August 20, 2016 – History teaches us that the world’s great cuisines originated from need. The need to survive. To preserve food. To make meager supplies last longer. To make food on the verge of spoiling taste better. Even taste good.
I once heard a famous chef make similar statements in an interview. When queried by the interviewer, the chef’s response was brilliant.
“Do you think,” the chef asked, “people would really have eaten snails and birds’ nests if they’d had a thick beef steak?”
It’s also true that politics have influenced how people eat. Sometimes in cruel fashion. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is China’s Cultural Revolution.
In the early ’60s, the aging Chairman Mao Zedong had allowed others to assume positions of influence in the Communist Party and the government of China. But by 1966 he had become alarmed at the direction in which the country was going. Aided by his wife, Jiang Qing and her followers, known as the Gang of Four, he moved to reassert his authority.
They called on China’s youth to purge the “impure” elements of Chinese society. Schools were closed. The elderly and intellectuals were driven from the cities to rural areas. They were the fortunate ones.
1.5 million people were killed. Millions more were imprisoned and tortured. Their only crime was a bourgeois life style as reported by the neighbors who spied on them. At least the pretense of political purity demanded by the Communist Party leadership was imperative for survival.
That brings us to what was satirically referred to, in private, as the People’s Coq au Vin. It was the simplest of dishes, containing only four elements: a chicken, some oil, soy sauce and red wine. Peasant food at its most basic.
What follows is my version of the People’s Coq au Vin.
I used chicken thighs rather than a whole chicken. I like chicken thighs.
I added the onion, garlic, ginger and sesame oil. And more. Much more.
To fool the spies who no doubt would have been trying to peek in our windows, I served the chicken with linguini. I thought that would confuse them.
Since I was using thighs instead of a whole chicken, I traded the oven for a wok. Baking takes time. Stir frying is quick and easy.
Yeah, I would have been shot.
But my last meal would have been memorable.
The People’s Coq au Vin
2 1/2 lbs boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite size pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup red wine
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoons Chile Garlic Sauce, or to taste
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon lemongrass concentrate
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon arrowroot (or corn starch)
Salt & pepper to taste
Cook the linguini in salted boiling water.
Heat the oil in a wok. When hot but not smoking, add the onion. Stir fry until soft, four to five minutes.
Add the chicken. Stir fry until it begins to turn color, three to four minutes. Add the soy sauce and red wine. Continue to cook until the chicken starts to become permeated with the liquid, two to three minutes.
Add all the other ingredients. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Stir fry until heated through and the chicken is thoroughly cooked.
If there is still a lot of liquid, toss in the arrowroot (or corn starch) to thicken.
Add the linguini to the pot and toss to coat.