By Ella Walker
Sharing lunch with Fuchsia Dunlop we savour smacked cucumbers doused in sesame sauce, thinly sliced pork wrapped around carrot shreds, a glossy bowl of fish-fragrant aubergine and dry fried beans from the wok, laced with pickled veg and minced pork.
When she wrote the original edition of her first cookbook, The Food of Sichuan, dishes like these were almost unknown in Britain and the States, let alone eaten in restaurants (“You couldn’t buy real Sichuan pepper!”).
Almost 20 years on, the cuisine “has become wildly popular” says food writer Dunlop, who throughout the intervening years has continued travelling around the region, magpie-ing recipes and interviewing chefs – and as a way to “keep up the eating”.
She became the first westerner – and one of very few women – to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu.
Since then the country and cuisine have developed considerably, but then, “Sichuan food has always been very open-minded and incorporates lots of different influences,” notes Dunlop.
“One of the most extraordinary things is okra, it was really unknown just a couple of years ago, but now it’s on every restaurant menu,” she buzzes, while there’s also a craze for an ‘ice plant’ – “a sort of succulent, eaten raw. It has green leaves, but it looks like there’s ice all over them, so when you eat it, it really crunches noisily in your mouth.”
If Sichuan is entirely new to you though, Dunlop is the ideal guide, with the updated version of The Food of Sichuan reflecting how the region and its tastes have changed, as well as encompassing its core tenets.
“People [often] think Sichuanese cooking is all about fire and spice, chillies and lip-numbing Sichuan pepper, and actually it’s not,” she muses, explaining how the Chinese word for Sichuan pepper is the same as ‘pins and needles’, or anaesthesia. “It’s all about variety.
“Good Chinese and Sichuan food is all about balance, not about battering your palate with lots of heat and nothing else,” she adds.
The worst misconception around Chinese food in the western world, she says, is that it’s bad for you. “I think the Chinese know more about healthy eating than anyone else,” she explains. “Food in China has always been intimately related to medicine, and people use food to treat illness and indisposition, and the way people eat in an everyday way at home is a lot healthier than the way many people eat in this country.”
For instance, meat is used sparingly: One western portion of meat would be cut into slivers and stir fried with vegetables, then served with more vegetables and rice. “It’s a really good model of healthy and sustainable eating, when it’s done well.”
Cold Buckwheat Noodles
200g dried buckwheat or buckwheat-and-wheat noodles
2 small handfuls of finely chopped celery (1-2 celery sticks)
4tbsp thinly sliced spring onion greens
0.5tsp toasted sesame seeds
For the seasonings:
4tsp light soy sauce
2tbsp Chinkiang vinegar
0.5tsp caster sugar
2tbsp chilli oil, plus 1 tbsp sediment
0.25-0.5tsp ground roasted Sichuan pepper (optional)
Boil the noodles to your liking.
Divide all the seasonings between two bowls.
When the noodles are ready, tip them into a colander and quickly rinse under the cold tap, then drain well.
Divide the noodles between the bowls and mix well.
Scatter over the remaining ingredients and serve.
Cooking oil, for deep-frying
1.5tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste
1 .5tbsp finely chopped garlic
1tbsp finely chopped ginger
150ml hot stock or water
4tsp caster sugar
1tsp light soy sauce
0.75tsp potato starch, mixed with 1 tbsp cold water
1tbsp Chinkiang vinegar
6tbsp thinly sliced spring onion greens
Cut the aubergines into batons about 2cm thick and 7cm long. Sprinkle with salt, mix well and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
Rinse the aubergines, drain well and pat dry with kitchen paper. Heat the deep-frying oil to around 200°C (hot enough to sizzle vigorously around a test piece of aubergine). Add the aubergines, in two or three batches, and deep-fry for about three minutes, until tender and a little golden. Drain well on kitchen paper and set aside.
Carefully pour off all but 3 tbsp oil from the wok and return to a medium flame. Add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant: take care not to burn the paste (move the wok away from the burner if you think it might be overheating). Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry until they smell delicious.
Tip in the stock or water, sugar and soy sauce. Bring to the boil, then add the aubergines, nudging them gently into the sauce so the pieces do not break apart. Simmer for a minute or so to allow the aubergines to absorb the flavours.
Give the potato starch mixture a stir and add it gradually, in about three stages, adding just enough to thicken the sauce to a luxurious gravy (you probably won’t need it all). Tip in the vinegar and all but one tablespoon of the spring onion greens, then stir for a few seconds to fuse the flavours.
Turn out on to a serving dish, scatter over the remaining spring onion greens and serve.