For the past few days, ever since daylight savings, I’ve been thinking about winters back in Massachusetts. When I was younger, around this time of year, the old Jordan Marsh department store in Boston (now a Macy’s) would set up the “Enchanted Village”, an almost-over-the-top holiday wonderland that took up a whole floor of the building and drew in hoards of visitors with its lavish window displays. There were mechanical teddy bears in Santa hats waving at you. Toy trains chugging over and under snow-capped plastic mountains in dizzying figure eights. Endless repetition of Jingle Bell Rock and other holiday standards. Parents and kids and babies in strollers coming from all directions. And I went back year after year, loving every single minute.
(To this day, I’m a huge sucker for Christmas displays, even though my Sunday school education and church-going ended somewhere around third grade.)
And en route from Jordan Marsh, next to the Salvation Army bell ringers, there would inevitably be a guy selling fresh roasted chestnuts. I’d share a bag with whoever I was with, either my mom or aunt or a friend. Munching on the chestnuts, I’d also start humming the opening lines of The Christmas Song to myself, even the nuts weren’t actually roasted, as the song goes, over an open fire.
It wasn’t until I moved away from Boston that I realized buying a brown bag of roasted chestnuts off the side of the street was actually a rare thing. It’s pretty hard to find in New York, outside of Chinatown in Manhattan and Flushing. And I haven’t seen it in any other city in the US. (If you have, let me know where! And do they even sell roasted chestnuts in Boston anymore?)
Roasting chestnuts is, however, more a bit common in China. In Beijing’s hutongs, you can smell the roasting an alley away, and it’s much more pleasant than the stinky tofu they also sell in the hutongs. In Macau, I came across a vendor that sold it from his cart, roasting them in big cast iron drum with charcoal-fueled fire underneath, and no encasement whatsoever. And wow, were those popping sounds and sparks intense.
This is all to say that I love chestnuts this time of year, and wanted to make this Sichuan braised chicken with chestnut dish once again. It’s adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe in Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking. Instead of cutting up a whole chicken, I simplified it by using bone-in chicken thighs, then adjusted the ingredient amounts accordingly. And instead of raw chestnuts in their shell, I used the easier-to-find pre-packaged roasted chestnuts. (I bought mine at Tokyo Mart in Chinatown, but you can also find them online here, here, and here.)
I love how this dish has so few flavoring ingredients, yet tastes rich and robust from the long braising time. The chicken is fork-tender, and the chestnuts are soft without being mushy. The thickened sauce is amazingly savory when you consider that only 1 tablespoon of soy sauce used in the entire dish. I devoured 2 large pieces of chicken for a really late lunch, and another for dinner 3 hours later.
So if you also have a hankering for chestnuts once the Christmas standards start playing in every department store, try this dish out. Or if you’re in New York, hop over to Chinatown or Flushing and get a bag of them freshly roasted. The vendor might even give you the musical accompaniment.
- 2-inch piece fresh ginger
- 2 scallions
- 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
- 6 to 8 ounces whole roasted chestnuts
- 2½ pounds chicken thighs, preferably bone-in and with skin
- ¼ cup Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Peel the ginger and cut into thick slices. Cut the whole scallions into 2-inch lengths.
- Heat a wok or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat until a bead of water evaporates on contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the chestnuts and stir-fry for about 1 minute, until golden. Transfer the chestnuts to a plate lined with paper towels to drain, and set aside.
- In the same wok or pot, swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and carefully add the chicken. Allow the chicken to sear untouched on one side until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip the chicken over and sear on the other side for another 3 minutes. Add the ginger and scallions and sear for about 30 seconds. Splash in the Chinese rice wine and stir well.
- Slowly add the chicken stock and bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in the sugar and soy sauce. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the chestnuts and mix well. Simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes until they’re softened. The liquid should also have thickened to a sauce consistency by now. Adjust the seasoning with salt if desired, then transfer to a deep serving dish.