Author and cooking teacher Fuschia Dunlop may be British by birth, but she found her soul on the other side of the world. In China’s Sichuan province, she developed a passion for the local cuisine, which turned into a rigorously intellectual discipline, and then a vocation. Today, she’s known as one of the world’s foremost experts on regional Chinese cooking, including Sichuanese food. She joined Good Food to discuss the canonical dishes of Sichuan cookery, the subject of her new book, “The Food of Sichuan.”
Dry-fried “Eels” (Shiitake mushrooms)
This delicious example of Buddhist trompe l’oeil cooking is based on a memorable version I enjoyed in the restaurant at the Temple of Divine Light, near Chengdu. The “eels,” made from dried shiitake mushrooms, look strikingly similar to the real paddy eels used in the classic Sichuanese recipe. The original dish did not include garlic, which strict Buddhists avoid as one of the pungent vegetables thought to inflame carnal passions, but I’ve added it here for extra deliciousness. Dried mushrooms are particularly important in Chinese vegetarian cooking because of their enticing savory flavors and satisfyingly meaty textures. I like to use long, thin- skinned Turkish peppers, for their more delicate texture and milder taste.
- 10–12 dried shiitake mushrooms (9 oz/250g after soaking)
- 2/3 cup (75g) potato starch
- 8 dried chiles
- 6¼ oz (175g) long green Turkish peppers
- Cooking oil, for deep-frying
- 1 tsp whole Sichuan pepper
- 11/2 tbsp Sichuan chile bean paste
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- An equivalent amount of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1 tsp sesame oil
For the sauce
- 3/4 tsp potato starch
- 1/2 tsp superfine sugar
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- ¼ tsp dark soy sauce
1. Place the dried mushrooms in a saucepan, cover with hot water from the kettle and leave to soften for at least 30 minutes. Bring to a boil, season lightly with salt and simmer the mushrooms for 20 minutes, then drain. When they are cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much water as possible, then cut into strips about 1/2 inch (1.5cm) wide. Place in a bowl with the potato starch and mix until evenly coated. Snip the chiles in half or into 3/4-inch (2cm) sections and shake out the seeds as much as possible. Cut the green peppers into bite-sized pieces. In a small bowl, combine the sauce ingredients with 4 tbsp cold water and mix well.
2. Heat the deep-frying oil in a wok over high heat to about 375°F (190°C) (hot enough to sizzle vigorously around a test piece of mushroom). Working in two or three batches, carefully slip the mushrooms into the hot oil, adding them individually so they don’t stick together. Fry for a minute or so until crisp and a little golden, then remove with a slotted spoon and drain well.
3. Carefully pour off all but 3 tbsp oil from the wok, and return to high heat. Add the chiles and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until the chiles are aromatic, but not burned. Immediately move the wok away from the heat and add the chile bean paste, stirring as it sizzles, until the oil has reddened. Add the garlic, ginger and green pepper and return the wok to the stove, stir- frying until everything is piping hot and smells delicious. Swiftly stir in the mushrooms, then give the sauce a stir and pour it into the center of the wok. Mix quickly to allow the sauce to coat the mushrooms as it thickens. Stir in the sesame oil and serve.