The Mala Project | Cooking Sichuan in America Blog

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.,...

Sourcing Pixian Doubanjiang (Chili Bean Paste)

Pixian Doubanjiang: The Soul of Sichuan Cuisine~~ If Sichuan pepper and chili pepper are the heart of Sichuan cuisine, then doubanjiang is the soul. The secret weapon in twice-cooked pork, mapo doufu and scores of other Sichuan dishes, douban is little known outside China—and the authentic version is little known outside Sichuan. Asian cuisines have various fermented bean pastes/sauces, usually made with yellow or black soy beans. But Sichuan’s version is made with dried fava beans, also known as broad beans, mixed with fresh red er jin tiao chili peppers and salt (and...

Chengdu Challenge #2: Cold Chicken in Sichuan Pepper-Scallion Oil (Jiao Ma Ji)

The Jiao Ma Ji Challenge~~ For the most part, chicken is chicken. But jiao ma paste, now that’s a discovery! Jiao ma refers to Sichuan pepper, and the paste is made by mincing the peppercorns together with a load of scallions and adding oil to make a sauce. Combine that with red-hot chili oil and Sichuan pepper oil and a little starter of cold chicken is the most exciting thing on the table. That’s what’s so brilliant about Sichuan cuisine. It has a million ways to make plain old protein...

Sourcing Hua Jiao (Sichuan Peppercorn)

My Favorite Buzz: Sichuan Peppercorn~~ “My mouth is sleeping,” Fong Chong said as she worked her way through a plate of mala-flavored cabbage stir-fry. “But she opens and lets me eat.” And there you have it in a nutshell, the addictive power of Sichuan pepper. If there is one taste most closely associated with Sichuan cuisine, it is Sichuan peppercorn, the numbing spice. The bride of the chili pepper in many Sichuan dishes, it is the má—numbing—to chili pepper’s là—spicy hot—in the word málà, which is practically synonymous with Sichuan food....

Chengdu Challenge #1: Dan Dan Noodles (Dan Dan Mian)

The Dan Dan Mian Challenge~~ Dan dan noodles was the first real Sichuan dish I ever had, when Grand Sichuan International, the first real Sichuan restaurant in Manhattan in decades, opened close to my home in Chelsea in the mid-’90s. I’ll never forget the moment when they sat it on the table. It looked like a plain bowl of boiled noodles with some ground pork on the top, but then I realized I needed to stir it up myself and began to turn the noodles and crispy pork  over in the...

Dan Dan Noodles: A Judgement on My Motherhood

Fong Chong, then 12 years old, had been my daughter for a good nine months before I ever made dan dan noodles for her—which is inexplicable, really, considering they are my favorite Chinese noodles. “You knew how to make this and you never made it for me?” she asked, incredulous and exasperated, after she took her first bite. I had been struggling to feed her all this time, trying so hard to please her by learning new dishes I thought she might like—Cantonese-style chao mian, glass noodles with shrimp,  Singapore-style...

Spice Shopping in Sichuan

A Spicy Girl Shops for Spices~~ I just returned from a trip to Chengdu (and Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai). I never get enough of Sichuan, which may explain why I always try to bring all its goodies back with me. This is just some of the Sichuan spicy stuff I stuffed in my luggage, bought at Chengdu’s jaw-dropping wholesale spice market, its fascinating supermarkets  and wet markets and a sidewalk artisan food stall with the best sauces on earth (really!): Three kinds of freshly dried Sichuan chili peppers, or la...

Sourcing Zhenjiang Vinegar (Chinkiang Vinegar)

Zhenjiang Vinegar: Accept No Substitutes~~ If I had to choose just one Chinese ingredient that everyone should have in their pantry (other than Chinese-made soy sauce, of course), it would be Zhenjiang black vinegar. In our household we use as much Chinese black rice vinegar as soy sauce. We even use as much Zhenjiang vinegar as chili sauces and oils, which is saying something. In fact, the three mixed together are our go-to dipping sauce for dumplings. And many Chinese use just black vinegar as their dipping sauce of choice....

Sourcing Yibin Suimi Yacai (Preserved Mustard Greens)

Yibin Yacai: The Queen of Sichuan Pickles~~ Yacai is another one of those only-in-Sichuan ingredients. All of China loves a preserved vegetable, but this particular example—fermented mustard green stems—is made only in Yibin, a county in southern Sichuan Province. Yibin yacai is used most famously in dan dan noodles and gan bian si ji dou (dry-fried green beans), where it is absolutely indispensable. But it also provides a deep veggie essence to all kinds of sauces and dishes in Sichuan cooking. I have never made it to Yibin, but my...

The Secret Chinese Menu, Now in Full View

I recently wrote a piece for my local daily, The Tennessean, about a new trend I’ve noticed—even in Nashville—of Chinese restaurants making the “secret menu” available to us all. No more withholding the real Chinese food from us non-Asians! Here’s an excerpt: I read one of those perennial Chinese food stories recently. The one where the guy discovers that his favorite Chinese restaurant has one menu for him, a white guy, and another, secret menu for Asians that has all the good stuff on it. I don’t doubt that’s still...

Sourcing Tian Mian Jiang (Sweet Wheat Paste)

Tian Mian Jiang, or the Glory of Sichuan’s Fermented Sauces~~ This unassuming little ingredient is way more powerful than it lets on. Called sweet wheat paste or sweet soybean paste, it is yet another member of the family of fantastically tasty and useful Asian bean sauces. Don’t even get me started on the glory of fermented bean pastes…other than to say my pantry and fridge include four kinds of Chinese bean sauces (sweet bean, chili bean, yellow bean and hoisin) as well as two kinds of Korean and two kinds of...

Do you love Sichuan food and cooking as much as we do?

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive notice of new recipes and articles from the blog as well as occasional news and promotions from The Mala Market, our Sichuan specialty food shop. (An average of two emails total per month.)

 

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Thank you!

Taylor & Fong Chong

Do you love Sichuan food and cooking as much as we do?

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive notice of new recipes and articles from the blog as well as occasional news and promotions from The Mala Market, our Sichuan specialty food shop. (An average of two emails total per month.)

 

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Thank you!

Taylor & Fong Chong