FIVE SICHUAN DISHES YOU MUST TRY

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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! 

Is Chinese food healthy?

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It’s a common misconception that Chinese food is fattening and therefore unhealthy. That of course will not come as a surprise if your experience has been limited to deep-fried spring rolls, or a battered sweet-and-sour chicken coated in a thick, sugary sauce. But do Chinese people really subsist on a daily deep-fried diet?

The answer is of course no. There are many different methods of Chinese cooking. Let’s explore a few here.

Firstly, we should begin with Chinese cooking methods. We have a short phrase “煎炒烹炸蒸煮炖” (jian chao peng zha zheng zhu dun), which sums up the seven fundamental Chinese cooking methods: pan-fried, stir-fried, sauteed, deep-fried, steamed, poached and simmered. But these seven methods are themselves only a shortened version of the overall 28 methods that make up traditional Chinese cooking. As you can see, deep-frying is only one way of doing it. And yet, it has rather unfortunately come to dominate the image of Chinese food in the western market.

The Chinese, as we mentioned in our first blog, adhere to Yin and Yang principles and this is as much so in the kitchen and food as in other spheres of life. For want of a better description, it’s all about balance. A good Chinese meal should be balanced with the right combination of protein, vegetables, carbohydrate and some good fat. It’s this fundamental principle that actually puts Chinese cuisine among the most healthy in the world.

First, vegetable dishes are not treated as an afterthought to enable us to reach our ‘five-a-day’ quota. They are as essential to the meal as the meat or fish taking centre stage and it is not unusual to see two or three plates of steaming hot, stir-fried vegetables encircling that gloriously embellished sea bass in a chilli and black bean sauce, a plateful of plump scallops on a glass noodle base, a stunning Xinjiang lamb on a bed of aromatic onions or a vibrantly colourful beef and broccoli in black bean sauce.

Soy sauce pickled beef with cucumber and carrot salad from Kewei's Kitchen

Soy sauce pickled beef with cucumber and carrot salad from Kewei's Kitchen

Secondly, the Chinese tend to have around 2-3 dishes a meal, which can help in the intake of a diverse range of essential nutrients. At the same time, it also makes eating more fun, as you get to experience many different flavours and textures. That might include a spicy hot soup, or a cold refreshing crispy salad alongside the ubiquitous soft and satisfying rice.

The Chinese also embrace fat as an essential element of any good diet. If a fat is natural, it is by definition good. If it is not, then it is probably best avoided. The classic red braised pork belly dish, slow cooked to its most tender and juicy state not only puts a smile on everyone’s face as they gather expectantly around the table, it is, especially in winter time, a source of some essential, good fat that gives your skin a real glow and keeps the brain sharp. And with that lovely feeling of warmth it gives the body and soul, there’s something kind of hygge about it, even if I say so myself!

Slow-cooked pork belly with tea-infused soft-boiled egg and cucumber pickles. Our regulars at Kødbyens summer market absolutely loved this dish!  

Slow-cooked pork belly with tea-infused soft-boiled egg and cucumber pickles. Our regulars at Kødbyens summer market absolutely loved this dish!  

There’s an important point here. The Chinese look on food as if it were medicinal. Some of the most vital ingredients in Chinese cooking are ginger, garlic, spring onion and chillies. All of them have been proven to have great health benefits. If you have a cold, Chinese people will tell you to eat some raw garlic or drink some ginger tea. And if you have a sore throat, Chinese people will probably make you some pear dessert soup. Most of the time, when the Chinese have a stomach problem, they will probably eat lots of porridge and soup. However, Chinese porridge is not made of oats but a mix of grains, such as rice, green beans or barley. It also tends to be more ‘soupy’. Needless to say it is delicious! Liquid based foods are of course filling in a way that does not necessarily leave its mark on your waistline either!

Three good meals a day is another essential element of the Chinese diet and they tend to eat until they are full. In other words, the western obsession with clearing everything on the plate does not really register on the Chinese table (not that we in anyway condone excessive waste!).

(By the way, veganism, vegetarianism and gluten free requirements are not yet really in vogue for China. But Kewei’s Kitchen can and already has catered extensively to meet our guests needs.)

 A special dish for our vegan friends. Steamed okra, tofu and glass noodles in ginger and garlic sauce. 

 A special dish for our vegan friends. Steamed okra, tofu and glass noodles in ginger and garlic sauce. 

Not convinced? Well, how’s this for a litmus test. The Chinese as a rule do not have a health culture in the body beautiful sense that is typical in the western world, yet, despite eating three excellent meals daily, their obesity rates are relatively low. In fact, obesity has only begun to be a problem in China with the advent of fast-food culture.

A Chinese person who eschews that phenomenon tends not to be fat. After all, ask yourself this question. How many obese Chinese people have you seen?

Kewei

P.S. By the way folks, this is our last blog of the year so we'd like to wish all of our loyal guests and followers a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Of course, if you want to see us before then, why not pop by Spisehuset this weekend and book a table. We'd be delighted to see you!  

China’s winter food

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Depending on where you are in China, the weather in winter can vary between chilly and finger-numbingly cold. Where I grew up in the north of China in the Heilongjiang province capital of Harbin, temperatures of minus 30 were not uncommon.

In traditional Chinese philosophy, winter represents the most Yin aspect, in essence, the cold and shadowy aspect of the universe. To achieve harmony between your body and the cold season, the Chinese have a phrase “秋收冬藏” (qiu shou dong cang) , which means harvesting in autumn and storing in winter. If you apply this concept to what you eat in winter, then it is clear. Warm, hearty and slow-cooked food helps your body store energy against extremes of cold.  

Certainly when I was a child, stews were a mainstay. Lamb, chicken and beef, preferably with the bones and some fat. Not processed fats I hasten to add, but proper healthy fats. Root vegetables, such as potato, carrot, turnip and ginger, mushrooms and roasted nuts were also a vital element in creating a consistency and body in the stew, perfect for reinvigorating the flesh.

Another important element for winter food are spices, which provide incredible health benefits, complex flavours, aroma and colour to the dish. Typical winter spices include star anise, cumin seed, cinnamon, cloves and pepper.  

This leads to this week’s new addition to the menu - Xinjiang aromatic lamb chops. Good quality lamb marinated with Shaoxing wine, Chinese five spices, cumin seed, cayenne, Sichuan peppers, and soy sauce, cooked on a smoking hot grill. It’s tender, juicy, mouth-tickling, and… You need to try it.   

Aromatic Xinjiang lamb chops                                                               

Photo from Kewei’s Kitchen

Another one of my favourite winter dishes is chicken, mushroom and chestnut stew. Ask any northerner in China and they will know this dish. The chestnut yields a semi-crunchy texture that blends nicely with the slipperiness of the mushroom and the tender flavour of the slow-cooked chicken. We like to keep our bones in our stews and as a kid, I’d often suck on the soft marrow at the end of the meal. But don’t worry, no-one’s expecting you to do that in Denmark!   

What about winter drinks? In Europe you have hot-mulled wine. In northern China we drink warm BaiJiu (BaiJiu is China’s equivalent of vodka but comes in at 56%). It is not boiled alcohol, but a small jug of BaiJiu soaked in hot water which raises the temperature without losing any alcohol percentage.

Who's up for BaiJiu?       Source: TaoBao        

Who's up for BaiJiu?   

Source: TaoBao       

And if you had the impression Chinese food is deep fried and oily, these dishes should prove otherwise. Certainly, light use of oil is one of the principles we adhere to at Kewei’s Kitchen!

Ultimately, to get an understanding of how we approach food in China, it really is all about a balance of the Yin and the Yang. It’s not rocket science in the end. If it’s cold outside, it’s important to have winter warmers.

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