ADVENTURES IN DOMESTICITY: Sichuan Bonanza Edition

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About a year ago, I stumbled upon Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan cook book Land of Plenty on some blog out there on the Interwebs. I was intrigued by whatever the dish was and did further research. It turns out the British-born Dunlop spent extensive time in the Sichuan province of China studying the local foods and flavors, even going so far as to attend the culinary school there — a first, I believe for a Westerner. The more I read about Dunlop and Land of Plenty, the more fascinated I became by Sichuan cuisine. It was totally foreign to me, and soon I wanted nothing more than to attempt it myself and see what all the fuss was about. I finally purchased the cookbook, and after a week of browsing through the pages and reading the extensive and well-written introductory pages (about eighty in total), I was ready to take the plunge. I headed to the Chinese supermarket, purchased all the key Sichuan staples (a process unto itself), and returned home ready to cook.

But what to start with? There were so many options. I definitely was not going to do anything that was deep-fried as I’m afraid of oil explosions, but aside from that, I had no real limits. Finally, I decided upon an imposing dish called “Boiled Beef Slices in A Fiery Sauce.” Dunlop writes that it’s “sensationally hot” and that “it’s not for the fainthearted, but if you have a taste for spciy food, it’s fabulous.” Sounded perfect for an Adventure in Domesticity…

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Things start with a head of celery. The directions call for me to scrape off the fibrous outer layer of each stalk. It’s a little tedious, but it gets done.

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I cut the celery into sticks, and then next I must smash several scallions and cut them up too. Here are the crushed scallions.

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The veggies take a seat on the back counter.

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I then prep all my ingredients. Since this is stir-frying and some of it goes quickly, I must have everything prepared. Always ready — like the Coast Guard.

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In the big bowl is sliced flank steak that’s been marinating with Shaoxing rice wine. In the little bowl are Sichuan peppercorns and some sliced dried arbol chiles. I couldn’t find Sichuan chiles; so they would have to do.

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On the left is Sichuan chili bean paste. Next to that is a mixture of light and dark soy sauces, and next to that a cornstarch slurry.

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Lastly, three cups of chicken stock. I used store-bought. Ina Garten will be pissed.

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At last it’s time to cook. I heat up a few tablespoons of peanut oil in the wok.

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First up are the peppers and chiles.

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These bad boys get stir-fried for about 30 seconds or a minute. They quickly turn brown.

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Next I grind them up in my Magic Bullet and reserve. I tried to chop them with a knife, but they kept bouncing around everywhere. Not good.

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In the leftover oil, I then stir-fry the greens for about a minute — long enough for them to absorb flavors but not long enough for them to soften. Texture is apparently a very big deal in Chinese cooking.

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My purdy scallions and celery.

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I then add a little more oil (argh) and stir fry the chili bean paste, which creates quite the frenzy in the pan. This lasts for about thirty-seconds — until the oil is red and permeated with the stuff.

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The stock and soy sauce enter the wok, ultimately creating a most foreboding broth.

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Meanwhile, I pour the slurry into the meat and make sure to coat every piece. This technique apparently keeps the beef tender and soft. Once the broth comes to a boil, I drop the meat into the wok and let the magic happen.

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Macro shot!

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Further boiling.

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After a few minutes of cooking, the meat is ready. I scoop it onto the celery.

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The sauce and the peppercorns soon follow.

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My scary, peppery bowl awaits…

The verdict? Weird. Good. Spicy. Tasty. Strange. To be honest, these flavors were all kind of foreign to me, and at first, I really didn’t know what to make of it. My first instinct was salty. And spicy. Very spicy. However, as I dug into it, the dish kind of opened up. The broth had bizarre, intriguing layers of flavor, and the meat was perfectly soft and moist. Did it blow me away? No. But I definitely liked it, and now that two days have passed, I’m excited to taste the leftovers, which have no doubt increased in flavor by now.

As for the spiciness, the dish wasn’t quite as insanely hot as Dunlop had advertised, but that could also be because I used arbol chiles and not the authentic Sichuan “facing-heaven” variety. That’s quite alright though because the dish was certainly hot, and not only did I have a bad case of the sniffles, but my lips were tingling long after I was done. Needless to say, I pretty much bolted out my door to the nearest frozen yogurt spot to put out the fire. Of course, I also had milk on hand, and in my haste to douse the flames, I chugged three-quarters of a glass before realizing unhappily that the damn thing had gone sour. Not a pleasant chaser.

If I were to change things up, I probably wouldn’t use celery again. Not only was it annoying to prep, but it’s just not my favorite vegetable. Dunlop encourages readers to try out different veggies, and that’s definitely something I will do in the future. I may skimp on the oil a touch too. It was definitely an intriguing dish to make and eat.

Of course, since I had gone to the trouble of purchasing all these quirky ingredients, I was eager to mine Land of Plenty for further recipes; so the next night, my friend Bets came over, and we put together a full-on meal. We didn’t take pics of the process because we had a lot to do, but I can say that everything we did was easy, fun, and turned out deliciously. Here’s what we made:

• “Zhong” crescent dumplings
• Xie Laoban’s Dan Dan Noodles
• Spicy Cucumber Salad

In order to make those dishes, we also had to make three condiments: sweet aromatic soy sauce, roasted ground sichuan pepper, and homemade chili oil. The latter item led to some scary explosions of oil in my saucepan, but aside from that, it was smooth sailing and yielded this magnificently vibrant oil:

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We just heated up a cup of peanut oil and poured it over a quarter of a cup of chili flakes.

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It’s kind of entrancing, and it smells amazing.

As for the sweet aromatic soy sauce, it’s definitely worth making a batch. Just put a third of a cup of dark soy sauce, two-thirds a cup of water, six tablespoons of brown sugar, a third of a cinnamon stick, half a star anise, half a teaspoon of fennel seeds, half a teaspoon of sichuan peppercorns, and a crushed, unpeeled piece of ginger in a pot and bring to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer for twenty minutes, and you’re done. This concoction is delicious for dipping dumplings in, especially if you mix in other ingredients too.

Anyway, here is our final spread:

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As you can see, we made a huge number of dumplings (boiled, pork) and noodles.

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The Dan Dan noodles were delicious and full of so much more flavor than what we thought we had added to them. They were totally addictive.

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The dumplings were great too. We undersalted them because other stuff (ie. the cucumbers) were a bit too salty. Turns out that with these dumplings, you don’t really want to skimp on the salt. In the end though, it didn’t matter that much because the sauce was so amazing that the dumpling filling almost didn’t even matter.

Also worth noting was the spicy cucumber salad, which was refreshing, flavorful, and totally unexpected. The only problem is that to prep the cucumber, you have to salt them ahead of time, and they were still a touch too salty for me. I’ll definitely use less salt in the future, but I would happily make it again. Everything was insanely easy. I really enjoyed my boiled beef slices in a fiery sauce, but the noodles outshone them in my book. I may just poke into the Dan Dan leftovers now…

4 replies on “ADVENTURES IN DOMESTICITY: Sichuan Bonanza Edition”

  1. Oh my god I love, love Dan Dan noodles. When I lived in DC I would go to this noodle shop and get them all the time. Now I live in the middle of nowhere and I am without any establishment that sells ethnic food with the exception of a suck ass pizza place. Is there anyway that you could post the recipe for the noodles- I will probably have to order some of the ingredients online, but it would be great to be able to make them myself.

  2. What is the recipe for the cucumber salad? I had the best cucumbers in Japan, but I don’t know what the sauce was. I couldn’t ask because no one at the restaurant spoke English and I don’t speak Japanese. But now I think about them….. I’m hungry!

  3. The only time I’ve had Dan Dan noodles is at PF Chang’s. And while I’m sure they aren’t “real” Dan Dan noodles, they’re one of the only dishes I like at PF Chang’s (minus the chicken wraps, of course). I might have to pick up this book. I’m intrigued!

  4. I grew up in Singapore and alums still get together and cook asian food, I am excited to spring these recipes on them! Thanks for the info! I believe you can use that chili oil for curing just about anything. ; )

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