Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Flavorsome Dialogue

Sichuan cuisine is perhaps one of the most well-known yet least understood style of cooking in our culture. As representative Sichuanese dishes like Kung Pao chicken, Mapo Tofu, Hot and Sour Soup or Dan Dan Noodles are now enjoyed by people all over the world from college kids sitting in their dorm rooms holding the Chinese takeaway box to workers squatting by the curb in the province capital of Chengdu with food from a street-side stall, to a certain extent and to many, Sichuan cuisine is their entry point of knowledge about what constituted "Chinese food" in their minds. But the popularity of those dishes all with intense flavor also causes a general misconception that Sichuan food is all about being hot and spicy, which is far from truth.


The other day I was at a dinner event organized by Slow Food Hong Kong, featuring a series of traditional Sichuanese dishes by Chef Deng Huadong at his namesake restaurant Deng G in Wanchai. This is a restaurant I have always wanted to visit, so this became the perfect occasion to do so with Chef Deng in presence to present a well-designed menu which meant to challenge such misconception about the monotone of Sichuan cuisine.

The restaurant – dubbed the Chengdu Bistro and Baijiu Bar - was located inside a commercial building in Wanchai, with the narrow entrance on the side door next to the lift lobby of the building. The decor is tastefully done, with the kitchen visible through the window near the entrance with the bar area on the first floor and the main dining room upstairs. Not too fond of their lighting design with misplaced spotlights not in the middle of the table and the rather tight space of the venue, but other than that it was pleasant, especially in Chinese restaurant standard.

As most of us settled at our table, we started our feast with a trio of appetizer dishes served at around the same time. The okra with ginger "vinaigrette" (薑汁秋葵) and the bon bon chicken with sesame dressing (棒棒雞絲) were both excellent, but my favorite was the sliced pork with mashed garlic and red chili oil (蒜泥白肉). It may be a Sichuanese cold dish commonly found just about anywhere, but this is definitely a better version I have had. It's so salivating that made me want more and more after each bite.

Our next course was the soup, and the generic description of "Hot and Sour Tofu Soup" (酸辣豆花羹) certainly didn't do any justice to its unique taste. Most other places made this by loading up on ingredients of often competing flavor and finished with beaten egg stirred in, here the hot and sour tastes were milder in comparison but worked in harmony bringing such complex flavor profile, with thinly sliced silky tofu inside the soup. It has just the right heat - the spiciness hit your palate then dissipated almost immediately leaving you just a hint of tingling after-taste on the tongue.


The rest of the courses were presented in quick succession to our table showcasing the various Sichuan cooking techniques and clever use of spices for a great variety of different flavor. Chef Deng dropped by to explain to us in details the concept of "hundred tastes for a hundred dishes" (百菜百味) which ran deep in traditional Sichuan cooking. The Kung Pao Prawns (宮保蝦) was said to have a slight hint of lychee taste with the shrimp sauteed with a vinegar-sugar marinate mixed with slightly toasted cashews for the texture. The Wu La Chicken (糊辣雞) features tenderized boneless chicken battered and deep-fried, and sautéed with deeply toasted chilies and Sichuan peppercorns ("to the verge of burning", as Chef Deng explained) for an unique smoky, spicy flavor.

On the other hand, the chili flavor in the Yuxiang Eggplant (魚香茄子) was less dominating with pickled chili peppers being used instead, adding a balancing acidity to the overall flavor with the tangy vinegar, sugar and garlic added in to the sauce. I am usually not a fan of eggplant for its often over-mushy texture in most dishes elsewhere but this one was cooked just right and I couldn't help but to have a couple spoonful of that just for the taste of the impeccably complex Yuxiang flavor.

Fermented Soybean paste is the crucial ingredient for the Chengdu-style twice-cooked pork, or Hui Guo Rou (成都回鍋肉), and Chef Deng insisted on using the one made in Pixian (郫縣) in Chengdu that he sourced from a specialty store here for the most authentic flavor. It was so good that we all looked up to the chef and asked for the address of the store after trying the dish.


The braised mandarin fish slices in red hot chili "soup" (水煮桂魚) was perhaps the only dish of the evening that I would describe as truly "fiercesome", though still not to the extent of killing one's palate, as chef assured us. The silky fish fillet was swimming in the deep bowl of soup-y chili sauce with shreds of cabbage and glass noodles made of potato starch. We loved it so much that we ordered an additional portion of the glass noodles so we could sob up the sauce. We finished with two non-spicy dishes – the sautéed mushroom in a dry casserole pot, plus a bowl of well-cooked fried rice.

Many at our table brought bottles of wine to share so we had the opportunity to match and pair with different kinds of drinks. We began with an interesting matcha-gin cocktails prepared by the in-house mixologist, followed by a few glasses of wines. Of course, with the acidity of champagne it's always a good choice for Sichuan dishes, and I also thought the new world chardonnay has the body to stand up well against the rich flavor of the dishes. I went for something different with a bottle of sake that's aromatic and sweet in style. Not the most refined in the Junmai Daiginjo category (with polishing ratio of 50%) but with complex flavor using Okayama Asahi rice, and I think it worked well with the spices too.

To me, listening to Chef Deng speak and sharing about cooking tradition and techniques in the after-dinner dialogue session was like attending a crash course of the concept of Sichuan cuisine and gave me a new level of appreciation of traditional Chinese cooking. It was an absolutely enjoyable (and flavorful) educational experience which went beyond the dishes we had the opportunity to try this evening.

When? September 13 2017
Where? Deng G, 2/F, 147 Queen’s Road East, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Braised Sliced Mandarin Fish in Red Chili Soup
Drink?
Champagne Laurent-Perrier Brut
2007 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay
Zaku Junmai Daiginjo Okayama Asahi,Shimizu Seizaburo Shoten, Mie Prefecture
Web:
Deng G: www.elite-concepts.com/en_US/dengg/
Slow Food Hong Kong: slowfood.com.hk/home/


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