Chinese Food : A Birthday Feast, Sichuan-Style : Spices: Sichuan cookery on its own turf benefits from a lack of refrigeration. : Ingredients are always, by necessity, at their freshest.
Despite my Cantonese background, I have always enjoyed the fiery spices of Sichuan cookery. On my first trip to China years ago, I traveled to Sichuan to sample the genuine taste of that cuisine.
One thing I noticed was how much more pungency and aroma Sichuan peppercorns have in Sichuan--they lose so much in being shipped. On the spot, the peppercorns and freshly ground dried chiles have a richer, deeper dimension than the same spices elsewhere.
When I returned to Sichuan early in 1989, I alerted my friends there to my desire to grasp that elusive essence. Their guidance led me to a memorable birthday feast in the town of Baogduang, about an hour’s ride from Chengdu, the largest city in Sichuan. As it turned out, it was quite an introduction to yet another facet of Chinese life: the countryside.
Last of a three-part series.
Despite 22 cities with a population of a million or more, China remains an overwhelmingly agrarian country. Under the reforms that have been instituted during the last decade, the peasants have been given a more personal stake in the land they work. While they do not own the land, they have been guaranteed a form of tenure that allows them to plan realistically over several planting seasons and to gain materially from their labors.
The state permits peasants to produce whatever crops or products they want, once the state-required allotments of basic foods have been taken care of. This allowed market forces to come into play and created the vastly increased production of fruits, vegetables and specialty foods the Chinese have always loved.
It has also shifted the center of village life from the communal organization to the family. The families that are strategically located (near urban markets and seaports), that have sons to work the land, that have control of the better lands and those that are more industrious, frugal, innovative--and lucky--have been able to improve their material situation.
But the majority of people anywhere, any time, will not be millionaires. And the majority of Chinese peasants are impoverished. In fact, mortality rates are higher in the country, and medical and educational costs are higher too.
Such thoughts went through my mind as we traveled by rented car through the Sichuan countryside. On my lap I held the sweet cake I was to present to Huang Haijia, whose birthday it was. We passed miles of rice fields before arriving at the gate of the family home, through which we were led into a large open courtyard in the front of a thatched roofed house.
It was immediately clear to me that this was a better-off household. The home was rather large, if modestly furnished, with three bedrooms, a roomy but primitive kitchen and a small dining room. The courtyard served as the “family room.”
The kitchen was quite traditional. There was no refrigerator, everything had come from the market that morning and was protected from sun (and flies) by draped cloths. Food was kept in a small screened pantry hung from the ceiling. The room was illuminated only by a large skylight and a single low-watt bulb.
As for the food, there were mounds of washed yellow chives, tomatoes, cloud ear fungus, already soaking, and the appropriate amount of rice, ready to be washed. Mrs. Huang told me that they usually ate mostly rice and vegetables with very little meat, but because this was a birthday occasion they were having many pork dishes as well as fish. These are the customary celebration foods throughout China.
Many farms can raise their own pigs and carp but the Huangs got theirs from specialty markets nearby--Mr. Huang and his son, Kanze, had been assigned the task of bicycling to those markets to get the fresh pork and carp. The carp arrived alive, swimming around in red buckets, their freshness guaranteed.
I asked Mr. Huang why he did not raise pigs. He told me that he did not raise enough grain to feed any stock. Pigs are a wonderful animal, but they eat what humans eat and, he joked, his family could not afford the competition. He actually specializes in raising chiles, garlic and vegetables, which are in great demand in urban markets. In turn, he must buy his pork and fish from other specialists.
Someone brought plump, pungent cloves of fresh garlic in from the garden and peeled them to be crushed and mixed for the chile paste used in many of the dishes. Mrs. Huang proudly showed me her earthen jar filled with red chiles she had pickled the year before. She took some of these prizes and, using her ancient mortar and pestle, pounded them with the garlic into a sauce. She then mixed it with freshly roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns.
The meal included at least 16 dishes by my count: cold spicy chicken, fried peanuts with salt and Sichuan peppercorns, tender pork belly in a spicy sauce, fresh green beans stir-fried with mild chile peppers, cooked smoked meats, Sichuan-style duck, stir-fried yellow chives with pork, stir-fried celery with minced pork, eggplant with pork, stir-fried oyster mushrooms, stem lettuce with cloud ears, stir-fried fresh chiles with pork, grass carp with chile bean sauce, stir-fried cloud ears, a tomato soup and, finally, cucumbers stir-fried with pork. Roasted Sichuan peppercorns were sprinkled on most dishes before serving. The meal was finished with a rice/cabbage dish, the cabbage having been boiled in water that the meats had been cooked in.
All of this we consumed in the courtyard during a five-hour period of eating and drinking in the warm haze of the afternoon sunshine of the Sichuan sky. As my friends and I reluctantly gathered in the courtyard to leave, I asked Mr. Huang to allow me to taste one last time the heart of the Sichuan style--an absolutely fresh peppercorn. He took me over to a scrubby bush I had barely noticed and plucked off one of its reddish, wrinkled berries. I bit into it. My tongue was startled and numbed at the same time, the pungent taste frozen, as it were, onto my palate.
I wish I could have similarly frozen that afternoon in time. My memories of the day remain fresh and strong. As we drove off, I felt I had experienced a revelation, a discovery of my Sichuan touchstone, in the form of a berry on a modest shrub in the corner of a Sichuan courtyard.
DAN DAN MIAN
(Spicy Sichuan Noodles)
1/2 pound ground pork
Dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup peanut oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons peeled and finely chopped ginger root
5 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
2 tablespoons sesame paste or peanut butter
2 tablespoons chile oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup chicken stock
12 ounces fresh Chinese thin egg noodles or dry Chinese thin egg noodles
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns, roasted and ground
Combine pork, 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce and salt in small bowl and mix well. Heat wok or skillet until hot. Add oil and deep-fry pork, stirring with spatula to break into small pieces. When pork is crispy and dry, about 4 minutes, remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Pour off oil, leaving 2 tablespoons in wok. Reheat wok and add garlic, ginger root and green onions and stir-fry 30 seconds. Then add sesame paste, 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce, chile oil, salt and chicken stock. Simmer 4 minutes.
Cook fresh noodles in large pan of boiling water 2 minutes (5 minutes if using dry noodles). Drain noodles well in colander. Divide among individual bowls or place in large soup tureen. Ladle on sauce. Garnish with fried pork and Sichuan peppercorns and serve at once. Makes 4 to 6 servings as part of Chinese meal, or 2 to 4 single servings.
LAJIAO SHAO SIJIDOU
1 pound green beans
4 ounces mild red or green chiles
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons rice wine or dry Sherry
2 teaspoons white rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns
String green beans and snap in halves. Split open red chiles and chop coarsely.
Heat wok or large skillet until hot. Add oil, garlic and salt and stir-fry 10 seconds. Add chiles and stir-fry another 30 seconds. Then add green beans, rice wine, vinegar, sugar and water. Continue to stir-fry until tender, about 5 minutes, adding more water if necessary. When beans are cooked, add peppercorns and mix well. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings as part of Chinese meal, or 2 single dish servings.
HUANG GUA CHAO
1/2 pound lean boneless pork
Light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
Rice wine or dry Sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 pound cucumbers
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon chili bean sauce
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon roasted ground Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons white rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Cut pork into thin slices, about 3x1/8 inches long. Combine pork with 2 teaspoons light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, 1 teaspoon rice wine, sesame oil and cornstarch in medium bowl. Mix well and set aside.
Peel cucumbers and split each in half lengthwise. With spoon scoop out seeds, then finely slice flesh crosswise.
Heat wok or large skillet until hot. Add oil, then chili bean sauce, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, chili flakes and salt and stir-fry 10 seconds. Then add pork and continue to stir-fry 1 minute. Add cucumbers and stir-fry 1 minute. Pour in 2 teaspoons light soy sauce, 2 teaspoons rice wine, vinegar and sugar. Continue to stir-fry 2 minutes or until all liquid has evaporated. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings as part of Chinese meal, or 2 as single-dish servings.