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. Ingredients
You will need:
300 to 400 green beans – about 100g per person
cooking oil for deep-frying (sunflower or groundnut oil)
For the batter
Chinese white rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
For the seasoning
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.
That little ray of sunshine who is my grandson has gone back to China leaving an 0.84m high void in my life and a host of fresh memories. Shane, Shan and Dermot returned to smoggy Beijing the Friday before last. Cue a few days of moping and feeling like a lost soul without my little sticking plaster, a few days of (secretly) relishing a quiet and tidy house and a few more of re-grouping and getting back into the thick of my normal working life.
This last visit was special for the time I got to spend alone with Dermot while his Mum and Dad took a brief and very belated honeymoon and for the chance to get to know his quirky sense of fun, his ability to mimic and, even at this early stage of his life, to poke fun at himself and us. So some of his expressions have already become catchphrases in our house – the way he says “no, no, no” shaking his head ruefully when confronted by something he wants to do but knows he is not allowed to, such as dismantling the contents of a shelf of DVDs, his particular take on “myum, myum” when relishing a new food, his perfect take-off of my niece Jodie’s “atchoo”, head flung back as if he too had hair nearly down to his waist, his hopeful “chu?” at the prospect of going out.
It took a few days of listlessness before I could get into the cooking vibe again. It’s somehow easier to motivate yourself to cook for a bigger gang. But as I leafed through my latest cookbook – Grace Young’s Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge – I came upon a recipe for squid and remembered I had some in the freezer, purchased from Roberts of Dalkey which I had planned cooking for Shan but never got the chance.
Grace’s book is gorgeous. A professional food writer who grew up in a traditional Chinese household in San Francisco, she has always been fascinated by the alchemy of the wok. In this wonderful blend of stories and recipes she traces how Chinese emigrants have carried their recipes and their woks with them around the world and how stir-frying has evolved using the ingredients to hand, wherever the emigrants find themselves, so that their culture perseveres but subtle distinctions emerge in the cooking. She describes the book as being about the “universal longing for home” – a longing understood by everyone who leaves their homeland behind whether by choice or necessity, a longing felt by all of us who know that home is where our heart is, not necessarily where we live right now.
I understood that longing keenly when I talked late into the night recently with my lovely Chinese daughter-in-law about what it will mean to her to re-locate here to Ireland next year, believing that it is best for Dermot but knowing it will mean leaving behind her world, her family and her friends. It seems to be the lot of our generation and the next to always have pieces of our hearts scattered around the sky’s edge.
Anyway I don’t think Grace Young will mind that I took her recipe for squid with black bean sauce, which she in turn got from Chef Danny Chan who has lived in America since 1966, and adapted it to give it a spicier Sichuan kick. There seems to be something fitting about a recipe travelling from China to America and back to Ireland to be tweaked by an Irish nai nai to serve to her Chinese daughter-in-law when she finds her new home from home here. Sichuan Chilli Squid with Black Beans
Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a multi-course meal
I’ve tried cooking squid before but have sometimes been disappointed that it has turned out tough. What I learned from Chef Danny via Grace is that marinating squid before cooking is not a good idea as it can make it chewy. It should also have only the briefest cooking time as it can easily become over-cooked and tough. The blanching technique in the recipe below means the squid needs only a minute or two in the wok. It also means you can have most of the preparation done in advance and stir-fry a reasonable quantity of squid in just minutes. The result when I tried this was tender and delicious and packed a heady Sichuan punch for good measure. Ingredients
450g cleaned squid
2 tbs fermented black beans
2 cloves garlic
2 spring onions
1 red chilli
Small thumb of ginger
1 red pepper
Sichuan pepper oil or groundnut oil plus a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns
Salt and white pepper
1 tbs of Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp sesame oil
For the sauce
2 tbs chicken stock
2 tsp oyster sauce
1 tbs light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
½ tsp cornflour
Soak the black beans in warm water for a few minutes, then rinse.
Peel and finely chop the garlic and ginger. Finely chop the spring onion – you want roughly the equivalent amount of each.
De-seed and thinly slice the chilli. Peel and thinly slice the onion. De-seed the red pepper and slice into julienne strips. Slice each mangetout in two at a steep angle.
Cut each squid tube in half lengthwise. Using your cleaver or a damascus chef knife. If you feel that your knife has lost its sharpness. I would recommend you check out the step-by-step guide on how to do this on the Choppychoppy website. Lightly score the inside of the squid in a criss-cross pattern at about 1 cm intervals. Cut the squid into 4 cm squares and the tentacles, if using, into 5 cm lengths.
Combine 1 tablespoon of the chicken stock, oyster sauce and soy sauces in a small bowl. Combine the cornflour and the remaining tablespoon of stock in another small bowl and set both to one side.
Bring a large quantity of water to boil in a saucepan over high heat and, when the water is bubbling, add the squid pieces and blanch for about 10 seconds or until the squid turns opaque and curls. Drain immediately and set to one side on kitchen paper to blot out any excess moisture.
Heat your wok over a medium-high heat. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of Sichuan pepper oil (or ordinary cooking oil to which you add a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns, removing the peppercorns as soon as they release their aroma).
To the hot, flavoured oil add the black beans, spring onions and garlic, stir-fryng for a few moments to release their aroma. Then add the ginger, chilli and onion, stir-frying until they too release their fragrance.
After about a minute, when the onions begin to wilt, add the red pepper and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds until the red pepper just begins to soften.
Add the rice wine, swirling it around the sides of the wok. Then add in the squid and mangetout. Give them a quick stir-fry to combine with other ingredients then swirl in the soy sauce mixture and stir-fry for no more than a minute until the mangetout are bright green.
Give the cornflour mix a quick stir and add it to the wok, stir-frying for about 30 seconds until the squid is just cooked. Remove from the heat. Drizzle over a teaspoon of sesame oil and serve immediately.
Frozen squid tubes work very well in this recipe. Just make sure they are well thawed before use.
You can get preserved fermented black beans in any Asian market but a jar of black bean sauce would also work in this recipe. Or you could use a chilli black bean sauce such as Laoganma and leave out the chilli pepper.
For a less spicy dish you could leave out both the chilli and Sichuan pepper but you will be missing out on a umami kick.