Peking Savory Fried Cornish Hens

This image courtesy of Mark T. Shapiro

This dish might seem a bit complicated — after all, the chicken is marinated, steamed and then fried — but this time-honored Chinese method of cooking poultry is really quite simple and well worth the effort. The marinating and steaming allow the savory spicing to permeate the flesh of the hens, and the final frying crisps the skin. This method also provides the advantage of being able to steam the hens ahead of time, leaving only the final frying, which takes just a few minutes. So-called Cornish hens are really just what the French call poussin — immature or spring chickens. They are ideal for this dish, but you can also use regular chicken pieces.


Cooking MethodFrying, Steaming


Total Timeunder 4 hours

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Formal Dinner Party

Recipe CourseMain Course

Dietary ConsiderationDiabetic, Egg-free, Gluten-free, Lactose-free, Low Carb, Peanut Free, Tree Nut Free



Taste and TextureCrisp, Herby, Meaty, Savory, Spiced, Winey


  • 4 Cornish hens, split in half
  • 3 tbsp (45 ml) soya sauce
  • 2 tbsp (25 ml) Chinese rice wine or sake or dry sherry
  • 8 slices ginger root
  • 4 green onions, cut into a few pieces each
  • ½ tsp (2 ml) black peppercorns or ¼ tsp (1 ml) ground black pepper
  • 12 Chinese dried lily buds (optional)
  • 1 cup (250 ml) cooking oil
  • Coriander leaves for garnish (optional)
  • 1 tsp (5 ml) Szechuan peppercorns
  • 3 split black cardamom pods  or ¼ tsp (1 ml) ground cardamom
  • 2 star anise or ¼ tsp (1 ml) ground fennel or anise seed
  • 1 3- inch (8 cm) piece cinnamon bark or ¼ tsp (1 ml) ground cinnamon
  • 6 cloves or ¼ tsp (1 ml) ground cloves
  • 3 slices nutmeg seed or ¼ tsp (1 ml) ground nutmeg or
  • 1 ½ tsp (7 ml) five spice powder


  1. Mix all the ingredients except the oil and coriander leaves together in a large bowl; marinate 1 to 2 hours at room temperature.

  2. Arrange the hens skin-side up in the bowl in a single layer. Put 2 inches (5 cm) water in a covered pot that can hold the bowl. Place a small bowl (such as a rice or cereal bowl, ramekin or low rimmed plate) in the bottom of the pot, putting a little water in it also, and stand the bowl with the cornish hens on it. Bring the water to a boil, lower to a high simmer and cover the pot. (If you have a steamer, simply place the bowl in the steamer over boiling water.) Steam for 25 minutes. Remove the bowl from the steamer. When cool enough to handle, remove hens from bowl; pick off the whole spices. Strain the liquid in the bowl into a small saucepan and cook down by about half or until slightly thickened, skimming any scum off the surface (keep it warm if you are going to finish the hens immediately). The recipe can be prepared ahead of time up to this point.

  3. Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the hens, turning once, until the skin is nicely crisped and colored. Reheat the sauce, if necessary, and serve in small sauceplates on the side or in a pool under the cornish hen pieces. Garnish with coriander leaves if desired.


In a perfect world, one’s spice cabinet would have all the dry spices called for (as options) in this recipe. Use what you have in whatever combinations that please your palate.


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