At the morning lecture, two grass carp, scaled and gutted, were peering from the bowl.
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.
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!
Now, what's that red-colored dish peeking from behind the bowl with the fish stew?
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.
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.
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.
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."