ArchiveAugust 1, 2020

Food of Sichuan

Travel is understandably out of the question for the foreseeable future. How fortunate am I to have been able to visit and enjoy the food of so many countries, such happy memories…Amongst others, I long to revisit Myanmar, Transylvania, Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, Tasmania, China, and of course India, my perennial favourite.

No hope of that any time soon, so for the present, I relive the memories through photos and videos on my iPhone and the interviews I recorded with many of the fascinating cooks, farmers and artisan producers I encountered and of course I wish I had done many, many more.

But the most poignant way to bring precious memories flooding back is through the food.  Even smells transport me to far away places, to bustling food markets, ‘hole in the wall’ eateries, street stalls, as well as world renowned restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, Fäviken in Sweden, Chez Panise in California, Atica in Melbourne and Restaurante Tlamanalli in the Teotitlan del Valle outside Oaxaca in Mexico.

This week I am going back to China, particularly poignant in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. My first visit, in February 2018 was to attend the International Slow Food Conference in Chenghu, the UNESCO capital of gastronomy in the Sichuan province. The food was fantastic, the city of Chenghu welcomed the delegates from all over the world whole heartedly, with wonderful entertainment, opera, theatre, music and superb Chinese food for which the Sichuan province is justly famous. We visited day and night food markets with super fresh food, the freshest fish I have ever seen, some still alive. In Pixian, a suburb of Chengdu, we were shown how the famous Chinese spicy bean paste, Dobuanjiang is slowly fermented for several years in huge earthenware pots with wheat, salt and a variety of chillies – it’s the quintessential flavour of China.  Dobuanjiang, is considered to be the soul of Sichuan cooking is an essential ingredient in Mapotofu.

We visited organic farms in the highlands, a 2 hour bus journey outside the city, a wonderful opportunity to see the countryside and wave to the friendly people, many of whom may not ever have seen a non-Chinese person before. It was an intriguing cultural experience, one I will never forget.

One of the special highlights of my visit to Chenghu was meeting  Fuchsia Dunlop who was the very, first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine and for almost three decades. Since then she has travelled around China collecting recipes. Fuchsia speaks, reads and writes in Chinese and is the author of four outstanding books on Chinese Food. Her Sichuan Cookery published in 2001 was voted by Observer Food Magazine as one of the greatest cook books of all time – how about that for an accolade.

On this trip, Fuchsia was revisiting the region where her culinary journey began, adding more than 50 recipes to the original repertoire and accompanying them with her incomparable knowledge of the taste, textures and sensations of Sichuanese cookery. Fuchsia’s writing on the cultural and culinary history of Sichuan is quite simply spellbinding and there are food and gorgeous travel photos.

Sounds like I’m getting a bit carried away, well if you have even the remotest interest in Chinese food prepare to be captivated by The Food of Sichuan – Fuchsia Dunlop’s insight into one of the world’s greatest cuisines published by Bloomsbury.

Here are a few tantalising tastes to whet your appetite plus one of the favourites from my One Pot Feeds All cookbook.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Mapo Tofu

This is the quintessential Sichuan dish.

Serves 4 approximately

500g (18oz) plain white tofu

2 spring onions or 2 stalks Chinese green garlic

6 tablespoons cooking oil

100g (3 1/2oz) minced beef

2 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chilli bean paste

1 tablespoon fermented black beans

2 teaspoons ground chillies

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger

175ml (6fl oz) stock or water

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon potato starch, mixed with 2 1/2 tablespoons cold water

1/4 – 1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper

Cut the tofu into 2cm (3/4 inch) cubes and leave to steep in very hot, lightly salted water while you prepare the other ingredients.  Cut the spring onions or green garlic into 2cm (3/4 inch) lengths.

Heat a seasoned wok over a high flame.  Pour in 1 tablespoons cooking oil and heat until the sides of the wok have begun to smoke.  Add the beef and stir-fry until it is fully cooked and fragrant, breaking the clumps of meat into tiny pieces as you go.  Remove from the wok with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Rinse and dry the wok if necessary, then re-season it and return to a medium flame.  Pour in 5 tablespoons cooking oil and swirl it around.  Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red colour and smells delicious.  Next add the black beans and ground chillies and stir-fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them too, then do the same with the garlic and ginger.  Take care not to overheat the aromatics – you want to end up with a thick, fragrant sauce, and the secret is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavours.

Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated ladle, shaking off any excess liquid, and lay it gently in the wok.  Sprinkle over the beef, then add the stock or water and white pepper.  Nudge the tofu tenderly into the sauce with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to avoid breaking up the cubes.

Bring to the boil, then simmer for a couple of minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavours of the seasonings.  If you’re using green garlic (or baby leeks or garlic sprouts), stir them in now.  When they are just cooked, add a little of the potato starch mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens.  Repeat this twice more, until the sauce clings deliciously to the seasonings and tofu (don’t add more than you need).  If you’re using spring onions, add them now, nudging them gently into the sauce.

Pour everything into a deep serving bowl.  Sprinkle with the ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Twice-Cooked Pork

Twice-cooked pork derives its name from the fact that the pork is first boiled and then stir-fried.

Serves 4 approximately

30g (1 1/4oz) ginger, unpeeled

1 spring onion, white part only

350g (12oz) fatty pork rump, leg or belly, in one piece, with skin

90g (scant 3 1/2oz) Chinese green garlic (or baby leeks, red onions or green and/or red peppers)

2 tablespoons lard or cooking oil

a pinch of salt

1 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chilli bean paste

1 1/2 teaspoon sweet flour sauce

2 teaspoons fermented black beans, rinsed and drained

1/4 teaspoon dark soy sauce

Lightly smack the ginger and spring onion white with the flat of a cleaver blade or a rolling pin to loosen them.  Bring a large panful of water to the boil.  Add the pork and return to the boil.  Add the ginger and spring onion white, turn the heat down and simmer until the pork is barely cooked: about 10-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the piece.  Remove from the water and set aside for a few hours to cool completely; refrigerate until needed (the pork can be cooked a day ahead).

When you are ready to make the dish, slice the pork as thinly as possible, making sure each piece has skin, fat and lean meat.  Cut the green garlic at a steep angle into long, thin ‘horse ear’ slices (baby leeks can be cut in the same way, onions or peppers into bite-sized slices).

Heat the lard or oil in a seasoned wok over a meadium flame.  Add the pork and stir-fry, with a pinch of salt, until the pieces have curled up and released some of their oils, and smell delicious.  Tilt the wok, push the pork up one side and add the chilli bean paste to the oil that pools in the base; stir-fry until it smells wonderful and has reddened the oil.  Add the sweet flour sauce and black beans and stir briefly, then tilt the wok back and mix everything together.  Finally, add the soy sauce and green garlic (or other vegetable) and stir-fry until just cooked.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Bang Bang Chicken

The dish became known as bang bang chicken, because of the sound their wooden cudgels made when hammered down (bang) on the backs of cleaver blades to help them through the meat.

Serves  4 approximately

400g (14oz) cold poached chicken meat, off the bone (about half a chicken)

4 spring onions, white parts ony, cut into fine slivers (optional)

30g (1 1/4oz) roasted or deep-fried peanuts

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

For the Sauce

2 tablespoons sesame paste

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons caster sugar

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 1/2 teaspoon Chinkiang vinegar

1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper or 1-2 teaspoons Sichuan pepper oil

4 tablespoons chilli oil, plus 1-2 tablespoons sediment

2 teaspoons sesame oil

If you want to be traditional, pummel the chicken with a rolling pin to loosen the fibres, and then tear into bite-sized slivers; otherwise, simply tear or cut into bite-sized slivers or strips.  Toss with the spring onion slivers, if using.  Roughly chop the peanuts: the easiest way to do this is to gather them on a chopping board, lay the flat of a cleaver blade over them and press firmly to break them up a bit, then chop them into smaller pieces.  Toast the sesame seeds in a dry wok or frying pan over a very gentle heat, until fragrant and tinged with gold.

Next make the sauce.  Dilute the sesame paste with a little oil from the jar and about 2 tablespoons of cold water: you should end up with a paste the consistency of single cream – it needs to be runny enough to clothe the chicken.  Place the salt, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar.  Add the remaining sauce ingredients and mix well.

Shortly before serving, pile the chicken onto a serving dish and pour the sauce over it.  Garnish with the peanuts and toasted sesame seeds.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fine Green Beans in Ginger Sauce

The dressing can also be used as a sauce for blanched spinach or other green, leafy vegetables, blanched mangetout, cold chicken or rabbit and various types of pork offal.

Serves 4 approximately

200g (7oz) fine green beans or yard-long beans

1 1/2 tablespoons very finely chopped ginger

1 tablespoon Chinkiang vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons cold stock or water

1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil

Top and tail the beans.  If using yard-long beans, cut them into shorter lengths.

Bring a large panful of water to the boil.  Add the beans.  Return quickly to the boil and cook for 2-3 minutes, until just tender.  Tip into a colander and refresh under the cold tap, then shake dry.  Arrange the beans neatly on a serving dish. 

Combine the ginger with the vinegar, salt and stock or water in a small bowl.  Mix well, then add the sesame oil.  (The vinegar should lend the sauce a light ‘tea colour’ and gentle sourness.)  Pour the sauce over the beans or, for a more refined presentation, strain the sauce over the beans and then arrange the ginger across the top.

Kung Pao Chicken

Taken from One Pot Feeds All by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books

Everyone loves this spicy dish originally from Sichuan, known as Gong bao or Kung Po, but often better recognised by its American name ‘kung pao chicken’. It can be super hot or a little less punchy, depending on the chillies, but don’t dumb it down too much as the rice will absorb some of the heat.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon corn flour

4 tablespoons light soy sauce

450g (1lb) organic, free-range chicken breast or thigh meat, cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) cubes

3 tablespoons Shaoxing (Chinese rice wine)

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 tablespoons homemade chicken stock (see recipe)

4 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar (brown Chinese vinegar)

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil

4-12 dried hot red chillies, halved crosswise, and deseeded

5 spring onions (both white and green parts), sliced on the diagonal

1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced

1cm (1/2 inch) piece of fresh ginger, grated

75g (3oz) shelled peanuts

fresh coriander leaves

To Serve

400g (14oz) boiled basmati rice

Mix the cornflour with 1 tablespoon (1 American tablespoon + 1 teaspoon) of the light soy sauce in a medium bowl. Add the chicken cubes, toss well to coat and set aside to marinate for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix together the remaining light soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, chicken stock, vinegar, sesame oil and dark soy sauce.

Heat the oil in a 30–35cm (12-14 inch) wok or large frying pan over a high heat until just beginning to smoke. Add the chillies, half the spring onions, the garlic, ginger and marinated chicken and stir-fry for 3–5 minutes until the chicken is golden. Add the soy sauce mixture and stir-fry for a further 2–3 minutes until the sauce begins to thicken. Stir in the peanuts. Scatter with the remaining spring onions and lots of coriander, and serve with the basmati rice, if you wish.

Wild Food of the Week

Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europea) which looks a bit like a miniature cactus without the prickles, grows, as the name suggests, in salt marshes close to the sea. It’s easy to gather if you don’t mind the odd scratch from surrounding bushes and getting covered in mud. Pinch off the young shoots above the root. Later in the season, marsh samphire develops a tough fibrous core, so the earlier you harvest it, the better. The fresher it is, the more vibrant the flavour, but it keeps remarkably well for 1–2 weeks. Marsh samphire is now much sought after by creative young chefs who are putting it onto their menus. We sell it at the farmers’ market and people who aren’t familiar with it fall in love with its salty flavour and crunchy texture.


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