Category: Sichuan

Yipin China, Islington

October 4th, 2012 — 12:29pm

Two visits to Islington within a week; another part of my South London street cred ebbing away every time my tentative steps took me aboard the sweaty Northern line, during rush hour. Teeth were gritted, knuckles turned white and the urge to punch other people was just about suppressed. Thankfully Yipin was worth the trauma. The number of Chinese restaurants serving decent, varied, regional food is ever growing. The menu at Yipin is divided into Hunan, Sichuan and Cantonese sections and it’s huge; I mean in terms of physical measurements, not number of dishes. Everything has an accompanying photograph of the kind that fall in the right place between splattered laminated takeaway menu and glossy PR shot; the kind that are genuinely helpful and importantly, make you want to actually eat the food.

First was ‘spiced fungus’, which was jelly fungus, slipping about in a mixture of sesame oil, red and green chilli and plenty of Chinkiang (black) vinegar, something I’ve not noticed so much when I’ve eaten the dish at other restaurants (Snazz Sichuan for example). It’s a cold dish, and the fungus has a seaweed-like texture, borderline crunchy, ‘like something that should be worn’ said my mate, ‘pieces of macintosh’ said another. Those were compliments, believe it or not. Easily my favourite dish of the evening.

Sichuan mixed pickles were not particularly pickled, but pleasantly soothing every so often when the sweats started kicking in. Hand torn cabbage was markedly different to the version at Silk Road, one of my favourite restaurant dishes of all time; notable variations included slivers of pork belly (never a bad thing), lots of fresh chilli rather than dried and considerably less sugar. A very successful dish but one with a lot to live up to.

Best of the meaty dishes was pork belly with preserved vegetable; neatly arranged slices of soft belly with cm thick stripes of fat. I love the way the Chinese celebrate the softness of a piece of simmered pork like this; bubbly crackling is obviously great, but it’s not the only way to celebrate the fatty underbelly. The sauce was funky with preserved vegetable, very much like the Tianjin preserved vegetable I became hopelessly addicted to at one stage; a unique, intense, cabbagey flavour. A second meaty main, deep fried beef with cumin didn’t seem at all deep fried but was incredibly tender. Despite a heady whack of cumin, it still managed to underwhelm. Again, I’ve been spoilt by the similarly flavoured lamb skewers with cumin at Silk Road and I wish I’d tried the Yipin version.

Dan dan noodles were a little underpowered compared to the Fuschia Dunlop recipe, which I regularly make at home (mine is the second photo). The meat is always presented on top and then the whole lot stirred together at the table. More preserved vegetable and a little numbing Sichuan pepper would have improved things. Still, nice enough, if more appropriate as a lunch dish.

Rice with salted chillies was disappointing, tasting pretty much just like standard egg fried rice, and tofu with salted duck egg had the odds stacked against it, coming as it did at the end of the meal. The slippery texture of the very soft tofu so beloved by the Chinese would have been welcome 20 minutes earlier but was challenging at that stage of the game, particularly in an eggy, gelatinous sauce.

Despite minor grumbles I very much enjoyed Yipin. The room is typically utilitarian, initially lacking in atmosphere but improving as it filled up with customers, the windows getting progressively steamier. We paid £21 each with a few beers, which is cheap by most restaurant standards of course, but more expensive than other similar restaurants, where I’ve struggled to spend more than £15. This is Islington however, not Camberwell (Silk Road) or King’s Cross (Chilli Cool). I’d like to have tried Yipin’s fish fragrant aubergine as a benchmark and also anything with preserved egg, plus the pickled green beans with minced pork which I adored at Shu Castle on the Old Kent Road.

Overall a little more flavour intensity would be appreciated but I think they’ve done a lovely job of making the food more accessible in general, the photos on the menu for example and the sensitive translations which see dishes like the well known ‘saliva chicken’ translated as the more appetising ‘mouth watering chicken’. I’ve been spoiled by my proximity to places in the South East, but if I ever find myself in the area? I’d definitely go back.

Yipin China
70-72 Liverpool Road
N1 0QD
Tel: 020 7354 3388

Yipin China on Urbanspoon

Thanks to Donald for the photos. 

19 comments » | Hunan food, Restaurant Reviews, Sichuan

Shu Castle, Old Kent Road

August 20th, 2011 — 1:45pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as much as I love South East London with all my heart, there are two areas that really test the limits of my affection and they are Elephant and the Old Kent Road. There’s just not much going for them, aesthetically or gastronomically speaking. When I worked in the city my bus would chug down the OKR every single day and I studied every inch of its bleak length looking for anything that might be remotely worth the effort of checking out. For some reason I had dismissed Shu Castle straight away; I mean, a Chinese place on the Old Kent Road, no-one’s exactly going to rush to try it, are they?

Turns out Shu Castle serves Sichuan food, which is very good indeed. Refreshingly, they don’t seem to have a massive, dull Cantonese menu too (just a very little one as a set menu), as many places do, presumably in an attempt to please everyone. Mainly they just do their thing and they do it very well. We had two cold dishes to start:

Century eggs with green chilli pepper. My first century egg – unbelievable, I know. They arrived, pungent and alarming in colour; the yolks tinged green and the whites, orange/purple. Their preservation for several weeks or months renders them scary in appearance and odour but I was pleased to find, relatively subtle in flavour; just like an egg, but richer, creamier. Addictive. This dish was hot, because there was a massive great pile of chopped green chillies on top. Duh.

Cold chicken arrived sliced in chilli oil, scattered with sesame seeds; slippery and tender. Cold poached chicken fat should be horrible but somehow is pleasingly silken; the Chinese love those jellified textures and so do I.

Pickled beans with pork mince. Pickles and pork, in the same dish? It was always going to get ordered. Little bullets of preserved beans, slightly musty, slightly bitter seemed to enhance the sweetness of the pork; it’s the kind of dish I’m going to spend silly amounts of time thinking about over the next few weeks.

We kept it simple with the meaty main: beef in chilli oil. This is what I want when I go for a Sichuan meal, bits of stuff bobbing about in a bloody great vat of spicy oil. “It’s hot” said the waitress “we know, that’s why we came here” said my mate. Tender slippery strips of meat plus bamboo shoots and Chinese leaves were fished from the scarlet depths. I particularly enjoyed the freshness of the coriander on top; something you don’t often see in Sichuan restaurants. I would have a liked a little more numbing from Sichuan peppercorns, but still, a great dish.

There were also boiled porky dumplings with chilli oil, soft and exactly as expected; a simple dumpling fix. There was a broth of gourd and again, pork, which was delicate, tasting subtly of simmered pork fat (in a good way, promise). Strangely moreish.

A reason to visit the Old Kent Road; who’d have thunk it?! The restaurant is tucked into the side of a hotel; the toilets are um…well, it’s not The Ritz is it, it’s a restaurant on the Old Kent Road. The carpet speaks of more than a few major spillages (chilli oil is a right bugger to get out, trust me, I speak from experience); the food however, is very good indeed. I’d like to feel a few more Sichuan peppercorns anaesthetising my mouth but apart from that, no grumbles. The portions are huge and we spent £76 between 3 with 3 beers each. South East London, with Wuli Wuli and Shu Castle, you really are spoiling us.

Shu Castle
194 Old Kent Road
Tel: 020 7703 9797

Shu Castle on Urbanspoon

13 comments » | Restaurant Reviews, Sichuan

Saturday Night Takeaway: Wuli Wuli

March 28th, 2011 — 8:03am

[Edit: Menu picture below updated March 2012. To see a larger version go to My Flickr]

A while back now I had some mates over and we remembered that Wuli Wuli do takeaway. I’ve been ordering one most Saturday nights since then and it’s so good I thought it might be worth a little reminder for those locals amongst you.

Remember you need to order from the Sichuan ‘B’ side of the menu, the other side is just the usual gloopy rubbish. Last night we feasted on (clockwise from top), mapo tofu; smacked cucumbers with garlic sauce; shredded potato with garlic sauce; the appetisingly named ‘saliva chicken'; monk’s vegetables and fried pork country style. Here’s a picture of the menu (below) in case it’s your first time and you don’t have one. This is the only page you need. If you’re going to order using the numbers make sure to say, “number 126-B” otherwise you’ll end up with number 126 from the A side of the menu and you’ll be faced with sweet and sour chicken balls.

The people are very friendly, the delivery super speedy (I’ve never had to wait more than 30 minutes for my food) and cheap; this lot (with 2 steamed rice) came to £30 and it fed 2 of us twice that evening and for lunch the next day. You get 2 free beers or a large soft drink with orders over £25. For me, nothing cuts through Sichuan food like an ice cold fizzy beer.

Wuli Wuli
15 Camberwell Church Street
Tel: 0207 708 5024
Free delivery on orders over £10
Open Mon-Sat 12-11pm and Sat-Sun 12-11.30pm; delivery time: 5-11pm.

Wuli Wuli on Urbanspoon

23 comments » | Restaurant Reviews, Sichuan

Hot and numbing dried beef for a Sichuan feast

January 10th, 2011 — 8:09am

My friend and I cooked this Sichuan feast for our other friend’s birthday present. The power of Microsoft Word was harnessed to create a voucher entitling him to “1 Sichuan Feast cooked in your own home”, which he chose to redeem on Saturday.

When the three of us get together, you could say that we enjoy a little drinky. Now this meal took a few hours to prepare so by the time we finished we were a little under the influence. Most of the feast was delicious although there were a few misses: the spicy cucumber salad from Fuschia Dunlop’s ‘Sichuan Cookery’ was strangely bland even though I’ve cooked it 5 times before and it’s always amazing; the tripe (we weren’t sure what to do with it really) and an attempt at getting creative with a bitter melon and black fungus. We blame the booze.

There were plenty of hits though – my mate and I make a damn good team in the kitchen and we’ve got some fine feasts under our belt like this and this. Here’s some of the good stuff…

Fish fragrant aubergines was more like fish fragrant pork really…

Fish and tofu hotpot wasn’t really cooked in a hotpot but was white fish and tofu simmered in a broth bobbing with dried red chillies…

Twice cooked pork: pork belly is simmered first, sliced thinly and then fried so the fat crisps up…

And the hot and numbing ‘dried’ beef. The meat is not actually dried but goes through a four stage cooking process: first it’s simmered in one piece then thinly sliced; next it’s marinated in a mixture of spring onion, ginger, shaoxing wine and salt before being deep fried, rendering it like strips of  jerky, with a bit more juiciness. Those slices are addictive, as you would expect bits of deep fried meat to be and you need to resist eating them all before the final stage of simmering with soy, ginger, spring onion and sugar until the liquid has reduced to the merest lick of syrup. It’s then dressed with the hot and numbing part – ground Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies before being sprinkled with coriander and sesame seeds. The pieces of meat have a very satisfying chew and leave a tantalising tingle on the lips.

A few hours, two bottles of champagne and a bottle of Albarino later and we went at that feast like hungry wolves. Noodles flew; hot pot broth splashed; peppercorns bounced across the floor. It must have been quite a sight. Between us we’d prepared nine dishes, had as much fun during the cooking as during the eating and made our friend happy. I call that a success.

You can see more photos from the feast on my Flickr.

Hot and numbing dried beef (from Sichuan Cookery by Fuschia Dunlop)

500g lean beef in 1 piece
Oil for deep frying, such as groundnut or vegetable oil

For simmering the beef
Small piece of cassia bark or cinnamon
1 star anise

For the marinade:
2tsp shaoxing wine
4 spring onions, white parts only
25g piece of ginger, unpeeled
1/2tsp salt

For the braising:
1 tablespoon sugar
1tablespoon dark soy
25g piece of ginger, unpeeled
3 spring onions, white parts only
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the dressing:
1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns
1-2 teaspoons ground chillies/chilli flakes
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
Very small bunch of coriander leaves, roughly chopped

Put the beef in a large pan with the cassia bark and star anise, cover with water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer until the beef is cooked then remove and set aside. Reserve the cooking water. Slice the beef into 1cm slices along the grain, then slice across the grain into 1cm wide strips. Halve any long pieces so that all the strips are roughly the same size.

Crush the ginger and spring onions a bit with the side of a knife or heavy object then chop each into 3-4 pieces. Place in a bowl with the shaoxing wine and salt, add the beef and mix really well. leave for half an hour or more in the marinade.

Heat the oil for deep frying in a deep pan. Add the beef in small batches for about 4 minutes, until the pieces are reddish broan and crisp. Set each batch aside to drain on kitchen paper. Don’t worry if they stick together during frying, they should pull apart easily.

Heat 2tablespoons of oil in a wok, until smoking. Stir fry the ginger and spring onions for 30 seconds or until the oil smells fragrant. Add 500ml of the reserved beef cooking water plus the soy, sugar and salt. Add the beef and bring it to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes until the beef has absorbed almost all the liquid leaving a syrupy glaze coating the beef.

Mix together all the ingredients for the dressing. Arrange the beef on a serving plate and pour over the dressing then garnish with the coriander leaves and sesame seeds.

12 comments » | Main Dishes, Meat, Sichuan

Ants climbing a tree

June 20th, 2010 — 4:33pm

Where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity, as someone said to me recently. What a delightful little motto that is. I’m all for the power of positive thinking. I’ll spare you the gruesome tedium of reading about my struggles because everyone has enough of their own and really, it won’t do much for your no-doubt gleeful outlook on life. I will deliver all the information you need to receive in just one word: SKINT. Attractive fodder options for me right now are cheap or ideally, free. Frugal cooking skills are being tested. I’ve stopped thinking of foraging as some kind of romantic middle class pursuit and started approaching it in a more desperate, means of survival kind of way. Which is why I’ve been picking ants off trees and using them as a meat substitute.

Obviously I’m joking. For now. ‘Ants climbing a tree’ is the name of a popular Sichuan dish; no insects required. The crumbs of minced pork are said to look like ants climbing up the lengths of mung bean thread noodles; a typically brilliant Chinese moniker for a bowl of spicy chow.

Hands on hips, I stood and assessed the contents of an over-stuffed cupboard. Foraging starts at home and all that. The noodles were a gift from a mate and therefore free. The seasonings (chilli bean paste, soy, chilli oil, garlic etc.), all in house already and so just like the NHS, free at the point of usage. Chicken stock and pork mince were similarly extricated from the back of the freezer; the only ingredients bought on the day were the (essential) spring onions. Result.

Well, almost. The noodles were not mung bean but in the spirit of frugality I subbed them in; a bit of a mistake as they were super-glutinous with a tendency to clump. Not unpleasant but my ants were more gangs hiding in bushes than climbing up trees. The dish is typically Sichuan: boisterous with hot bean paste; salty and aromatic. I couldn’t resist adding a little funky Tianjin preserved vegetable too.

A soft opening then to a challenge which can only get harder as stocks dwindle. I must not cave to the obvious parsimonious choices: baked spuds or beans for example; even worse – together. I can live on very little money, just as long as I don’t get hit where it really hurts. Food is the most primitive of all comforts, as someone or other once said. There’s a big difference between choosing to eat an omelette every so often and actually having to eat one. This is the cusp of a period of culinary creativity at its most stretching; it’s one thing to dream up a dish when you’ve got any ingredient you wish at your disposal, quite another when options are limited. I won’t be shedding any tears over memories of rib-eye steaks or fine wines though. Like I said, no problem, but an opportunity.

Ants Climbing A Tree (this recipe is from Sunflower’s website, which is really reliable. I only made a couple of adjustments, which were to add some preserved vegetable as I am very fond of it and to omit the celery).

200g mung bean/dried glass noodles
2 tablespoons oil
3 cloves chopped garlic
2 tablespoons chilli bean sauce/paste
300g minced pork
1 tablespoon light soy
1-2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon Tianjin preserved vegetable, rinsed and chopped
1 chilli, chopped
1-2 teaspoons chilli oil
300ml chicken stock (or vegetable)
2 spring onions, for garnish
Extra chopped chilli, for garnish

Soak the noodles in warm water for about 15 minutes, with their strings on. Then drain, remove the strings and cut into shorter lengths.

Heat the oil in a pan then add the garlic, ginger and preserved vegetable if using for about 15 seconds then the chilli bean paste until fragrant. Add the pork mince and cook until brown, breaking it up into small pieces with a spoon as you stir and cook it. Add the soy, sugar and chilli (if using), followed by the noodles and stock. Let cook until the noodles have absorbed all the stock.

Garnish with spring onions, extra chilli and chilli oil.

23 comments » | Meat, Noodles, Sichuan

How I Learned to Love Tofu

February 3rd, 2010 — 10:17pm

The idea of tofu used to make me shudder. The mere mention of the word and I would turn my nose up and scoff something about it being a tasteless meat substitute eaten only by extreme hippy types like Neil from The Young Ones.

That was until I discovered ‘proper’ Chinese food – Sichuan food in particular. Ma Po Tofu was where I turned the corner. Tofu doesn’t actually taste of anything; on its own it is purely a texture, which is why the strong flavours of Sichuan cookery suit it so well. In the ma po, wobbly cubes are cooked with pork or beef mince, funky fermented black beans and numbing Sichuan pepper. I let the tofu into my life from the moment I tasted it.

From there of course I wanted more and started thinking about the best way to get it. If there’s one thing a healthy food needs, it’s fat; frying seemed like the obvious answer. I wanted a crisp, spicy coating and at first tried to achieve it using panko crumbs left over from my mac ‘n cheese but they didn’t stick particularly well and the crust turned out patchy.

It was then I remembered reading somewhere that toasted ground rice would create the crunch I was looking for, with a nutty flavour to boot. A handful of uncooked basmati tinkled into a dry pan and toasted before I pounded and pounded and pounded it for a good 15 minutes before giving in and handing it to my boyfriend. Here’s the thing: making your own ground rice in a pestle and mortar is seriously hard graft. The next day I found a bag of it in Khan’s Bargain Ltd. in Peckham – 59p. You live and learn.

It did meet expectations though; mixed with equal amounts of coarse salt, ground pepper and dried chillies, the tofu cubes are transformed into super savoury bites with a rather erm, ‘meaty’ quality.

Of course, crispy tofu, as good as it may be, does not a complete meal make. I plonked it on top of steaming rice and served it with stir fried kow choi – an oniony/chivey tasting vegetable picked up on a whim in Brixton, mixed with minced pork (recurring theme?), cabbagey Sichuan preserved vegetable and chilli bean sauce. I basically cooked it with the flavours of dry fried beans. It is now ranking high amongst my favourite vegetables. I’m an allium whore.

Tofu is a blank canvas. This is something I always knew but never accepted. It can be an ingredient in the most mundane stir fry recipe from the back of a Cauldron packet, or it can be celebrated, injected with flavours, treated with a little respect. By this I mean you have to season it right and then also remember to show it a little love in the prep stage – you can read that below.

So now of course I want to know what you’ve got up your sleeve. What’s your favourite way to cook/eat tofu?

Crisp and Spicy Tofu

1 block of extra firm tofu
2 tbsp ground rice
2tbsp coarse sea salt
1.5 tbsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp ground dried chillies
Groundnut oil, for frying

Here’s the important ‘showing it some love bit’  – line a plate with a double layer of kitchen paper and then put the tofu on top before covering with another double layer and then resting a plate or two on top. Leave it for 15 minutes. The idea is to draw out a lot of the moisture. That’s it!

Mix all the coating ingredients together. Cut the tofu into cubes and toss them in the coating mixture. Heat a 1 cm depth of oil in a heavy based pan and fry the tofu pieces until golden brown and crisp on all sides. You could of course deep fry it, but that is a bridge too far for me, quite frankly.

Kow Choi with Minced Pork

Heat 1 tbsp ground nut oil in a pan and fry 2 cloves chopped garlic, a 1 inch piece grated ginger, 1 heaped tbsp Sichuan preserved vegetable (rinsed and chopped) and 5 whole red chillies (halve them if you want it hotter) for 1 minute until fragrant. Add 1/2-1tbsp chilli bean sauce and a generous pinch of sugar, stir briefly, then add 250g kow choi (cut into inch long sections). Stir fry until wilted. Season with salt. Add a few drops of sesame oil to serve.

25 comments » | Sichuan, Tofu, Vegetables

More Sichuan Cooking

November 17th, 2009 — 10:35pm

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)

To serve

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
Coriander leaves

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.

11 comments » | Meat, Sichuan

Back to top