My experience with "Chinese food" has been pretty limited; like probably the majority of North Americans, I'm most familiar with the greasy, questionable kind of stuff that I imagine is largely tailored to Western fast food tastes. Aside from an okay dim sum experience and some decent dishes at nicer restaurants, I had pretty much written off Chinese food as something too often deep-fried, sugar and MSG-filled and unhealthy to risk filling my stomach with so I essentially ignorantly swore it off for the past few years. Of course, I knew that behind the food court combo fare there must be an ancient and advanced culinary tradition, I just didn't know where to find it - or what to order! I think the language barrier is actually a big disadvantage for people unfamiliar with Chinese cuisine; they can't read the Chinese names on the menu and English descriptions are often something very un-descriptive like "Beef in Black Bean Sauce" or "Pork with Green Peppers". That's not very encouraging to (unadventurous) people who prefer to stick with what they know rather than gamble on a potentially unpleasant surprise. Unfortunately, this leads to the impression that the vast and daunting world of Chinese cuisine begins with Ginger Beef and ends with Sweet and Sour Pork. Anyway, I knew I was missing out!
I first got excited about Szechuan/Sichuan cuisine thanks to Anthony Bourdain's TV show "No Reservations". I never knew it was centered around a variety of really unique spices, known for being spicy and fragrant which is a flavor combination guaranteed to catch my interest. Some of the plates displayed on the show looked about 90% chile peppers, I was really curious to try it but apparently it's hard to find that kind of "authentic" dish outside of Sichuan province and I didn't have any good recommendations for a local restaurant. I never considered trying to cook this kind of thing at home until I saw a recipe for Mapo Tofu posted by Vincci on Ceci n'est pas un food blog. Thanks to her detailed descriptions and clarification of ingredients, I was able to hold my iPhone up to a shelf of bean paste and match the Chinese characters properly!
Pi Xian Broad Bean Sauce and Sichuan Peppercorn "Prickly Ash".
There were a lot of different broad bean sauces and pastes but only one that I saw marked Pi Xian so I bought it...a kilogram of it. It seemed like a good deal at just over $3 but I now have an ominous, dense 1kg bag of powerfully fermented broad bean loaded with bits of hot pepper. It's amazing and very potent, I could smell it unmistakably through the packaging even though it was sealed in plastic, wrapped in paper and another layer of plastic, and I wouldn't hesitate to describe it as demonic or at least malevolent, possibly borderline haunted. I have a feeling I'm going to be adding spoonfuls of it to a lot of other stuff I cook, I've already used it to power up some fried rice. I really hope I can find some more recipes that give me an opportunity to make use of both of these signature Sichuan ingredients. The peppercorns were like a totally new flavor to me, I was really impressed. It wasn't quite spicy enough for me so I'll probably add more Pi Xian Douban next time but it's a really interesting, numbing sort of spicy sensation, made even more interesting by the floral/sour/citric undertones of the peppercorns.
Mapo doufu/tofu with brown rice and baby bok choy
I followed this recipe exactly, using ground beef and excluding Shaoxing wine. It was one of the best things I've ever cooked and I'm already planning to make it again!
Recipe after the jump.