Big plate chicken must be one of the most aptly named foods on earth: a rich, crimson-coloured chicken stew served on a bed of noodles that are so wide and flat, they look like extravagant, handmade ribbons.
The stew is thick and peppered by islands of sauce-absorbent potatoes, chicken (on the bone and with skin) and enough chillies to scare anyone with a spice intolerance. The chicken is typically caramelised on its own, then fried with a mix of big aromas, thanks to star anise, ginger, bay leaves and various peppers, with occasional sidekicks of cumin and doubanjiang, a fermented bean paste.
It's then transformed into a simple stew with water and a bit of soy sauce for a good 30 minutes or so. The noodles are a wider version of the hand-pulled noodles found in almost all Central Asian countries. Their greatest quality? Silkiness and extreme affection for the sauce around them.
The name 'big plate chicken' comes from Mandarin: da (big) pan (plate) ji (chicken). In Uyghur, it's known as toho (chicken) qordaq (stew). It shares those two names because the dish originated in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, also known as Xinjiang and East Turkestan, particularly among Uyghurs outside China. It's China's westernmost province, home to the world's largest population of Uyghur people - a predominantly Islamic-practising ethnic group with a Turkic language - and a large population of China's Hui people who are an ethnoreligious group of Islamic-practising Chinese-speakers.
Big plate chicken originated in the province, an arid and mountainous region, in the 1990s, far later than many of the dishes Xinjiang natives would claim as their own. But, like almost all food histories, trying to figure out exactly how this dish was born is extremely confusing. Social anthropologist and Central Asia expert Maria Cristina Cesaro claims it was invented by a Sichuan migrant; some Sydney-based Uyghurs say it was an Uyghur adaption of an older, less spiced qordaq recipe; and some Chinese writers attribute it to a savvy chef from Hunan.
My favourite story comes from one of Sydney's most influential Uyghur chefs, Abduwali Abraham (as translated by his daughter Layla). He grew up in Xinjiang, trained in the local cooking school and ran a large restaurant with a dance floor in Urumqi, the province's capital. He says big plate chicken was created by an Uyghur chef who cooked at a truck stop just outside of the city. In 1992, the chef decided to adapt an old school Uyghur chicken stew, loading it up with Sichuan pepper, star anise and potato, and serving it on top of wide Uyghur noodles. The truckies who came through absolutely loved it. Word spread and people started travelling from the capital just to try the dish.
Layla describes journeys her family would make to the city's outskirts and rural areas just to get the best, freshest food. "Back home, it is thought a place is more popular and special if you drive there," she says.
Eventually, the chef came to the capital to exploit big plate chicken's rising popularity, opening a far bigger restaurant. Entrepreneurial restaurant and street stall owners copied the idea, adding it to their own menus. Within a few years, big plate chicken was on every menu in Xinjiang, cooked in family homes, and served in elaborate wedding banquets. Everyone in Xinjiang, regardless of ethnicity, language, politics and culture, was a fan and still is.
"Back home, it is thought a place is more popular and special if you drive there."
Outside Xinjiang, influenced by Uyghur and Hui restaurants spreading through the country, big plate chicken has become increasingly popular among a wider Chinese audience who don't necessarily know its history.
A Uyghur in Sydney, who does not wish to be named, says: "A lot of people are politicising food. In China, Chinese people are claiming Uyghur foods are theirs. Our culture is being eroded. That debate has been around in Xinjiang forever but now it's spreading. People in Beijing would be like 'this food is ours'."
In Sydney, the city's handful of Uyghur restaurants are popular with Chinese international students and Chinese migrants. "I don't think they think about the history or politics. They just eat it because they like it," says the person who wants to remain anonymous.
Uyghur families first came to Australia in the 1980s. They were part of a growing global diaspora over the following decades of Uyghurs fleeing persecution by the Chinese government. But the first restaurant - the now-closed Abraham's Silk Road in Balmain in Sydney - didn't open until the early 2000s.
As one of the first people to open a Uyghur restaurant in Sydney, Abraham trained many of the chefs now working in Uyghur restaurants, and is affectionately credited as not only Sydney's big plate chicken pioneer but as the "godfather" of the cuisine in Sydney.
Big plate chicken (toho kordak/dapanji)
- 1 cup of vegetable oil
- ½ cup of sugar
- 2 kgs chicken on the bone (Abraham recommends drumstick, thigh or wing and says to avoid the chicken breast), cut into pieces just a little bigger than bite-size
- 2-3 whole star anise
- 4-5 bay leaves
- 2 tbsp chopped ginger
- 1.5 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 10 dried chilli, more or less depending on taste and spice tolerance (add a few fresh, red Thai chillies if you want it extra spicy)
- 2-4 large potatoes (Pontiac is preferable), more or less depending on personal preference, washed and chopped into large pieces
- 2 cups of water
- 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed, or smashed with the side of a knife (Abraham says going all the way to a whole head is entirely appropriate)
- 2 spring onion heads, sliced
- ½ red capsicum, roughly chopped
1. Cook the noodles as per the instructions on the packet. Set them aside in a large rimmed plate.
2. Add the oil to a wok or wide-brimmed pan, turn the heat to medium-high and immediately add the sugar while the oil is still cold. When the sugar is golden brown and bubbling, add the chicken and stir quickly so every piece of chicken is coated in the caramelised sugar.
3. Add the spices and ginger, and stir until the chicken is semi-cooked but golden brown on the outside.
4. Throw in the potatoes and fry for another few minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil, cover the lid and let the mixture simmer on medium heat until the potatoes semi-soft and the chicken is cooked through. Add garlic and give it a good mix so that you can smell the change in aroma. Salt to taste.
5. Just before serving, add in the spring onion and capsicum, and let them rest on top, don't mix them in.
6. Slide the dish from the wok and onto the noodles so that the capsicum and spring onions remain on top.
Marinated in a blend of spices including cumin, chilli, ginger, coriander and nutmeg, the fragrance of these spicy beef skewers as they cook on the chargrill make this dish a definite crowd-pleaser. "The longer you marinate the beef" says chef Luke Nguyen, "the more tender and flavoursome the meat will be".