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Sichuanese Cuisine.

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 
the writer would like to apolgize in advance for the longwinded, boring, ill-focused nature of this post, but cannot avoid them since they are, natürlich, all-pervading aspects of his personality

after years of watching Chen Kenichi using hot bean paste, i finally decided one day that I needed to taste really good chinese food. now i live in southeastern kansas, so this seemed basically impossible.....however that doesn't mean that there are no good restaurants around me, such as in kansas city or springfield missouri,,,,,but i certainly don't know of any of them

i had high hopes when i went to chicago that would find good chinese food, and so I sought a certain Sichuanese restaurant in chinatown there, but couldn't find it and ended up settling on a different restaurant, one that didn't seem to specialize in any specific one of the cuisines of china. now it was probably better than anything i had before, but not really what i imagined great chinese food can be, and the gong pao i had was so tame, not the numbingness and spicyness i had dreamed of

also while in chicago, i ate at the everest....after squid ink risotto, alsace roasted wild sea bass, and some sort of green apple pastry, i could safely say that i had had a life-changing experience, and when i got home cooking was really all that i wanted to do

i have had a hard time focusing on any one kind of cuisine, but mostly have been concentrating on french, since that is what most of my cookbooks are. however, i am interested in all cuisines, and have found all of them which i have experienced to be delicious.

the latest cookbook I have got was Fuschia Dunlop's "Land Of Plenty", which is all about the cuisine of Sichuan. Since I don't have any exposure to really good chinese food, i have no reason to have a preference for sichuanese; however, it was the only book i found which concentrated on just one of the cuisines of china and seemed that it might be authentic.

i went about aquiring some of the nessacery ingredients to this cuisine. i ordered sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao) from the Spice House website a few weeks ago, and was pleased to discover that it was apparently of decent quality, since when placed in the mouth it will cause tingling and numbness rather quickly. Along with them i got some dried tien tsin chiles; though they aren't the facing heaven chiles described in the book, they were the only chiles i could find which were apprently from china. i aquired chinkiang vinegar locally.

I really was frusterated on the difficulty of finding other ingredients, including toban djan, the hot fermented chile bean paste so important to the spicy dishes of the cuisine. of course the only kind i could find on the internet was lee kum kee, which unfortunately uses soybeans in addition to the traditional fava beans which are the key ingredient (other than chiles) to the paste. I had no luck finding the toban djan made in Pixian, which the book says is the best, or really any other brands of this ingredient at all. the book i have lists several kinds of sichuanese pickles which it says are important to have, but i could only find zha cai, commonly labeled as "sichuan preserved vegetable". this is only used in one of the recipes in the book, so i figure i'll have to use it in place of the pickle known as ya cai, which is in MANY of the recipes in the book. i also can't find the pickled chiles....

so now, i wait for a few ingredients to ship here, and cannot wait to begin cooking. there are so many of these recipes i want to try. for whatever reason, i feel like i'll be able to do a better job with these sichuanese recipes than i have done with the french ones. of course, what can i expect; i havn't been to cooking school or worked in a kitchen, so how can i possible think i could create anything really good that is french? i follow the recipes as closely as i can, and things still don't come out right usually--roasted pork dries out completely, hollandaise refuses to thicken. yet at least with chinese cuisine i have nothing really good to compare it to like i do with french (which when i try to make always has me comparing things to the Everest, ridiculous as it bloody is!)

i actually tried some american style chinese cuisine a few weeks ago, attempting some "general tso's" chicken based on a few internet recipes, and when i was done everyone i had taste it said it was better than any chinese food they had tasted. i admit, this is more a reflection of the poor quality of restaurants in my area than it is my ability to cook or follow a recipe, but hey, it does give me a little tiny bit of confidence, which is bloody unusual for me to have,...

i suppose i just am inviting any comments any can throw in about sichuanese or chinese cuisine in general, or tips, really anything at all. of course i doubt it will happen, since in the past when i have posted in forums people have not responded to my topics (and, i will try not to on this forum post on anyone else's threads since i am a notorious thread-killer)......i acutally registered just to send mudbug a private message about good restaurants in springfield, which i didn't do, and didnt intend to waste anyone's time with my post.

i apologize for my negative qualities and how much of a bore i am, and also again for my longwindedness.....and of course for how much of a self-obsessed egotist i am, albeit one that hates himself. and, ah yes, for my repulsive self-depreciation :o

thanks anyone who took the time to read this, and thanks to everyone who didn't. you all have created a very friendly place, and i hope i will continue to learn, though i doubt i can make a contribution. thanks to all for being who you are, and take care and be happy :)

post #2 of 9
Hi Lance :)

I watched that episode too...sure made my mouth water! :lips:

I wish I could help you out...but I may be in a similar boat as yourself. I'd love to start trying some good Chinese food...but I just don't know where to start. Hopefully we'll find a nice recipe or two ;)

post #3 of 9
Thread Starter 


hey thanks for the response,,,,,i'd definately tell you about any successes i have with the recipes in this book, and i currently have some baby asian eggplants which im dying to use.....i want to do the fish-fragrant eggplant recipe, which involes deep frying the eggplant pieces before stir frying with the traditional flavours used in sichuanese fish cooking, but of course i dont have the toban djan yet....but i figure it would still be good if i just substitute a bunch of dried chiles, even though it won't be the precise "fish-fragrant" recipe. im also trying to see if i can try some of the classic dishes in this book familiar to westerners such as sweet-and-sour pork and gong bao chicken, but we'll see.

take care, best wishes
post #4 of 9
I wouldn't get too hung up with the specific ingredients if I were you. (Easy for me to say. San Francisco's Chinatown has just about anything you could want - even the illegal stuff if you were so inclined.) But really, Lee Kum Kee may not be the best according to your book but I'd bet it is way better than what they have in Sechuan.

My experience of Chinese food in China was not that great. In fact, compared to here it was downright bad. This is mostly to do with the quality of ingredients. FDA and other regulations control the quality of the product imported from China and maintains a fairly consistent standard. In China there are no such controls and as a general rule the quality of the food is pretty bad.

It is very frustrating not to be able to get the exact ingredient you want but the authenticity is only the cookbook author's interpretation of it. It doesn't mean that every household in Sechuan Provence follows that book. They will have their own interpretation based on what is available to them and whatever local traditions apply. You can do the same in Kansas and enjoy some very fine Chinese food made with what is available to you.

post #5 of 9
Thread Starter 
hey, thanks for the response....

i have indeed been to chinatown in SF.....although since that was a few years ago and i was like 16, i really wasn't alll that into food. however, i do remember being saddened by the conditions some of the animals were having to face, such as the soft-shelled turtles and frogs being piled on top of each other in small buckets, and the poor carp gasping for oxygen as they laid in 1/4" of water...

actually the Lee Kum Kee brand is what the author uses when she's cooking back at home, but she says that the absolute best toban djan is made at the factory in Pixian. even though i havn't heard it before, i am not too surprised to hear of your bad experience with food in china....however, others i have talked to, such as my bosses where i work, have only had good things to say. and considering i work at a gourmet food store (albeit a somewhat limited one), i kind of take their opinion seriously; one of them is currently living in china and never gets tired of the local fare. i suppose there is the possibility for bad food everywhere....

i agree completely with what you say about ingredients :) i only wanted some of the essential flavourings such as the bean paste and pickles....of course that is one of the things i like about the cuisines that are not so refined as the most advanced french and japanese food for instance; the recipes are so easily adaptable. of course, i am such a novice, and have had such little success, so what do i know...

i really am suspicious about the amounts of spices and other flavourings used in these recipes, which seem to be in far too little amounts to make a difference in the flavour, but i suppose i will see when i make them

thanks again for the responses

sorry for being me
post #6 of 9
Good Chinese recipes are very hard to come by esspecially since there are soooo many variations on all the classics that the definition of Chinese food has broaded so much especially now that there are dishes with the Asian flare seems to be the in thing now.

If going to China or even eating at a Chinatown dosn't satisfy you, try making Chinese friends who have family who sticks with their roots. My grandmother, god bless her soul, made the most amazing things w/o any recipes b/c she had made each dish for so many years. Plain congee, sticky rice in bamboo leaves, sweet red bean soup, "stir fried" lobster in garlic with shrimp lobster sauce...man I could go on. Unfortunatly because she had no recipe, I couldn't learn due to a laugage barrier (I'm not very fluent in Chinese and I spoke a different dialect to her) and she passed away before I could really pick at her to teach me some things. I havn't met a single chinese grandmother or father who dosn't have some signature dish(es) and they'd be more then willing to teach it to pass down to someone.
post #7 of 9
If you're interested in Chinese food in general, get the book "The Key to chinese Cooking" by Irene Kuo. I always recommend it for beginners because it teaches you the fundamental principles, which, once you learn will allow you to successfully cook Chinese dishes properly.

For once I disagree with you. On ingredients - while the book may suggest specifics which may or may not be easily attainable, there are still alternate ingredients or brands which are better than others. There are very few brands of fermented bean curd I would recommend and in most cases a bad brand can ruin a dish. It's just that there is obviously a significant cultural gap and one of distance which makes it difficult to find specific brands and ingredients everywhere in other countries so many times we are forced to substitute and often times guess at what an appropriate substitute might be.

I'm sorry to hear you did not have a pleasurable eating experience in China. If you ever go again, please be sure to contact me with where you plan to go exactly so that specific establishments or areas can be recommended to you.

As idella111 said, there is the possibility of bad food anywhere. It is also a possibility that one may simply find they do not like authentic food, whether it be Chinese, Mexican, Russian, etc. There is very little authentic food to be found in America. Even in Chinatowns, the cuisine was adapted to American tastes as soon as they started frequenting the establishements. Unless you can find an 80 year old Chinese person who still cooks from scratch, it is unlikely you've tasted truly authentic Chinese food.

Dishes such as "General Tso's Chicken " are a start, but as you said... far from being authentic Chinese cuisine. Just as "fortune cookies" originated in California.

As for your French recipes, try them again. If you have problems with roasted pork and hollandaise, create new threads in the appropriate forum, post the recipe, tell us what you did and the result. Then we can help you and you can learn. You don't have to go to school to learn to learn the proper techniques to cook great food especially if you're not going to go into it as a profession.

I'm always amused when people react to seeing live animals in route to the dinner table. America is so good at protecting the public from seeing the process of butchering animals. The general population is completely disconnected from the integrity or the original form of the meat they buy. I've no doubt there would be many more vegetarians if every person saw the process of what it takes to go from a live animal to nicely proportioned sections of meat under plastic on styrofoam trays in in the meat department.

What page of what book are these pickles on? I most cases it's not difficult to make the pickles yourself, but I would not substitue preserved vegetable for pickles. They are not the same vegetable, texture, or flavor. It'd be like substituting a Mexican chili mango pop for a tootsie roll pop. I realize many probably haven't had a chili mango pop... they are quite easy to find (I've seen them at Wal-Mart). Maybe an analogy which might make sense to more people would be salted seaweed for celery. Anyway, you get the point.

In regards to being "suspicious about the amounts of spices and other flavourings used in these recipes, which seem to be in far too little amounts to make a difference in the flavour". You'd be surprised. Americans always have the "more is better" mentality. This is difficult to unlearn. The key to ingredients is keeping the quantity of each in balance with each other for the big picture.

If you look closely at the recipes, you'll find that many are for a marinade or sauce. You're not marinating an entire chicken breast in whole form. In most cases you're marinating finely cut strips of meat a couple of inches long (meaning 1/4 inch thick cut against the grain and partially frozen so you can cut it that thin in the first place) or half-inch diced meat, etc. This creates much more surface area for a marinade to penetrate. The marinade may be acting as a velveting agent or similar to a brine in breaking down proteins in the meat, etc. Do not underestimate the power of a few ingredients in small quantity when used properly. Do not over marinate.

Approach it as a science experiment. Be open minded in learning and trust the recipe, follow the instructions as written. This is your "control". Then if you choose to vary the recipe, keep notes of the changes you made and the difference in results.

I completely disagree in thinking that Chinese recipes are not as refined as French and Japanese recipes. There is a reason Chinese food is highly popular all around the world. There is indeed an immense amount of refinement in the balance of ingredients with well executed, authentic dishes. Pay close attention to Chen Kenichi on The Iron Chef and you'll see nothing but refinement. If one has access to the proper ingredients, then it is easier to achieve refinement. But refinement also comes from proper technique, impeccable timing, harmonious balance between ingredients used, etc.

Lastly, may I make a suggestion to stop being so self-negative. I say this because it's best to stick to the culinary topics this site was created for. This is not the place for self negativity which can actually result in other members being deterred from responding to you at all. Members who may have great insight to provide on the subject. It is not necessary to apologize again. If you're needing help in this area, there are plenty of services out there designed to help you.
post #8 of 9
Thread Starter 
thanks for your helpful reply mudbug, it was very helpful.

on the subjekt of the conditions animals are raised in: yes, though i have not seen them i have read extensively of them and it indeed nearly made me a vegatarian at one point; certainly i might be one completely if i was to see such things. i was just reporting an isolated memory of a sensitive 16 year old (and i must admit i have a particular affection for carp)

the preserved vegetable i mention is indeed a kind of pickle. pickling is apparently very common for families to do in sichuan, adding and removing vegetables and spices every day to their earthenware pickling pot. this kind of pickling i could do, and it sounds interesting. however, the pickles i mentioned ya cai and zha cai are apparently kinds of processed pickle, both from variaties of mustard plant. the processing seems out of my capabilities.....

as far as my comment about chinese cuisine not being refined, well i realized this wasnt clear when i posted it but forgot to edit........ i was contrasting the kind of sichuanese recipes in the book, which are largely common and homestyle dishes in sichuan/china to the higher levels of french food. of course for a comparison it would be better to refer instead to the food of small towns and villages in france, especially that done at the home. i certainly realize that chinese food can be just as refined as any in the world......but i had ascertained that home recipes all throughout the world are made to be much more adaptable than the what is considered to be the "more-advanced" incarnations of a particular cuisine. when i read robuchon's recipes, it seems to me that it takes much more knowledge to alter them (and still get good results) than it does to alter the recipes in the sichuan book. i don't wish to alter recipes for the sake of altering, only so that i can make use of what i availible to me.....certainly, someone cooking something something as seemingly simple as a basic rice dish can create a dish as refined as anything else......yes, refined was an awful word of choice and i apologize

you are quite right that i should stop with self-depreciation, but it for me is just as natural as breathing :( however i will try not to do it again....

if i can get up the courage, i will try and ask other questions on the forum, however i wonder if i havnt made enough of a fool of myself already here :)

i will keep in mind what you said in response to my comment on the amounts of ingredients....

thanks all for your time, take care and be happy
post #9 of 9
Not a problem. No one is born knowing how to boil water or cook. Eating is a necessity and there will always be beginners who want to learn from those who are more experienced who are willing to help. That's what this place is for. As always search to make sure you're question hasn't already been answered in an existing thread, then feel free to post away...

Are the pickles you were referring to listed in the "Land of Plenty' book? If so... what page? Pickling vegetables and eggs is a common way to preserve produce when you are without refrigeration as many in other countries are still without.

If you attempt specific recipes, keep us aprised of the recipe title and the page of the book it comes from. This will enable those of us who have the book to "be on the same page" literally and figuratively. And perhaps provide advice if needed.
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