Red China? Decoding Sichuan … Stir Fried Pork

Update 8/11/ 2011: I’ve not been to China or the Sichuan province of Chengdu. Yet. Have tried to get views from those who have and have edited the post a bit now.

‘Finally China.

I have been nibbling around her her edges for years, eating Chinese food in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, and of course, New York. But I’d never been to the mainland. The source”

Anthony Bourdain, China Syndrome, The Nasty bits.

Well, unlike Bourdain I still haven’t been to China. Or the million other places he has been to for that matter.

So eating at Home Town, the Sichuan restaurant at Singapore’s China Town, was the high point of my being left marooned by Qantas recently.

Sushobhan, who took me there, assured me that the food at Home Town was authentic Sichuan.

I first came across the term ‘Shezwan’ in Mumbai more than a decade back. This referred to red coloured rice or noodles and side dishes served in the Shetty owned restaurants of Mumbai. The ‘Shezwan’ in Mumbai had its fans amongst those who wanted ‘spicy’ food.

I found Mumbai’s obsession with red food when I came here in the 90s more bewildering than the communist rule at West Bengal then. Shezwan would make me cringe as would the red curries of the Muslim restaurants here, the red coloured sea food passed off as Punjabi by local South Indians. I would not touch these with a barge pole.

In my world food cannot be red.

Italians with their ground tomato pastes and Thais with their ground red chillies are exceptions.

The rest?

Fake, ersatz offspring of experiments with chemical food colours.

Deep down I felt that Schezwan, or Sichuan as I later knew it as, could not be red.

Update: The tweets and the blog comment from Robyn of Eating Asia, whom I’d trust, shows that there could be a red oil film in Sichuan dishes. She gives the red oil in the picture of the Singaporean dish (which I posted at the end here) as an example. Actually that did remind me of the oil film of dishes like mutton fry that one gets here.

My dinner at Home Town year later proved that Sichuan needn’t be red. We did see what looked like a hot pot in the next table at the too looked like a blackish oily soup.

I came back to Mumbai determined to recreate one of the dishes I had at Home Town. Mutton with wild onions and ginger. I had deconstructed the dish as being shreds of mutton fried in loads of oil with onion and ginger and Sichuan pepper corns. There was a sight change though. I planned to use pork instead of mutton and tame instead of ‘wild’ onions.

The dish was covered with roasted dry red chillies. ‘More chillies than meat’ as Bourdain observed on his chapter on China in The Nasty Bits.

 Robyn points out that all Sichuan dishes aren’t covered with red chillies.

For the red chillies I used the tip given by the @pathfynder (on twitter) recommended Handi at Jaipur. I went there in search of Janglee Maas, the dish that ad man Piyush Pandey had spoken highly off when he heard I was going to Jaipur. Jaangli maas is a dish of mutton double cooked in ghee and salt and served with dry red chillies roasted in ghee. A simple primordial pleasure.

The waiter at Handi pointed out that the chillies are roasted separately and added at the end.

“Else they will overcook”.

Dennis, or @deeselicious as he is known on twitter, got me Sichuan pepper corns recently. My friend A, the Spice Girl from Sydney, told me that the trick is to roast the peppercorns first so that they don’t get bitter.

Do read the comment of Simon Majumdar on Sichuan peppers in the blog comment section. He talks about the numbing ability of Sichuan pepper corns and points out they aren’t actually ‘peppers’. Something that Sushobhan’s wife, Sudha, told me too. She said Sichuan peppers are actually berries.

For the pork I checked with my friend Chef Vishal (@vishalkod on twitter) who works at Sydney. He confirmed my hunch that one should go for pork loins as I was looking for boneless meat to stir fry. He assured me that it would cook properly. I was nervous as I thought pork was a tough meat which had to be over cooked. Plus Indian pork is considered to be unsafe by many.

And so my ‘recipe’ for the Sichuan stir fried pork was ready. Inspired by memories of events and snatches of conversation.

I picked up pork loin at Meghna Agra at Bandra’s Pali Market. A kilo at Rs 500. That’s a lot of meat and frankly 250 g is more than enough for two.

Meghna Agro works for me over the more popular Catholic owned meat shops at Pali Market. Jatin Bhalla, the owner of Meghna Agro, shows good Punjabi spunk and makes things really easy for you in terms of portion sizes and cuts of your choice and no fuss delivery to your home within the specified time. Makes it really convenient specially when one lives next door.

Jatin later told me that only foreigners pick pork loins from him. “Best for stir fries”

This time I got to meet Mr  Bhaarat B Bhalla while the boys at Meghna thawed and chopped the pork loins to my specs.

MR Bhalla is the father of Jatin. A journalist and Hindi film scrip writer as he introduced himself. He rattled names of films such as Kalicharan, Sanam Bewafa, Khalnayika and many more that he had written for. Mr Bhalla regaled me with his conversation as I waited.

Potatoes are popular in all English speaking countries as there was no food left there during the World War. They would forage whatever was underground like potatoes. India was different… We were in the war because the British ruled us. Not out of choice… There was no milk available so they started drinking black tea and coffee in England. Later it became a fashion… no one dies because they don’t get to eat. People die of over eating….Foreigners prefer buying frozen meat. They think the bacteria is killed that way … I had horse meat at Russia this time. Most expensive meat there but one should try everything

Mr Bharat B Bhalla One of the guys at Meghna chops my meat IMG02312-20111106-1215

And so I headed home. I cooked a kilo of pork in the huge Ikea wok K got me from KL. I kept frying the meat in bits and pushing it to the side of the wok and added more and stirred. But with 250 g you can cook it all at one go.

I was really pleased with the way the pork cooked. This was the first time I stir fried pork. I was apprehensive that it wouldn’t cook. The juicy texture of the meat at the end was very satisfying.

The first time, as they say, is always special.

Here’s my recipe for Sichuan ‘styled’ pork with onion & ginger . It’s my creation so obviously not authentic. I’ve re-portioned everything to 250 g.

Prep:

  • Take 250 g pork loin and chop it into thin slices
  • Marinate this in 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoon vinegar a bit of tenderising powder or wine.
  • Marinate for at least 4 hours in the fridge

after 4 hours of marination    

Cook:

  • Heat the wok and add 2 tablespoons of red Sichuan peppercorns and and roast them. This will take 5 seconds at the most. Take these out.

  • Add quite a bit, half a teacup of cooking oil, and heat it on a full flame
  • When hot add about 10 dry deseeded red chillies. Take them out in less than 5 seconds as they begin to crackle. Ideally shouldn’t become as black as mine have in the pic. Should be dark red. Keep these aside

 

Stir fry:

  • The oil would have taken the woody flavour of the dry red chillies
  • Keep the gas on high and add 1 quartered onion bulb, 1 sliced ginger in the bubbling oil
  • Stir a bit. As the colour changes and the onion & ginger look a bit darker, add the the pepper corn
  • Then add the marinated pork
  • Keep stirring with a ladle and add a bit more salt. Half a teaspoon to start. The soy is salty too.
  • Add the juice from the marinade as the meat begins to cook and change colour
  • You should be done in a maximum of ten minutes

     

Serve:

  • Add the dry red chillies to the dish. Break them with a spoon (whole in the photos here) so that you have 1 inch bits of chilli spread through the meat
  • Served with steamed rice. There would be a bit of sauce in the meat.
  • The result would be juicy, incredibly flavoured but not ‘spicy’ in a tongue searing way.

And no, like the Singaporean ‘original’, this too wasn’t red.

Though the former, as Roby points out, did have a red oil film.

This, by the way, is a bb picture of the Sichuan mutton at Home Town. The inspiration behind my recipe. Close?

IMG02250-20111030-1757

Some answers from twitter on my question, “is Sichuan = Red?” from people who would know:

@reshii Marryam H Reshii: @Finelychopped sorry been offline all day. No. Sichuan does not = red. Some dishes are, but Chinese food sets store by appearance 1/2

@reshii Marryam H Reshii @Finelychopped and to have a table spread of 6 red dishes is not attractive. Some dishes like Chhonqing Chicken are red. Most are not

@sushobhan Sushobhan .@Finelychopped No, Szechuan not red in general. @EatingAsia @rasamalaysia @SimonMajumdar @reshii @DeeSeelicious

@DeeSeelicious DeeSee @Finelychopped Few dishes are. But one cannot generalize @EatingAsia @rasamalaysia @SimonMajumdar @reshii @sushobhan

@EatingAsia Robyn Eckhardt  @Finelychopped No chilies/oil, not really red. And not all Sichuan dishes have heaps of chilies.

@EatingAsia Robyn Eckhardt @Finelychopped More accurate: many Sichuan dishes swim in a pool of red oil. Colored from chilies, a flavor carrier, not necess to be eaten.

@punityagnik Punit Yagnik @Finelychopped well dishes with chili oil look red. Many dishes, the sheer amt of dry chilies,red stands out. So 50-60% dishes have some red

@punityagnik Punit Yagnik @Finelychopped sichuan food not always red but a lot of it is. It is supposed to have "la" (hot) chilli & "ma" (numb) sichuan pepper.g

@SudhaKanago Sudha Kanago @Finelychopped:) nepali cuisine too uses them, makes their version of hari chutney delightful! @SimonMajumdar (pepper corns)x

@rasamalaysia Bee @Finelychopped @sushobhan @DeeSeelicious @SimonMajumdarYes, looks good. Try chicken next time. :)

Comments

simonmajumdar said…
Looks good.

You may be interested to know that the Sichuan peppercorns are actually the bud of a local ash tree and in some parts of China are also used as a pain reliever.

Simonge
Robyn said…
Saw your tweet late. Your version is missing the red oil of your inspiration dish, and I've never eaten a dish in Sichuan with big wedges of onion in it.
But in the end, if it tasted good who cares! The only Sichuan dish I get prickly about "authenticity" with is mapo dofu -- must have huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns) and be swimming in red oil. And no peas please! (the American Chinese version).
A bit of trivia following onto Simon's comment -- various types of prickly ash/Sichuan peppercorn are also used in northern Thai, Bhutanese, Nepalese and northern Sumatran cuisines.
The knife said…
Thanks for writing in Simon. It's amazing how cultures in China and India still use natural remedies for curing folks...often fairly common sensical

@Robyn...I noticed the red oil in the original photo after reading your comment. I actually did have some chilli oil at home. Was that the answer. I've seen a similar rededish oil in Muslim restaurants here...specially in the fried meat dishes

Sudha, who was with me at Singapore, did mention, like you, that Sichuan pepper are berries used in Nepali cooking too
Kunal said…
Next time try using pork belly,should give you an even better result.The fat will keep it moist and enhance the flavour, and the skin if roasted first and then sliced and stir fried will give you a nice yummy crackling. A bit of this stir fried with mundane greens like spinach,bok choy or green beans will take the dish to the next level...
The knife said…
@Kunal coincidentally even Vishal said that given a choice he'd prefer a belly any day.

So would I.

The tip on the skin is great. They cook a bit unevenly.

Gosh can't wait to try this. Some sprouts or bok choy would be transcendental indeed


You need to come to Mumbai soon now
Kunal said…
Oh even I cant wait to come down to Mumbai,I guess that will be possible only next year...for a crispier skin, the pork belly is usually rubbed with salt wich draws all the moisture out and then you start roasting at a high temperature i.e.220 degrees and then drop it down to 180degrees and cook till it is golden brown and crispy
The knife said…
Kunal, just saw ur blog comment...are you suggesting roasting the belly instead of stir frying...220 for how long and 180 for how long....just marinated a kilo of belly...got bok choy too
Kunal said…
For a crispy crackling you need to roast the pork belly...if it's a big chunk of meat then after its marinated roast at 220 for 10 mins and then 15-20 mins at 180 depending on the size, if the belly is cut into pieces then it will take bit less time.
Prachi said…
Hey K! Any idea where do you get the evasive Sichaun Peppercorns in India - more specifically in Delhi. Just came back from Hongkong, met with blank looks when I enquired about the same. Wrote it down for a few patient individuals but all in vain...
The knife said…
prachi: i saw jamie oliver's spice mixes at nature's basket and bandra which sichuan pepper corn...you might want to check with the local nature's baskets at delhi
Prachi said…
Great! Thank You!