I live for the sweating, euphoric feeling I get when throwing something spicy down my throat. This is especially true with the unique heat from the combination of Sichuan peppercorn and chiles known as "ma la" or spicy and tingly. Since I have recently taken some heat for my fiery views (yeah I'll stoop to wordplay), I would like to set the record straight.
Dumplings in chili oil, ordered "ma la."
First, balance will always be key. I may enjoy the novelty value of something outrageously spicy once, and it may be cool to watch Adam Richman try to eat the world's hottest hamburger, but I have no reason to eat something again unless it actually TASTES GOOD.
I recently had the Spicy and Tingly Noodle Soup at the new Chinatown branch of Xi'an. I asked for the broth appropriately "ma la," the lady grinned at my crappy Chinese and complied by adding a couple of extra heaping spoonfuls of chili oil to the broth. Although the liang pi noodles were fresh and chewy as usual, and the addition of extra chili oil added a nice amount of heat, the soup was bland because the broth lacked any kind of roundness. It tasted like it needed to reduce by about half (the lamb burger and tiger vegetables were delicious as usual, and it's fun watching those ladies make noodles and assemble dishes in such a tiny space). Hopefully the quality will improve to the level of the Flushing branches over time. Yet the weak broth means I will be sticking to the consistently delicious soup-less noodle dishes.
Bourdain, lover of Xi'an's lamb burgers and the Chase Sapphire credit card.
For two examples of the way heat can be expertly balanced with other flavors, two Flushing favorites: Chengdu Heaven and Hunan House , do it right. Chengdu Heaven, just inside the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall across from a stinky tofu purveyor (honestly, it has an odor like the elephant house at the zoo, but I'm willing to try it anyway), is certainly the more rustic of the two. The stall is tiny, consisting of a couple cheap tables and fold up seats. Fresh deliveries of vegetables from the grocer are hauled in at various intervals, while a few Chinese men slurp soup from white plastic bowls.
Chengdu Heaven on the left.
Yet the styrofoam plates come overfilling with chili oil, and the old man cooking does not hold back with the Sichuan peppercorn. His food evidences the glorious harmony of flavors that Sichuan food can achieve. Yet here, I also get the face-melting effect where other Sichuan restaurants sometimes fall short. A salad of three ingredients ($3.00) is perfect. Glass noodles, carrots, seaweed and chopped green onions accompany a ma la dressing with a nice vinegar zing. The sweetness of the carrots mellows the whole dish out. I love it, and the salad makes a convincing case for (occasionally) eating vegetarian (actually this dish is vegan).
Delicious salad with 3 ingredients.
At Hunan House, the white tablecloths and actual plates and silverware mark a strong contrast to the humble food at Chengdu Heaven. This is the only Hunan restaurant I've ever eaten at (and from my understanding the only Hunan restaurant in the 5 boroughs, but correct me if I'm wrong). Hunan cooking relies on pickled chilis, such as the ones enshrouding the gigantic fish head below.
I'll bathe in that sauce.
Another dish I've had in many Sichuan restaurants is spicy tongue and tripe. The Hunan House version is outstanding. The tripe is expertly sliced so as to maximize the textural effect, with a deep, creeping heat.
I returned to Chengdu Heaven last week with World's Fare blogger Joe DiStefano. We had a small meal (so many places to go) and we ate a similar, but much more rustic dish, to the one above. At first I thought it was the tongue and tripe dish, but it turned out they were using thin sliced beef shin or brisket (much like the fatty cuts of beef you would find in pho). Most Sichuan versions I've had usually use peanuts, which adds a nice crunch to the chewiness of the tripe and fattiness of the meat. Typically, the Chengdu Heaven version had a thick pool of chile oil, speckled with leaves and stems of bright green cilantro. There was so much chile oil, that the weak styrofoam plate could not contain it all and I spilled a bunch on the floor and all over my shoes as I pitched forward. I got to my knees and attempted to clean it up with a wad of tiny napkins. I gotta be respectful in their house.
I've recently started playing with the naga jolokia, or ghost pepper, which are typically three to four times hotter than habaneros. I made a simple tomato salsa with a reconstituted dried ghost pepper, pureed with garlic, salt and some of the leftover water. This Serious Eats article has the recipe, although it's pretty damn simple. It's fucking hot.
I've only had the dried ones (I would love to try them fresh), but obviously, they pack quite a punch. You can feel the heat travel down your throat and spread through your stomach. It's an interesting sensation (until the deep cinammon heat hits you). I like experimenting with them, but be careful, you do not want to touch anything sensitive after handling these things (like your dick).
I realize I'm taking awhile to reach my point. In just two regional Chinese cuisines, the variation of type and amount of heat in a single dish is huge. Heat just doesn't vary by dish, it varies by each type of pepper used, and within two of the exact same varieties of pepper. Plus, the use of Sichuan peppercorn adds a whole new element of a floral metallic tang (when used in moderation). This variation makes the combination of flavors nearly infinite, and it takes a skilled hand to achieve the necessary balance between the heat of the pepper and the flavors in the dish, which is why I have so much admiration for the Chengdu Heaven salad.
And while the ghost pepper is fun to play with, I rarely use it in actual cooking because its intense heat throws off the balance of other flavors. The ghost pepper represents the addictive side of my personality that always wants more, but then my other half (usually the stronger) wins out, and instead blends the heat in with my bitter, salty, sweet and vinegary flavors, resulting in a delicious dish. I'm crazy, but I'm not stupid.