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Sichuan signature, spicy & steamed
(From top) Interiors of Mainland China; chef Rajesh Dubey shows off some Chinese delicacies. Pictures by Rashbehari Das

There is a kind of fungus found in the grasslands of Tibet that attaches itself to caterpillars, feeds off them till only the outer skins of the caterpillars remain with the well-fed fungus inside. These are then used as an ingredient in food and Duck with Caterpillar Fungus is a popular dish; soups are also made with this and it is supposed to have excellent medicinal properties.

I was talking to Rajesh Dubey, head chef at Mainland China restaurant, who will shortly be making his seventh visit to China. On his earlier visits, on an average between two and three weeks’ duration, he has visited different parts of the country, learning about the regional styles, from street food to home-style cooking to what might be served at a banquet. The dish I just described is an exotic one; it is banquet fare, and belongs to the cuisine of Sichuan (we used to spell it Szechwan).

For almost a century, what the outside world knew as Chinese cuisine was the cuisine of Canton — of the south. The first Chinese to emigrate in large numbers came from there, and headed for South-east Asia, Europe and America. The southern cuisine is a colourful one, using the lighter-coloured soya sauce than do the other regions, thus not detracting from the natural hues of the food.

Quick stir-frying and steaming are the most popular methods. The attempt is to preserve as much as possible the natural flavours and textures of the ingredients. Seasoning is subtle, used only to enhance the intrinsic quality of the raw materials. The cooks use highly concentrated chicken stock for their soups, gravies and general cooking, an important characteristic of this cuisine, which is also the most richly varied, possibly because of the abundance of raw materials that geography and climate have given the area.

The other regional cuisine that foreigners have become increasingly familiar with over the last couple of decades is the cuisine of Sichuan, a land-locked mountain-ringed area in the west of China with a hot and humid, subtropical climate. Here there is a lot of emphasis on preserving food by strongly seasoning it. Pickling their food — vegetables, fish, meat — is a common practice.

Sichuan pepper, or Fagara, is their most celebrated ingredient. This reddish brown berry from the prickly ash tree is widely used and adds a zing to most of their dishes. This piquant spice differs from the peppercorn we know. It has a peculiar delayed reaction. At first it seems to have no taste at all. Then suddenly, there it is, strong and hot. If enough is taken, it even numbs the tastebuds temporarily. Used in cooking, this reaction is not so noticeable, but in any case its flavour is unmistakable.

The Sichuanese also use a lot of chillies in their food, but not for as many centuries as their flower pepper (as Fagara is also called). Chillies, it is said, were introduced by Buddhist missionaries from India who travelled the Silk Route, and/or by Spanish and Portuguese traders who did the same, their source being America, from where Columbus brought chillies to Europe. Chilli Oil is also an important ingredient.

Chef Dubey told me that flower pepper is such an integral part of the socio-cultural life of Sichuan that it is thrown, like confetti, at weddings, to ensure fertility. In earlier times, the mud with which the walls of the quarters of the emperors’ concubines were built contained this pepper, for its aroma would create a more pleasant environment.

At present Chef Dubey is overseeing a Sichuan food festival at Mainland China. We are right in the middle of it. It has been on for two weeks, and will be on for another 10 days, and the really popular dishes will be here to stay. An excellent selection of about 25 items. A few that would qualify as starters but the rest all main-course items, with a 50-50 balance between vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, the latter featuring a well selected range — bekti, pomfret, prawns, lobster, squid, chicken, duck and lamb.

Assorted Crispy Vegetables with Dry Red Chillies and Sichuan Pepper is a good starter. Carrots, cauliflower, mushroom, aubergines, dried onions, green pepper and babycorn are diced and crisply fried and set aside. Oil is heated in a wok; dry red chillies, sliced ginger and garlic and spring onions are sauteed; the fried vegetables are then added and then a sauce made with stock, sugar, wine vinegar and dark soya is added along with seasoning. The mixture is thickened with cornflour. The ingredients for the sauce are used in very small quantities. The vegetables, tossed in the sauce, remain crisp and only smeared by it. A dryish, delicious starter.

Sichuan Yu-Heiang Shredded Eggplant is another fine vegetarian item where shredded eggplant is added to a mixture of sauteed garlic, black bean and chilli paste, and then cooked with stock, soya sauce and seasoning and finished with sesame oil. Three Treasure Mushrooms in Chilli Oil and Ginger Sauce is also an item to look out for.

The non-vegetarian part of the tasting kicked off with Chin-Chow Squids — a simple, non-pungent stir-fry of blanched squid cut into rings, fresh green chillies, celery, onions and carrot sticks, finished with Chinese wine and seasoning.

Very opposite to the squids was Sliced Fish in Spicy Chilli Broth, where healthy pieces of batter-fried bekti are added to a robust broth made by first sauteeing chopped ginger, garlic and spring onion in chilli oil along with Sichuan pepper, chilli paste and chopped chillies, and then adding soya sauce and stock. It is finished with chilli oil and served on a bed of blanched Chinese cabbage.

Lobster in San-Me Sauce is shallow fried dices of lobster meat cooked with ingredients such as sweet chilli sauce, chilli paste, vinegar, tomato sauce and soya. The dish is sweet, sour, and spicy.

This dish, along with Roast Duck with Spicy Honey Pepper Sauce — as the name shows — brings out the Sichuanese characteristic of blending different flavours in a single dish — more so than the other regional styles. The famous Hot and Sour Soup is a Sichuanese special, and in some dishes there are bitter flavours as well.

About 30 per cent of Sichuan cuisine is completely non-spicy — like the squid. They do a lot of smoked items also, but overall it is a robust style with a strong signature of its own and has added wonderfully to our experience of an incredible country.

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