Since I started this blog I’ve been fascinated by the flavours of Sichuan cooking. It would be a mistake to think these are all about hot and spicy dishes, even if numbing Sichuan pepper is currently my favourite ingredient.
In her memoir Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop talks of learning the 23 ‘official’ complex flavours of Sichuan cooking. One of those is yu xiang wei or ‘fish fragrant flavour’ which came about as a result of the desire of chefs in that land-locked province to make more use of the flavourings used in traditional Sichuanese fish cookery. It is a unique combination of salty and spicy, sweet and sour which doesn’t drift over into the more familiar, and sometimes cloying, sweet and sour flavours of Cantonese cooking. It is heavy on garlic, ginger, spring onions and uses soy sauce and sometimes chilli bean paste for seasoning. The gorgeous dark Chinkiang vinegar and Shaoxing rice wine also make a regular appearance.
This is what the Chinese call fu he wei – engaging the palate simultaneously on several levels and is what I most LOVE about Chinese food.
When I cooked Fish Fragrant Aubergines the other night from Every Grain of Rice, I remembered that I hadn’t yet tried Fish Fragrant Pork Shreds – Yu Xiang Rou – one of the dishes Ricky the head chef made for me in the China Sichuan when I visited their kitchen. See Inside the Kitchen of the China Sichuan.
The owner Kevin Hui gave me their recipe for this dish and I tried it out my own version of it tonight along with Shane & Shan’s recipe for Bashed Cucumber – Pai Huang Gua. The quantity below serves 4 to 6 people. Make the bashed cucumber first and leave it in the fridge to allow the flavours to mingle.while you are preparing the pork.
I suspect if I had a Sichuan Master Chef standing over me tasting my dishes he would have things to say about the balance of flavours but to my developing palate this tasted just like I remember it in China Sichuan. I love the way the cornflour sauce adds sheen to the dish and the chilli bean paste, dark soy and Chinkiang vinegar give it a rich dark red colour – a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, especially when set against the contrasting bright green cucumber.
Fish Fragrant Pork Shreds – Yu Xiang Rou
- 1 pork steak
- Groundnut oil/ vegetable oil for cooking
- 2 egg whites
- 2 tbs corn flour
- A good pinch of salt
- 2 tbs water
- Large piece of ginger, finely chopped
- 4 – 6 cloves garlic finely chopped, roughly the same quantity as the ginger
- 2-3 tbs Sichuan garlic sauce
- 2-3 tbs sugar
- 4 – 6 tbs Chinkiang vinegar
- 4 – 6 tbs dark soy sauce
- 2 – 3 tbs Shaoxing Cooking Wine (or any white wine or sherry if not available)
- Bunch of spring onions finely chopped
- 1 tbs corn flour mixed with 5 tsp water
- Cut the pork into thin slices. Then cut the slices into very thin shreds.
- Mix the marinade ingredients.
- Place the pork shreds in a bowl with the marinade and mix thoroughly with your hand.
- Marinate the pork for only 5 minutes.
- Heat a wok on high heat and pour in a generous amount of groundnut or vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, (you can tell as the oil starts to smoke), add the pork and stir fry quickly for around 30 – 60 seconds, until the pork pieces separate and turn white in colour.
- Drain any excess oil from the wok.
- Add the ginger, garlic and Sichuan garlic sauce until the oil turns red and you can smell the garlic and ginger.
- Add the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and wine and stir fry for a further minute.
- Finally add the spring onions and cornflour mixture. Stir fry for another 10 seconds and serve with some bolied rice and Bashed Cucumber.
Bashed Cucumber – Pai Huang Gua / 拍黄瓜
- 2 – 3 cucumbers
- 4 cloves garlic
- Sichuan pepper
- Chinese vinegar
- Sesame oil (or olive oil)
- Take the cucumbers and bash them with the side of your cleaver until they are a bit squashed, then cut them into diagonal slices.
- Add them to a good sized bowl, and put a pile of about 4 cloves of finely chopped or crushed garlic on top and a few sichuan peppercorns.
- Pour 1 tbs of Chinese white vinegar over the garlic and sprinkle over a small amount of sugar.
- Get 1-2 tbs of sesame oil and heat it, using a ladle over a flame or a small pot.
- Once the oil is warm, pour it over the garlic and cucumber.
- Toss all the ingredients and taste it to see if it needs more vinegar or sugar.
- The whole dish should take about 3 minutes prepare and is delicious and refreshing with any hot dish. Put in the fridge while you cook your mains and serve it cool.
Once you’ve got the hang of the balance of flavours in a “fish-fragrant” dish you can apply the sauce to other ingredients such as chicken or tofu. Earlier this week I had fish-fragrant aubergines as part of a vegetarian meal and they were delicious hot and cold.
You can serve the pork with noodles or, as I did tonight, with spelt spaghetti.
When Shane and Shan made the bashed cucumber last weekend, they were out of sesame oil and white vinegar so they substituted olive oil and Chinkiang vinegar.
The joy of Chinese cooking is improvisation and paying more attention to the balance of flavours and less to precise quantities.