Chengdu Challenge #23: Tiger Skin Peppers (Hu Pi Qing Jiao)
Culinary Travel Week~~
Above is a photo of one of my most memorable meals ever in Chengdu. What you see is a big plate of tiger skin peppers accompanying a quintessential gong bao (kung pao) chicken. What you don’t see is that this was in a restaurant with a Cultural Revolution theme. There’s a recent trend of Cultural Revolution restaurants in China—and even in the San Gabriel Valley in the U.S.—but this was 2007, and this restaurant was as much about memory as kitsch. The owner had been sent to the countryside of Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution, where, like other urban youth, he was to be re-educated and reformed by working with the peasants. This restaurant was his homage to the country cooking he ate there.
All the restaurant workers were dressed as radical Red Guards, wearing army green military uniforms, and the walls were papered with posters of Mao and Lenin. I was dining with my Sichuanese partner, Rose, and her husband, Weili, who himself had been sent to the country to do hard labor as a young man in the late 1960s. They tried to explain to me how the restaurant could be at once ironic and sentimental. How it was recalling a tragic time that nobody wanted to remember and nobody wanted to forget.
It was a little unclear to me where the irony stopped and the love began, but I think it was with the food, which was the real deal.
I recreated the food part of that extraordinary experience recently after the lovely couple at The Funnelogy Channel invited me to contribute to their Culinary Travel Week. Check out their award-winning (Saveur’s Best Culinary Travel Blog 2015) site for more inspiring stories and recipes from around the world.
I made the gong bao chicken that evening, but what I want to focus on here is hu pi qing jiao, tiger skin green peppers. The dish is just a simple side or starter, but it’s always been one of my favorite dishes to eat in Chengdu, since I love peppers of all kinds. Tiger skin peppers are usually made with mild long green peppers or sweet bell peppers like these, but sometimes the dish shows up at the table made from hot chilies. I kind of like the Russian roulette aspect of ordering them at a restaurant.
You can see in these photos why they are called tiger skin peppers: The peppers are seared in the wok on both sides until the skin is puckered and spotted and striped with black char like a tiger. It is yet another example of a whimsical, poetic Chinese name for a fairly simple food. By the time they are spotted and striped, they are the perfect amount of done, being soft enough to eat but still a little bit crisp. Then you douse them with some Zhenjiang black rice vinegar and sugar—and if you’re like me, spike them with some soy-sauce-soaked preserved black beans, or douchi.
In Sichuan they always use green peppers, but I took some liberty with a red bell pepper, because that’s what I had on hand. I do like the look. And the traditional recipe does not include black beans in the vinegary sauce. But I had them one time like that in Chengdu and totally dug the extra saltiness and umami of the douchi alongside the sweetness of the peppers and sourness of the vinegar. Plus, my daughter Fong Chong loves douchi, and, as always, the more intense flavor I heap upon a vegetable the more of said vegetable that will get eaten.
I rarely see tiger skin peppers on Sichuan menus in the U.S., so eating them always takes me back to Chengdu. But since my blog is all about cooking Sichuan in America and feeding a homesick Chinese girl, below is a photo of Fong Chong’s school lunch another day that week. The pork chop was pretty good, but the real star of the lunch-time show was the tiger skin peppers.
- 3 medium-size or 2 large bell peppers
- 1 tablespoon preserved black beans (douchi)
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Zhenjiang black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Trim and de-seed bell peppers and cut each into 4-6 sections.
- Marinate the preserved black beans in the soy sauce while you cook the peppers.
- Heat wok until just starting to smoke, then add 2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil and heat over high flame until hot. Add pepper sections skin-side down and leave for a few minutes to char the skin until spotted or striped like a tiger, pressing down on the peppers with your spatula so they make good contact with the wok. Once they are charred, flip over and sear the other side.
- When peppers are well-striped but still firm, add the preserved black beans in soy sauce as well as the vinegar and sugar to the wok. Stir-fry just until the peppers are well coated with the sauce. Can be eaten warm or room temperature.