cup flour in a shallow bowl.   Add the beaten egg whites to another shallow bowl.  Mix the 1 1/2 cup cornstarch, 1/2 cup flour and the baking soda to a third shallow bowl.  Stir three tablespoons of the hoisin mixture into the third bowl (the mixture should take on a texture like coarse meal). 

Remove the chicken from the zipper bag, and dispose of bag.  Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels.   Working in batches, add several pieces of chicken to the first bowl with the cornstarch/flour mixture.  Turn to coat, shake off excess mixture, then transfer the chicken pieces to the bowl with the egg whites.  Turn to coat, allow excess egg to drip off, then transfer chicken pieces to the third bowl.  Turn the chicken pieces to coat them with the meal-like mixture on all sides, then tranfer them to a plate.  Repeat with the rest of the chicken pieces.

Fill a small to medium-sized Dutch oven with peanut oil to a depth of about 3/4 inch.   Heat the oil to 350 degrees.

While the oil is heating, add one tablespoon peanut oil to a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  When the oil is shimmering, add the white parts of the green onions, the ginger and the garlic.  Cook, stirring frequently, for one minute, then add the remainder of the hoisin mixture and cook until thickened (about 1 minute).  Remove from heat and set aside.

When the oil is heated, fry the coated chicken pieces in batches, making sure to not add so many pieces that they stick together.  Fry until browned on all sides (approximately 3 minutes per batch).  Transfer cooked chicken pieces to a plate lined with paper towels.  Repeat with the rest of the chicken pieces, allowing the oil to heat up again between batches if necessary. 

Transfer the chicken pieces to a serving bowl.  Add the sauce from the skillet and 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds.  Stir to coat the chicken pieces evenly with the sauce and sesame seeds, then sprinkle the rest of the sesame seeds on top of the chicken and garnish with the green parts of the green onions.  Serve with rice or some sort of Asian noodles.

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