Thursday, February 5, 2009

Red chilis and Sichuan pepper: A match made in Heaven or Hell?

Below: Chilis sun-drying on a farmhouse roof. Above: Sichuan pepper dried, bought in market and on the branch, Danba, Sichuan ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Is it possible to write a blog geographically located in Sichuan and not talk about those two most heavenly, culinary creations: chili peppers and Sichuan pepper? As soon as you arrive in Sichuan the smell of cooking oil permeated with billions of stir-fried chilli and Sichuan Pepper molecules will twitch your nose and alert your senses to one of the great sensations of the oflactory world. The misty, humid air of this province is perfectly constructed to retain all the smells of daily life, and frankly speaking either you like the smells around here or you don't! And the same goes with huajiao, the quintessential Sichuan spice.  The pro and cons of chilis and Sichuan pepper in Sichuan cooking is a subject many foreigners are fond of discussing, usually ending in the comment that either they don't like it or that there is too much of both in the local food. Even Chinese from other parts of the country will agree with the laowai when the subject comes up. Indeed the first thing most Sichuanese ask you after "Where do you come from?" is "Can you take the food?". If you can, then you're in. My personal opinion is: If you can't take the heat, then get out of the hotpot! 

Sichuan pepper smells both slightly earthy and lemon-limey, pine-foresty zingy. Its speciality is the numbing effect it has on the tongue. This is the má of the dynamic málà 麻辣 duo that is so distinct in chuan cai 川菜, the cuisine of the Sichuan area. The chili creates the là, heat. (Málà means: "numbing/spicy"). Too much huajiao is definitely overkill (!) but a little even in a Western dish like meatballs can add distinction and flair. One of my most delightful taste experiences was a fantastic creme caramel flavoured with just a touch of Sichuan pepper. The richness of the cream, sugar and egg in the dessert cut out the tingling sensation, leaving only the unique flavour. I remember my table partner Cecilia Lindqvist and I looking at each other and commenting almost simultaneously, "I'm going to steal this idea!" (The meal was at Sigtunahöjden).

Sichuan pepper actually belongs neither to the Piperum pepper family or chili pepper family. According to Wikipedia it is: The outer pod of the tiny fruit of a number of species in the genus Zanthoxylum. Some cookbooks refer to it as fagara or prickly-ash. Its Chinese name, huājiāo (花椒) means "flower pepper". A lesser known name is "mountain pepper", shānjiāo (山椒) which belies its natural habitat, high up in the mountainous areas of Westeren Sichuan. One summer I had the delightful experience of wandering through groves of huajiao trees in the Danba area. It was peak harvesting season and the Tibetan and Qiang ladies of the house were out on chairs and ladders deftly picking the peppers clusters. The small fruits were bright red and the air was suffused with the lemony scent of fresh, tangy huajiao. 

Chili peppers (lajiao in standard Chinese or haijiao in Sichuan dialect) are the fruit of Capsicum plants, which are members of the nightshade family (potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes etc) Although most Chinese that you ask will swear that chili peppers are native to China, they both originated in the New World and were introduced into the country with early Portuguese traders along the southern China coast. The chilis used in Sichuan cooking are most often the smaller fruits, red in colour and sun-dried. Fresh peppers are also used and bell peppers that are either red (sweet) or green (hot).

Chilis are rich in Vitamin C (and potassium, magnesium and iron), one of the reasons that I believe that eating Sichuan food regularly keeps me from getting a cold. Sichuanese especially like to eat hot and spicy dishes in the summertime, thinking that a good sweat cools the body. (On the other hand they are also high in carotene, which improves eyesight, which is definitely not true in my case, I just ordered a new pair of glasses!).

Not only does this fantastic duo pack a wonderful punch and tingle on the palate they are also pleasing to the eye, with their delightful red accents. Note! One of the reasons Sichuan cooking tastes so different (and so MUCH BETTER) here in Sichuan is the poor quality of the huajiao used in restaurants around the world, it has to be relatively fresh or the dish will lack zing and taste only hot and dusty.

Från På kinesiskt vis (Det kinesiska köket) ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn, Ica bokförlag:

Maten från Sichuan (chuancai) är känd över hela världen och är ett av Kinas allra populäraste kök. Vissa säger, med all rätta, att det är landets godaste kök. Maten är oerhört smakrik och ofta bedövande stark. Det som skapar den unika Sichuansmaken är en speciell kombination av två smaksensationer: ma, "bedövande", och la, "chilistark". Mala-effekten skapas av Sichuanpeppar (ma) och rikliga mängder chilipeppar (la) gärna kombinerat med syrlig ingefära och generösa mängder vitlök. Sichuanpeppar (huajiao på kinesiska, lat. Zanthoxylum piperitum) är inte en äkta pepparsort utan kommer från familjen vinruteväxter. Denna aromatiska krydda doftar både citrus och anis och har en mycket distinkt förmåga att "bedöva" tungan samtidigt som det sticker lite. Man ska egentligen inte äta kornen utan bara låta dem krydda maten. 

Kinesiska nyåret: Lyktfestivalen/Lantern Festival

Wuhou Temple, Chengdu ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

For a few weeks now enormous floodlights have been shining into the murky Chengdu sky, beamed from the entrance of Wuhou Park. Their searching rays remind me of my childhood in California, when such lights announced the "Grand Opening" of a new shopping center or movie premier. These lights, however, are advertising the joint festival that is being held in Wuhou Temple (Wuhou Ci), Wuhou Park (Wuhou Gongyuan) and Jinli Street (Jinli Gujie) to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Every year this trio bands together to create a special "entertainment zone" that can be accessed for 20 yuan (about 22 SEK, children under 120 cm free). Needless to say every day a teeming sea of black-haired heads pass through the entrance gates to partake in a special kind of festival Hell: Grandparents with the grandkidlums, grown-ups out airing the Aged Ps, young lovers enjoying getting jostled against one another by the enormous crowds and of course a large number of plainclothes policemen looking for pickpockets and troublemakers. I love it but every time I drag my kids into this mass of food-stall munching, screeching, laughing, shoving humanity they ask me what on earth we are doing there. At night it's especially enchanting with the park area all lit up with fanciful, brightly colored lanterns, entertainment and foodstalls. The Lantern Festival (Yuanxiaojie) is the culmination of Chinese New Year's, arriving on the 15th day after the new moon, when the moon reaches complete fullness. This year it will occur on February 9th, so don't miss a visit to a park on that night to see the full moon and don't forget to eat tangyuan (also called yuanxiao): sweet riceballs filled with red bean, sesame or peanut  paste. And keep your earplugs handy because the night is finished off with the last round of deafening pyrotechnics!

Från På kinesiskt vis, ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn/Ica bokförlag:

Det kinesiska nyåret avslutas med lyktfestivalen då man firar årets första fullmåne. Yuan betyder "först" och xiao "natt". De två tecken tillsammans syftar på det nya årets första fullmåne. Parker och tempelgårdar pryds med hundratals, ibland tusentals färgglada lyktor i alla möjliga former: fjärilar, apor, fiskar, blommor, drakar, folksagofigurer och naturligtivs också den klassiska runda röda lyktan. Traditionellt gjordes de av papper men är i dag oftast masstillverkade i syntettyg.

På kvällen promenerar man omkring med de tända lyktorna eller samlas i de stora stadsparkerna som redan har förberett ljussättningen. En populär lek är att lösa gåtorna som finns skrivna på de hängande lyktorna. Det ställs till med lejon- och drakdanser, styltdanser, varieté- och tivoliunderhållning och man äter mängder av små yuanxiao (även kallade tangyuan) - söta rismjölsbollar fyllda med röd bönpasta, sesam- eller jordnötspasta - de finns även med salta fyllningar. Man fyrar av de sista fyrverkerierna coh förälskade par sätter ut små tända lyktor i sjöar och floder för att bevisa sin kärlek. Festivalen får inte förväxlas med mitthöstfestivalen, då man också firar månen med stora mängder lyktor. 

# 9 Today's picture 090205

Långsamhetens lov, Wuzhen, Zhejiang ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Sichuan earthquake possibly man-made?

The Telegraph had an interesting (and horrifying) article yesterday (090203/Malcolm Moore/Shanghai ) about the possibility of the May 12th, 2008 Sichuan earthquake possibly being caused by a large dam that lies very near the fault line.

The 511ft-high Zipingpu dam holds 315 million tonnes of water and lies just 550 yards from the fault line, and three miles from the epicentre, of the Sichuan earthquake.
Now scientists in China and the United States believe the weight of water, and the effect of it penetrating into the rock, could have affected the pressure on the fault line underneath, possibly unleashing a chain of ruptures that led to the quake.
Fan Xiao, the chief engineer of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau in Chengdu, said it was "very likely" that the construction and filling of the reservoir in 2004 had led to the disaster.

Article continues here...