I recently developed a minor obsession with Sichuan food. I realise I’m a little bit behind and everyone else has been all over the Fuschia Dunlop thing for ages, but bear with me: here in Oxford, we don’t have much in the way of exciting regional Chinese cuisine. Except for one place, which, to my shame, I had to rely on Giles Coren to bring to my attention. That place is Sojo, in Hythe Bridge Street, and it does a thoroughly addictive ma-po tofu. The second time I ate it, I decided I couldn’t live any longer without the wherewithal to produce it myself, and procured myself a copy of Sichuan Cookery – if you don’t own it then you should, it’s brilliant and fascinating and deservedly got voted one of the top ten cookery books of all time in the Observer recently. I digress, but anyway, perhaps it was a bit too interesting, because I got side-tracked in the first section and ended up making this chicken dish instead.
Strange-flavour, according to Dunlop, is ‘based on the harmonious mixing of salty, sweet, numbing, hot, sour, fresh-savoury and fragrant notes’. To me, this was a little like satay sauce turned up to full volume: nutty and addictive, with a fruitiness and a tingly, building background heat. It’s sometimes called ‘bang-bang chicken’, named, apparently, after the bang of the wooden cudgels used to hammer a cleaver through the chicken meat; I prefer ‘strange-flavour’ because it is indeed quite strange, unusual anyway – and in the sense that it makes you want to keep on eating it, just to check that it really is that delicious, which is really how I developed this whole preoccupation with Sichuan flavours in the first place…
You’ll probably have to go to a Chinese supermarket for some of the ingredients, but that’s part of the fun. Not sure the lady in Thong Heng Oriental Supermarket was that impressed when I dropped a full bottle of soy sauce all over her floor in excitement as I discovered more and more things I just had to pick up – oops. Maybe she would feel better if she knew that I consider it my favourite Chinese supermarket in Oxford.
I stuck pretty much exactly to the recipe for my first foray, substituting cucumber for spring onion as suggested because I had one, and leaving out sesame seeds because I forgot. I wish I hadn’t, because that would have been even more delicious. If using spring onions, it’s 6-8, white bits only, and they should be slivered and refreshed in cold water rather than salted. The sauce is intended as a dressing for cold chicken, and this recipe assumes you already have some handy, but if not then the method suggested is poaching with a chunk of ginger and a couple of spring onions.
I ate this with rice, but you could make a very tasty noodle salad with perhaps a few other vegetable slivers – carrots, peppers etc.
You will need:
About 1/2 chicken worth of cooked, shredded meat
For the sauce:
1 tbsp white sugar
salt to taste
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Chinkiang vinegar (or substitute black Chinese vinegar)
3 tbsp Chinese sesame paste, preferably a dark one (or substitute tahini)
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp chilli oil with chilli flakes*
1/2 tsp roasted and ground Sichuan pepper
3 tsp toasted sesame seeds
Slice the cucumber thinly. Ideally you want thin strips to match the thin strips of chicken. Sprinkly lightly with salt and set aside for half an hour or so to remove excess water, then rinse and dry.
To make the sauce, dissolve the sugar and salt in the soy sauce and vinegar. Gradually stir in the sesame paste, whisking out any lumps, until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients except the sesame seeds and mix well.
To serve, pile the cucumber pieces on plates and top with shredded chicken. Pour over the sauce and garnish with the sesame seeds.
*To make your own chilli oil, put 100g chilli flakes in a glass preserving jar (at least a pint capacity). Ideally use Sichuanese chillies, otherwise generic Indian crushed chillies will do (this is what I used). Heat 550ml groundnut, corn or rapeseed oil until smoking and then allow to cool for 10 minutes. It should be at 120-130C if you have an oil thermometer. Pour onto the chillies, stir, and leave in a cool, dark place.