Sichuanese cuisine

The gastronomic adventures of Michelle Obama in China

Sichuan hotpot: the aftermath

While I was in Chengdu in March, I found myself staying in the same hotel as Michelle Obama for a couple of nights. Despite our proximity, I didn’t catch the slightest glimpse of her, although the hotel restaurant was swarming with White House people during her stay, and I was penned in at the side of the road outside the hotel one evening while her imposing motorcade swept past. As you can imagine, the question at the top of my mind was: of all the possibilities, where are they going to take the First Lady to eat?!

In the end, according to newspaper reports, the organisers settled on two restaurants: a Tibetan restaurant, and a hotpot restaurant. And while I fully understand the reasons for choosing a Tibetan restaurant, and love the riotous fun of eating hotpot from time to time, I’m sorry that Mrs Obama didn’t also have the chance to enjoy a more typical Sichuanese meal. Hotpot, after all, despite being a fun experience and an example of the mala (numbing-and-hot) exuberance of Sichuanese cooking, is hardly a showcase for the broader cuisine in all its dazzling variety. Continue reading…

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The Long March of Chinese regional cooking in Britain

Dinner in Changsha, Hunan

You can read my article on the new Chinese regional restaurants in the Guardian here. I thought I’d use my blog to offer a bit more information.

So here are a few of the most interesting regional Chinese restaurants in London:

HUNAN: Local Friends (hu nan ren湖南人)

Chef Ren Jianjun, a native of Yueyang in northern Hunan Province used to work at the Shangri-La Hunan restaurant in Oriental City, Colindale. Ignore the entire front section of the menu and turn to the back, which is conspicuously RED because of all the chillies. Here you’ll find a wonderful selection of hearty Hunanese dishes which are among the most authentic in London.

Local Friends, 28 North End Road, Golders Green, NW11 7PT, 020 8455 9258

Local Friends, 132 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2 6DG, United Kingdom

020 7729 9954 Continue reading…

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Firecracker chicken – laziji 辣子鸡

Posted by Fuchsia on January 18, 2014
Chillies, Recipe, Regional cuisines, Sichuanese cuisine / 7 Comments

As 2014 is the Year of the Horse, perhaps I should be marking the Chinese New Year with a horse recipe (!) – but instead I‘ve put together one for that Chongqing classic, ‘Chicken with chillies’ (lazi ji 辣子鸡). You can read the full recipe on the Financial Times website here, along with a quick and easy version that does not require dismembering a poussin but uses chicken wings instead.

At first sight, this dish can appear terrifying to the uninitiated, because there are more chillies than pieces of chicken, a great red -silk-and-firecracker pile of them. But, as with that other notoriously chilli-laden dish ‘Water-boiled fish’ (shui zhu yu 水煮鱼), the spices are just there to lend their flavour to the cooking oil, and should not be eaten. Use your chopsticks to rummage out crisp morsels of chicken from among them. The fragments of skin will be the most delicious, and some of the little bones so crisp you can munch them. Continue reading…

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The ‘preserved mustard index’ 榨菜指标

Posted by Fuchsia on August 14, 2013
Development, Sichuanese cuisine, Unusual delicacies / 5 Comments

Who would have guessed that a famous Chongqing pickle, the preserved mustard tuber made in the town of Fuling, would be used by the Chinese government to measure labour migration?! According to this article from the Economic Observer (which I found via the South China Morning Post), zhacai 榨菜  is a ‘low quality consumable’ 低质易耗品 that people eat regardless their income. Under normal circumstances, the article says, consumption of zhacai, and instant noodles, is pretty much constant among the urban population – so if statisticians notice a sudden rise in zhacai sales  in a particular city, this implies that a lot more people are now living there. Continue reading…

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Malabar spinach in London!

Posted by Fuchsia on August 08, 2012
Cooking, Ingredients, Sichuanese cuisine / 5 Comments

The range of fresh Chinese vegetables available in London is growing all the time, and the best news is that some of them are grown locally. Among the home grown greens I’ve found recently is this Malabar spinach. It’s a favourite vegetable in Sichuan, where it is often served in clear soups or stir-fried with garlic. Its plump, rounded leaves have a delightfully slippery texture after cooking, which is why it is known as ‘cloud ear mushroom vegetable’ (mu’er cai 木耳菜) or ‘tofu vegetable’ (dou fu cai 豆腐菜 )The flavour of the leaves is reminiscent of spinach.

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Happy New Year!

Posted by Fuchsia on January 22, 2012
Chinese food culture, Cooking, Festivals, Sichuanese cuisine / 12 Comments

Last year I gave you a few photographs of Chinese New Year in Hunan, 2004. This year, here are a couple of photographs of Chinese New Year meals in the far north of the country, in a remote part of Gansu Province in 1995. They were taken in the village that is the subject of the chapter ‘Hungry Ghosts’ in my book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. (Please forgive the poor quality of the images! I may try to scan them properly another time!)

On the right, you can see a pair of fish (fish are an almost obligatory part of New Year’s Eve dinners because nian nian you yu is a phrase that can mean both ‘fish every year’ and ‘plenty every year’: so the dish is an auspicious play on words.) Continue reading…

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Chinese winter meats

Posted by Fuchsia on January 21, 2012
Cooking, Sichuanese cuisine / 4 Comments

In the last month of the lunar year, the Sichuanese often cure their own meats: spicy wind-dried sausages, smoked bacon and marinated, wind-dried pork (酱肉)。I was hoping to make some sausages this year, but didn’t have time, so I made instead some jiang rou 酱肉。 It is pork leg that is salted for a few days, wind-dried, marinated in sweet fermented sauce (甜面酱),rice wine, sugar and spices, and then wind-dried once again. You can see some in the photograph on the left, hanging outside my kitchen window. The weather is perfect now: cold but not freezing, rather like in Sichuan. Tomorrow night I will rinse some of the meat, steam it, slice it and then serve it as part of my New Year’s Eve dinner.

Afterwards:

I wanted to show you a couple of uses for this home-cured meat. On the right you can see how I served it on New Year’s Eve: simply rinsed, steamed, cooled, sliced and served with a dip of ground chillies (you can add a little ground roasted Sichuan pepper too, if you like). The meat has an intense umami flavour, a little like ham.

Another scrumptious use for it is to chop it finely and use it to add an umami deliciousness to fried rice or eight-treasure stuffings. Below you can see the fried rice I made with leftovers from the dinner: a little home-cured pork; an egg or two, beaten; finely chopped gai lan (Chinese broccoli); a little ginger and garlic; and a whisper of sesame oil to finish.

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A Sino-Moroccan feast in London

Posted by Fuchsia on December 02, 2011
Banquets, Chefs, Cooking, Sichuanese cuisine / 7 Comments

Anissa Helou beat me to it with her blog post about today’s culinary collaboration! Anyway, here’s mine. Anissa (a brilliant cook and food writer specialising in Middle Eastern culinary cultures) and I had been planning a joint Sino-Lebanese lunch for months, and we finally did it, sort of, because in the end it turned out to be Sino-Moroccan. I was in charge of the first course, Anissa of the main course and dessert. As I was cooking at home and planning a ‘Chinese takeaway’ delivery to Anissa’s place, it seemed like a good opportunity to use one of my Sichuanese cuan he ( 攒盒), the gorgeous lacquered boxes that are sometimes used for banquet appetisers. Each box comes with an ornamented lid – in this case a dragon and phoenix (see below), and a neat jigsaw of detachable compartments for the food. The smallest boxes have one central compartment with four others around: this is known as a ‘five-colour’ box. The one I used today is a ‘nine-colour’ box, although I cheated slightly because I only made eight dishes (as you can see, one is duplicated in two compartments). Continue reading…

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Sichuan pepper production at home?

Posted by Fuchsia on May 15, 2011
Agriculture, Sichuanese cuisine, Unusual delicacies / 28 Comments

Look at this beauty! It’s a tiny Sichuan pepper tree! It was a present from Richard S., a friend of the Oxford Food Symposium’s, who managed to track one down in a specialist nursery in the UK. He told me he’d give me one a long time ago, and here it is! The leaves have some of that bewitching pepper fragrance if you squeeze them between your fingers. I have no idea how long it will take to bear fruit, but I hope it will eventually – I have seen one fruitful Sichuan pepper tree growing in Oxford, so I know it’s possible in the English climate! At the moment it’s sitting in a pot on my sunny, south-facing windowsill, but I hope to transplant it to my parents’ garden in Oxford before too long, where it will have more room to grow.

As those of you who have read my ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ may know, I have never quite got over abandoning a tiny Sichuan pepper tree from Hanyuan at Beijing airport a few years ago. I had transported it very tenderly all the way from the mountains of Hanyuan to Beijing, but Britain was in the midst of the foot and mouth epidemic, with widespread paranoia and tight restrictions on agricultural imports, and I chickened out at the last moment and left it behind.

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Room service

Posted by Fuchsia on May 05, 2011
Chinese restaurants, Sichuanese cuisine / 5 Comments

Of course, you can get a club sandwich from room service at any international hotel in China, and probably anywhere in the world, but how about this room service menu from a hotel I stayed in in Chengdu? It was wonderfully reassuring to know that I could summon up some diced rabbit in chilli oil or dan dan noodles if the need arose. The only problem was that when the need did arise with the onset of late-night munchies, the kitchen had closed for the evening. It was then that I noticed that the room service was only available until 9pm.

Fortunately, I was able to sneak out of the hotel, where I passed a mobile 烧烤 stall where a man was grilling everything you could think of on bamboo sticks, and then found a whole row of little eateries selling dishes made with goat, a speciality of Jianyang (简阳), a town to the southeast of Chengdu.

The extensive menu at the place I chose included every part of the goat you can think of, made into cold dishes, hot dishes, snacks and nourishing soups. Some of the dishes were versions of mainstream classics such as twice-cooked pork and red-braised pork, but made with goat. Since I was on my own and had eaten a rather large dinner a few hours Continue reading…

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