The seventh Slow Food International Congress was held recently in Chengdu in China, the capital of the province of Sichuan. The UNESCO capital of Gastronomy and now officially a Slow Food City.
China was honoured to be chosen as a venue for the Congress which focused on the impact of climatic change on countries and communities around the world. Banners were erected throughout the city of 14 million people to welcome the 500 delegates from 90+ countries. The strong message “Change your Food – Stop Climate Change”.
For whatever reason or reasons, climate change is a reality – it’s probably part cyclical but there’s no doubt that many elements of modern day living contribute to the problem not least our present industrial food system which is estimated to produce 40% plus of all the greenhouse emissions.
It was also painfully obvious that many of the countries like Bangladesh, Senegal, Kenya, Moritania, Burkino Faso, that are experiencing the greatest impact of climate change did little or nothing to contribute to the problem. It will be our present 10 year olds and younger who will have to cope with the devastation our generation has contributed to with reckless abandon.
Chengdu is famous for its Giant Panda breeding program which we visited but I’ll concentrate on food in this column.
Chengdu and the province of Sichuan have the most bio diverse cuisine of any region in China. We ate brilliantly from the time we arrived till we left a week later. A small group of Slow Food delegates who signed up for pre congress trips were fortunate to be granted access to places not normally open to westerners including the venue where the original spicy Pixian Doobanjiang or Douban sauce is made. This feisty chilli sauce is described as the soul of Sichuan food and it becomes pretty addictive, a quintessential Chinese flavour.
It’s been made since 1666 between the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasties. During the Huguang Tian Sichuan migration at that time, one of the Chen family ancestors discovered that the fava beans they were bringing with them as the staple had gone mouldy so rather than throw them away they decided to try to dry them in the sun. The emperor tried with them with lots of chilli and discovered it was a brilliant combination so out of that was born the fermented sauce that’s now a fundamental condiment in Sichuan food. From there we went to visit the Sichuan Museum the only one of its kind in China. It was situated in a beautiful garden and apart from an intriguing collection of cooking implements dating back almost 3,000 years it had a fantastic restaurant and houses the Kitchen God Zaotang to whom we all bowed and offered incense in the traditional way.
We ate 10 or 12 dishes and one was more delicious than the last. I particularly remember a silky bean curd with chilli sauce, roasted peanuts and coriander.
The Chengdu Spice Market was another highlight. Stall after stall piled high with spices. Sichuan peppercorns, both green and red, cassia, cardamom, lots of medicinal spices, tons of chilli peppers, dried mushrooms – wood ears, shiitake, enoki….dried cuttle fish, dried shrimps, dried scallops, dried bean curd, sea cucumbers, sacks of brown, white and black rice, soya beans and a multitude of grains, nigella seeds and vats of fermented vegetables and sauces. We had lunch in the Tibetan Quarter an area, jam packed with tea rooms and little shops selling Buddha artefacts, prayer books and fine teas.
In a traditional Tibetan restaurant, we ate yak in lots of different ways and at last I got to taste yak milk with butter, definitely an acquired tasted but I loved it. Several very complex dishes including a yak blood sausage with star anise and chilli. Lots of chilli around here and Sichuan food is known to be particularly spicy. We also visited some organic farmers about three and a half hours north of Chengdu which gave us an opportunity to see the Chinese countryside.
We stopped at a motorway café for a ‘comfort break’, fascinating to see what was for sale in the supermarket. Lots of edible ‘food like substances’ and cooked chicken feet, drumsticks and pig snouts in little packets like tayto crisps to snack on…. Both in restaurants and in the food areas of shops, all the staff seem to wear masks…very off putting…Later our tour organisers told us were the first group apart from a CNN crew to get permission from the government to go to this area…eventually we go to the farm of Sun Wenxiang and his family near Qilong Village in Hongyha-Xian county.
Street food and night markets in Asian Cities always intrigue me; one gets a real taste of the country. Here in China, they are very keen on offal, chicken feet, rabbit, duck and chicken heads are everywhere, pig tails and snouts are favourites, necks and gizzards. In a motorway café, vac packed chicken feet, pig snouts and drumsticks were available alongside potato crisps. We ate in a variety of restaurants; we scarcely ate anything twice except a steamed aubergine dish they call fish fragrant aubergines, a famous Sichuan recipe that I love.
The City of Chengdu pulled out all the stops for the 500 Slow Food delegates. At every dinner there was amazing entertainment dancers in elaborate costumes, singers, magicians….Carlo Petrini of Slow Food International thanks the city of Chengdu for the warm welcome and generous hospitality but didn’t mince his words about climatic change and the importance of supporting and rewarding those who look after the land and produce nourishing food to keep people healthy. No healthy city without a healthy countryside.
Connect with the Slow Food Network around the world…..become a Slow food Member, simply log on to www.slowfoodireland.com
Pop Up Supper Club at Ballymaloe House
Beautiful Sumayya Usmani was born and raised in Karachi in Pakistan. She is recognised by BBC Good Food as the UK’s ‘go-to’ expert for Pakistani cuisine. Sumayya who is an internationally published food writer, author and cookery teacher will be hosting the Supper Club and has chosen an exciting Pakistani inspired menu for all of us to enjoy. Places limited, booking essential. Tel: 021 4652531 Wednesday 8 November – €75 pp
Gluttony Bakery, Blackrock in Dublin make a wide variety of gluten free sandwiches, scones, traybakes, brown soda bread, dairy free white loaf ……. One can also order celebration cakes with dairy free options; people rave about the dairy free chocolate fudge cake. Check out their facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Gluttonybakery/
Chengdu Chicken Broth
My favourite Chinese breakfast.
Serves 6 approx
Makes about 3.5 litres (6 pints/15 cups)
2–3 chickens, raw or cooked chicken carcasses or a mixture of both plus giblets from the chicken (neck, heart, gizzard – save the liver for a different dish)
1 large onion, sliced
4 spring onions or 1 leek, split in two
2 outside celery stalks or 2 lovage leaves
1 large carrot, cut into chunks
a few parsley stalks
a large sprig of thyme
1 inch (CM) piece of ginger, sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
A selection of cooked rice or flour noodles
greens, bok choi, garland chrysanthemum leaves
cuttle fish balls
beef balls (optional)
Sliced spring onions
Coarsely chopped fresh coriander
Chilli sauce from mild to super hot
Chop up the carcasses as much as possible. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cover with about 3.4 litres (7 pints/17 1/2 cups) cold water. Do not add salt.
Bring to the boil. Skim the fat off the top with a tablespoon. Simmer for 3–4 hours. Strain and remove any remaining fat.
Prepare a selection of additions and condiments in separate bowls. Bring the broth to the boil. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a portion of chosen noodles, then a selection of greens which will wilt in the simmering broth. Add a couple of dumplings and fish or beef balls if using. Allow to heat through. Transfer to a deep bowl. Add topping of your choice, spring onions, coriander, chilli sauce, peanuts…..eat with chop sticks and a Chinese spoon.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fish Fragrant Aubergines
Fuchsia, author of seven books and an engaging speaker was brought over by the Chinese government to speak to the Slow Food delegates about Sichuan’s food
Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a Chinese meal
600 g aubergines
cooking oil for deep-frying (400ml will do if you are using a round-bottomed wok)
1½ tablespoons Sichuan’s chilli bean paste, or Sichuan pickled chilli paste, or a mixture of the two
1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoons garlic, finely chopped
150 ml stock
2 teaspoons caster sugar
¾ teaspoon potato flour, mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar
4 tablespoons spring onion greens, finely sliced
Cut the aubergines lengthways into three thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 180C. Add the aubergines in batches and deep-fry for 3-4 minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.
Drain off the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame. When the wok is hot again, add 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).
Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary. Add the fried aubergines to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavours. Then stir the potato flour mixture, pour it over the aubergines and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then serve.
From Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Cold Chicken with a Spicy Sichuan’s Sauce
About 3/4 lb (300–350g) cold, cooked chicken, without bones
3 spring onions
1/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)
For the Sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons Chinkiang (brown rice) vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon chicken stock
3–4 tablespoons chilli oil with 1/2 tablespoon of its sediment (or more, if you wish)
1/4–1/2 teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Cut or tear the chicken as evenly as possible into bite-sized strips or slivers and place them in a deep bowl. Cut the spring onions at a steep angle into thin slices. Mix them and the salt with the chicken.
If using sesame seeds, toast them gently in a dry wok or frying pan for a few minutes, until they are fragrant and starting to turn golden, then tip out into a small dish.
Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.
When you are ready to eat, pour the sauce over the chicken, and mix well with chopsticks or salad servers. Arrange on a serving dish and sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired.
Taken from Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sisters’ Dumplings
These sweet or savoury dumplings, which are served in little bamboo steamers, are named in honour of two pretty sisters who sold them around the Fire Temple, Huogongidian, in the early 1920s.
Makes about 20 dumplings
For the dough
225 g (8 oz) glutinous rice flour
2 tablespoons rice flour
For the savoury dumplings
1 dried shitake mushroom
1 small piece fresh ginger, unpeeled
50 g (13/4 oz) minced pork
2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
½ teaspoon sesame oil
Light soy sauce
Salt and pepper
For the Sweet Dumplings
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon roasted peanuts
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons plain flour
A few grains of red yeast rice (a natural food colouring or drops cochineal, optional)
To make the savoury stuffing, soak the shiitake in hot water from the kettle for at least 30 minutes. Crush the ginger with the side of a cleaver blade and put into a small cup with a little cold water to cover. Chop the drained and squeezed shiitake finely and mix with the pork. Stir in the Shaoxing wine and sesame oil and season to taste with soy, salt and pepper. Add just enough of the ginger fragrant water to make a paste.
To make the sweet stuffing, toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over a gentle heat until fragrant, taking care not to burn them. Place in a mortar with the peanuts and crush finely. Moisten the sugar with ½-1 teaspoon of cold water, then add the nuts and the flour. You should end up with a stiff paste.
Line a steamer with a piece of clean muslin.
To make the dough, combine both rice flours with enough cold water to make a stiff, putty-like paste.
Roll the dough into sausages and break off walnut sized pieces. Take a piece in your hand, roll into a sphere, then flatten gently and make an indentation in the centre. Place a little of one of the stuffings in the indentation, and draw up the edges of the dough to enclose it. Roll the sweet filled dumplings into globes and place a dot of cochineal or a few red rice grains on top, if desired. Roll the meat filled dumplings into globes and then draw up the top of the dough into a pointy tip.
Place the finished dumplings in the steamer and steam over a high heat for 8-10minutes. Serve immediately.
Taken from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop