Sichuan

China and the vegan conundrum

BLOG #4

Vegans and vegetarians haven’t always had an easy time in China. It’s not that the Chinese have a problem with the concept. They just don’t really get it (not all of them, at least).

It’s quite common, for example, for a vegetarian to order a dish of delicious green beans only to discover it comes with minced pork. It would to the average Chinese person, quite clearly be a vegetarian dish given the preponderance of the beans. The presence of some pork and its attendant meat fat would be merely seen as incidental. It is partly to do with Chinese people’s attitude towards meat and vegetables. They are accustomed to seeing them together on one plate.

Throw in a communication barrier too and it might seem as if the restaurant is trying to pull the wool over the diner’s eyes. It most definitely isn’t. But out of such misunderstandings can stereotypes be born and flourish.

But, there has been a gradual awakening in China over the last decade. This has been led by the big metropolises, by celebrities and also by the impact of much more overseas travel by an emerging, affluent middle class. That has seen the concept of vegetarianism and the rationale underpinning it become well accepted. It is also seen as a trendy and popular lifestyle choice. Most Chinese now recognise the health benefits of a diet consisting of lots of vegetables and have even decided to give vegetarianism a go, at least temporarily.

Nowadays, you can find some amazing vegetarian restaurants in China, with a diverse choice of vegetables, herbs and spices allied to great cooking techniques at the disposal of the typical Chinese chef. That means there are an abundance of tasty dishes awaiting an ever-growing vegan and vegetarian community. But, what if you want to eat vegetarian Chinese food in Copenhagen? There are options, and we are definitely one of them!

Here’s five of our favourite dishes:

1. Crispy lotus root salad with Sichuan chilli oil dressing

We have already tested this dish with one of our vegetarian guests this week. She loved it, describing the dish as crisp, spicy and sweet. We always listen to our customers, so we will be adding this one to our Sichuan-themed menu. If you've never had this vegetable before, you've definitely got to try it! It is the root of lotus flower, perfectly healthy and has a gentle sweetness. When sliced thin and poached quickly, it turns very crispy and combines wonderfully with our signature chilli oil! Emm... You will love this starter, and you don’t need to be vegetarian to try this one. It really is delicious!

2. Vegetarian mapo tofu

Photo by Caroline Phelps from  Pickled Plum

Photo by Caroline Phelps from Pickled Plum

This is an absolutely classic Chinese dish. Traditional 'mapo tofu’ comes with beef mince, and again this is why sometimes it’s hard to order the vegetarian dish in Chinese restaurant, as it simply doesn't say in the name that it comes with meat. But what is 'mapo'? It is actually the nickname of a Chinese lady who lived during the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. Her husband Mr. Chen used to have a restaurant in Chengdu, but, when he died relatively young, Mrs. Chen was left with little choice other than to take over the business in order to make ends meet. Soon after she took over, her signature tofu dish became famous in the local area, and more and more people came to eat. Mrs. Chen’s complexion was a bit pockmarked and people nicknamed her 陈麻婆 (Chen Ma Po), meaning “Mrs Chen the pockmark face”. It may not have been particularly nice, but it helped establish her. At the time, a lot of people visiting her restaurant were low paid paddi-field workers and labourers, so they could not always afford meat. So only when they had a bit of spare cash would they go to Chen Mapo with a small piece of meat for Chen Mapo to add into their favourite tofu dish. And that is why the traditional ‘Mapo Tofu’ always comes with minced meat.

Portrait of Chen Mapo, image courtesy of  pcfannet on Flickr

Portrait of Chen Mapo, image courtesy of pcfannet on Flickr

But this dish is just as tasty without meat. The tofu is cooked with a lot of chilli and sichuan peppercorn, giving it a vibrant red that is extremely tempting. The combination of spices, savoury and saltiness is divine to the point that it is almost impossible to stop eating. And thanks to its creator Mapo, we still get to enjoy such amazing dish, 200 years down the line.

3. Sichuan fish-flavoured aubergine

We mentioned this dish in our last blog, so I’ll not add too much more about it here. Let’s just let the picture do the talking. It’s been one of our most popular dishes since we opened up at Spisehuset. And, as they say, the proof’s in the pudding. Come. Try it. You won’t be disappointed!

4. Kewei’s signature vegetarian dumplings

Everyone loves dumplings. It’s just the perfect format for bringing together all your favourite veggies. Our vegetarian dumpling contains a lot of goodness: Shii-take mushrooms, button mushrooms, fennel, carrot, spinach, Chinese chives and cabbage. Imagine getting all of that in one heavenly bite. And our veggie dumplings get their green skin from a healthy spinach juice. Just wonderful.

5. Steamed okra, tofu and glass noodle with garlic oil

Photo by Stella Nisreen Kanaan

Photo by Stella Nisreen Kanaan

This is a heavenly dish. While okra is not a traditional Chinese vegetable, it is becoming popular and it’s not hard to understand why. It really is delicious. This particular dish is actually our own creation. We had an instinct that okra would combine well with tofu and glass noodles and when we unveiled this one before Christmas, our customers agreed. The combination of crunch from the okra, smoothness from the tofu and a certain ‘give’ from the noodle is a perfect cocktail. Add in the garlic oil and you’ve got taste heaven. We love it. We think you will too.

With our Sichuan-themed menu running until February 12, we do feel we've got all bases covered. We're currently 'popping up' at the wonderfully hyggeligt Spisehuset in Kødbyen on Sunday and Monday. So, whatever your dietary needs, we have an amazing experience awaiting you. But please do let us know before. Book now!

FIVE SICHUAN DISHES YOU MUST TRY

BLOG #3

If you think Sichuan food is all about spice and tongue-numbing sensations, you are wrong. It is one element of course and an important one. But there is a lot more to Sichuan food than that.

The Chinese have a phrase that neatly depicts Sichuan food 一菜一格,百菜百味(yi cai yi ge, bai cai bai wei). In essence, it means every dish tastes different, and a hundred dishes should have a hundred different tastes.

So, if your forays into Sichuan food have thus far revolved around red chili oil and Sichuan peppers, you’ve only scraped the surface. There’s so much more.

Sichuan food is never simple. It should have complex flavours and stimulate all your senses. The unique use of Sichuan pepper, chili and douban sauce (chili bean sauce), combines with classic Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce, black vinegar, and Shaoxing wine to create a deeply addictive explosion of spice, salt, sour and sweet flavours that most definitely add up to more than the sum of its parts.

Let’s start by introducing some typical Sichuan flavours and dishes.

1. Gongbao Chicken (宫保鸡丁 gong bao ji ding)

Source: Xiachufang.com

Source: Xiachufang.com

This classic chicken stir-fry dish is made with peanut, spring onions and cucumber. Gongbao refers to the title of dish creator, Ding Baozhen (1820-1886). Ding was the official governor in Sichuan during the Qing Dynasty and it is a testament to the dish’s popularity and, no doubt to the respect he enjoyed, that people named it after him.

Although this dish comes with an inviting bright red glow from its sauce and red chilli, it is not a very spicy dish. It has a sweet, sour and savoury flavour with a hint of spice from the tongue-tickling Sichuan pepper. The most interesting thing about this dish is the texture. The chicken is carefully marinated and coated with starch, allowing you to experience the tenderness of the succulent meat, the refreshing cucumber, the crunch of the peanuts and the aromatic spring onion flavour all in one tantalising mouthful. Need I say more? It really is the perfect combination.

2. Mouthwatering chicken (口水鸡 kou shui ji)

Source: Xiachufang.com

Source: Xiachufang.com

This is another classic chicken dish. It’s earned the label mouthwatering, because this dish is so hot and mouth-numbing that it will certainly make your mouth water. This cold dish is also known for its tender and juicy texture, achieved through the chef’s perfect judgment as to when the boiling chicken is just cooked and then quickly plunged into ice water. When cut through, the chicken should be 肉白骨红(rou bai gu hong) which means white in the flesh and red on the bone. Imagine a piece of juicy chicken with spicy red oil and fiery Sichuan pepper combined with the sourness from the vinegar and saltiness from the soy. It truly is mouth-watering.

3. Twice-cooked pork (回锅肉 hui guo rou)

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

The name of this dish refers to its method of cooking. The pork is first boiled with Sichuan peppercorns and Shaoxing wine and then fried with Chinese leeks in a wok. This unique technique releases the flavour from the pork minus the often off-putting taste of grease and fat. Another important element of this dish is the chili bean paste. This sauce is key to many Sichuan dishes. It is made of a blend of salted chili pepper and preserved broad beans. It is spicy and salty with a hint of fermentation. Partner this with a thin slice of pork belly… yum!

4. Fish-flavoured aubergine (鱼香茄子 yu xiang qie zi)

Source: Xiachufang.com

Source: Xiachufang.com

If you have been to Kewei’s Kitchen, you will know this dish already from the menu. However, I have it on the menu as aubergine with garlic sauce, given that the ‘fish flavoured’ (yu xiang) element might have alarmed some of our many vegetarian customers. This dish has absolutely nothing to do with fish, but the sauce is certainly one of the most popular Sichuan flavours as you will find fish-flavoured pork, fish-flavoured prawn, and even tofu in Sichuan. So how do you create this fish flavour without any fish? The clever Sichuan chef combines soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar, chili-bean paste, and a good amount of garlic and ginger. There is nothing artificial here. Just good old-fashioned creativity and skill. And again, this is not a terribly hot dish but rather a delightful symphony of sweet, sour and savoury with a hint of spiciness.  

5. Sichuan water-poached fish (水煮鱼 shui zhu yu)

Source: the works of life

Source: the works of life

Last but not least, the water-poach method is yet another absolute classic Sichuan cooking style, which results in the most soft and tender fish you can imagine bursting with flavour. The fish and vegetables are first quickly poached and placed into a bowl, with a generous handful of chili, Sichuan peppers and garlic sprinkled and then topped by some hot oil to release the fragrance. The satisfying sound of the sizzle is sure to light up all your senses! Now, as Sichuan dishes go, this one does live up to the general reputation for the region’s food as it is pretty heavy on the chili and the Sichuan peppercorns, but if you’ve never experienced that mouth-numbing sensation before, it’s a great one to start with. There’s always a first time for everything of course, and, you never know, you might be on your way to your new food addiction.  

Kewei’s Kitchen will be running a Sichuan-themed month from January 21, and ALL of the above dishes are on the menu. Call or book online to get your table now!