Peanuts and Peppercorns

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sometimes you only realise how much you wanted something when you actually have it. This happened late last week when two suspiciously identical and officious envelopes emerged from between the piles of catalogues and junk mail in our mail box (new year’s note to self: sign up for one of those opt-out lists) and turned out to contain our green cards along with a very jolly congratulatory note welcoming us as newly-minted permanent residents of the United States of America. Now it wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted the green card to arrive but since we’d been in possession of all the advance work and travel permits I had sort of mentally filed away this final part of the process. And, well, it turns out that the concept of being able to live and work here for as long as we like is really rather lovely. Not to mention that the next time I enter the US from abroad I can go through the nice residents queue rather than the snakingly depressing visitors one. Cheers to that!

I guess I should now be writing some post about short ribs and apple pie, or something similarly patriotic, but I have wanted for a really long time to tell you a little about my adventures with Sichuanese food and, on reflection, what could be more appropriate than talking about a cuisine that I have only had the chance to experience because of immigration itself. Where you find immigrants, you find adaptations and reworkings of home cuisines. It’s a way for the newly arrived to make a dime of course, but also food can provide one of the purest expressions of community and just feeling a bit more at home. There’s nothing more grounding and reassuring than tastes that have become so familiar over time as to be a part of oneself. And whether we are immigrants ourselves or not, we all benefit from this process and are able to savour exotic dishes without having to get on a plane or boat or train. It’s really quite magnificent.

Now you’ll recall that I am a girl who likes a good project and bringing the flavours and methods of Sichuanese cookery to my kitchen is one of my current culinary obsessions. And there can be no better companion to this spicy terrain than Fuschia Dunlop’s veritable bible on this cuisine, which I discovered last year when it rocked in at number 9 on the top 10 cookbooks list from the Observer. Dunlop was fortunate enough to be the first Westerner allowed to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu and she very kindly went on to make the vast body of knowledge she accrued on this remarkable cuisine available in a way that is completely accessible at home. Admittedly you might have to put in a bit more effort than a jaunt to the local supermarket to get hold of some of these ingredients, but I promise that the extra work is well worth it. And once you’ve stocked up your store cupboard with the luscious black soy sauces, lip-tingling peppercorns and fragrant vinegars that underpin this recipe, you’ll be able to have some of the best home-cooked Asian food you’ve ever had on your table, and all in about a half hour at that.

If you are going to cook Sichuanese at all, it isn’t going to be long before you turn your hand to Kung Pao chicken. Probably the most famous Sichuan dish in the Western world, it’s also one against which the skills of a Sichuanese chef are often measured. As with much of the cookery emanating from this part of the world, it relies on a subtle balance of the sweet and the sour, underpinned by a round heat and the distinctive numbness that comes from the Sichuan peppercorns. Don’t even try to recreate this recipe without getting hold of some Sichuan pepper: it’s such a crucial part of the dish’s character. As with all the other ingredients this recipe calls for, if you like the flavours of Sichuanese food they are also the basis of so many amazing recipes that it’s worth your time to get hold of them. In the US if you can’t get them locally (in SF they are stocked at Rainbow and Boulette’s Larder by the way) you can order from Penzeys, and in the UK Dunlop herself recommends the Sichuan pepper in the Bart’s spices range, also saying that they are fairly readily available in good supermarkets. Dunlop spends a lot of time in the book discussing Sichuanese knife skills and the importance of different kinds of cuts and slicing techniques to the Sichuanese aesthetic and while this clumsy, plaster-wearing cook is unlikely to get anywhere near that kind of finesse, Kung Pao chicken does derive a certain beauty from at least attempting to get a parity in the size of all the ingredients, chiefly to match the peanuts. But whatever you do to this dish, if you have the right components in hand at the start you are going to end up with something pretty much unbelievably tasty and that I guarantee will have moved from a new year project dish to being a staple of your weeknight supper rotation before you know it.

Kung Pao (aka Gong Bao) Chicken
Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery (published in the US as Land of Plenty)

Around 10oz/350g boneless chicken breast
3 cloves garlic and an equivalent amount of fresh ginger
5 scallions/spring onions
2 tbsp peanut/groundnut oil
a generous handful of dried red chiles (at least 10), preferably Sichuanese
1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2/3 cup/75g raw unsalted peanuts

For the marinade:

1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp Shaoxing wine or medium dry sherry
1 1/2 tsp potato flour (or 2 1/4 tsp cornstarch)
1 tbsp water

For the sauce:

3 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp potato flour (or 1 1/8 tsp cornstarch)
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
3 tsp Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp chicken stock or water

Begin by marinading the chicken. Dice the chicken breast into 2cm/ 1/2 inch cubes as evenly as possible (this helps them to cook evenly and is also part of the overall aesthetic of the dish, where all the components are roughly similarly sized). Place in a small bowl and mix with the marinade ingredients. Set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

Peel and thinly slice the ginger and garlic. Slice the scallions into pieces about the same size as their diameter (ideally to match the chicken cubes). Cut the chiles in half and discard as many of the seeds as possible.

Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Heat the 2 tbsp oil over a high flame in a seasoned wok until it is hot but not smoking. Add the chiles and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until they are crisp and the oil has taken on their flavour and fragrance. Be careful not to burn them: you can remove the wok from the heat if necessary.

Now quickly add the chicken and stir-fry over a high heat, stirring constantly. When the chicken pieces have separated and have turned white, add the ginger, garlic and scallions and continue to cook, stirring, until the chicken is fully cooked through (you can test a large piece to be sure of this).

Give the sauce a stir and add to the wok, tossing and stirring it with the other ingredients. Cook for a couple of minutes until the sauce turns shiny and thickens slightly, and then add the peanuts. Stir them in and serve immediately, with rice.


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