Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Running the Sichuan Marathon

I've eaten a lot of Sichuan food in the past week. By Saturday I had started to feel Sichuan overload, my mouth constantly buzzing, and my lips cracked and raw. Yet I bravely pressed on and cooked a full dinner from Land of Plenty that night. It was not the most daring of meals, but it was definitely one of the most satisfying.

Fish fragrant eggplant, one of my go-to orders at Sichuan restaurants, was simple and delicious (p. 285). You can see the classic extra slick of oil on the dish, which added even more richness. I didn't want to fry the eggplant, so I cut them up and threw them in a 375 degree oven with some oil and salt for 20 minutes. They had lost their deep purple color in the oven, so I may just fry them straight next time. In any event, I ended up browning them in oil anyway.

That one piece up front looks disgusting right? I probably should have made it look better for the camera, but I'm usually too eager to eat by the time I start taking pictures. Next time I'll be sure to make the eggplant look more palatable.

This was my lunch earlier in the day. I had a block of firm tofu left, so I cut it into strips and fried it crisp, then mixed it with some bok choy in the sauce for ma la chicken slices (p. 141). There's so much oil used in some of these recipes that once I ate the crispy tofu, I used the sauce again for spicy cucumber salad:

The full dinner spread, including leftover stir fried mushrooms, fried peanuts and more dan dan noodles:

Those damn fried peanuts are as addictive as Dunlop claims. I've made them three times already. She only uses salt and Sichuan pepper, but I add red chile powder and sugar to make them even better. I made the dan dan noodles with wheat noodles this time, and while tasty, they weren't as good as the Twin Marquis noodles I used the first time.

The next day I made another trip to Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester and Elizabeth. I was craving something different, so I picked up a thick piece of pork belly. While browsing the aisles, trying to familiarize myself with the market, I stumbled on the chile-bean paste Holy Grail.

Both of these are chile-bean pastes from the city of Pixian in Sichuan, which Dunlop says are the best. I bought both pouches (there was a third brand I didn't buy) and brought them home for an impromptu taste test with The Quaker. While each were made with the recommended fava beans over soy, the red pouch was the clear favorite, thick and bean-y, while the other was thin and salty.

I used the people's choice chile-bean paste to make bowl-steamed pork belly with pickled vegetables (p. 206). It involved a couple of steps to prep the belly, but on the whole was extremely easy to make. I blanched the belly for a few minutes in boiling water, then covered it in soy sauce and browned the skin. Then you throw it into a bowl of hot water for a few minutes before letting it cool and slicing it thin. Finally you overlap the pieces of belly in a bowl "like the pages of a book" before topping it with soy sauce, chile-bean paste, pickled chiles and preserved vegetables.

Since I was using my large pot with a steamer to make stock, I rigged up a smaller steamer for the two hours of cooking. Once it is finished, you flip the dish out onto a plate for a cool presentation.

I had a better picture, but it was blurry.

The texture of the cooked belly was extremely tender, and the fat practically melted in my mouth. However, I may have added too much soy sauce, and with the addition of preserved vegetables this dish is very strongly flavored and salty. I could only eat a few pieces. According to Dunlop this dish is supposed to be served as part of a larger meal. I ate it for lunch the next day over rice, which mellowed out the saltiness.

I really like this technique and what it does to the pork belly. I might try and make it with sauerkraut subbing in for preserved vegetables and mustard instead of chile-bean paste.

Next: I want to make some of the fish dishes and I still have a chunk of pork belly to play with.


  1. mel.winokur@gmail.comApril 20, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    I think you'll find that the Supermarkets in Flushing, e.g. the one on Main St. and 37th ave amd the one across from the Hunan House Restaurant have even better stocks than the ones in Chinatown. You'll find chili bean paste from Pixian and Facing heaven chili peppers. If your into Sichuan cooking have a look at www.cookingschoolinchina.com I just came back from a two week program and it was terrific- the Sichuan Institute for Higher Cuisine is where Fushchia Dunlop first took training in sichuan cooking.

  2. Mel, thanks for the comment and the link, looks awesome! I'd love to cook out there, I'm really jealous. I've also been following your posts on Dunlop's blog, you've been very informative.

    I've been meaning to check out some of the Flushing supermarkets, particularly the one across from Hunan House, as it's a great excuse to eat there again.

    Ideally I'd like to be using as many ingredients from Sichuan as possible. I found the facing heaven chiles and Pixian bean paste at HK, but I'm still using Tianjin preserved vegetables instead of the ya cai, which I suspect I won't be able to find out here. Are there any other specifically Sichuan ingredients you've found in Flushing? Thanks again.

  3. mel.winokur@gmail.comApril 21, 2010 at 11:46 AM

    You should be able to find Ya Cai at the Hong Kong supermarket in Flushing and at Kam Man supermarket in east hanover , new jersey ( i live in NJ). It comes in plastic packets and you'll find it where they have other perserved vegetables. There apparently is only one brand of Ya Cai as the one you see here is identical to the one used at the Sichuan Institute and the one we saw in Chengdu supermarkets. On chili oil i suggest making your own using ground chili flakes and the procedure in Dunlop's book. On the law side of this blog i should mention that i'm a retired attorney still doing some consulting in the field of patent law.
    I hope this is not a duplicate i tried to comment earlier but didn't seem to take.

  4. Thanks Mel. I plan on going out to flushing in the next few days, so I will look for the ya cai then. As for the chile oil, I bought some after I initially couldn't find the facing heaven peppers. I found them, but the chile oil I bought is from Chengdu and is pretty good. Chengdu Chenghua Lion Pavilion Food Trading Co. picture: http://twitpic.com/1gm9cf I've made chile oil by that method with ghost peppers before, I will definitely do it with the others at some point.

    What Sichuan dishes do you like to cook? Any favorites from Land of Plenty?

  5. mel.winokur@gmail.comApril 23, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    I've had good success with all the dishes in Land of Plenty but particular favorites that we do with some frequency are ma po dou fu, dan dan noodles, zhang crescent dumlpings, strange flavor chicken, hot and numbing chicken, twice cooked pork, fish with chiles and sichuan pepper,spicy cucumber salad, chicken with vinegar and fish fragant eggplant; i also love the beef with cumin dish in the hunan cookbook and we do that one with lamb sometimes to mimic the lamb with cumin at little pepper.

  6. Mel, that sounds great. I'm planning on cooking a few more of those dishes this week, so hopefully they turn out well. The recipes in Land of Plenty have been flawless so far.