Sichuan spice and all things nice

I feel that I’ve been quite undemanding of you to date. Given that we’ve just had Valentine’s Day, I think it’s time we re-evaluate our relationship. It just feels a bit one sided at the moment… You pitch up every week, get a delicious recipe, add a few ingredients to your usual shopping list and a couple of nights later follow my (exceptionally well crafted) instructions to produce a fabulous Chinese meal… Take, take, take. Where’s the effort? Where’s the commitment? How do I know you’re in this for the long haul?

No, it’s gone on long enough. I need you to demonstrate a bit of give and take. This week I’m setting you some home work.

One of the first things I wrote about on this blog was the basic store cupboard of ingredients needed for cooking the majority of homestyle Chinese dishes. I wanted to try and get across how undaunting Chinese cooking is by showing that you just need a handful of standard, easy to obtain ingredients to recreate authentic, tasty Chinese food.

But, of course, like any national cuisine, some of the best dishes tend to rely on more specialised, local ingredients.

Now, I’m not about to go off on one and and start giving you recipes that incorporate 臭豆腐 (chou doufu - ‘stinky’ fermented tofu), or a wild vegetable that only grows on the lower slopes of the mountains in southern Yunnan, but I do want to introduce some slightly more specialist ingredients so that we can delve into the outrageously good dishes of Sichuan province.

I’ve already waxed lyrical about the joys of Sichuanese food – and that was only one recipe. We haven’t even gone near the deep savouriness of 麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu - pock marked mother’s tofu), the tongue tingling fragrance of 水煮鱼 (shuizhu yu - boiled slices of fish in a fiery broth) or the fiery punch of  重庆辣子鸡 (Chongqing lazi ji - Chongqing chicken with chillies…

As Sichuanese food is one of the most well known of the regional Chinese cuisines, some of the spices and ingredients that are most prevalent in its dishes are pretty easy to come by. Sichuan peppercorn and dried chillies, which form the base of the 麻辣 (ma la - spicy and mouthnumbing) flavours in spicy wok-fried green beans, are available in all supermarkets these days.

But I want to introduce another three integral ingredients, which are slightly less well known, but open up a whole other world of dishes.

The first of these is 豆瓣酱 (doubanjiang). Commonly translated into English as chilli bean paste, but also sometimes toban jhan or chilli bean sauce, doubanjiang is a slightly sticky, fermented broad bean and chilli paste.  Acting as the base of many Sichuanese dishes, doubanjiang adds a deep, salty and spicy savouriness to a dish, as well as a rich maroon colour. The most famous and best quality doubanjiang comes from a county in Sichuan called Pixian (郫县). In the UK I haven’t seen doubanjiang from Pixian county in any Chinese supermarkets (I can’t even get it in Singapore, and rely on friends bringing me emergency food parcels when they visit from Beijing), but you can get Lee Kum Kee Chilli Bean Sauce from most supermarkets, which is pretty good.

Black bean sauce is probably one of the most commonly available Chinese packet sauces  in the UK, but it doesn’t even come close to conveying the pungent saltiness of real black fermented soy beans (豆豉 douchi) used in Sichuanese cooking. Accept no substitute. Fermented over a period of a couple of months, douchi resemble sticky coffee beans and are sold in vacuum packed bags in local Chinese supermarkets.

The last ingredient is probably my favourite – pickled chillies (泡辣椒 pao lajiao). Just the thought of them makes my mouth pucker and water. Sour, spicy and sweet, they add a lustrous crimson colour to Sichuanese dishes, and although their colour suggests a vicious fieriness, their heat is tempered during the pickling process.

I’m not sure why, but these little beauties seem to be difficult to come by in the UK. This is what pulled me up a couple of weeks ago when I was all set to share the beautiful recipe of ‘fish fragranced’ aubergines (鱼香茄子 yuxiangqiezi) with you.

But we can’t let a little thing like trade restrictions get between you and 鱼香茄子, so we shall just have to make our own.

And it’s worth it. This time in a week you’ll have a batch of luscious red, shrivelled and shrunk chillies. After a week in a brine and vinegar bath, the skin almost separates from the soft flesh and the delicate sweetness of the chillies is accentuated against the sourness of the vinegar. Minced to a juicy pulp they will sit at the base of a rich, braised aubergine dish that will drape itself over a bowl of steaming white rice…

Like I said, this relationship is all about give and take. Now go and do your homework.

Pickled Chillies
泡辣椒 (pao lajiao)

Ingredients

10 red finger chillies (also known as cayenne peppers, I think. Not the small fiery Thai chillies, but the ones that are a bit mellower and the size of your finger)
2 tbsp salt

Pickling brine:
500ml water
3 tbsp white rice vinegar (or white vinegar or red wine vinegar, depending what you have to hand)
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns

Preparation

Slash or prick the chillies with a sharp knife a few times. Place in a bowl and pour boiling water from a kettle over the whole chillies to blanch and clean them.

Drain and then place in a jar or tupperware, and sprinkle over the 2 tbsp salt. Seal and set aside overnight to allow the liquid to be drawn out of the chillies by the salt. (Traditionally the chillies would be slightly sun dried, but adding salt mean that you don’t have to rely on the weather to extract the liquid.)

The next day, remove the chillies from the tupperware and give a light rinse to remove the salt.

Bring the ingredients for the pickling bring to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan (stainless steel is fine) and allow the salt and sugar to dissolve. Set aside and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, sterilise a pickling jar (or a large, empty jam jar) by washing it in warm soapy water and then placing in a heated oven (approximately 120°C) to dry.

Pack your chillies tightly into the sterilised jar and when the pickling liquid is cool, pour over the top and seal.  Set aside in a cool place for 5 days.

The chillies will keep for months, and you only really need to use one chilli per dish, so a batch will last for a while.

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