Last night, I finally made it to Gourmet San (or ‘The Old Place’ as it’s known in Chinese) on the Bethnal Green Road in East London, spurred on by Jay Rayner’s enthusiastic review in the Observer. It was filled with trendy young Chinese people, and the atmosphere was immediately charming.
Spicy Sichuanese dishes feature heavily on the menu – Geleshan chicken in a pile of chillies, twice-cooked pork and so on – with some Xinjiang-style lamb kebabs laced with cumin for good measure. It’s hearty, colourful food, served on vast platters. Despite the lavish use of dried chillies and Sichuan pepper, however, the food we ate didn’t seem to me very Sichuanese – there was a noticeable absence of chilli bean paste and sweet fermented paste, the classic spices of twice-cooked pork, and various ‘Sichuanese’ dishes weren’t cooked in the Chengdu or Chongqing style.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised, chatting to the man in charge afterwards, to discover that the chef is from Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, near the border with Siberia, and that they see themselves as a ‘Dongbei’ (Northeastern Chinese) restaurant. The huge helpings should have been a clue – they are one of the hallmarks of Dongbei cooking.
I asked the manager to recommend a few classic Dongbei dishes, and he immediately suggested ‘fish-fragrant pork slivers’. ‘But that’s a famous Sichuanese dish!’ I exclaimed. ‘It’s also a Dongbei dish,’ he told me, ‘we just do it differently’. It’s just goes to illustrated how Sichuanese cooking has taken China by storm over the last few years.
Next time I visit, instead of checking out my old Sichuan favourites, I’m going to deliberately seek out the Dongbei flavours on the menu…