When people think of Chinese food, they typically think of Cantonese or Sichuan cooking, the former with its dim sum and congee, the latter with its mind-numbing spice. But Cantonese and Sichuan styles are only two of the eight major regions of Chinese cuisine.
At Jiang Nan Spring in Alhambra, the restaurant specializes in Zhejiang cuisine. If you’re not a fan of spicy foods but prefer seafood and fish dishes that use seasonal ingredients, then Zhejiang food may be what you’re looking for. Although many in China think of Zhejiang dishes to be some of the most refined regional specialties, but the cuisine is still mostly unknown outside of China.
Jiang Nan literally translates to “south of the river” and refers to the areas south of the Yangtze River, which includes food from Shanghai, Hangzhou, Jiangsu, Fujian, Ningbo, Shaoxing, Anhui, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang. At Jiang Nan Spring, head chef Henry Chang has more than 42 years of cooking experience. Starting as an apprentice at age 17 in Taiwan, he became a master in Shanghainese cuisine and other Zhejiang foods before a restaurant recruited him to come to LA.
“With Zhejiang cuisine, we place the emphasis on freshness and seasonality. We focus more on presentation and freshness than other Chinese foods many Americans are accustomed to seeing. This food isn’t greasy or spicy, and every dish is made to order from scratch,” said Chang.
Chang, who previously owned and developed the menu at Chang’s Garden in nearby Arcadia, is the only chef in Los Angeles making a very traditional Chinese dish: Beggar’s Chicken. This dish rarely appears on menus because of its complexity and lengthy preparation time.
Beggar’s Chicken is a chicken dish that is marinated, stuffed, and wrapped tight in layers of lotus leaves, parchment paper, and dough. Chang then bakes the dish slowly in low heat. Beggar’s Chicken is notoriously difficult to make and takes up to six hours to prepare. Diners that want to try the dish must order a day in advance at Jiang Nan Spring. Although the dish was traditionally wrapped in clay that molded to the chicken, the recipe has evolved over the years to using dough and convection ovens.
Beggar’s Chicken used to be a dish for the poor. Legend has it that the dish was invented when a beggar stole a chicken. Because he had no pot to cook it in, the beggar supposedly wrapped the chicken in lotus leaves and packed it in mud before lighting a fire in the ground and burying it. When the beggar dug up the chicken and hammered open the clay, the chicken had juicy meat and a great aroma.
These days, many have affectionately nicknamed the dish “Wealthy Chicken,” as it’s now considered a specialty dish that’s not only hard to find in the U.S., but even on menus in China. The preparation has come full circle from its humble roots and is now considered a luxury dish. At Jiang Nan Spring, the Beggar’s Chicken costs $45, a far cry from its traditional “beggar” roots.
“Beggar’s Chicken is a very traditional dish. Not everyone can make it, so I was able to specialize in it. You really have to have patience when preparing it, similar to making a Thanksgiving turkey. Like Thanksgiving, sharing Beggar’s Chicken is now a dish shared with family and friends can remind one of home,” says Chang.
After marinating the bird with his secret recipe, Chang stuffs the chicken with mushrooms, shredded pork, onion, and other spices. He then takes lotus leaves and wraps the chicken. In the past, people would wrap the chicken in clay, but now Chang uses foil first and then flour to wrap it. After four hours of baking, the meat falls off the bone, while the lotus leaves give the dish a strong, earthy aroma.
When the dish is finally ready to serve, Chang sets the scene by hammering open the shell three times by wishing diners good fortune, happiness, and good health. He then removes the dough casting and parchment paper before taking out the chicken’s back bones.
Chang goes into the restaurant early to prepare the dish whenever someone places a special order. On a busy day, he has makes up to two orders, but you won’t find the coveted dish on Jiang Nan Spring’s menu. It’s an “off-menu” secret item that only long-time followers know about.
“I’m very proud of keeping this tradition alive. Despite its humble beginnings, beggar’s chicken is now a luxury dish that I hope to spread awareness and teach more people about it,” says Chang.
Jiang Nan Spring. 910 E Main St, Alhambra, CA 91801.