Author: Taylor Holliday

Chengdu Challenge #12: Shui Zhu Beef (or Fish) (Shui Zhu Niu Rou)

A Sichuan Outlaw~~ Shui zhu, or “water-boiled” dishes, may be Sichuan’s most notorious food—feared and loved in equal measure. Shui zhu’s reputation as a dish for the daring precedes it. But those brave enough to dip into its sea of mala—chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorn—to fish out a piece of buttery soft beef (or pork, or fish) are rewarded with the realization that shui zhu is not nearly as lethal as its reputation. It was a shocking sight the first time I saw Chef Qing Qing make shui zhu beef at...

Chengdu Challenge #11: Dry-Braised Shrimp With Crispy Pork (Gan Shao Xia)

Unusual Juxtapositions Bring Unusual Compliments~~ In America, everything’s better with bacon on it. In Sichuan, everything’s better with crispy-brown ground pork. You might think, as I did, that big fresh shrimp don’t need the added attraction of a crispy pork topping. But you’d be wrong, as I was. This is a fantastic combination, bumped up by earthy-salty yacai (pickled mustard greens) and pickled hot chili peppers. It’s really like two dishes in one. First, you get your hands in there to remove the shells from the fat, juicy shrimp—licking the...

Making La Jiao Jiang (Hot Chili Sauce)

Perfect Pickled Peppers~~ My 15-year-old daughter is a chili fiend. Just like her mom. Also just like me, in U.S. restaurants she bypasses the sriracha and goes straight for the sambal oelek. Made by the same folks (California’s Huy Fong Foods) that make Thai-style Rooster sriracha—America’s favorite Asian hot sauce—their Indonesian-style sambal is a thicker, purer chili experience. It is nothing but chili, salt and vinegar (plus preservatives and a thickener) and as such is close in taste to Sichuan’s pickled peppers, pao la jiao, and a better match for Chinese food...

Chengdu Challenge #10: Mapo Doufu (Mapo Tofu)

The Queen of Mapo Doufu Recipes~~ Best tofu dish in the world? Mapo tofu, without doubt. You may be thinking that’s not saying much. But it is. In fact, forget that it features tofu. I’ll put this beefy, spicy, chili bean dish up against your favorite American beef-and-bean chili any day. I’ve been making mapo doufu—“pock-marked mother’s bean curd”—for years. It was one of the first dishes I learned from our brilliant chef Qing Qing, who taught Lotus Culinary’s cooking classes at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in the early...

Chengdu Challenge #9: Bao (Steamed Foldover Buns)

Bow to the Bao~~ In my constant quest to fatten up my daughter without resorting to junk food, bao has been a go-to recipe. As a child who shuns all fried foods, most dairy and anything sweet, about the only fattening thing she loves is soft, yeasty bread. We discovered this at her first Thanksgiving dinner, when the only things she put on her plate were turkey and the Sister Schubert yeast rolls. She dug out the middle of the rolls, leaving the crusty exterior behind, and ate through as many as...

Chengdu Challenge #8: Twice-Cooked Pork (Hui Guo Rou)

Pork Belly: The Secret to a Long Life~~ Though hui guo rou  is actually quite easy to make, it challenged me more than any other dish so far. I had to test it so many times that “twice-cooked pork” became dozen-times-cooked pork before I got it right. But just as I did, I was rewarded with this news story* about Sichuan’s oldest living resident, a 117-year-old woman who attributes her longevity to three meals a day of hui guo rou. Pork belly and Pixian bean paste is really all it takes to...

Chengdu Challenge #7: Golden Chicken Stew (Huang Men Ji)

Caramel, Wine and Ginger Make Stew Sexy~~ Recently we had a Chinese friend stay with us for a week who doesn’t eat spicy food. Not even a little. And this was a real challenge for me, since almost everything I make has at least a hint of spice. But we adapted that week and still ate well. I just had to call on all the dishes I make that aren’t spicy, starting with this one for Shoaxing wine and ginger chicken stew, more poetically called golden chicken stew, which has intense chicken...

What Should I Eat?: Or How to Feed a Chinese Girl in America

Leftovers, Greens and Rice~~ “What should I eat?” is my daughter’s standard greeting. Not “Hi,” “Good morning” or “What’s up.” When she comes home from school, home from a friend’s or just out of her bedroom, she starts the conversation with “What should I eat?” The question has evolved with her grammar over the past three years as she learned English, from “Wo keyi chi shenme?” to “Me eat what?” to “You have something to eat I like it?” and finally to perfect English. But the obsession with her next...

Making Hong You (Chili Oil)

 Facing Heaven in a Bowl of Chili Oil~~ Chili oil is a must-have ingredient for Sichuan cooking, and particularly for sauces that go on “cold dishes,” such as noodles and chicken, that are some of the cuisine’s most loved snacks and starters. It doesn’t make sense to buy your everyday chili oil (and for my family it is every day) when you can so easily make it yourself and control the type of oil, the quality and heat of chili flakes and the freshness. Just do a taste test compared to...

Chengdu Challenge #5: Potato, Green Chili and Pork Stir-fry (Yang Yu Qing Jiao Chao Rou Si)

All-American Ingredients Make an All-Chinese Stir-fry~~ Yes, the potato is a Chinese vegetable! In fact, it is the star of this stir-fry, the main attraction, with the pork in a supporting role. In Sichuan you most often see potatoes cut in matchsticks and quickly stir-fried with a hit of vinegar. They’re just barely cooked, really, still crunchy and crisp, and as weird as that sounds to a Westerner, they are delicious. This recipe for a similarly prepared potato stiry-fry just fills it out with pork slivers and green chili peppers to...

Chengdu Challenge #4: Good-Luck Fish Head (Hao Yun Yu Tou)

Lucky in Fish, Unlucky in Friendship~~ “I have a weird request for you,” I said to Hobo Mike, a commercial fisherman and the head fishmonger at my local Whole Foods.  “I need a giant fish head. No body. Just head.” “That’s not weird,” he replied. “Lots of people ask me for fish heads. I’ll put you on the waiting list.” “Cool,” I said. “But in that case, I’d like to place an order, because I don’t want just any old little snapper or salmon head. I need the biggest fish...

Chengdu Challenge #3: Yu Xiang Eggplant (Yu Xiang Qie Zi)

  ‘Fish Fragrant’ Husband Treat~~ This Sichuan classic is many people’s, including my husband, Craig’s, favorite Chinese dish. If dan dan noodles was my aha moment–You mean this is what real Chinese food actually tastes like?—yu xiang eggplant was his. We first had it on our first trip to Chengdu, in 2007, where despite all the amazing pork-centric food we gorged on, this vegetable dish stood out for its luxurious texture and perfect sweet-sour-salty-bitter-umami balance. We’ve had it many times since, both in Sichuan and at home in the U.S.,...