Creating a balance

in Food and Drink · 22-11-2019 01:00:00 · 0 Comments

Food writer Fuchsia Dunlop is an absolute expert on Chinese cuisine, specifically Sichuan.

If Sichuan is entirely new to you though, Dunlop is the ideal guide, with the updated version of The Food of Sichuan reflecting how the region and its tastes have changed, as well as encompassing its core tenets.

"People [often] think Sichuanese cooking is all about fire and spice, chillies and lip-numbing Sichuan pepper, and actually it's not," she muses, explaining how the Chinese word for Sichuan pepper is the same as 'pins and needles', or anaesthesia. "It's all about variety."

"Good Chinese and Sichuan food is all about balance, not about battering your palate with lots of heat and nothing else," she adds.

The worst misconception around Chinese food in the western world - largely based on lurid, deep-fried Friday night takeaways - she says, is that it's bad for you. "I think the Chinese know more about healthy eating than anyone else," she explains. "Food in China has always been intimately related to medicine, and people use food to treat illness and indisposition, and the way people eat in an everyday way at home is a lot healthier than the way many people eat in this country."

For instance, meat is used sparingly: One western portion of meat would be cut into slivers and stir fried with vegetables, then served with more vegetables and rice. "It's a really good model of healthy and sustainable eating, when it's done well."

The vegetable aspect is arguably what she loves most about Chinese cookery. "The Chinese are brilliant at making vegetables taste exciting," says Dunlop, pointing to the dish of smacked cucumbers. "Cucumber, on its own, not very interesting, but put it with a Chinese dressing and it's really interesting."

Chinese food has the power to redefine what it is you find delicious too. "Years of Chinese food has completely changed my palate," says Dunlop, explaining how the biggest barrier in getting to grips with the cuisine can be texture foods, "because in China, and particularly in Sichuan, people like eating a lot of ingredients that have rubbery, slithery, gristly, crunchy textures, that westerners, in general, actively dislike. Things like gristle in a chicken's leg, and jellyfish and goose intestines."

For a long time she says, she would politely eat these things, "but they didn't give me any pleasure," and then at some point she realised she'd begun to enjoy them. Learning to savour mouthfeel and texture "massively expands your appreciation of food in general" says Dunlop, because it opens up "a wider range of sensations".

So, if you are planning a trip, or are just beginning to explore Sichuan cuisine, she suggest you "try to open your mind to the idea that texture is an important part of gastronomic pleasure. China is a really food-focused culture, go with a certain humility. There is a lot to learn from it."

Cold buckwheat noodles

Ingredients:

(Serves 2)

200g dried buckwheat or buckwheat-and-wheat noodles

2 small handfuls of finely chopped celery (1-2 celery sticks)

4tbsp thinly sliced spring onion greens

0.5tsp toasted sesame seeds

For the seasonings:

0.25tsp salt

4tsp light soy sauce

2tbsp Chinkiang vinegar

0.5tsp caster sugar

2tbsp chilli oil, plus 1 tbsp sediment

0.25-0.5tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper (optional)

Method:

1. Boil the noodles to your liking.

2. Divide all the seasonings between two bowls.

3. When the noodles are ready, tip them into a colander and quickly rinse under the cold tap, then drain well.

4. Divide the noodles between the bowls and mix well.

5. Scatter over the remaining ingredients and serve.

“Phoenix tails” in sesame sauce

Ingredients:

2tsp sesame seeds

200g Indian lettuce (or use Cos or Romaine)

1.5tsp light soy sauce

0.75tsp caster sugar

2-3tbsp cold stock or water

40g sesame paste

1tsp sesame oil

1.5tbsp chilli oil (optional)

Salt

Method:

1. Toast the sesame seeds in a wok or frying pan over a gentle heat until golden, then set aside. Wash and dry the lettuce, cut into chopstickable pieces and pile up on a serving dish.

2. Place the soy sauce and sugar in a bowl with two tablespoons stock or water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Tip the sesame paste into another bowl with a little oil from the jar and smooth it with a spoon. Stir in the soy sauce mixture in a few stages, making sure each addition is emulsified into the sauce before adding more.

3. When you have a smooth sauce, stir in the sesame oil and chilli oil, if using, and then, if you need it, add another tablespoon or so of stock or water until you have a sleek liquid with the consistency of single cream: it's important that the sauce is thick enough to cling to the lettuce, but thin enough to pour. Add a little salt, to taste, but take care not to overdo it, because this dish is best enjoyed as a refreshing contrast to more strongly flavoured dishes.

4. Just before serving, pour the sauce over the lettuce, and garnish with the sesame seeds.

'Lettuce captured alive' variation

Dilute 15g sesame paste with one tablespoon of water and stir until smooth. Add two teaspoons light soy sauce, two teaspoons caster sugar, one and a half teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar and a quarter of a teaspoon of ground roasted Sichuan pepper. Stir in one teaspoon sesame oil, three to four tablespoons of chilli oil with sediment, and a couple of good pinches of salt, to taste. Use this to dress the lettuce, and omit the sesame seeds. With some versions of this dish, chefs will sizzle chillies and whole Sichuan pepper in oil, pour the hot oil over some chopped garlic to bring out its fragrance, and use this spicy oil instead of regular chilli oil.

Fish fragrant aubergines

Ingredients:

(Serves 4)

600g aubergines

Cooking oil, for deep-frying

1.5tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste

1 .5tbsp finely chopped garlic

1tbsp finely chopped ginger

150ml hot stock or water

4tsp caster sugar

1tsp light soy sauce

0.75tsp potato starch, mixed with 1 tbsp cold water

1tbsp Chinkiang vinegar

6tbsp thinly sliced spring onion greens

Salt

Method:

1. Cut the aubergines into batons about 2cm thick and 7cm long. Sprinkle with salt, mix well and set aside for at least 30 minutes.

2. Rinse the aubergines, drain well and pat dry with kitchen paper. Heat the deep-frying oil to around 200°C (hot enough to sizzle vigorously around a test piece of aubergine). Add the aubergines, in two or three batches, and deep-fry for about three minutes, until tender and a little golden. Drain well on kitchen paper and set aside.

3. Carefully pour off all but 3 tbsp oil from the wok and return to a medium flame. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant: take care not to burn the paste (move the wok away from the burner if you think it might be overheating). Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until they smell delicious.

4. Tip in the stock or water, sugar and soy sauce. Bring to the boil, then add the aubergines, nudging them gently into the sauce so the pieces do not break apart. Simmer for a minute or so to allow the aubergines to absorb the flavours.

5. Give the potato starch mixture a stir and add it gradually, in about three stages, adding just enough to thicken the sauce to a luxurious gravy (you probably won't need it all). Tip in the vinegar and all but one tablespoon of the spring onion greens, then stir for a few seconds to fuse the flavours.

6. Turn out on to a serving dish, scatter over the remaining spring onion greens and serve.

The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop is published by Bloomsbury. Available now.


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