Culinary Memoir Shares Spice of Sichuanese Cuisine

Cover 'Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper'

British cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop recalls her time at a cooking school in Chengdu, China, in her food memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper. hide caption

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Fuchsia Dunlop, a British cookbook writer and an expert on Chinese food, was the first Westerner to study cooking at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in the western Chinese city of Chengdu, back in the 1990s.

All Things Considered will be broadcasting from Chengdu for a week later this month, from May 19 to 23.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper is Dunlop's food memoir of those years in China.

Sichuanese food, Dunlop writes, is "the Spice Girl among Chinese cuisines, bold and lipsticked, with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods." She extols its simple joys: Unlike Cantonese or Shandong food, Sichuanese cooking doesn't require extravagant raw ingredients.

"This is the greatness of Sichuanese cuisine, to make the ordinary extraordinary," Dunlop writes in her book.

She speaks with Melissa Block about the ordinary and inexpensive restaurants she frequented during her time in Chengdu, as well as the tingly, lip-numbing taste of Sichuan pepper — the key ingredient in Sichuanese cooking. Dunlop also tells of a hot pot dinner that made her body run with sweat, and tells Block which dishes she should be sure to sample while visiting Sichuan province: Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken and Twice-Cooked Pork.

Even though these dishes are available at practically any Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world, what Block will taste in Sichuan will probably be a "revelation," Dunlop says.

Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken With Peanuts

(Gong Bao Ji Ding)

This dish, also known as Kung Pao chicken, has the curious distinction of having been labeled as politically incorrect during the Cultural Revolution. It is named after a late Qing Dynasty (late nineteenth century) governor of Sichuan, Ding Baozhen, who is said to have particularly enjoyed eating it — gong bao was his official title. No one can quite agree on the details of its origins: some say it was a dish Ding Baozhen brought with him from his home province of Guizhou; others that he ate it in a modest restaurant when he went out in humble dress to observe the real lives of his subjects; still others, rather implausibly, that his chef invented the finely chopped chicken dish because Ding Baozhen had bad teeth. Whatever the truth of its origins, its association with an imperial bureaucrat was enough to provoke the wrath of the Cultural Revolution radicals, and it was renamed "fast-fried chicken cubes" (hong bao ji ding) or "chicken cubes with seared chiles" (hu la ji ding) until its political rehabilitation in the 1980s.

Gong Bao chicken is beautiful to look at: a glorious medley of chicken flesh, golden peanuts and bright red chiles. The sauce is based on a light sweet-and-sour, pepped up with a deep chile spiciness and a trace of Sichuan pepper that will make your lips tingle pleasantly. The ingredients are all cut in harmony, the chicken in small cubes and the scallion in short pieces to complement the peanuts. The chicken should be just cooked and wonderfully succulent; the nuts are added at the very last minute so they keep their crispness.

Serves 2 as a main dish with a simple stir-fried vegetable and rice, 4 as part of a Chinese meal with three other dishes

2 boneless chicken breasts, with or without skin (about 2/3 pound total)

3 cloves of garlic and an equivalent amount of fresh ginger

5 scallions, white parts only

2 tablespoons peanut oil

a generous handful of dried red chiles (at least 10), preferably Sichuanese

1 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper

2/3 cup roasted unsalted peanuts

For the marinade:

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons light soy sauce

1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or medium-dry sherry

1 1/2 teaspoons potato flour or 2 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon water

For the sauce:

3 teaspoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon potato flour or 1 1/8 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon light soy sauce

3 teaspoons Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon chicken stock or water

1. Cut the chicken as evenly as possible into 1/2-inch strips and then cut these into small cubes. Place in a small bowl and mix in the marinade ingredients.

2. Peel and thinly slice the garlic and ginger, and chop the scallions into chunks as long as their diameter (to match the chicken cubes). Snip the chiles in half or into 2-inch sections. Wearing rubber gloves, discard as many seeds as possible.

3. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl — if you dip your finger in, you can taste the sweet-sour base of the gong bao flavor.

4. Season the wok, then add 2 tablespoons of oil and heat over a high flame. When the oil is hot but not yet smoking, add the chiles and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until they are crisp and the oil is spicy and fragrant. Take care not to burn the spices (you can remove the wok from the heat if necessary to prevent overheating).

5. Quickly add the chicken and fry over a high flame, stirring constantly. As soon as the chicken cubes have separated, add the ginger, garlic, and scallions and continue to stir-fry for a few minutes until they are fragrant and the meat is cooked through (test one of the larger pieces to make sure).

6. Give the sauce a stir and add it to the wok, continuing to stir and toss. As soon as the sauce has become thick and shiny, add the peanuts, stir them in, and serve.

Variations

The same dish can be made with cubes of pork, shrimp, or prawns.

Cashew nuts can be used instead of peanuts for a grander version of this dish, although peanuts are more traditional.

Reprinted from Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright (c) 2001 by Fuchsia Dunlop. With permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Twice-Cooked Pork

(Hui Guo Rou)

Hui guo rou, which literally means "back-in-the-pot meat," is the most famous and profoundly loved of all the dishes of Sichuan. This quirky combination of intensely flavored, fragrant pork and fresh green vegetables is a source of great nostalgia for Sichuanese people living abroad, and it often seems to be tied up with elderly people's childhood memories. One Chengdu roast duck vendor, Mr. Liu, told me that in the preindustrial days, when pork came from free-range, naturally fed pigs, a whole neighborhood would know immediately if someone was eating hui guo rou, so captivating was its smell. According to one of my written sources, the dish was eaten with ritualistic regularity at meetings of Sichuan's notorious secret societies — before the communists wiped them out. It is still nicknamed "secret society meat" (pao ge rou) in some parts of western Sichuan.

Hui guo rou derives its name from the fact that the pork is first boiled, then fried in a wok, with plenty of hot, beany flavorings, until it is sizzlingly delicious. Sichuanese cooks traditionally use a cut of pork thigh that is split evenly between fat and lean, with a layer of skin over the top. The cooking method makes it extraordinarily tasty, and if you eat it with plain steamed rice, it makes a wonderful meal. The old Chengdu word for the curved shape of the pork pieces in the final dish is deng zhan wo xing, "lamp-dish slices," because they look like the tiny dishes that were filled with oil and used as lamps in pre-revolutionary China.

Sichuanese cooks traditionally use a vegetable known as green garlic or Chinese leeks (suan miao) in this dish. Baby leeks are a very acceptable substitute. Ordinary leeks can be substituted if they are green and leafy, but since they are less tender they must be prefried (just toss them in a wok over a high flame, with a little peanut oil, for less than a minute to "break their rawness," and set them aside. The fried leeks can be added to the wok at the same time as the baby leeks in the recipe). The cut of pork favored in Sichuan is hard to come by, so I've suggested using pork belly, which is of a similar character and available in Chinese as well as Italian and Hispanic markets.

Please note that the pork is best cooked at least a couple of hours in advance of the main wok-frying (it can be cooked the day before).

Serves 2 as a main dish served with plain rice, 4 with two or three other dishes as part of a Chinese meal

3/4 pound fresh, boneless pork belly, with skin still attached

6 baby leeks or 6 tender, leafy leeks

2 tablespoons peanut oil or lard

1 1/2 tablespoons chili bean paste

1 1/2 teaspoons Sichuanese sweet wheaten paste or sweet bean paste

2 teaspoons fermented black beans

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon white sugar

salt

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pork, return to a boil, and then simmer at a gentler heat until just cooked — this should take 20-25 minutes, depending on the thickness of the pork. Remove the pork from the water and allow to cool (don't forget that you can reserve the cooking water and add it to the stockpot). Place the meat in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or more to firm up the flesh — this makes it possible to slice it thinly without the fat and lean parts separating.

2. When the meat is completely cold, slice it thinly. (In Sichuan, each piece would be about 2 inches by 1 inch and half fat and half lean meat, with a strip of skin at the top.)

3. Chop the leeks diagonally at a steep angle into thin, 1 1/2-inch-long "horse ear" slices.

4. Season the wok, then add another 2 tablespoons of oil or lard over a medium-hot flame, add the pork pieces, and stir-fry until their fat has melted out and they are toasty and slightly curved. Push the pork to one side of the wok and tip the chili bean paste into the space you have created. Stir-fry it for 20-30 seconds until the oil is richly red, then add the sweet bean paste and black beans and stir-fry for another few seconds until they too smell delicious. Mix everything in the wok together and add the soy sauce and sugar, seasoning with a little salt if necessary.

5. Finally, add the leeks and stir and toss until they are just cooked. Turn onto a serving dish and eat immediately.

Variations

The core of this legendary dish is the fat-lean pork, first boiled and then fried, but there are infinite variations. Some cooks use red or green bell peppers instead of leeks; others add deliciously crunchy pieces of deep-fried flatbread (guo kuei) in the final stages of cooking to make what's called guo kuei hui guo rou (deep-fried pita bread can be used instead). Long, green Chinese scallions can also be used instead of leeks.

Reprinted from Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop. Copyright (c) 2001 by Fuchsia Dunlop. With permission from the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper

A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China

by Fuchsia Dunlop

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