The hot and soupy weather we've been swimming through the last few weeks has at least one fringe benefit for me--it reminds me strongly of the year (1989-90) I spent teaching English at Sichuan University (sichuan daxue, Chuanda for short) in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in southwestern China. It also makes my kitchen intensely fragrant with the scent of hua jiao, Sichuan pepper, that I keep in a bamboo container in a cupboard. When it's this humid and warm, every time I open my cupboard I'm just about knocked over by that tart, citrusy smell.
The guide books characterize Chengdu's climate as "subtropical monsoonal"--so now you know how to describe this summer in a nutshell. Whether the cuisine of Sichuan evolved as a response to the climate, or through other factors, it's certainly true that the vibrantly flavored food of Sichuan is just the thing to boost the appetite on sticky hot evenings. Sichuan cooking--and Chinese cooking in general--also allows you to perform a leisurely prep of your ingredients (perhaps while sipping a cold beer), then finish the cooking--generally stir-frying--in just a few minutes (then pop another brew to drink with dinner).
The distinctive flavor combo of Sichuan food is the yin-yang duo of ma la: ma for numbing, from fragrant Sichuan pepper, la for spicy hot, from chile peppers. In addition, Sichuan dishes are often quite salty, from soy sauce and fermented bean paste, and brightly piquant with vinegar, usually a pungent dark vinegar that gives Sichuanese liang ban dishes--salads, basically--a unique and exotic kick.
Of the dishes shown here, two are standard dishes that I and my friends and colleagues at Chuanda would order at the little open-fronted restaurants that lined the alleys just outside the university gates. I'm swooning in memory to recall the full-sensory assault that a slow walk through those narrow lanes entailed on a warm damp evening: the strangely pungent smell of raw rapeseed oil--the standard cooking oil--turning from repellent to appetizing as it heated in a wok; the funkily delicious aromas rising from bins of bean paste, dried shrimp, and other aromatic goods at a vendor's stall; the savory scents wafting from a hot pot restaurant where bubbling cauldrons, topped with a slick of fiercely red oil, held highly aromatic broth, the secret ingredient of which, so it was said, was an opium poppy seed pod. There were less appealing olfactory elements, as well--a breeze from the east would bring the air off the river, far from pristine; a passing bicycle cart carrying a container of nightsoil left a fetid wake--it was my year-long nightmare that I would some day collide on my bicycle with one of these ripe vehicles that carried dilute human waste to fertilize the vegetable fields just outside the city (and there's your explanation for why the Chinese do not eat leafy green salads...).
Seated at a small table in one of the very basic restaurants, we would order tea and pijiu, beer, and never bother to look at a menu, which, at any rate, we couldn't read, since it was entirely in Chinese characters. The thing is, the Chinese customers didn't bother with a menu, either, and it was about two-thirds of the way through my year in Chengdu that I discovered that my favorite small restaurant, "The Sisters," even had a written menu. Instead, we just ordered according to the ingredients we saw displayed at the cook's station--if there was eggplant we'd get yu xiang qiezi, fish-fragrance eggplant; if there were fava beans, liang ban can dou, a salad dressed like the cucumbers shown here. Always you could get mapo doufu, the wickedly ma la Sichuan tofu in meat sauce (which is never nearly ma enough at any American Sichuan restaurant--it should set your mouth tingling to where you think your tongue has swelled to twice its normal size), or shui zhu rou pian, perhaps the hottest Sichuan dish of all--pork slices stir-fried with hot bean paste, simmered in water, poured over vegetables in a small casserole, then topped with absurb amounts of ground dried chile and Sichuan pepper which is set sizzling when anointed with smoking hot oil; its name translates, innocuously, as "water-cooked meat slices."
Well, I could go on. But on to the dishes here displayed, a simple, nearly vegetarian meal we put together on a recent, extremely Chengduvian evening. First the cucumber salad, liang ban huang gua. When I was in Chengdu I ate this at least once a week while cucumbers were available, but I've never seen it on a menu here, even though there are now several authentic Sichuan restaurants in the area (as for what passed for Sichuan cooking up until recently, the less said, the better). There's often a cucumber dish on the appetizer menu, but it's often cooked--which is fine--and bland--not so fine. This salad is one of my favorites, and especially good if you have the long, ridged Asian cukes, but fine with any kind.
Sichuan Cucumber Salad (Liang Ban Huang Gua)
Liang Ban means "cool, mixed", and generally denotes a salad
1 medium cucumber
If the skin is tender, leave it on; if it seems tough, remove all or part. Trim off the ends, then halve it the long way, and if it is very seedy, remove some or all of the seeds--the Asian cukes tend to have fewer and smaller seeds than the typical American slicer. Cut each half in half again, the long way, and with the side of a cleaver or chef's knife, whap these long pieces a few times--assertively, but not vindictively. This opens up the flesh a bit to take in more dressing. Now cut the cucumber strips crosswise into roughly 3/4-inch pieces.
2 large cloves garlic (or more, to taste--there's a sort of variation on this salad called suan ni huang gua, which is cucumbers in a sea of puréed garlic)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Chinese dark vinegar (see picture)
|This is the brand of Chinese dark--not black--vinegar I buy|
2 teaspoons chile flakes in oil (or to taste; use some sambal if you don't have the chile oil)
1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
1 scallion, chopped fine
sesame oil, optional
Peel the garlic, crush it with the side of a cleaver or big knife, then mince it very fine. Combine the garlic with all the other ingredients except the scallion and sesame oil. Toss the cucumber pieces with the dressing and transfer to a serving dish. Sprinkle with the scallions and a few drops of sesame oil, if you like.
This will serve two to four, depending on how many other dishes you make. The two of us polished this off easily on the night in question.
Corn in China is called yu mi, or "jade grain"--and in these pictures I think you can really see why. This dish is yumi chao lajiao, corn stir-fried with chile (or sometimes qing jiao yumi, green chile corn). Corn, needless to say, is not native to China--but then, neither are chiles, which virtually define Sichuan cooking in most people's minds. But corn is fairly common in Sichuan and Yunnan, and this simple stir-fry with chiles fresh and dried, garlic, and whole Sichuan peppercorns, is its most common manifestation.
Sichuan Stir-Fried Corn with Chiles (yumi chao lajiao or qing jiao yumi)
2 ears corn, kernels stripped from the cobs
2 fresh chiles, halved, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch pieces--anaheim, hungarian wax, banana, a not-too-hot jalapeno
3 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
3 scallions, white and green, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 dried red chiles, broken in half
1 teaspoon whole, untoasted Sichuan peppercorns
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons oil (peanut, canola)
sesame oil, optional
Get a wok very hot. Add the cooking oil, and as it just starts to smoke, add the dried chiles and the Sichuan pepper. Swirl these in the oil, then add the corn, fresh chiles, garlic, and salt. Stir-fry over highest heat for 2 to 3 minutes--watch that the garlic doesn't burn. Add the scallions and stir-fry for another minute or two--some of the corn should be getting a bit brown on the edges. Transfer the corn to a serving dish, and sprinkle on a few drops of sesame oil, if you like.
This dish can be made with frozen corn, thawed, patted dry with paper towels. A little bit of sugar can be added if the corn isn't very sweet.
The third dish, chanterelles with bacon and garlic chives, was my own concoction, and while decent (it has home-smoked bacon, and chanterelles...), it's not one I'd make again. The bacon overpowered the chanterelles--it might actually be better with something like oyster mushrooms, and more chile.
We always serve steamed jasmine rice in a small bowl for each person, and pretty much always drink beer with Sichuan food. We take the Chinese approach of dipping into the communal bowls with chopsticks (though a spoon helps with the corn).
I'll pull out a Sichuan recipe--and reminiscence--from time through the rest of the summer, while the market stalls are full of produce begging to be stir-fried, and the hua jiao is at its most fragrant.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw