Monday, April 6, 2009

More Chinese food

A few months ago, I read the excellent food memoir by British author Fuchsia Dunlop entitled Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper. In the book, Dunlop, who by now has made a career of eating her way through China and writing about what she finds, goes back to the beginning of her story, relating how she first landed in the country and how--by ducking into noodle shops, flagging down street food vendors and inviting herself into the kitchens of local restaurants--she discovered her true calling. Dunlop has traveled all over China and has written magazine articles and cookbooks describing the cuisines of many of the country's diverse regions, yet the one location that she considers her true home abroad is the Sichuan (or Szechuan) province. It is while living in its capital, Chengdu, that she truly falls for Chinese food, characterized, in that region, by prodigious use of spicy, warming ingredients such as Szechuan peppercorns and chiles of all varieties. Though I had some prior knowledge and appreciation of Sichuan cuisine (a restaurant called Szechuan Gourmet is one of my favorites in New York), reading Dunlop's impassioned and evocative descriptions of the local fare left me completely tantalized--and wanting more. I didn't just want to eat Sichuan food; I wanted to cook it myself. Luckily, Dunlop is also the author of an incredibly comprehensive, highly regarded and easy-to-follow compendium of Sichuan cuisine entitled Land of Plenty. Minutes after finishing Dunlop's memoir, I was online ordering her cookbook.

While I waited for it to arrive, I set out to obtain all the sauces, seasonings and ingredients I would need to prepare the recipes. Though Sichuan cuisine is best known for its numbing peppercorns, fiery chiles and hot, deep red oils, the style of cooking relies on several more key ingredients in order to achieve the incredible fullness and depth of flavor that characterizes true Sichuan food. In order to stock my pantry, I ventured into Brooklyn Chinatown (one of my favorite places in the city to explore) and picked up Szechuan peppercorns, dried red "Heaven-facing" chiles, fermented black beans, light and dark soy sauces, toasted sesame oil, Chinese sesame paste, Chinkiang vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine, Sichuan chili bean paste, pickled chili paste, Tianjin preserved vegetables, potato starch and dried star anise. All cited by Dunlop as key ingredients in Sichuan cuisine, the items in this haul cost me about $17 total. Now I was ready to cook.

So far I've tried two recipes from Land of Plenty, and both have been extremely quick and easy, with delicious results. The first was Dry-Fried Green Beans. In this dish, trimmed green beans are fried in hot oil until slightly browned and softened, then removed from the pan and set aside. In the same pan, you then stir-fry ground pork with a small amount of garlicky, gingery preserved vegetables and a bit of soy sauce. Once the pork is cooked through, the beans are added back to the pan, and the whole dish is finished with a drizzle of sesame oil. That's it. The whole thing takes about 10 minutes to prepare, and is lip-smackingly good. I first prepared this for dinner with Gideon while he was in town, and a few days later made the same dish for lunch for myself, using broccolini in place of the green beans and eating it over white rice--authentic, no, but delicious, yes. Here are the green beans from that first go-around:

The second dish I made from the cookbook was Gong Bao, aka Kung Pao, Chicken. An iconic Sichuan dish that combines a thick, sweet and sour sauce with spicy Szechuan peppercorns and dried chiles and adds the salty crunch of peanuts for good measure, Gong Bao chicken is a Chinese takeout staple but is very simple (and cheap!) to prepare at home. You start by marinating cubed chicken breasts in soy sauce, rice wine and potato starch, thereby "velveting" the chicken, a technique that ensures tender, juicy meat and also aids in thickening the final dish due to the inclusion of starch. As the chicken marinates, you stir together a sauce of sugar, more potato starch, soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil and set it aside. When you're ready to cook, you heat the peppercorns and chiles in oil, toss in the chicken and its marinade, add chopped garlic, ginger and scallions and stir-fry until the chicken is cooked through. Finally, you pour in the sauce, which, as it hits the heat, turns beautifully glossy and thick. Toss in a handful of peanuts, serve over hot, sticky white rice, and you've got a meal that's bound to impress your friends as much as it did mine--in this case my roommate and her boyfriend:

Because I think it's only fair to adhere to copyright law, and because I really think Land of Plenty is a book worth purchasing, I can't include Dunlop's exact recipes here on the blog. However, I urge you to buy the cookbook--or at least check it out from your local library. If you like Chinese food even a little bit, you won't be disappointed--and, moreover, you'll probably learn a lot.

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