Sometimes there is only one thing capable of cheering me up and that is an afternoon of uninterrupted cooking. Since I twigged that I can have a go at making Sichuan food at home (duh), rarely a week has passed when I’ve not been drawn to its hot, numbing intensity. I’m now happily chomping my way through some classic recipes from what is currently my preferred resource: Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery.
This dish of ’man and wife meat slices’ or ‘fu qi fei pan’, traditionally includes a mixture of offal (‘fei pan’ translates as ‘lung slices’) but unfortunately, I had chosen to cook it on the afternoon of The Great Offal Shortage of SE London – a thorough scouring of no less than three butcher’s shops turned up not a morsel. I followed FD’s advice to use just stewing steak in one piece. The beefy hunk was simmered gently in aromatic stock – sweet with yellow rock sugar (melted to deep caramel brown in a wok first) and fragrant with spices – star anise, cloves and Sichuan pepper, amongst others. Once cooked and cooled completely, the meat is sliced, then laid out on a bed of celery and adorned with seasonings: chilli oil, soy sauce, sesame seeds and peanuts.
Two hours later I was lost in the scent of anise and beef when I suddenly came to, realising I’d taken my eye off the ball and overcooked it; the meat was dry. I kicked myself briefly then engaged in an emergency spooning of cooking liquor over meat, which seemed to soothe, restore and re-juice. The broth even paid back a double dose of love the next day, as a base for an outrageously hot noodle soup.
We ate it with this fiery cucumber salad (I’m dependent) and some steamed aubergines which were, sadly, practically inedible. I used the small, slender variety but found them incredibly bitter and in need of a good salting; our faces puckered inside out and the plate was hastily pushed aside. The dipping sauce was, teasingly, a definite keeper.
Sichuan food is such an intense experience and one that I find incredibly addictive. A few hours later, I got the bug all over again and set about making dan dan mian: a classic noodle dish with additions of fried minced pork and some typically concentrated seasonings. You arrange your bits and bobs in a bowl, then plonk the noodles on top and stir; nuggets of slightly crispy meat and funky preserved vegetable nestle in a slippery tangle. And so it was complete: a comfort food feast of the highest order and enough to raise a smile from even the grumpiest blogger.
Man and Wife Meat Slices (from ‘Sichuan Cookery’ by Fuchsia Dunlop)
500g beef braising steak, in one piece
30-40g unpeeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon groundnut oil
20g rock sugar, crushed
1 litre pork stock (Fuchsia uses her own recipe here)
1.5 teaspoons salt
2 spring onions, cut into thirds
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper
1.2 cinnamon stick or a few bits of cassia bark
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 star anise
4 cloves (pinch off the little powdery heads and discard)
3-4 sticks celery or Chinese celery
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1-2 tablespoons chilli oil, with chilli flakes (sediment)
1/2 teaspoon toasted (in a dry pan but be really careful, it burns easily) and ground Sichuan pepper
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, crushed
Bring a pan of water to the boil and blanch the beef in it for 10-20 seconds then throw away the water and rinse the meat under the tap.
Heat the oil with half the rock sugar in a wok over a gentle heat and when the sugar melts, turn the heat up and boil until it is a caramel colour. Fill a small coffee cup with water and throw it in the wok, standing back as it will steam and spit. Transfer the liquid to a saucepan.
Add the stock, the remaining sugar, salt, ginger (crushed a bit with a heavy object), spring onions and spices then bring to a boil and add the beef. Return to the boil, cover and reduce to simmer gently for about an hour and a half until tender. Remove the beef from the pan, reserving the liquid, and allow it to cool completely.
De-string the celery sticks and slice them thinly and use any small leaves too. Scatter it over the base of your serving plate. Thinly slice the beef (against the grain) and lay it on top. Mix four tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid with the soy sauce and poor over the meat. Add chilli oil to taste, then scatter over the Sichuan pepper, sesame seeds, peanuts and coriander.