Reminiscing about London
My friends here in the States are often shocked by how frequently I cook. It's true that I don't really eat out often and that's because there aren't any good restaurants near school. The Asian places in particular are so loaded with MSG in their food that I always feel dreadful after eating. Since eating out isn't really a regular option, what I tend to do is cooking big portions and reheat them over a few days. I can then survive without killing myself by cooking every meal every day.
Back in my years in London, though, I really cooked. As one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, you can get so many different kinds of ingredients from across the globe (although at a price). I loved visiting Selfridge's food hall in search of well-marbled English pork belly and special French chicken breeds; going to the world-renowned Borough market on Saturdays and lose myself in the dizzying web of vendors; heading to the local market in Fulham for cheap-and-cheerful fruits and veggies; paying weekly visits to the Chinatown in Leicester Square for everything Chinese; stopping at my local, unfailingly professional butcher at Baron's Court for top-notch meat. The list could go on and on. Even supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsbury's are infinitely better than their American counterparts Kroger and Walmart. It's truly a heaven for food lovers and I was spoilt for ingredients and choices. I looked forward to cooking different dishes every day (lunch and dinner), and held dinner party for friends regularly. Maybe that's why I'm still a poor pianist - only if I spent more time in the practice room! Here are some of the (Cantonese) dishes I cooked back in those days, thanks to Walton's stunning photography:
|五香鹽水雞 Corn-fed chicken simmered in a spiced salt-water broth|
|豆豉苦瓜燜排骨 Spare ribs in black bean sauce with bitter gourd|
|蒜子髮菜瑤柱脯 Steamed dried scallops, garlic pulps and 'hair' vegetables|
|百花釀花菇 Shiitake mushrooms stuffed with minced prawns|
In my early undergrad years, it was mainly the spicy, tongue-numbing food of Sichuan that I liked to cook. My grandma from my mum's side was born in Indonesia so both her cooking and my mum's tends to be pretty strongly flavoured and salty. Growing up in my family, my taste buds were desensitised over time so by the time I reached my undergrad years I liked my food very salty and very sweet. My friends used to say that my soya milk was so sweet that it was like drinking syrup! Anyway, sometime in my first year of undergrad I bought this excellent book on Sichuan cookery by Fuchsia Dunlop, a Cambridge graduate who fell in love with Sichuan food (who also speaks and reads Chinese) during her sojourn in China. A leading UK expert on Chinese food, her book opened up the exotic world of Sichuan food to me. I had tasted Sichuan food as a kid when I visited my grandparents in China, but her book was really an eye-opener for me in how it consistently conveyed the history, subtleties and breath of this remarkable cuisine.
Given my love for strong-flavoured food, I instantly fell in love with the unapologetically spicy and tongue-numbing food of Sichuan after reading and cooking from this gorgeous book. I started to cook from it almost every other day and my fridge was constantly stocked with Sichuan fermented broad bean paste (豆瓣醬), dried chillies and Sichuan peppers (花椒), the spice that will always be associated with Sichuan. The bold and spicy flavours of Sichuan food was very comforting (and exciting!) in London's often chilly and grey weather, and I got addicted to it. (Maybe that's why the English love to eat Indian food too?)
|In my kitchen at Charleville Road|
|Walton, a truly wonderful friend of mine with a most interesting character!|
Over time, I got more conscious about how salty and sweet I liked my food, and started to make an effort to go lighter in my seasoning gradually. It is during this process that I appreciated Cantonese food more and more, and these days I like my food minimally seasoned with salt and sugar so that I can taste the flavours of the ingredient itself. That said, I'm still partial to the hearty warmth of Sichuan cuisine, and this dish that I cooked today reminded me so much of my time in London, the wonderful friends I was with, and the food that I liked to cook. How I miss those days!
|Mid-autumn festival dinner at College Hall|
|William and I at my favourite restaurant YMing in Soho|
|Christmas party in my fourth year|
P.S. Ada and Zenan, I didn't forget about you two, but I only have photos of us three from Brittany...!
辣子雞 Sichuan-style spicy diced chicken
Don't be alarmed by the insane amount of dried chillies in this dish. Most of the chillies seeds do not go into the dish and the chillies are there for their fragrance rather than heat. An authentic Sichuan dish, there ought to be more chillies than chicken so that you have to pick out little bits of chicken meat from the 'mountain' of chillies - a perfect example of the way a dish is prepared and eaten is inextricably linked with the eating utensils. A culture that uses fork and knife would never have come up with a dish like this!
7-8 boneless chicken thighs, about 800g
2 tbsp light soya sauce
1 tbsp dark soya sauce
1 1/2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
Pinch of white pepper
2-3 spring onions, cut into a few sections
4-5 slices of ginger
2-3 cloves of garlic, sliced
75g dried chillies (the amount is liberal, but use more rather than less!)
2 tablespoons of Sichuan pepper
1. Cut the chicken thighs into 2cm cubes. Don't be tempted to use chicken breasts unless you want dry meat fit for the bin.
2. Place the chicken pieces in a big bowl, add marinade and mix well. Leave to marinade for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer.
4. Now fry the chicken pieces. Traditionally you deep-fry the chicken pieces so that the surface dries out and is slightly crispy. I wanted to go light on the oil this time so I only shallow-fried it. It gave a different texture with this smaller amount of oil. If you are up for it, go for deep-frying by all means. Whichever way, heat the oil in the wok till it's smoking hot. Now add all the chicken pieces at once and stir well with chopsticks. Continue to cook on high heat for another 3-4 minutes so that the surface dries out and browns a little.
|Not enough oil, really!|
|After a few minutes the surface begins to brown|
|In goes the chicken - be careful!|
6. Back to the wok. Turn on medium-high heat and stir-fry the spring onions, ginger and garlic slices till fragrant (I didn't have garlic this time).
7. Add the chillies and Sichuan pepper to the wok, and turn the heat down to medium. Stir-fry until your house is filled with the cough-inducing aroma of chilli, and the colour turns a dark red - don't burn it!
8. Add the drained chicken pieces back to the wok. Pick a small piece out and taste for saltiness and sweetness. Depending on that, adjust the seasoning with a little salt and sugar - I sprinkled 1/4 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp sugar this time. Add a splash of Shaoxing rice wine (about 1 tablespoon) onto the wok and let sizzle merrily. Continue cooking for another 3-4 minutes (keep stirring!) so that the flavours mingle and the meat dries out slightly.
8. That's it! Serve piping hot. Sprinkle some sesame seeds for presentation if you want - I would do without it next time.
Postlude: 麻辣雞煲 / Hot and numbing chicken stew
What are you going to do with all those leftover chillies, you may wonder? Instead of throwing them to the bin, they are the perfect vehicle for making a spicy chicken stew. I chopped up some chicken legs - on the bone since they give so much flavour and help keep the meat tender - and stir-fried them with the leftover chillies, ginger, spring onions and garlic along with some broad bean paste (豆瓣醬) till fragrant. I then added water to cover the chicken pieces, brought everything to a boil and seasoned with soya sauce, salt and fermented sweet rice (酒釀). Simmer for about 15 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. That's it.
If you think the previous dish looked spicy, wait till you try this one. The water in the broth really released all the heat of the chillies:
|The kind of red-hot soup that the Japanese imaginatively call 'blood hell' (血地獄)|
If you really want to be frugal, you can save the broth for a Sichuan-style hotpot after you're done with the chicken. Then you can be sure you really used up all the goodness in these humble chillies!