For Christmas I got the latest edition the The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop. I was immediately excited: we have a lot of cookbooks but none on Chinese cookery. Here was a beautiful volume on a specific region. I could hardly wait to finish the Christmas foods so I could cook.
I think of Sichuan food as spicy, hot with chilli, ytes, but also the almost medicated flavour of Sichuan pepper. I’m woefully unaware of anything else about the region, except that it has giant pandas. China is an enormous country and I know that each region contains a variety of cuisines, climates and people. But I don’t know what sets them apart. The Food from Sichaun allows me to learn a little bit about one of these regions.
The books is structured logically with a nice opening section on Sichaun, followed by information about ingredients and cooking methods. The photo illustrating chopping instructions were particularly useful and charming: straw cut, rice-grain sized, fingernails.
I raced through cold dishes, meat, poultry & eggs, fish & seafood and slowed down when I got to tofu. Vegetables and soups held my attention, I sped up through rice and then found noodles. Here I stopped and started planning.
Time to get cooking
My first foray into Sichuan cooking was Sour-and-hot ‘Flower’ Tofu Soup that I loved: it was easy, utterly delicious, plentiful and comforting. And with Bombay mix on top (as per the recipe!), it had unexpected texture. I’ve been craving this for the last couple of days and will make it for lunch tomorrow.
We ate so much soup we didn’t need noodles so I had to curb my impatience for a day. When we got to noodles, however, it was difficult to get us off them again.
It’s all about the noodles for me
The red bookmark is permanently on Chongqing ‘Small’ Noodles. We like it so much that not only have I made it several times but Christopher has too. (Usually, when we add a new recipe to the household repertoire, it belongs to the first person to make it. This is too good for exclusivity.) The noodles can be made two ways, wet – with a bit of broth or noodle water – or dry – with the seasoning ingredients only. It’s really simple and has everything you might want in a dish: crunch from peanuts, smooth slipperiness from the sesame seed paste and broth, heat from the chilli oil, chew from the noodles and pickled veg, and freshness from pak choi and spring oninos. Every mouthful is a delight and the dish can be varied by changing what pickled and fresh veg are used. Our current favourite is a combination of preserved mushrooms and edamame that probably isn’t traditional but worked well in an ‘oops, we’re out of…’ situation.
I should mention that this is a very nicely written book: the stories about the dishes are interesting and the recipes I’ve used have been easy to follow. If there are variations, these are described too.
My second noodle was Traditional Dandan Noodles. Like the previous noodles, you make a seasoning paste directly in the bowl, then layer noodles and topping over it. (I used tofu instead of mince for the topping.) It looks pretty and then you mix it prior to scoffing. After that, only the taste matters. And the taste is good.
I want to make almost all of the noodle recipes. Yibin ‘Kindling’ Noodles is tonight’s dinner. They’re a ‘dry’ style of noodle flavoured with a walnut and chilli infused oil topped with walnuts, peanuts, pickled veg and spring onions. I’m also very curious about the Sichuan take on Cold Buckwheat Noodles. I make a Japanese-inspired version of this in the summer and look forward to trying the Sichuan take which adds chilli oil and, of course, eponymous pepper.
Noodles are not the only dish
I’ve made a couple of the cold vegetable dishes – broccoli and edamame – and like the method of cooking veg until it’s perfect then dressing with a little stock and sesame oil.
I haven’t spent much time on the sections about small eats, hotpot, preserved foods, sweet dishes, or seasonings & stocks yet. Seasonings & stocks contains a number of things I want to make: my own chilli oil, sesame paste (we’ve been cheating and using tahini), Salt and Sichuan Pepper Dip, Fermented Glutinous Rice Wine, Sweet Aromatic Soy Sauce to mention just a few.
There’s so much still to try: I want to try Mapo Tofu, and make my own ‘Flower’ tofu. I want to try Home-style Tofu and I might make the Mount Emei Spicy Silken Tofu this weekend. It looks perfect for a cold and dreich day, soothing a mind driven unruly by the dripping of water in the attic: silken tofu made slippy with starch and served with hot seasoning sauce and crunchy toppings.
I want to make Stir-fried Cabbage with Chilli, Stir-fried Potato Slivers with Chillies and Sichuan Pepper, Tender Boiled Vegetables with a Spicy Dip, dumplings, steamed buns… The list is long.
Using The Food of Sichuan is a delight. The stories that accompanies the recipes are engaging and give a flavour of the region. The recipes are easy to follow and the ones I’ve tried have been really good. You benefit from a few speciality ingredients so a visit to your local Chinese supermarket might be in order. Many of the recipes are – or can easily be adjusted to be – vegetarian. I’m going to have a lot of delicious fun with this beautiful book and am impressed that we’ve already added one of the dishes to our combined repertoire.
I recommend that you read the sections that aren’t recipes too: The 23 Flavours of Sichuan is a delight and The story of Sichuanese Cuisine is fascinating.
The Food of Sichuan by Fuchsia Dunlop
Photography by Yuki Sugiura, with additional photography by Ian Cumming.