My first experience of Chinese food was at The Universal in Wicklow St, Dublin. As a 17 year old just out of school and “up from the country” there was a heady excitement about spending Saturday morning in the Dandelion market followed by a 10 shilling lunch of chicken and sweetcorn soup, chicken curry with fried rice and pineapple fritters with ice-cream. Oh the sophistication. I can still taste those thick gloopy slices of onion and chicken in their curry sauce. Later I graduated to Wong’s and to this day a Chinese meal doesn’t seem quite right without a few After Eights with the bill. I hankered for them in Beijing.
Sometime in the early 80s, when Claire and Shane were small children, I started cooking Chinese food at home using recipes and sauces from Sharwoods – yellow bean, black bean, hoi sin, sweet and sour, hot chilli. Our first dinner guests sent us a thank you note (people used to do that in those days) asking if we had a bevy of Chinese staff working away in the kitchen. Little did I know where this was heading…
A few years ago I re-discovered the China Sichuan – www.china-sichuan.ie – when food critic Tom Doorley reviewed it in its new location in Ballymoss Rd., Sandyford Industrial Estate, Dublin and I was lured there by the scent of tea-smoked duck and drawn back by the fiery taste of sichuan peppers, a far cry from the Cantonese food of my early Chinese food experiences.
Yesterday Kevin Hui allowed me into his kitchen to watch his head chef Ricky prepare 4 dishes that I should be able to reproduce at home. Well that’s the theory anyway.
China Sichuan is a good example of the challenge top end Chinese restaurants face in the current climate – stick to traditional versions of, in this case, Sichuan cuisine and run the risk that the food will be perceived as too heavy and oily for current tastes; or give the dishes a fresh modern take with the danger of alienating loyal customers and Chinese chefs who like to do things the old way. I encountered the same tensions in China but was bowled over by an emerging lighter, experimental cuisine that still respects traditional ingredients. China Sichuan strives to get the balance right using quality Irish meats and importing specialist spices. I just hope they keep on experimenting.
Sichuan Grilled Chicken
The first dish they showed me is one of the Head Chef’s new dishes – chicken thigh off the bone, marinated for a few hours in chilli bean paste, chilli powder, sichuan pepper (dry-fried and ground) and grilled for about 20 minutes on a medium heat. Simple, light and delicious served with a hot chilli and garlic sauce. It is still work in progress and doesn’t even have a name yet.
Seafood “Typhoon” Style
The second dish was the one that plunged me back into the heart of China and the Sichuan flavours I had come to love. Similar sized pieces of sole, scallops, prawns and monkfish were scored, dipped in egg white and potato flour and very quickly deep fried in a wok while Choi Sum (Chinese spinach) was plunged into boiling water for a minute in the wok next to it.
Most of the oil was discarded from the wok and a paste of minced ginger and garlic added, followed by fresh chilli and spring onions cut at steep angles into “horse ear” slices, dried chilli, Sichuan pepper and fermented black beans which had been soaked in water for a few minutes. The fish was added back in for a few moments to warm through and some chilli oil and Maggi sauce were added to finish it off. This dish made me almost want to cry with pleasure so evocative were the flavours of my recent trip to China. The name “Typhoon” is a literal translation of a modern Sichuan cooking style.
Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds in Garlic and Ginger Sauce
Third up was Yu Xiang Rou – Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds in Garlic Sauce. Kevin gave me the recipe for this and I will post it in the next day or two. Using fillet of pork, it is probably one of the more famous dishes from Sichuan. Nary a fish or even fish sauce gets near it but in this land locked province it uses ingredients and spices normally associated with the preparation of seafood.
Ma Po Tofu
I loved tofu dishes when I was in China, the extraordinary ability of the bean curd to absorb the flavours of spices and oils. Ma Po Tofu is a Sichuan classic and Kevin recommended I source an original recipe for it from Fuchsia Dunlop author of Every Grain of Rice and Revolutionary China Cookbook among others. Kevin was the second person to mention Fuchsia Dunlop to me recently. Food blogger Joanne Cronin (@dudara; www.stitchandbear.com) also said she was a must-read for my growing Chinese bookshelf.
Ma Po Tofu uses diced tofu soaked in water and heated through in a mixture of yellow bean paste, chilli bean paste, dried chilli, Sichuan pepper and Chicken broth. I’m sure I’ve left out ingredients here – spring onions, a pinch of sugar, a dash of sesame oil and chilli oil perhaps – but I promise to track down a complete recipe.
Fried Green Beans
As we were finishing up, I mentioned the difficulty I had re-creating the fried green beans from Shan’s recipe for fried green beans so the chef grabbed a handful of beans and showed me how to do it. I was beside myself with excitement when I discovered that the secret to those crinkly edges on the beans is that you deep-fry the un-cooked beans for a few minutes in the hot oil until the skin bubbles, then drain them, discard most of the oil and fry off your ginger and garlic paste, Sichuan peppers, pieces of dried chilli and salt.The chefs believe the inner seeds of the green beans will cause you food poisoning if not fully cooked and they do not like steaming the beans as this draws out too much water and loses the texture of the vegetable.
Today’s version was a vegetarian one using Sichuan pickled vegetables but a similar approach will work with minced pork as in Shan’s recipe.
Now this is what I had been missing!
A few random insights
One of the great pleasures of my visit to China Sichuan was to watch the deftness with which the chefs used their woks, the flick of the wrist with the ladles, the back of the deep ladle used to constantly keep food on the move, the versatility of the woks – within moments changing from a deep fat fryer to a steamer to a pan of boiling water to a shallow fryer, the lightening speed of cooking, the instinct for a pinch of this, a dash of that to get the balance just right. I know sugar, salt, sesame oil, chilli oil, soy sauce, chicken powder featured in many of the dishes as well as the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and spring onions but I wasn’t fast enough to catch them all. I just marvelled at the ease of the chefs and their effortless familiarity with their station and tried to visualise this relatively small space on a busy Saturday night with every dish freshly cooked in minutes.
I learnt that chicken thigh is more tender and tasty than chicken breast and that sichuan pepper can be dry-roasted and ground down to provide a more subtle seasoning. Apart from some cook books I’ve added a few items to my shopping list – Maggi Sauce, Chilli Paste, Sichuan Vinegar and Sichuan Garlic Sauce as well as a proper Chinese strainer.
I am also contemplating, with some glee, setting Shane and Shan the challenge of re-creating the first 4 dishes, in their own style, in Beijing.
So a big thank you to Kevin Hui, to Head Chef Ricky and his team and to Alan the waiter who interpreted between Mandarin and English for the afternoon.
And a special thank you to Pat O’Reilly of Alexis Bar and Grill, Dun Laoghaire (@alexisdublin; www.alexis.ie) who made this all possible by picking up on my Twitter plea for a chance to learn from the professionals and connected me up with Kevin.
Of course all this has left me even more determined to learn how to wield that cleaver and use that wok properly. Cookery lessons anyone?