Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sichuan home cooking: an evening to cherish

I was fortunate to have been invited to a Sichuan dinner last week at my colleague' s house in Shanghai, cooked by her mother visiting from Chengdu - an experience I will cherish for a long long time. An unfussy, uncomplicated, homely meal, crafted with care, served with grace , and reflective - it seemed to me - of the history and culture of Sichuan province and the Sichuan people in a few simple unadorned bowls.

Our hostess and chef: Mrs Huang

And her labour of love

Ten wonderful dishes. A beautifully choreographed yin-yang of meat and vegetables, hot and cold, sweet and spicy. Using fresh ingredients, and pastes that had been put together painstakingly. Unique cooking techniques that have probably been passed down generations. Evocative of everything home is about.


The Star Ingredients

* 4 kinds of chillies: chillies preserved in salt, chillies with
hot bean paste, dry red chillies, fresh red chillies

* Sichuan Peppercorn: the tongue-numbing, slightly
metallic tasting, strangely addictive Fa Chiu

* Sesame oil: the last-minute flavour enhancer

* Garlic, Star anise, 3 day old ginger, chicken powder , pork fat

* The meats: pork, rabbit, frog, duck

Sichuan Chilies preserved in salt for a week in a big claypot

Mrs Huang's favourite brand of sesame oil

Home-made hot bean paste with chillies

French chefs call this mise-en-place.
Mrs Huang simply calls it her " material"

The Cold Dishes

Fried Peanuts
A simple dish with an unusual twist. Peanuts mixed with
salt and sugar and lightly fried in an egg and flour batter.
Sweet and salty, crunchy and with a little eggy aftertaste.

Cold Rabbit with chillies
Chopped rabbit on the bone, cooked with three day old ginger, garlic, dried red chillies, soy sauce, chicken powder, star anise and a white Chinese herb that got lost in translation.

Sichuan Salami
Cured pork from a small town near Chengdu

Beancurd Salad
An edgy 'hot n cold' salad of beancurd,
cucumber and red peppers - all sliced fine - tossed with
sugar, soy sauce, home-made chillie sauce, preserved chillies,
hot bean paste. Few drops of sesame oil drizzled
at the end for extra flavour.


The Hot Dishes

Rabbit with Lettuce
The killer dish. Fresh rabbit meat imported from Chengdu,
cooked with generous doses of hot bean paste, red chillies
and Sichuan peppercorn.
Served with lettuce stalks , crunchy
and sweet and a wonderful counterpoint to the otherwise hot dish.

Frog with Peppers
Small chunks of frog meat cooked with red and green peppers,
garlic, Sichuan peppercorn, chicken powder, hot bean paste
and preserved chillies. Great flavour and texture

Duck with Peas
A dry dish cooked with finely chopped red chillies, preserved chillies,
hot bean paste, 3 day old ginger, chicken powder and
Sichuan peppercorn. Lots and lots of peas, a little firm to the bite.
A Huang family dish

Pork with Potatoes

Rough-cut chunks of pork and potatoes sauteed in

peppercorn-infused oil and cooked with a little soy sauce and star anise


Rice and Soup

Sweet Sticky Rice
The rice is brushed with a little pork fat and steamed
with dates, raisins, candied pineapple, star anise, and
dried orange peel. The ladies then mixed the cooked rice with
sugar at the table and served it hot with
fried sweet potato balls.

Egg and Tomato soup, a light, sweet n sour, cleansing finale

I have had fabulous meals in Sichuan restaurants in Chengdu, Guangzhou and Hong Kong before, but this was different. This wasn't as searingly hot, didn't have as much oil, and was bereft of any fancy restaurant flourishes. It was more wholesome, more interesting and much more satisfying at a deep personal level.

Mrs Huang didn't speak English; I don't speak a word of Chinese. Yet there was a connection. It was not only the language of food, but also the language of love that a mother speaks.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

brilliantly mouth watering! especially the pork with potatoes. superbly written!