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May. 5th, 2012

Day Eighteen: Dry-Pot Chicken

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At last! We are cooking Dry-Pot Chicken 干锅鸡. Dry-pot dishes are always so colorful and fun to eat that when I see them on the menu I find it hard to opt for anything else. Dry-pot method infuses the ingredients with maximum flavor. First, meats are marinated, then stir-fried to readiness, then fried together with spices, then tossed with the vegs. There is no use of starch, but the cooking wine is poured liberally to prevent the sauce from drying out.

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Any meat can be made into a dry pot: I especially love dry-pot frog, dry-pot shrimp, dry-pot beef, dry-pot tea tree mushrooms, dry-pot ribs and potatoes, dry-pot rabbit, dry-pot chicken... So it's chicken we'll cook.

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Here we have a chicken thigh, green peppers, celery, onion, chiles (soaked in advance to preserve color during frying), Sichuan peppercorns, sliced garlic and ginger.

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The professor produced a dish that was, indeed, of restaurant quality.

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Ah, precious memories of Chengdu... Dry pot with pork ribs and rice crusts (guoba) 锅巴排骨 in Big Mouth King 大嘴排骨 with extra shrimp.

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Big-plate rabbit 大盘兔 in the same restaurant.

May. 4th, 2012

Day Seventeen: Home-Style Tofu and Super-Fast Pork

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Attention! Home-Style Tofu 家常豆腐 is being made.

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Deep-frying the tofu turns it from pale and brittle to golden and toasty. But somehow in the deep-frying process this seemingly innocent tofu manages to turn the oil dark and turbid, so it can no longer be reused.

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Home-style flavored dishes rely on chili bean paste 豆瓣 for their saltiness, beany savoriness and slight heat. Garlic greens (suanmiao) add a fresh crunchy bite.

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The unconscious art of food prep.

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The second dish we made that day was Pork Slices with Green Wosun (asparagus lettuce) 青笋肉片. We used pre-soaked black-ear mushrooms, Chinese onion, garlic, pork, pickled red chilies and green wosun.

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The best thing about the dish is how fast you can make it. Minus the cutting, marinating and (rapid) pre-cooking of the pork, it takes exactly 45 seconds to whip up the dish in the wok.

May. 3rd, 2012

Doing my homework #4: Hurry up and wait

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To understand the food topography of a new city I go to dianping.com. According to the stats, Chengdu has over 4000 restaurants labeled 'Sichuanese'. This does not include almost 3000 hotpots. Snack food with all its noodles, marinades, things-on-a-stick, dumplings and cold rabbit chunks is in its own 5000+ category. Add 600+ roasting stalls (probably, 10% of the actual number since the majority of small and mobile 'skeweries' remain unreported). And for each listed restaurant on a busy street there are several small eateries (three-four tables, kitchen in the closet) that whip up cheap chef's specials for the residents who never go to dianping to report their neighborhood gems.

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Chengdu people are spoiled for choice. And yet, with all this fierce competition, there are hundreds of famous restaurants where crowds wait for hours to get in. Such establishments have raving reviews and high ratings. Here's a sampling of modern culinary legends:

Zigong Delights 自贡好吃客
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Waiting time: over 2 hours. Waiting area: edge of the hedge.
Our first visit to this splendid chain was less dramatic. This time, when our number struck, we ordered the frog in a pot again but asked to make it extra spicy. The waiter pleaded with us: 'Some people cannot take it so hot.' 'Don't take us for laowai', we threatened. She gave up. The broth burned to ashes everything that touched its surface. Each bite required downing a glass of icy beer. This was the singularly hottest experience we've had in China (and regretfully so). Bleary-eyed, dazed and starved we stumbled into the street. (Later, one of us collapsed with a week-long fever.)

Pot Pot Fragrance 锅锅香
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Waiting time: 30+ minutes. Waiting area: plastic stools outdoors. Perks: tea and sunflower seeds.
Never before have we lived two floors above Chengdu's most popular dry-pot restaurant. It was worth it, if only for the privilege of watching the staff perform team-building exercises, dance in circles and massage each others' shoulders every day at 5 pm. Their 'pot of the pots' – shamelessly populist surf-and-turf dish – stirred up a debate whether it was moral to abandon oneself in the enjoyment of grease, ribs and shrimps. And rice cakes, corn and lotus root. And French fries. And peanuts.

Wang Mother Rabbit 王妈手撕
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Waiting time: under 20 minutes. Waiting area: queue at the serving window. Perks: watching the inside(s) of the rabbit.
If this was not a strictly takeaway affair the queue would stop the traffic. As it is, though, the business is clean and quick: they chop your rabbit, toss it with chilies and spices, wrap it in foil and bag it. Eat at home.

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The rabbit meat is dark, chewy, roasted to transparency, slathered in liquid smoke, spicy, yummy.

House of Fragrance and Crispness 闻酥园
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Living in Chengdu one quickly slips into a habit of frequenting tea houses and bringing a bag of sweets for tea. This popular bakery at Wenshu Monastery did all the Chinese pastry staples: chewy glutinous rice patties, bean paste buns, spongy breads wrapped in baked crusts, sunflower seed-sprinkled cookies... We only had a problem with the 'egg tart': inside the sweet flaky pastry there was, indeed, an egg yolk. Salted.

Bashu Hotpot 巴蜀大宅门火锅
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Waiting time: about an hour. Waiting area: benches in the parking lot. 
Rustic 'copper' cauldron, mounds of garlic in bowls of sesame oil and a bag of spices to rub it in – this was a mighty good hotpot. It taught us to love goose intestines (turned out, they are indistinguishable from flat and frilly noodles).

Qing Sister's Loach 情妹耙泥鳅
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Waiting time: under one hour. Waiting area: under TV's blasting Hong Kong horror movies
Qing Sister wanted to teach us to love the loach. But while one of us devoured loach science with mucho gusto, the other one proved resistant to its slippery charms.

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May. 2nd, 2012

Day Sixteen: Duck with Konjac


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For most of us this is the first breakfast. Our class of about thirty students sometimes expands to thirty-seven, on days when everyone suddenly feels diligent.


The youngest student turned 15 last week. He's a sweetheart, although they say he drinks, smokes and swears.

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At one point there were six foreign students from around the globe: Norway, Russia, USA, France, Wales and India. Those who weren't fluent in Chinese began to pick up their vocabulary from the classmates.

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We usually mess around with cheap ingredients like chicken thighs and pork tenderloins, but today we were greeted by a duck resting on piece of konjac jelly, unambiguously announcing Braised Duck with Konjac Jelly 魔芋烧鸭.

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When Teacher Long takes out her knife to dress a bird, students gather round and try not to miss a single movement. She pounded the duck torso, stretched the neck like a rubber hose and quickly turned everything into a bowlful of large cubes.

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Other components: celery, ginger, garlic, pickled peppers and green wosun.

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Konjac (konnyaku) jelly had muddy color, gelatinous texture and blotchy surface. After cutting the jelly had to be soaked in hot water (I don't want to know why). After trying konjac 魔芋 in the dish western students agreed that its slippery softness closely resembled animal fat. Thankfully, it had no flavor of its own.

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Duck (as well as lamb) is believed to have a natural 'weird taste' 异味 that needs to be expelled by marinating, long stewing and liberal use of vinegar and cooking wine. As a result, the meat and konjac jelly absorbed the flavors of the broth where they simmered for twenty minutes. If it was up to me, I would replace konjac with cognac.

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Apr. 30th, 2012

Day Fifteen: Deep-Fried Breakfast Treats

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Tuesday is a pastry day, and today we are making deep-fried dough sticks called 'youtiao' 油条. Using towels as stand-ups for the dough layers, our jubilant professor Cheng Wanxing showed how to roll and fold the dough.

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This basic breakfast 'donut' has a secret: it's the only dish I've seen in this kitchen that actually requires precise measurements.

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After some vigorous kneading (professor's hands patting the dough looked like some exotic drummer's) the dough was left to rest.

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While one dough rests, the teacher mixed a handful of lard with flour and prepared the dough for another dish: Crispy Pies Stuffed with Pork and Chives 韭菜盒子.

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The pies also have a secret: there are actually two kinds of dough, one is more fatty than the other. The layers are rolled into a tube and cut horizontally to make the pie skins imprinted with a spiral pattern.

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Pinching the edges into frills is much harder than it seems. Some started rehearsing right on the spot.

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Freshly fried flaky pies did not take long to be consumed.

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Back to youtiao. As he was rolling and cutting the dough, Professor Cheng speculated on the economy of a youtiao stall. "The vendors overcharge you brutally," he said (a youtiao costs 1 yuan). After deducting the cost of flour, salt, yeast and oil, a smart youtiao maker can rake in 3000 yuan in a month.

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I hope they do. Somehow, it's the cheapest snacks that take up the most of the cook's time and effort.

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During practice, we produced crooked pies with all kinds of frivolous edges. And as for our youtiao, they were ruined: instead of putting in 4 grams of soda, we accidentally put in 12 grams of salt, and the dough did not rise.

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But after deep-frying the chive pies were still delicious and flaky. Some even said that our spindly and hard youtiao were a tasty innovation. New dish on the market! Now I'll start raking it in.

Apr. 29th, 2012

Field trip #1: Changsha, Hunan Province

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My stay in Sichuan revolves around food – its making, eating and researching. So when we went on a field trip during a long weekend, it was not to a sacred mountain or a famous bamboo forest, but to an inscrutable and tough city in the province whose food is our second favorite after the Sichuan food. We went to Changsha, Hunan.

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Changsha is a pit. Or rather, many pits. During our visit, the subway construction was in progress, and the downtown was scarred with giant red earth canyons. Crisscrossing the pits were multi-lane highways with flyovers that rudely urged pedestrians to seek shelter in underground tunnels. When the subway is finished the pits will be closed but the city will still be ruined by cars.

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We dined in a Dianping-rated restaurant Dawanchu 大碗厨. The staff warned us of spicy food; I reassured them again and again. We started with a pig's trotter. It arrived lightly dusted with chili flakes, as if the cooks withheld the chilies from the recipe and put some on the surface, to placate the foreigners who just don't know what's good for them. The whole dinner was great, though, if too clean. I wanted something rowdy.

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The next day we had a late lunch in the street: cold noodles tossed with pickled beans, cilantro, peanuts and sesame oil.

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The dinner in a quaint restaurant Juan Juan 娟娟 was fun.

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We had goose on a hot plate and fish garnished with two kinds of pickled chilies.

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I wanted to sample everything Changsha had to offer. One morning we lined up for muffins in a very popular bakery. Everyone in front of us bought a whole tray of muffins, so we had to line up for a very long time for more batches.

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When I asked for four muffins, the staff was incredulous. "Do you mean, four jin (two kilos)?" The smallest amount they could sell was half a jin (200 gram). That was 5 yuan for 10 muffins. The muffins were airy, sugary and fine, but not worth the wait.

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For lunch I chose very reputable Yulong Bullfrog Restaurant 昱龙牛蛙馆. Plain and quiet from the street, the restaurant was cavernous and dark inside, teeming with people. The signature frog cauldron was clearly meant to be consumed by all three generations gathered at the round table. The waitress recommended a smaller dish: dry-pot water fish. This tautology – 'water fish' – should have alarmed me...

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I never meant to eat a turtle. I like turtles. They are nice people. Yet, here it was, carcass, shell, bony paws and all. It was delicious despite the lack of muscle meat and so much labor at its extraction. I soon began to like those gelatinous membranes under the shell. Sorry, turtle.

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By the evening of the last day in Changsha we wandered in the remains of the old city, near the river. The neighborhood was on the edge of obliteration, of course, but where the streets and houses were still intact people were selling famed Hunanese smoked meats, mashing pickled chilies, playing mahjong in glassed-in storefronts, making tea.

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We had dinner in a popular He Family Ribs Restaurant 何氏排骨. The walls were covered with photos of He posing alongside celebrities and officials that ate at his restaurant. On every photo, Mr. He maintained the same blank expression.

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The ribs were amazing, juicy, hot – and nothing like Hunan-style ribs we love in Shanghai. In fact, none of the restaurant menus had any of the Hunan specials that we're used to, expect maybe a profusion of dry-pots 干锅. Perhaps, pickled bean and cured bacon-flavored dishes are cooked at home, and the fish head is a special feast.

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Hunan Museum celebrates the lifestyle of a rich and famous Han-era family of marquis Li Cang and his wife Lady Dai, in an amazing display of relics excavated at Mawangdui 马王堆 site.

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Lady Dai's taste for luxury defied imagination. She was encoffined with great pomp, swathed in silks, propped by trunks with choicest goods, surrounded by an army of servants. Her tomb was packed with her best Louis Vuitton bronzeware.

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Her lacquered tableware was stunningly modern and Japanese.

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Her layered chiffon gowns defeated attempts at estimating how much time it took to embroider them with such detail.

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Carved puppets representing Lady Dai's attendants froze in a humble bow.

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Everything prepared her for heaven, with glowing sun crows and moon toads...

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Of where she ended up we'll say no more. Time for some taichi!

Apr. 28th, 2012

Day Fourteen: the Fish is Green, the Pork is Red

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At the morning lecture, two grass carp, scaled and gutted, were peering from the bowl.

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We are learning to cook Fish with Pickled Vegetables ('suan cai yu' 酸菜鱼), a modern dish created in Chongqing in the 1980's. At one point, this green and briny fish stew became so fashionable, every Sichuan restaurant served it. And of course, the dish has acquired a florid 'old' legend about a fisherman and his smart and frugal wife.

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The fish stew uses a lot of pickled Chinese cabbage 泡青菜, celery and wosun 莴笋. To finalize the dish, hot oil is poured over a pile of raw garlic on top. There are a lot of chopped pickled green chilies, so it's hot!

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Now, what's that red-colored dish peeking from behind the bowl with the fish stew?

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That's right: it's Boiled Meat Slices 水煮肉片 (pork, in our case). The Sichuan cooking method 'water-boiling' 水煮 has nothing to do with water. It is also on the opposite end of the flavor dial from blanched and simmered things. Sichuan 'boiled' dish is doused in hot oil with a slurry of chopped dry chilies and numbing peppercorns. "Don't use too many chilies, or you'll scare away your Cantonese and foreign guests", warned the professor.

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During practice, we labored with double diligence and prepared the 'boiled' meat for the spectacular finishing touch. We already scorched the chilies and Sichuan peppercorns in oil, chopped them with a cleaver and arranged them in a neat piles on top of the cooked meat slices. Now, the bubbling oil is about to come pouring down, making the spices crackle and spread their delicious aroma.

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Voila! Sorry, it looks a little sloppy. When I make it at home – and I will make it at home – I'll try to keep the edges of the plate free of spatter.

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The 'boiling' method is hugely popular with all kinds of ingredients. In restaurants, pork is usually replaced with beef to make 水煮牛肉. It is one of my most favorite dishes ever! And who haven't heard of 'boiled fish' 水煮鱼? We recently took a train trip to Chonqging just to eat in a famous boiled fish restaurant. Our professor confessed that when he eats out he also prefers to order boiled fish rather the classics like twice cooked pork 回锅肉 or mapo tofu 麻婆豆腐: "When it comes to simple dishes, they can never cook them right."

Apr. 27th, 2012

Day Thirteen: Lychee-Flavored Pork and Fish-Flavored Chicken


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When our professor Long Qingrong takes charge of the class we somehow always cook milder, more homey dishes. It has to be a coincidence: the schedule was finalized and published long before the semester started.

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Pork Slices with Rice Crusts 锅巴肉片 fall into the 'lychee flavor' category. There are no lychees in the recipe, but the combination of sugar and vinegar in the sauce create a distinct sweet and sour flavor known as lychee 荔枝味.

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Lychee sauce is delicately pale: there is only a little soy sauce in it. There are also slices of bamboo shoots 玉兰片 and a leafy vegetable known as 'caixin' 菜心. From province to province this name is used for different vegetables, but here it is probably flowering cabbage. The teacher pointed out that 'caixin' is expensive and wasteful: you pay by weight but only use the tender leaves, discarding the stalks.

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Today's dish #2 is Fish-Fragrant Chicken Chunks 鱼香鸡块. Cubes of chicken thigh are first battered in egg and starch (quite like tempura), then deep-fried and doused in sauce.

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We've made fish-fragrant sauce quite a few times already, but I find it a useful exercise. 'Fish-fragrance' 鱼香 is as iconic as 'mala' 麻辣, so a good Sichuan cook should be able to make it with his eyes closed. The perfect balance of sweetness, sourness, saltiness and hotness can be quite elusive.

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To nail it this time I memorized the proportions used by our teacher. However, I cannot describe it any more precisely than 'a little' and 'some': in Chinese cooking, you eyeball everything. Fry minced pickled chilies in a little oil, add minced garlic and ginger, add some water, a spoon of soy sauce, three spoons of sugar, three spoons black vinegar, less than a spoonful of salt, a little more soy sauce, sprinkle chopped green onion. Increase the heat, thicken with starched water, stir in a little oil, pour over chicken chunks.  

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After the fish-fragrant chicken, we set off to make lychee-flavored pork slices with rice crusts 锅巴肉片. Ideally, the dish is put together at the dinner table in front of the guests. When hot sauce is poured over the freshly fried rice crusts they crackle and sizzle.

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I've always liked dishes with rice crusts ('gouba') 锅巴: their weightless crunchiness favorably offsets just about anything. Here is fried chicken with guoba we ate at the famous Chen Mapo Tofu restaurant 陈麻婆豆腐.

Apr. 25th, 2012

Wonderful Sightseeing in the Capital of Shu

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This is the cover of a divinely old-fashioned set of postcards from Green Ram Temple 青羊宫. As xkcd pointed out, if you really hate someone, teach them to recognize bad kerning.

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Sanxingdui museum was a great place to make sketches.

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The well-traveled Picasso show finally hit Chengdu (or rather, the ghostly suburban hi-tech park). The 'forty masterpieces' were largely from the B-team. A friend of mine speculated that the pictures were probably fakes – otherwise how could the security be so low? No metal detectors, no bag search, no guards... Interesting idea.

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Almost half of Wenshu Monastery is occupied by a lush park where people can release their turtles in a specially designated place. One turtle equals one hundred points of good karma.

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Characters for 'skewers' 串串 are smartly embedded in the window frames.

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Who doesn't want a professional in the mouth?

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Speaking of erotic connotations, here's how our campus celebrated the anniversary of the Communist Youth League. But why are so many colorful penii flying toward the bright future?

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Is this that shady place where they steal your organs? Or your baby?

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The makers of Chengdu Hotpot invented a useful Russian word.

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Toward the end of the word 'Petersburg' the bar ran out of Cyrillic letters.

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Meanwhile, the shop called Fцг had them in abundance. Is this supposed to be Fur? Only the man on the left knows, because he is The One.

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Army surplus fabrics found their way into a kindergarten and turned into creepy stuffed puppets.

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The actual morbidi momenti follows.

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Chengdu people often demonstrate a remarkable sense of style.

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It's because they get to shop at Prich.

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This is a food blog, after all, so here's the most repulsive-looking desert among my Chengdu favorites. 'Cold cake' 凉糕 is bean jello with burned caramel syrup. Delicious!

Apr. 24th, 2012

Doing my Homework #3: Anti-Hotpot in Chengdu

I don't much like hotpot. Huge cauldrons of broth, batteries of raw ingredients, endless work on dipping and extracting... It calls for a big company; hotpot for two is a bit pathetic. I like my food roasted, grilled, deep-fried, dry-fried, quick-fried, braised, smoked, slathered in spices... more than I like it boiled and stewed.

(I also secretly think I only want my hotpot in Chongqing; nothing else can hit the mark.)

That said, there's hotpot and there's hotpot. Well-spiced and fragrant broth plus smart, flavorful dip make a huge difference. So while avoiding 'general purpose' hotpots in the city brimming with them, we landed with several anti-hotpots.

1. Cold pot 冷锅 and 'chuan chuan xiang' 串串香

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Ling Ling 零零冷锅串串 is a wildly popular chain [link]. The way 'chuan chuan xiang' works is you load your tray with skewere raw ingredients, give it to the kitchen staff, they cook it and bring to your table in a cauldron of oil. This is also called 'cold pot' 冷锅 because there are no individual burners at the table. After the meal, waiters (dressed in T-shirts with the portrait of Lei Feng) extract the bins with empty skewers from under the table, count the sticks and tell you the total. It's cheap: Y0.15 a skewer.

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It was quite an acrobatic act, to maneuvre in the 'supplies' corner, identify and extract the delicacies from the refrigerators and balance the tray as we loaded it.

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We got (what looked like) beef, some dumplings, bacon, mushrooms, leafy greens, slices of potato and cucumber and florets of cauliflower. The bits strung on each skewer were often minuscule but the freshness of the components was exemplary.

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Since the hotpot base is just hot oil and not particularly 'mala', using the dips to flavor the morsels is 80% of the pleasure: we grabbed both the 'dry dish' (chili flakes, crushed peanuts, ground Sichuan peppercorns, salt) and the 'oily dish' (garlic, cilantro, sesame oil, salt, sediment of chili flakes).

2. Zigong-style hotpot

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Zigong is a 'dialect' of Sichuan cooking that we've been calling favorite. When we went to a reputable chain restaurant, Zigong Haochike 自贡好吃客 [link], we ended up in a two-stage cold-to-hot-pot extravaganza. First stage: you order your main dish in a giant soup and eat the main ingredients, dipping them in your personal sauce bowl. Second stage: waiters turn on the burner under the pot, bring the soup to a boil, deliver more ingredients and you cook them.

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Our main dish was called Leaping Frog 跳水蛙, sold by the frog weight. A pound of frogs evidently included everything save the webbed feet, but it was divine. Bony and twisted bits of frog contrasted with fluffy tofu and went perfectly with crunchy fried soy beans and onion bits in the dipping bowl. The dinner was so spicy I forgot what we ordered for the hotpot stage other than potatoes and lettuce.

3. Luzhou pickles and tofu hotpot

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Luzhou is close to Chongqing (land of hotpot) and Yibin (land of pickles), so it's only natural that its culinary export to Chengdu is a briny hotpot loaded with pickled greens and porous tofu (douhua). A rowdy canteen called 泸州酸菜豆花火锅 is in the middle of the student neighborhood at Hongwasi Jie [link].

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On top of slightly odorous, spongy tofu and threads of pickled greens, our pot base contained 'three treasures' (I deciphered them as 'bowels, bladders and brains' although they were more like tongue, stomach and some meat).

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To offset the synthetic pink sausage we ordered 'Sichuan sausage' 川味香肠 and were very pleased with it.

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We also ordered plates of beef, spinach, potatoes and winter melon. And each diner got a free aluminum mug with hot soy milk.

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The cornucopia of items in the bubbling pot already made everything flavorful, but the salty and hot dipping dish with mashed black beans, onion and chili oil was just the most glorious touch.

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