Every now and again I have a meal in China that pushes me outside my comfort zone. I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Many travellers to China find the food challenging at times, the myriad tastes and textures that Chinese people find interesting because of their “mouth feel”, the range of body parts considered edible and the appeal of bony things from which they like to suck the flesh.
But I consider myself well used to the food at this stage, at least when it comes to eating in Beijing and I’m usually relatively unfazed by what is put in front of me. Yet inevitably, on one day on each visit, there’s a moment that screams at me “give me steak and chips…”
Yesterday was that day. Shan knows Sichuan is my favourite Chinese cuisine so with another one of her Groupon type deals she tracked down a Sichuan seafood hotpot restaurant called San Zhi Er. (Three Ears). This is one of a popular chain of Sichuan hotpot restaurants in Chengdu in Sichuan Province and elsewhere in China. There are two outlets in Beijing.
If you’ve been following the blog for a while you will know that Sichuan Province is deep in the centre of China. “Don’t be afraid of chilli heat” is a local saying so expect ma la – mouth-numbing hot and spicy food. Typical dishes that I have cooked for the blog include fish-fragrant pork and aubergine, MaPo Dofu (tofu), Dan Dan noodles and twice-cooked pork. Boiled fish is in chilli oil is also a regional specialty. Sichuan peppercorns add the distinctive mouth-numbing character to the food which once tasted is not forgotten.
We arrived at San Zhi Er around 5 pm just as the restaurant was opening for dinner. We had walked through sticky afternoon heat from the Blue Zoo – the Ocean Aquarium near Worker’s Stadium. We lifted Dermot’s buggy up two flights of stairs and into the large dining room with rows of booths, each with its own hotpot burner sunk into the middle of the table, a hook on the panel outside for aprons to stop you making a mess of yourself while cooking and eating and a trolley for the ingredients to be added to your hotpot.
Dermot was cranky from the heat, lack of a nap and a head cold and not very enthusiastic about being confined to a high chair that was too big for him and oh so tempting to escape from. Believe you me a busy hot pot restaurant with trolleys laden with fish, meat and vegetables that he just longed to push about, waiters carrying steaming bowls of hotpot to the tables and a button at each table to switch on the burners is not an ideal environment for an adventurous 15 month old boy. But as always in China the friendly waiters never baulked at a toddler running amok. They got down on their hunkers to chat to him and he, charming as always with strangers, repayed their kindness with shy smiles, giggles and high fives.
As we took it in turns to attempt to corral him I surveyed my surroundings. Over in one corner the staff were lined up and, in sing song voices, reciting their motivational mantra about good service before the customers arrived. As each new guest came to the reception desk, a call of welcome was relayed up the stairs to one waiter after an other and carried all the way back to the kitchen.
In a cordoned off area a buffet of fresh fruit was laid out including honeydew melon, watermelon and orange slices. Along side it were dishes of condiments and sauces to make up your own preferred dipping sauce for your hot pot. I chose douban jiang chilli paste mixed with sesame paste, sichuan pepper oil, fried garlic, spring onions and a little soy – a taste combination reminiscent of the topping on dan dan noodles. Black vinegar is another option for the base and you can make your sauce as mild or spicy as you like.
Back at the table some starters arrived – the first was Husband and Wife Beef Slices – Fuqi Fei Pian – this was made in the traditional way with thinly sliced beef and beef lung treated with vinegar and seasoned with chili oil. As so often with Chinese dishes, there is a romantic story told of its origin. Guo Zhaohua and his wife sold their beef slices by trundling along with a small cart on the street. No one could resist the spicy smell and people liked the food so much they gave it the name Husband and Wife Lung Slices. I’ve had this dish in China Sichuan, Dublin made with just the sliced beef so I knew what delicious flavours to expect. The texture of the lung was new to me but not unpleasant. There were also sesame pancakes rolled into buns, bashed cucumber and slices of spicy pear.
Two dishes of hotpot stock came to our table – a spicy Sichuan stock flavoured with douban jiang, star anise and chillies and a milder white soup flavoured with tomatoes. They already contained chunks of river fish on the bone with the skin still on which had been cooked in the stock. To be honest I’m not all that keen on boiled or steamed river fish in China. To me it always tastes muddy and I found picking the flesh out with chopsticks from the bones and skin a bit of an ordeal.
Once we had eaten as much as we could of the fish, other items were brought along to be cooked by us in the hotpot. They included thinly sliced beef streaked with fat, triangular wedges of tofu, hard boiled quail’s eggs, pressed fish paste, enoki mushrooms, chunks of wo sun (the asparagus like vegetable from Shan’s home-cooked dinner), various green leafy vegetables – spinach, Chinese cabbage and the like – duck blood set in a red jelly that turned brown and into a consistency more like liver when cooked and finally tripe.
I could handle all of it apart from the tripe. I convinced myself that the duck’s blood wasn’t that far removed from the concept of Irish black pudding. I picked away at the fish and inhaled the rush of Sichuan spice from the steaming stock. But the greyish black tripe with a surface like a tongue gone wrong… nah… I couldn’t hack it despite its inoffensive taste… and I defy anyone to get a pretty picture of it.
So I have to admit to myself that while I love the kick of Sichuan spices, I have a way to go before I can manage the more far out ingredients that I am likely to encounter if I ever immerse myself in Sichuan Province.
All the same, if you ever find yourself in Beijing or Chengdu and want to try a genuine Sichuan hotpot, I would recommend San Zhi Er just don’t be afraid of the chilli heat or some of the other strange ingredients that might arrive at your table.
The total cost of our meal was 320 rmb or about €38 for four people including four beers and lots of glasses of warm water.
The Blue Zoo is also well worth a visit, especially if you are visiting Beijing with young children. They will enjoy the performing seal show. We were the only westerners in attendance yesterday and a source of fascination to the local grandparents and parents. They all want to know where Dermot comes from as he seems exotic to them. The walk through tunnels under the “sea” included sharks and real life “mermaids” (but mercifully not in the same tank) as well as some stunningly beautiful but deadly poisonous Lion Fish.
So it was a case of two ways with fish yesterday and I’ve included some photos of the living kind to take the bare look off that tripe!