First Adventures in Sichuan Cooking

I’ve been meaning to buy Fuchsia Dunlop’s books for years, friends rave about them and as someone who loves eating Sichuan food, I really should have got my act together a bit sooner. Even now, this copy of Sichuan Cookery is borrowed from a mate – an exchange for my beloved (and signed!) copy of Persia in Peckham by shop keeper extraordinaire, Sally Butcher.

I thought it best to start with some classics so I settled on twice cooked pork (hui guo rou) and ma po dou fu, otherwise known as ‘Pock-marked Mother Chen’s Beancurd, after the inventor of the dish – the wife of a Qing Dynasty restaurateur who was terribly scarred as a result of smallpox. I’ve taken a while to come around to tofu but now I’m a fully fledged fan and if you want to convert another hater, then this is the dish that might just do it. Tender tofu is coated in a luscious thick sauce, tingly with Sichuan peppercorns and meaty with crispy fried beef – surprisingly comforting for a beancurd dish.

As I was serving up tofu to the rather sceptical boyfriend, I thought I better include a meat dish to soften the blow somewhat, hence the twice cooked pork. The belly is first simmered before being fridged (to firm it up), then sliced into thin strips and stir fried with delicious flavourings such as chilli bean paste, fermented black beans and soy.

I simmered my pork for slightly too long and it went a touch dry but was still incredible after a good wokking, which crisped up all the lovely fat into heavenly caramelised strips and turned the flavourings into a sticky, sweet, umami packed sauce which clinged to the meat. I served both dishes with plenty of plain white rice and a spicy cucumber salad (qiang huang gua, top photo) for a spicy yet refreshing contrast.

The next night, fuelled by my success with the first attempts, I turned to my mate FD once again and this time felt drawn to the rabbit with peanuts in hot bean sauce (hua ren ban tu ding), what with all those big wild bunnies being ready for the eating right now, not to mention cheap. The meat is first simmered with aromatic ginger and spring onions then stripped off the bone and combined with crunchy roasted peanuts, spring onions and a typically intense sauce of mashed fermented black beans, chilli bean paste, soy, sesame and chilli oils.

For freshness I took inspiration from Fuchsia’s ‘fine green beans in ginger sauce’ and made a variation using sliced runner beans. The dish is cold and demands that the ginger be absolutely spanking fresh. The beans are simmered, refreshed and then coated in a tongue awakening sauce of Chinkiang vinegar, sesame oil, salt and a little stock.

We are lucky here in London as ingredients are easily available from Asian supermarkets and the one just down the road from me in Peckham is good; the only ingredient I haven’t been able to find is sweet wheaten paste so I followed Fuchsia’s suggestion for a substitution and bought sweet bean sauce instead. If you don’t have access to an Asian supermarket then I would suggest ordering online. As you can probably tell by now, I tend to go through obsessive little phases with my cooking and right now I’m plunging headlong into Sichuan. I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered the delights of fermented black beans (literally want to put them in everything), not to mention Tianjin preserved vegetable, the heady funk of which at first was a bit of shock but now has become plain addictive.

So, now I’ve got all these ingredients, I need to find new things to do with them. What are your favourite Sichuan dishes? I’d love to try them (FYI, I don’t have a hotpot – yet!). Are there any other authors on Sichuan food that I really should be checking out? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Rabbit with Peanuts in Hot Bean Sauce (hua ren ban tu ding) from ‘Sichuan Cookery’ by Fuchsia Dunlop

(serves 2 for dinner or 4 as part of a larger meal)

40g piece unpeeled fresh ginger
2 whole spring onions
500g rabbit meat (Fuchsia describes this as half a rabbit but I needed a whole one)
4 spring onions, white parts only
75g deep-fried or roasted peanuts

For the sauce
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
3 tablespoons groundnut oil
2 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chilli bean paste (I couldn’t find Sichuan so just used a different chilli bean paste)
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon white sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1-2 tablespoons chilli oil (optional)

As an optional first step Fuchsia instructs to blanch the rabbit in boiling water to get rid of any bloodiness. I didn’t bother.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, lightly crush the ginger and spring onions with a heavy object. When boiling, add the rabbit, return to the boil and skim. Add the ginger and spring onions and simmer over a low heat until the meat is just cooked (this will vary depending on the size of your rabbit).

When cooked, allow to cool and take the meat off the bone. Mash the fermented black beans. Heat the groundnut oil in a wok over a medium flame until hot but not smoking. Add the chilli bean paste and mashed black beans and stir fry for 30 seconds until the oil is red and fragrant. Take care not to let the flavourings burn. Tip into a small bowl and combine with the soy sauce, sugar sesame oil and chilli oil, if using.

Chop the spring onion whites into 1cm sections. When ready to serve, combine the rabbit meat, spring onions and peanuts in a serving bowl. Add the sauce and toss to coat evenly. Serve.

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18 thoughts on “First Adventures in Sichuan Cooking

  1. having lived in Sichuan province, i can say these recipes really stand up on quality. I am always on the look out for recipes, to produce my fav food at home. I hate the state of Chinese food in the uk, completely one dimensional, considering it’s just a vast nation with a wide range of flavours and ingrediants. Real sichaun food is delicious…

  2. I’m so glad you’ve started down the Sichuan cookery route – I’ve been dabbling in Chinese cooking for the last couple of years since I stumbled upon a copy of book called Chinese Regional Cooking by Deh-Ta Hsiung from the 1970s. I was somehow strangely seduced by the over-saturated but charmingly homely photography in that book, but it is nice to see your fresh and natural shots. I find it difficult to present the Pock-marked woman’s bean curd dish in a particularly attractive way, but you seem to have managed this – I’m very impressed!

    So I know you’ve already seen it, but for the benefit of others here, my favourite Sichuan recipe from this book is “Pork in hot and sour sauce”. I’ve written up the whole thing for you (with step by step illustrations) on my blog here http://bathosphere.org/emstar/2009/09/20/a-sichuan-dish-pork-in-hot-and-sour-sauce/. The dish is a classic spicy Sichuan style thang, with a very distinctive flavour which comes from the dried mushrooms, preserved vegetables, leek and bamboo shoots. Well worth a try.

  3. You did really well! The twice cooked pork looks so mouth-watering. I love Sichuan food. We had a really good Sichuan restaurant in Milpitas, near San Jose, CA. I have no idea whether there’s a Sichuan restaurant here in Kuching. Guess I’m gonna have to cook it myself then!

  4. Your twice cooked pork looks fab and looks pretty much like the portion I had at Chilli Cool recently (that’s a good thing as I have a season ticket at CC). You should try cooking dry fried green beans (gan bian siji dou) next.

  5. A Forkful – Thanks! I knew you wanted this recipe in particular :)
    Lizzie – Thanks again for lending me the book. I think I’ll have to buy my own copy, I love it so much. That’s a lovely tip with the black beans on the rice – I’ll definitely be trying that and the fish fragrant aubergines.
    Rosie – No I haven’t but will definitely check it out – thanks for the rec
    Sharmila – ooh the hot and numbing dried beef is on my hitlist too actually. I don’t mind the involved recipes; in fact I prefer them!
    Alexis – Thanks!
    Patrick – well I’m SE so it isn’t that bad actually. I’ll always go the extra few miles for some hard to find ingredients anyway, thanks for the recommendation.
    Ginger, EatTravel, Y – Thank you all! :)
    Helen – Brilliant! There was me thinking I couldn’t do one. I’ll check out your post.

  6. What an excellent meal! To have hotpot at home, you don’t really need a special hotpot unless you want to do yinyang (half spicy half not), in which case you’ll need the split pot (shallowish pot with a metal separator down the middle or an actual pot with two separate sections. I do Cantonese hotpot, so I just use a shallow clay pot on a little gas stove on the dining table. I’ve written a long post on it if you want to see what’s involved…

  7. It may be a little out of the way for you, or you may already know about it but there is a massive Asian supermarket called See Woo near Greenwich Peninsula. I have yet to need an ingredient they didn’t have there. Also good for offaly bits of animals too. They have a massive wholesale section too.

    They have fresh lobsters and other shellfish but I’ve never thought they look very nice.

  8. looks so wonderful Helen! Glad it all turned out so well. My favourite Sichuan things to cook apart from that cucumber salad and ma po dofu are fish fragrant aubergine, dry fried green beans and the hot and numbing dried beef. The aubergine and the beef are a bit labour intensive but the results are brilliant!

  9. So glad you enjoyed the book; it’s my favourite cook book. I’m yet to try anything from Persia in Peckham, but I will do soon!

    The Chinese really love their salty foods – I like to chop up those fermented black beans and just sprinkle them on top of rice. The preserved vegetables are great in tofu and meat stews; it has got such a funk. Not as bad as fermented red bean paste though.

    Ma Po Tofu is my favourite Sichuan dish – it converted the tofu-hating ex. Fish frangrant aubergines is another one of my all time favourite dishes, as well as hot & sour soup.

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