A couple of weeks ago, GT and i decided to take our tastebuds on a ride and try a Sichuan restaurant i had read about on Tummy Rumbles. We had to hunt around for a bit before we actually located the place but despite being located in one of the many nondescript, dark, little alleys in the sleazier side of Chinatown, this modest restaurant was packed with a real mixture of crowd ranging from students right down to middle aged couples. But every table had one thing in common though- they each had numerous dishes that were just loaded with dried Sichuan chilies (and i mean seriously loaded- the table next to us had a dish that probably had 5 dried chilies to each slice of meat). There was no doubt that we were in for a wild, wild ride.
The dishes we had were spicy but interestingly, really flavourful as well. We left the place with our bellies filled and on fire, and my interest in Sichuan cuisine piqued.
As it turns out, there is so much more to the Sichuan cuisine than just Sichuan dried chilis and peppers although they are the two main ingredients that give the Sichuan dishes their famous fiery spiciness. Sichuanese cooks often refer to saltiness as the foundation on which they build the complex flavours of dishes on. The most important and widely used salty flavouring is the Sichuan well salt. There are also twenty three ‘official’ flavours that are at the heart of the Sichuanese culinary cookery ranging from the familiar and well loved hot and numbling flavour to curiously named Lychee flavour which actually does not have any actual lychees but is more of a sweet and sour flavour.
With so much to explore within the world of Sichuan cooking, i just had to try my hand at some of their dishes, starting with a dish we had tried at the restaurant- Ants Climbing A Tree. I know, what a name for a dish. I thought the restaurant was really creative in naming their dishes and could barely suppress a wide grin as GT was placing our orders, till i found out that Ant Climbing A Tree was the official name for that dish and that it was named so because the tiny morsels of meat cling to the strands of noodles as you dangle them from your chopsticks.
Based on the complexity of flavours the dish had, i did think replicating the dish was gonna be a complicated and lengthy process. So imagine my surprise when i scanned the recipe and realized that i already had most of the ingredients in the kitchen and the recipe itself barely involved more than a couple of steps.
I used rice vermicelli instead of the bean noodles the recipe calls for which turned my noodles all mushy by the time the dish was done. While that allowed the texture of minced beef to really stand out, i would recommend however sticking to the bean noodles.
Dotted with minced beef, then simmered in a mixture of flavourful chicken stock and chili paste, this dish was really tasty- sweet, sour and salty all at once with just a bit of heat.
Who knew that such few ingredients could produce such a mindblowing combination of flavours and to think this is just one of the countless dishes the Sichuanese cuisine has to offer.
Ants Climbing A Tree [adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery]
100g beanthread noodles
1 tsp Shaoxing wine
100g minced beef
3 tsp light soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp chili bean paste
350ml chicken stock
1/2 t dark soy sauce
3 spring onions, green parts only, finely sliced
- Soak noodles in hot water for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside. Add wine and a few pinches of salt to minced beef and mix well.
- Add 2 tbsp of oil to wok over high heat. Add meat and stir fry till light browned, adding a tsp of soy sauce. Add chili paste and fry till oil is red and fragrant, careful not to burn it. Add stock and drained noodles and stir well. Stir in dark soy sauce and season with light soy sauce and salt.
- Let stock come to boil, then turn down heat and simmer till liquid has mostly evaporated. Add spring onions, mix well and serve with rice. Serves 4