Sichuan easy

Food - Bee Wilson savours the sights and smells of Chengdu

They say you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. How, then, is it possible to make a "fire-exploded" flower out of a pig's kidney? Answer: by learning how to cook as the Sichuanese do.

Fire-exploded kidney flowers are just one of the extraordinary and esoteric delights contained in Sichuan Cookery by Fuchsia Dunlop (Michael Joseph, £20). This book, which came out earlier this year, has been highly praised, and justly so. Such is the inflated puff surrounding all new food books now, with words like "genius" bandied at the most mediocre publications, that it is hard to believe any dust-jacket praise. So when a book of real excellence and originality, such as this one, appears, its quality may not be recognised. But Sichuan Cookery is an outstanding work that deserves every accolade.

Dunlop, who lived in Chengdu from 1994-96, was the first westerner ever to be admitted to the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She writes with the confidence of an expert cook, the passion of an enthusiast and the precision of a scholar. Many of her recipes have stories to tell of Chinese culture and history, such as the opium hotpot she eats by accident one night, or the recipe for stir-fried liver she finds in a cookbook once treated, bizarrely, as classified information. Gong bao chicken with peanuts, she tells us, was "labelled as politically incorrect during the cultural revolution" because it was named after an imperial governor of the late Qing dynasty. It had to be renamed "fast-fried chicken cubes". Similarly, "twice-cooked pork", "the most famous and profoundly loved of all the dishes of Sichuan", has anti-communist associations. This dish, a dark sizzling mixture of streaky pork slices with hot fermented beans, was "eaten with ritualistic regularity at meetings of Sichuan's notorious secret societies - before the communists wiped them out". For this reason, they still call it "secret society meat" in western Sichuan.

Gastronomically, Dunlop's book is a revelation, from the simpler recipes - for example, bean curd soups and noodle dishes such as "ants climbing a tree" (spicy morsels of pork clinging to glassy noodles) - to more elaborate ones such as crescent wontons, sweet-and-sour crispy fish and tea-smoked duck. The Sichuanese culinary canon, Dunlop tells us, has 23 complex flavours. The most recognisable of these is perhaps "hot and numbing", based on the "double whammy" of chillis and Sichuan pepper, producing the kind of heat that anaesthetises your lips for several minutes after each bite. Many of the other flavours are more subtle. "Fish-fragrant flavour" is based on the seasonings traditionally used with fish (pickled chillis, garlic, ginger, spring onion); "strange flavour" is based on the harmonious mixing of salty, sweet, numbing, hot, sour, fresh-savoury and fragrant, as in the sesame-rich "bang bang chicken"; "lychee flavour", oddly, contains no lychees, but is meant to taste gently sweet and sour, like the fruit itself.

Dunlop gives a wonderful sense of the smells and sights of Chengdu, this vast ancient city; she writes of the woman who sets up a stall outside her flat selling black "eight-treasure" porridge every morning, of old men chattering over cards in teahouses, and of street vendors roasting chestnuts in "enormous wokfuls of charcoal" as winter sets in. The dish that follows, taken from the book, is delicious cold-weather food.

Braised chicken with chestnuts (ban li shao ji) Serves 4

500g chestnuts, 1 chicken (1kg-1.5kg), a 30g-40g piece unpeeled ginger, 2 spring onions, groundnut oil, 4 tbsp Shaoxing wine, 700ml stock (Dunlop makes hers with pork bones, chicken carcass and ginger), 4 tsp brown sugar, 4 tsp dark soy sauce

1. Slice off the base of the chestnuts and blanch them in plenty of boiling water for about 2 minutes. Drain them well, and when they are cool enough to handle, remove the shells and skins . . .

2. Joint the chicken and then chop it, bones and all, into small chunks, discarding the parson's nose and the bony tips of the legs. Crush the ginger and spring onions slightly with a cleaver blade or a heavy object.

3. Heat 3 tbsp of oil in a wok over a high flame. When the oil is hot, add the chestnuts and stir-fry for about 5 minutes, until they are a little golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the chicken pieces to the wok and fry over a high heat until they are browned. Drain off some of the excess oil at this stage if you wish. Splash in the Shaoxing wine and stir well. Add the ginger and spring onions and fry for about 30 seconds, until they are fragrant. Then tip in all the stock.

4. Bring the stock back to the boil and add the sugar and dark soy sauce, with salt to taste. Then turn the heat down and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.

5. Add the chestnuts, mix well, and continue to simmer until they are moist and pasty and the liquid is much reduced. Adjust the seasoning if necessary, and serve.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?