Archives for category: Sichuan

I have had a cold for two weeks and counting. It peaked a week or so ago with hot sweats, multiple body aches and a permanent fistful of tissue before gradually tailing off to its present state of lingering not-quite-wellness. After plenty of time for reflection on the various appetites of a person in the throes of poorliness, I have come to the following conclusions:

Stage one: a desire for strong tastes discernible through a blocked nose, preferably Asian and therefore with a vaguely healthy, healing aspect and a good dose of chilli, garlic and ginger to chase out the germs.

Stage two: a descent into cravings for bland, comforting stodge, junk and nostalgic childhood snacks. Anything which can be purchased on a trip to the corner shop in tracksuit/pyjama bottoms or delivered to the door.

Stage three: a determined attempt at fighting back accompanied by feeling well enough to cook again. Restorative, calming, soul-soothing preparations are the order of the day here.

I think I’ve found the perfect recipe for each of the three stages of the journey into sickness and back (sparing the worse elements of the middle stage). I hereby present to you part one: the sniffles…

Fish-fragrant aubergines

Serves 1 hungry sick person, or 1 with leftovers

Another gem from Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Sichuan Cookery’. There’s no fish in it, as you might think – the name refers to the method of cooking, which involves the same ingredients as would typically be used to prepare fish. Last time Tom made it for me, he inadvertently halved the recipe but left in the full quantities of garlic and ginger, which is how I’ve reproduced it here for extra immune system defence.

One more note – you really have to deep-fry the aubergines; I once tried shallow frying them and they took forever, cooked unevenly and soaked up a horrifying amount of oil. It doesn’t have to be really deep, deep frying, but the aubergine pieces should be immersed.

1 large aubergine
enough oil to deep-fry
1 tbsp Sichuanese chilli bean paste
3 tsp finely chopped ginger
3 tsp finely chopped garlic
75ml stock (preferably homemade chicken, if you have it)
scant tsp sugar
1/2 tsp light soy sauce
3/4 tsp potato flour, mixed with 1 tbsp cold water (cornflour can be substituted, but you may need to use more)
3/4 tsp Chinkiang or Chinese black vinegar
2 spring onions, green parts only, finely sliced
1/2 tsp sesame oil

Cut the aubergine into evenly sized chunks, slightly larger than bite-sized. Sprinkle the pieces with 3/4 tsp salt and leave for a minimum of 30 minutes to draw out the bitter juices (if you are using the smaller oriental sized aubergines, you can skip this step).

Heat the deep-frying oil in a wok to 180-200c, until it’s just beginning to smoke. Add the aubergines in batches and deep fry for 3-4 minutes until soft right through and golden brown on the outside. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen roll.

Drain off the deep-frying oil, give the wok a quick rinse if necessary, and return it to a high heat with 1-2 tbsp oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry for about 20 seconds, so the oil is red and the paste evenly distributed. Add the ginger and garlic and stir fry for another 20-30 seconds, watching that they don’t burn.

Add the stock, sugar and soy sauce and mix well. Taste and season with salt if necessary.

Add the fried aubergines to the sauce and simmer gently for a few minutes. Sprinkle over the potato flour mixture and stir until the sauce thickens. Stir in the spring onions and vinegar and leave for a few seconds, just so the onions are no longer raw. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.

I like this with plain rice or soba noodles.

From Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Sichuan Cookery’


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.

Strange-flavour chicken

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
1/2 cucumber

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.