Sichuan, land of the numbingly spicy

And I certainly don't mean that in a bad way. One of the reasons (besides the pandas) why we decided to come to Sichuan province was because of the cuisine, which is famous for its use of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. These peppercorns have a curious property: they make your mouth go numb, and it's something the Chinese call “ma”. In combination with “la”, the spiciness from regular red chilies, Sichuan cuisine has built a fearsome reputation for its spicy food.

We had our first taste of the peppercorn when we went for hotpot a couple of nights ago. We've been for hotpot before, but this was a bit different; rather than boiling broth, it was a concoction of boiling oil, chilies, peppercorns, and other spices. It was bright red and the scent coming off of it was spicy and tingly. We chose a couple of things off of the menu, which luckily was in English (avoiding the “urinating beef balls” and “ox penis” but at least getting some tripe and beef tendon), dumped it into the boiling oil, and hoped for the best. I fished out a piece of beef, dunked it in some sesame oil, cilantro and scallions, and carefully bit into it. My mouth immediately caught on fire from the red chilies, but as I continued chewing this curious sensation spread on my tongue – my mouth was turning numb from the peppercorns! It's so hard to describe it, I was totally weirded out at first. Maybe it's a bit like when you drink a wine with a lot of tannins and your tongue feels furry, but multiply it by ten and maybe you'd come close.

As we've been eating, we've noticed that the peppercorn is in everything – the stir fries, the noodles, the soups. Sometimes they're added in whole, sometimes they're sneaky about it and crush it up. So while you're eating your mouth goes numb and you didn't even know what hit you. Even for breakfast! I can see why people like it so much though, the interplay between the fiery red chilies and the peppercorns is such a great combination. I especially love the the dried fried red chilies, when done just right they're a bit crispy, oily, fragrant and spicy, I end up picking them out of the dish and finishing them before we've even eaten the rest of the food.

Eating out here is very inexpensive – on average we're spending about $6 US for any given meal, sometimes as little as 75 cents (!) –  but it's finding the right ones that can be tough. Small mom and pop places are everywhere in the city, we've passed by so many I can't even keep count. They're little open air joints with a couple of tables, sometimes the kitchen is open to the eating area, sometimes it's in the back. We've evolved some rules though to decide how to pick one.

  • Walk around during meal times. Then you can see which ones are busy. If it's busy, there must be a reason why!
  • If it's a busy one, look at the floor and the surrounding environment – are there tons of napkins and debris on the ground? If so, skip it because the kitchen is probably disgusting. If the place looks clean, better chance that the kitchen will be clean too.
  • What are people ordering? If the menu is only in Chinese, then it's easier if you go to busy place and point at something that you might want to try than to struggle to string together a sentence. Going into an empty restaurant is tough.
  • Do the proprietors seem welcoming or at least interested in your business? Skip it if they scowl at you. 
  • How does it smell? If it's stinky you probably don't want to go there, and conversely if it smells good then check it out. Trust your nose.

We've actually had a lot of good meals at random places that we'll never know the name of by following the rules to some extent. We had amazing dumplings in Langzhong, they were so good that we went back for breakfast a second time.

Another thing that was inevitable is that ordering off the menu when you can't read and communicate is a crap shoot. Especially when there are no pictures. Sometimes it just comes down to opening the menu and pointing at something, because saying “What do you recommend?” in Chinese (at least my Chinese) draws blank stares. On the train we were lucky and ended up ordering fish fragrant pork, something that is pretty basic and non-scary. At a hole-in-the-wall which we found via EatingAsia, we managed to order some delicious stir fried beans and the fish fragrant pork again (yes, we've learned to identify that one at least.) At other meals we were not so fortunate, one dish was a bunch of offal that neither of us could identify – maybe it was chicken intestine, maybe not? The dish itself was mediocre, and maybe I am better off not knowing what it was. Another meal we ended up ordering snake. Glad I experienced it, but probably wouldn't order it again. So kids: learn your Chinese, you will thank me in the end!

I have to say that I am not fond of the packaged drinks and snacks in Sichuan. Actually, the bottled drinks are quite awful. They're all sugary and fake tasting, real juice does not exist, not even at froofy drink stands. At least in Sichuan it's hard to get a decent cup of tea unless you're at a teahouse, but we haven't really honed our mahjong skills enough to feel comfortable hanging out in one for more than a half hour or so. Coffee is crappy/non-existent. Snacks tend to be overly pungent or that snappy texture that seems to offend Westerners to no end, or are crappy horrible ripoffs of brand names like Pringles. I keep dreaming of all the lovely fruit juices and kopi-o in Singapore and the fresh coconuts in Thailand.

However, we had some great freshly prepared snacks at a pedestrian area known as Jin Li Street. Sichuan is also known for its xiao chi, literally “small eats”. Vendors specialize in one type or another, it can range from various types of fried meat on a stick similar to kebabs to tofu with molasses sauce. Often these are just street vendors, which we've been avoiding them for the sake of the peace of our stomachs. But we were able to sample a bunch of these snacks at Jin Li Street, as the sanitary conditions are a bit more standardized. Our favorite by far was a combo dish of five types of vegetarian rice rolls, they were savory and a bit spicy, and each had its own texture. All in all, we've really enjoyed the food here and are glad that we had a chance to try it. Next up on our plates later on this week: yak meat and other Tibetan delicacies! Stay tuned…

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Addicted to Chilies

OK, I'll admit it – I've been adding chilies to my breakfast lately. My tolerance for spice seems to be getting higher the longer we're in Thailand and food seems to be missing something when there isn't any heat. Dare I say…boring? When we're in the States, I eat Thai (or at least Thai-style) food at least once a week (shout out to my former coworkers/lunch buddies at Six Apart!), and have been dying to know what makes it so addictive. Beyond the chilies.

When I think of Tom Yum soup, or any of the curries, or Pad Thai, the fiery spiciness is always mellowed by a sweetness. And the sweet is never too clingy because there's a sour-fishy-pungent-ness that follows. At least if you go to a good Thai place that gets the balance right. To find out what makes Thai food tick, we joined a vegetarian cooking course at Yousabi, which is now part of Pun Pun farm (which I've written about here). Krid, our awesome teacher for the course, led us through eleven dishes in two days. As we made our way through the dishes I kept adding more and more chilies – MOAR  SPIZE PLZ!

The basic pantry of the Thai kitchen is very straightforward: palm oil, palm sugar, fish sauce (although we used soy sauce as a substitute during the course because it was vegetarian), and coconut milk. Palm oil gets a bad reputation but is actually a really good oil to cook with because it has a high smoke temperature and has a neutral flavor. This also makes it ideal for frying. Palm sugar is an ingredient that I've never encountered before, but it was in almost every dish we made – and I think it made a big difference in melding all the flavors together and what's been missing in my former attempts to make Thai food at home. Fish sauce is used instead of using straight salt and gives the food that pungent flavor. Coconut milk provides the sweetness that balances out the heat.

Key herbs and spices include chilies, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and galangal. If you can't find all of these fresh then you're shit out of luck for making fresh curry paste. We also made use of tamarind juice and lime juice to add sour notes. Other handy ingredients include kaffir lime/kaffir lime leaves/kaffir lime peel, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and black soy sauce. The most time consuming part was making the curry paste. I definitely wouldn't skimp on that part, it makes a huge difference in flavor when you make it yourself – and of course with a mortar and pestle, food processors don't really allow the ingredients to release all of the flavor.

Then pretty much it's the combination of the basic ingredients, either as a curry or a stir fry or as a soup, with tofu and veggies in a wok, either with rice or noodles, and you've got homemade Thai food. It seemed amazingly simple and I wondered why I've never done it before. Pad Thai is a breeze! Green papaya salad, no problem! Even making soup was quick because we weren't laboriously making stock, we were just boiling a lot of the herbs together to make a light broth. Once you've got the ingredients prepped, the actual cooking part happens very quickly. Thai food seems to be about using cooking heat to release the maximum amount of flavor and color in a short amount of time.

Here's the recipe for Penang Curry, my favorite dish we made. Amounts can be adjusted to your liking, don't be afraid to eyeball it.

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PENANG CURRY
For the paste:

  • dried red chiles, soaked for a bit and then minced
  • lemongrass stems, chopped
  • large chunk of galangal, sliced
  • shallots
  • garlic

Combine these ingredients in a heavy stone mortar and pestle. Mash until it's almost smooth. Then add

  • 1 tsp. Coriander seed
  • 1 tsp. Cumin seed

Preferably these have been dry roasted beforehand. Continue pounding the mixture until is is a paste.

For one serving:

  • 1 ½ tsp palm oil
  • long beans
  • eggplant
  • tofu
  • ¾ cup coconut milk
  • 1 tsp palm sugar
  • ½ tsp fish sauce (or dark soy sauce)
  • roasted peanuts, crushed
  • slices of fresh red pepper and kaffir lime leaf for garnish

Add palm oil in a wok over low heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add at least a heaping tbsp of curry paste, or to taste. Fry the paste for a bit. Just before it starts browning, add 2 tbsp of coconut milk. Continue to fry the paste until the oil from the coconut milk begins to separate from the paste. Add vegetables to the wok (long beans, eggplant, tofu). Add the rest of the coconut milk.

Now add the palm sugar and fish sauce, stir to combine. Add a bit of water if it's too dry. Turn the heat up and cook until the vegetables are cooked but firm/crisp. Add the crushed peanuts. Garnish with the red pepper and kaffir lime leaves, serve accompanied with rice.

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I will be hitting up the Thai grocer on Bayard St. when I get home, that's for sure.  I  really have no excuse for being lazy and not cooking at home and going out for cheap Thai food, because now I can make it exactly how I like with as many chilies as I like. Anyone ready to come over for dinner?

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