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Posts posted by fiore

  1. You are very lucky to have found a source of real Pixian chilli and broad (fava) bean paste! As other people have said, it is one of THE classic Sichuanese seasonings, and vital for making ma po dou fu, twice-cooked pork, fish braised in chilli bean sauce etc. You can also use it to make fish-fragrant or yu xiang sauces (my favourite is aubergines/eggplants) - although posher chefs often use pure pickled chilli paste (without the beans) in fish-fragrant dishes. Pixian is a county just outside Chengdu where there is a famous chilli bean paste factory. Some of the most discerning chefs prefer to get their chilli bean paste from small-scale artisan producers rather than the factory, though.

    When I've run out of the real Pixian stuff, I use the Lee Kum Kee, which is very tasty but doesn't have the same mellowness, deep colour and rich flavour as the classic version. The Pixian stuff is matured so it is a darker red. The really mature stuff (which is exported to Japan) is such a deep purple it can look almost black.

    The only thing to watch out for with the real Pixian stuff is that sometimes it is sold whole, i.e. with large pieces of bean and chilli in it. If the stuff you bought is like this, you need to put some on a chopping board and use a cleaver to chop it to a coarse paste before you cook with it. The Lee Kum Kee, of course, is already made into a paste.

    To the person who was looking for it in London: sometimes you can find it in See Woo in Lisle Street in Chinatown, in the bamboo packaging as described. They stocked it for a while and then ran out, but I'm hoping they will get some more in! Also worth trying that shop on the corner of Newport Place, opposite the Jen Cafe, as they sometimes have it, but I think just in plastic packets rather than shelled in bamboo - but it's the same stuff.

    Fuchsia Dunlop

  2. The branch of Royal China near Canary wharf is superb, and there is a carpark underneath at Westferry Circus. I've never had any problems parking there at weekends, and it's one of my favourite London restaurants - especially on a sunny day when you can lunch outside and look at the river. I THINK there is a lift for disabled people to get up from the carpark to the riverside - if not there are stairs (not too many). But I imagine the restaurant can tell you about this if you call them.


  3. I found chefs and food-writers in Taiwan to be generally quite disparaging about Mainland Chinese food on my last visit there. They saw it as being unsophisticated, and too heavy and oily. In particular, the Ding Tai Fung chain of xiao long bao restaurants are a bit snooty about Shanghai xiao long bao and INCREDIBLY serious about perfecting their own recipes and maintaining standards. I have to say their xiao long bao were pretty excellent, and the ones I had today at the Nanxiang place in Shanghai were probably less fine though the general atmosphere there is fun. Generally speaking, I think the old-established Mainland places sometimes rest too much on their laurels, and you often find greater culinary finesse in newer restaurants...


  4. By the way, if anyone is shocked at the culinary conservatism of Chinese tour groups in the West, they should see the dreadful way many Western tourists behave in China. I've been witness to many examples of extraordinary chauvanism and rudeness - mainly to do with the expectation that they will be served in China with the kind of food they are used to in Chinese restaurants in the West. Lots of tourists think they want to eat Chinese food but don't in practice - which is why they often get steered in the direction of such dismal restaurants by their tour guides.


  5. One of the most extraordinary and fascinating food experiences of my whole life so far was taking three top Sichuanese chefs on their first visit to 'the West', and in particular taking them for dinner at the French Laundry in Yountville, California. I had known these chefs for years, and for years they had been feeding me the most fantastic Sichuanese food, so I was dying to show them some of the best the West could offer.

    Given the near-omniverousness of the Chinese diet and the great curiosity and culinary talents of these men, I thought they'd love it - but the meal was a disaster! The whole structure of the experience was completely alien for them - dinner was too late, and they found it so slow and tedious having dish after dish, for hours into the night (we had the tasting menu). They were appalled by rare meat - raw blood is NOT good in Chinese cuisine, hated the taste of olives ('like Chinese medicine'), didn't much like the creamy things, and were not much excited by the exquisite procession of desserts. Beyond that, they just didn't have the tools to appreciate the meal - they had nothing to compare it with, no context, no idea at all. (Let me assure you that as far as I was concerned it was a magnificent meal.) One of them told me he found the food interesting , but had no idea if it was good or bad, he just wasn't qualified to judge.

    It was just what you would get if you took Westerners with little experience of Chinese food and made them sit through a banquet of rubbery sea cucumbers and so on - little pleasure, just miscomprehension.

    For me, all this was a revelation. I guess that even after all these years of studying Chinese food, I had somewhat naively assumed that Chinese food WAS inherently more challenging than 'Western food'. This experience showed that culture shock was really a two way thing. And personally I think taste is not the most important thing here - I think people are actually responsive to new tastes. What is most difficult to deal with is challenges to familiar STRUCTURES and CONTEXTS - eg having 'desserts' mixed in with savoury foods; having the wrong sort of food for BREAKFAST. This is really where most people's comfort zones lie, I reckon. And my Chinese friends seem better able to eat 'Western' foods when they can fit them into a Chinese meal context - eg cutting up roast beef into small chopstickable pieces and eating it with chilli sauce; having a small piece of apple tart with a mouthful of pig's ear etc. What they can't stand is a meal without rice, for example.

    And of course texture is completely baffling to most non-Chinese, it takes ages to really enjoy eating goose intestines and things.

    By the way, I wrote a piece about the French Laundry experience for Gourmet in August 2005 if anyone's interested - great fun to write!


  6. Thanks very much for your comment Ah Leung!

    Actually I have to say that my recipe for fish-fragrant aubergines/eggplants is my favourite in the book, and the one that I cook most often for my friends (everyone seems to love it). It's a really cheap, common, everyday Sichuanese dish, but fantastically delicious. My mouth is watering now, just thinking about it - perhaps I'd better go and make some!


  7. Jo-mel

    I can't see ya cai pictured there - I think the picture is of pickled mustard greens (known in Sichuan as suan cai, Hunan as pao cai), which are preserved in brine. Sichuan ya cai is a dry preserve - the leaves are rubbed with salt and spices. So they are moist but not actually wet, and they look much darker than pickled mustard greens. Confusingly, the Hunanese call this type of preserve suan cai!


  8. The Sichuanese preserved vegetable used in this dish is not usually zha cai (榨菜), but another one called ya cai 芽菜. Ya cai is preserved mustard greens rather than preserved mustard tuber (zha cai), so it looks very dark and crinkly. In Sichuan you can buy it in small sachets. I can't find it in London, but Tianjin preserved vegetable (天津冬菜) is a fairly good substitute. You usually need to rinse it first to get rid of excess saltiness, and then squeeze it dry before frying. But look out for real Sichuanese ya cai - it's delicious!


  9. I often find myself at the New Mayflower on Shaftesbury Ave - hearty, generous, usually delicious Cantonese food (and check out the Chinese menu if you can). I like their clams in black bean sauce, deep-fried mixed seafood (can't remember exact name, but its basically jiao yan hai xian I think - pepper-and-salt seafood), stir-fried water spinach (ong choy) with fermented beancurd etc. And they also offer on-the-house pickles and sweet soupy desserts if you are Chinese, or if you are not Chinese and express an interest (I think they assume, rightly, that most non-Chinese don't really like them). It's usually packed and you may have to queue, but in my experience not for too long. They are open until very late at night.

    Imperial China in Lisle Street does rather good dim sum.


  10. Setting up a restaurant with the thought of benefiting the Chinese mainlanders who came to UK to live, work and STUDY. How noble a goal!

    But at a pricing like £70-£120 (meals for two), who are we kidding? I don't know what demographics they are after, but sure ain't those who came to work and (especially) STUDY in the UK.

    I was a poor foreign student here once. I needed to work 7 nights a week to support myself. My college roommate ate nothing but chicken wings for dinner at home for 2 years so he could afford to study here.

    Maybe in the last decade every Chinese family has become millionaires because of the economic growth and I just didn't know about it.

  11. I have lost count of the number of different Chinese cooking methods: in my book on Sichuan food I list 56. Some of them are separate characters, others are variations on a theme (for example the basic word for 'braising' is 烧 shao, but it has lots of variants depending on the flavourings used, the colour of the sauce, or the consistency of the final sauce). Some characters are used differently in different regions, and some cooking terms are pure dialect: eg Sichuan has a cooking method called 'du' 督+ 火 fire radical (my Chinese software does not have the full character), which is, I'm told, basically an onomatopoeia for the sound of a simmering pot! Also, some methods are regional specialities: eg the 'ju' that was mentioned earlier in this thread is one you come across a lot in the Cantonese south, but I can't remember seeing it used in Sichuan.

    It's actually hard to be entirely precise about definitions of cooking methods because many of them overlap a bit, and because the terms have different meanings in different parts of China.


  12. The bamboo pith fungus is called zhu sun in Chinese. It grows in the mulch at the base of bamboo plants, and is a famous product of southern Sichuan. It's a bizarre and beautiful plant: starts off as strange brownish balls which peep up through the mulch of earth and bamboo leaves, and then a phallic central section emerges. When fully grown it looks like a parasol; you get the main stem (which is those lacy tubes you can buy dried), the even-more-lacy parasol hanging over it, and on top a thicker piece which has a texture a bit like tripe (a sort of hat on top of the parasol). They can all be eaten, although the stems are the most common part.

    You can also eat the immature fungus balls (called the 'eggs' of the fungus in Chinese), which are lovely: cut into slices, they have layers of different pale colours and a curled-up lacy parasol in the middle.


    I agree with Aprilmei, it does sound like you are talking about what I'd heard as Bamboo Pith.  I have a couple of bags of them in my cupboard.  I took a look at their labels, I found that they provided the Latin name:

    Dictyophora indusiata

    Did a google on this term, I found 980 pages of references.

    dictyophora indusiata

    Here is a picture of one:

    Picture of Dictyophora indusiata

    They are used in Chinese vegetarian cookings or in shark-fin soup.

    Surprisingly, they are not expensive at all.  I bought a bag at around US $4.00 (300g or about 6 oz?).  These things are light.

    By themselves they taste rather bland.  But they soak up the flavor in the sauce, which makes them tasty.  They provide a crunchy texture.

    I don't know how they are related to bamboos.

    Maybe bamboo fungus and bamboo pith are the same thing. In Google, I've been finding the same Latin name for both...

  13. Dear bivs99, Ben Hong, Gary

    Thanks so much for your kind words!

    Just a quick reply as I'm on holiday in Italy and being charged extortionate rates in the only internet bar in the village!

    Ben: if the Sichuan pepper you are using is 'just spicy' and not numbing, it's not really good stuff. You can't mistake the real Sichuan pepper buzz; in fact it's pretty shocking the first time you try it. It's like nothing else...

    Trillium: your tongue only numb for 5 minutes?! with some of the stuff I've tried it's more like 15 or 20 (gradually diminishing)!

    Gary Soup: what you had heard about Hunan/Sichuan does not really ring true. For a start, although the two cuisines are often lumped in together, and have a certain amount in common (mainly chillies, actually), they have very distinct styles. And if you look at a map you'll see the two provinces only touch a teeny teeny bit in SE Sichuan and NW Hunan, i.e. they are fairly distinct geographically. And if anything, Sichuan is the posher of the two cuisines. The Chinese are addicted to classification of everything, and in terms of cuisines there are various different systems, the most common being 'Four Great cuisines', one of which is Sichuanese. Hunanese does not get a look in unless you go instead for the 'eight great cuisines' angle, in which case Hunanese is one of them (obviously the Hunanese tend to like the 'eight great cuisines' system of classification!). So although both are very interesting, and have different strata of cuisines (street food, everyday food, banquet cooking etc), it's certainly not true that Hunanese is more prestigious than Sichuanese. Of course I'm talking from a PRC perspective : what you say may be true in the US...

    And yes, Mike Lev's Chicago Trib piece was accurate: I did a test, can't remember exactly what the result was (notes are at home in London), but I oven-baked some stuff and steamed some and they were both still a bit zingy but not as much as my untreated supplies. I reckon if they start with really good stuff the end product will be OK, but obviously if they start with your average Chinese supermarket Sichuan pepper it won't be numbing either before or after.

    This has turned into rather a long post after all!

    best wishes


  14. Re facing heaven chillies

    Actually the chillies are much less of a problem than the Sichuan pepper, for which there is no real substitute (although all the dishes will work and taste good without it, they will just lack that zingy Sichuan pepper feeling). Although the facing heaven are the most common chilli used in Chengdu cooking, other chillies are used in the region, eg smaller, thinner pointy chillies which are popular in Chongqing. The main thing is to choose a type which will give a good red colour and yield a heat you find palatable. Just experiment with whatever is available in your local spice shops. No need to be too dogmatic about this one.

    Incidentally, these days I am mostly using a ground Korean chilli to make my chilli oil (I buy it in London). It is quite mild and gives a spectacular ruby colour to the oil, so you can use the oil in generous quantities without blowing anyones head off. It is more like the Sichuanese two golden strips chilli than the facing heaven, i.e. milder, redder.

    best wishes

    Fuchsia Dunlop

  15. Chinese leeks

    Chinese leeks are NOT the same as Chinese chives (jiu cai), or flowering

    chives (jiu cai hua) or spring onions (cong). They do look a little like

    Chinese green onions aka spring onions, but they have flat leaves like

    leeks, not tubular ones like spring onions. They are a member of the

    alliums, can't remember which Latin name as I'm in China and don't have my

    reference books with me (but it's probably in my book 'Sichuan Plenty/'Land

    of Plenty' (US edition)).

    One of the reasons for all the confusion is that people have different names

    for them in different parts of China. For example, in Sichuan they are 'suan

    miao', in Hunan they are 'da suan' (big garlic), and others call them 'qing

    suan' (green garlic). They are not to my knowledge eaten raw, but feature in

    countless stir-fries, and are also added towards the end of cooking in many

    stew-type dishes. They are the most commonly used vegetable in Sichuanese

    twice-cooked pork (hui guo rou) and pock-marked mother chen's beancurd (ma

    po dou fu) - see the recipes in my book .

    They are hard to find in London, but pop up occasionally in Chinatown in

    winter. They are a fantastic vegetable so do make the most of them!! Most of

    the time I have to make do with baby leeks or spring onions, neither of

    which is ideal - eg baby leeks take longer to cook than suan miao.

    Hope this is helpful


  16. A quick note on Sichuan grinding and roasting peppercorns:

    The roasting brings out an amazing fragrance, but the powder loses this rather quickly. If you are really serious about it you should grind and roast the husks on the day you wish to use them; but (realistically) you can put the powder into an airtight jar for a week or so and it'll still be usable, though you'll notice the fragrance dulling down.

    I should imagine that bought ground, roasted Sichuan pepper is not worth using.

    As for the peppercorns themselves, the fresher the better. By the time the new year's crop is out you will want to chuck out last year's if you can...

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