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.