Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Discovering Sichuan food in London

Here is a fact you may not know. UNESCO has declared Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province to be a city of Gastronomy. This is on account of the sophisticated cuisine that the Sichuan Province offers. On some further research, other cities similarly anointed are the wholly obscure Buenaventura, Burgos, Cochabamba, Denia and Hatay among others. I am not sure if Chengdu would be proud of being tagged with its sister cities.

Sichuan, Szechwan or Szechuan, however you spell it is a distinctive regional Chinese cuisine. The food is spicy with Chili. It is often oily, garlicy and uses Sichuan Peppercorns to provide that distinctive ‘Ma La’ flavor. Sichuan Peppercorns at once numb the mouth and electrifies your lips and tongue. An utterly delightful sensation.

Most Chinese restaurants worldwide are Cantonese. This is the food we are most familiar with. In India. Our lives were forever changed by the introduction of Sichuan cuisine by Camellia Panjabi in 1978 at the then brand-new Golden Dragon in the Taj Mahal in Mumbai and the House of Ming at the Taj Mansingh in New Delhi. Today, that Sichuan food has been wholly bastardised to become Chindian or as Vir Sanghvi calls it Sino Ludhianvi cuisine.

I have recollections of being taken to the Golden Dragon as a child, though I cannot remember my parents or anyone else mentioning Ma La. The food was simply better cooked and somewhat spicy as opposed to the non five star Cantonese restaurants you had in Mumbai then. New dishes like Golden Fried Prawns, Hot & Sour Soup and Candied Toffee Apple or Banana were all the rage. I doubt very much the food was truly Sichuan. Those were simple times; we were simple people and we were rather gullible.

Today if you order deep fried Chinese food, such as Spring Rolls, you will be served this with a lurid red spicy sauce which is called Szechuan Sauce. This sauce has nothing to do with the real McCoy. Most street stalls offer Dragon Rice or Szechuan Rice which is flavoured with this spicy sauce. A bowl of the sauce is kept on tables to further spice your food and I suspect to add the element of ‘Daal’ with which we eat rice. This Szechuan sauce has no Sichuan Peppercorns.

Inexplicably, on this visit to London we decided to eat Sichuan food. We had heard and read a lot about Jin Li - a Sichuan restaurant. The original was at Lisle Street, adjoining the pub we frequent. A newer and bigger outpost opened a few 100 meters down at Newport Place, and we thought the we should visit it with our London Friend Philosopher and Guide whom you have who you have read about earlier.

Jin Li was disappointing. The flavours were very muted, toned down for the white population. No real Ma La. However, we did have some very good starters, the classic Smashed Cucumbers, Cold Jellyfish and Century Egg. Mr. & Mrs. London Friend Philosopher and Guide were most apprehensive with the Jellyfish and Egg, but, with our enthusiastic prodding they ate and they loved both.

Being unsatisfied with this experience, we then made a booking at Barshu a long-standing Sichuan Restaurant. The estimable Fuchsia Dunlop was a consultant here. She is a powerhouse of knowledge on Sichuan cuisine having studied cuisine and language in Chengdu and authored several excellent cookbooks on Sichuan cuisine. The restaurant was absolutely heaving, and we were herded into a lower level dining room.

A bottle of white wine was ordered and we were ready to eat. First up was Numbing and Hot Dried Beef. This is a classic Sichuan dish. Ma La hit at once. This was the real stuff. The beef is tendons from the leg which any Western butcher would discard. The thrifty Chinese use the humble tendon to make this dish. The Beef was tender though not exactly melt in the mouth. It does have a slight chew. Went well with the cold wine.

Numbing and Hot Dried Beef

The main course was something we decided to splash out on. This was a whole Sea Bass, filleted and served with Sizzling Chili Oil. First a big empty bowl was brought out with a sieved spoon. Then came a larger bowl choc-a-block full of red chillies, floating in a deep sea of oil. Submerged in the oil was the fish. The waiter sieved off the Chillies and served us the fish. The fish was perfectly cooked. The flavours were quite something. Your mouth was suddenly tingling with the Ma La, and a different heat of chilli adding to the excitement. This was a real winner dish.

Above: Sea Bass, filleted and served with Sizzling Chili Oil. See the volume of Chillies

After removing the Chillies you have fish, Beansprouts Oil and the Sichuan Peppercorns floating

Two classic Sichuan dishes, Mapu Tofu and Dan Dan Noodles were also ordered. The Mapu Tofu was richer, with deeper flavours than I have ever tasted. The Dan Dan Noodles had an added element of Sesame Paste which is used in Sichuan Cuisine. This sesame paste is not the same as Tahini, but at a pinch, you could use Tahini. A small bowl of plain steamed rice was ordered to tone down the heat.

Above: Mapu Tofu 

Above: Dan Dan Noodles 

The meal at Barshu was really good, and the food was not watered down to suit western tastes.

We were hooked. I remembered a very favourable review of a restaurant called Sichuan, in the City, off Liverpool Underground Station. A booking was made for Friday dinner. Chef Zhang Xiao Zhong is in charge of the kitchen. He was previously head chef at, yes, Barshu as well as at the very highly rated Hutong that opened in the Shard. Now he was here. We visited a nearby pub, sat on an outside table and enjoyed the modern skyline that the City offered.

As we walked in the restaurant was full. Luckily, we had a reservation and were soon seated. We had decided to order new dishes, and not fall into the trap of the familiar.

First up, Pigs Ears. Stunning. This is a dish served cold, with copious quantities of Chilli Oil and Sichuan Peppercorns and some raw garlic. A dash of Chinkiang Vinegar balances the dish. This is ideal to have with a drink.

Above: Pigs Ears

For our main courses we had Pork Belly double cooked with Sugar, Soya and Sichuan Spices with a Bean Paste and Chinese Black Mushrooms. Chairman Mao loved this dish, and why not, what is not to love? This was accompanied by something we make at home, poorly it turns out, Aromatic Deep-Fried Beef with Cumin, our humble Jeera. I love this dish, though HRH the Queen of Kutch does like it as much.

Above: Pork Belly double cooked with Sugar, Soya and Sichuan Spices with a Bean Paste and Chinese Black Mushrooms 

Above: Cumin Beef

You have to have greens, so we picked one of our favourite vegetable Karela, the Chinese use it a lot, stir fried with minced Pork.

Above: Karela with Minced Pork 

Once again, a truly wonderful meal. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Nothing namby pamby, full on flavours and full on spicing. Question is, do we go back to Cantonese? Of course we will, but we will be sure to add a few Sichuan meals to the mix as well

Of the three, Jin Li was disappointing for because the food was toned down. Barshu and Sichuan were both excellent. In retrospect, I would go back to Barshu, not because the food is better than Sichuan, but because getting to Barshu which is in Soho is less of a schlepp than getting to Sichuan.

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