The last time I visited China Sichuan Restaurant in Sandyford, Dublin the owner Kevin Hui gave me a book. Now it takes a special kind of restaurateur to know his clients so well that he can surprise them with something they will treasure. For this is no ordinary cookbook. It’s “Hunan – a lifetime of secrets from Mr Peng’s Kitchen”.
Mr Peng is the owner of a restaurant called Hunan in London that opened in 1982. Many regard it as the best Chinese restaurant in London or maybe even in the world. Little is known about Mr Peng who keeps the story of his own provenance close to his heart. He has his own unique take on Chinese food with influences of Taiwan, Hunan, Cantonese, Sichuan and Guangdong cuisine all coming through in his dishes.
At a time when most London Chinese restaurants were Cantonese, Mr Peng set out to show that there was more to Chinese food. He plied his customers with dishes they hadn’t ordered, taking a “leave it to us” approach to a whole new level, until eventually he abandoned a menu altogether. Now each guest is served a selection of small dishes, as many as 15 at a sitting, and encouraged to try out different tastes on every visit.
This is precisely the way I approach a visit to China Sichuan in Dublin. I never look at the menu any more. I just find Kevin, ask him plaintively to “feed me” and allow him and his chefs to do the rest, knowing each dish will be a feast for the eyes and the palate. Perhaps that’s why he knew I would enjoy the Hunan cookbook so much.
Mr Peng is nearly 70 now, his own life story remains untold. But food and travel journalist Qin Xie, who writes her own blog In Pursuit of Food, has captured his recipes and his kitchen wisdom in this lovely book. In it his son Michael Peng who works with him in the restaurant speaks lovingly of a man whose story is that of a stereotypical Chinese immigrant who has never lost the values of his homeland, who remains an enigma and a force of nature to be reckoned with, bolshy, maybe even arrogant and an extraordinarily hard worker and who doesn’t change his approach with the passing of the years.
I have already cooked many recipes from the book and but one in particular caught my eye. As a result of my last blog post on Sichuan Chilli Squid with Black Beans, I’ve struck up an email correspondence with Chinese American food writer Grace Young. Her books Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen are also among my favourites with her tales of her own family and the Chinese diaspora interspersed with wonderful recipes. Grace was enquiring if it is true that the Irish have french fries with their Chinese meals and I explained the post-pub Chinese takeaway of “Chicken curry, half rice, half chips”. So when I came upon the Hunan recipe for “”French Chips”, I had to give it a try.
The recipe was an immediate hit in our house – a bit naughty and not as low in fat as my usual Chinese vegetable dishes but a great treat as a side dish or part of a multi-course meal. I am going to try a similar approach with cauliflower florets, courgettes, carrots and leeks.
As I grow more confident in my own Chinese cooking under the watchful eye of my friend and Chinese teacher Wei Wei, I’m getting more intuitive with the use of ingredients, learning the feel for texture and flavour. I’m going to start encouraging my faithful readers to do the same. So here goes with Mr. Peng’s Chinese Chips.
Meanwhile, the next time I get to London, I know where I will be heading for dinner.
Chinese Chips made with Green Beans
Serves 3 – 4 as part of a multi-course meal
The secret is in Mr Peng’s batter which uses self-raising flour and vinegar to give a stiff dough and a tempura like texture.
You will need:
- 300 to 400 green beans – about 100g per person
- cooking oil for deep-frying (sunflower or groundnut oil)
For the batter
- self-raising flour
- Chinese white rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
For the seasoning
- red chilli
- spring onion
- crushed Sichuan peppercorns
- First make your batter. For every 100g self-raising flour add about 200 ml water and 4 tsp vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar) and a good pinch of salt. Beat it well with an electric mixture and leave to stand for about 20 minutes until the bubbles rise to the surface. Chef Peng and Qin Xie say you need a batter that’s quite thick and gloopy. With those proportions I found my batter was a little runny but I liked the tempura like texture with the batter lightly clinging to the beans rather than giving them a heavy coat. You will need about 50g flour for every 100g beans.
- Wash, dry and trim your green beans and, if necessary, break into lengths about the size of chips. Irish long green runner beans are great for this dish. Avoid the very skinny imported ones as they need too much batter.
- Dry roast a handful of Sichuan peppercorns in a wok or frying pan and grind them in a pestle and mortar when cool (or if you’re lazy like me use a small coffee mill set to coarse grind which I only use for spices). They will keep for a few weeks in an airtight container.
- Peel and finely chop a couple of cloves of garlic, the white part of a spring onion and a medium heat red chilli. You can dial up or down the chilli heat to taste.
- Heat a few cms of oil in a wok or deep frying pan to about 180 degrees C. You want the oil to be deep enough and hot enough to deep-fry each bean. Chef Robert Jacob has taught me how to gauge this by holding my hand over the pan until I can feel the heat rising rather than by using a thermometer. Test by cooking one bean. It should take about a minute to cook.
- Dip the beans in the batter to coat and drop them one by one into the hot oil being careful not to splash yourself. I did this using a tongs to move each bean from the batter to the wok and a mesh strainer to remove them from the oil when cooked. I cooked the beans in three to four batches, ensuring they didn’t touch each other and the oil had a chance to come back to temperature between batches. You want them to be golden but not burnt. Drain the beans on kitchen paper.
- When all the beans are cooked, drain all the oil from the wok. Dry-fry the garlic, spring onion and chilli briefly to release the aromas. Toss in the green beans to heat through. Season with crushed Sichuan pepper and salt to taste and serve immediately.
Thank you Kevin Hui, Chef Peng and Xin Qie for opening up another new chapter of Chinese recipes for me.