Like most Americans, when it came to Chinese food, I grew up eating basic Cantonese fare which had morphed into American-Chinese cuisine. You know what I'm talking about: friend rice, egg food young, chow mein, chop suey, etc. I recall that in the Rivera family (as in probably every other family at the time), Friday night we would trudge to Chinatown and go to the Hong Fat Restaurant on Mott Street and order our perennial favorites: the aforementioned fried rice, baby spare ribs, Cantonese noodles, chow fun, and (on special occasions) lobster in garlic sauce. Hong Fat is no longer around, having closed years ago. But Cantonese fare remains.
Then in the late 1970s, restaurants featuring Szechuan food started popping up in Asian neighborhoods. It was a far cry from American-Chinese. I was impressed, not by the spiciness of the food, but by the subtle uses of hot spices within the food. Szechuan dishes are not simply hot, they contain many flavors---sweet, sour, bitter, salty, fragrant, and aromatic. They not only stimulate the palate, they make us more sensitive to those flavors. After years of bland Cantonese-style food, this was a revelation. I was hooked.
What does give the hot component to Szechuan cuisine is in its use of chili peppers. But initially, chili peppers were not utilized in Szechuan cooking. The Chinese had their own milder variety, faraga, also called Chinese of Szechuan pepper. The cuisine became even more peppery when Portuguese and Spanish traders introduced chilies to the region during the 16th century.
The dish given below is one of my favorites. An inclusive, simple, all-in-one meal that harbors the taste of this fabulous cuisine. This particular recipe is from my second cookbook, Feasting with the Ancestors (Sutton Publishing, UK)
1 pound fresh noodles (Chinese thin noodles are the best, otherwise, angel hair pasta is a good substitute)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 pound shredded barbecued pork, store bought or home made*
1/2 cup bok choy, washed, drained, and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup carrots, cut on the diagonal into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup broccoli florets
1/2 cup snow peas
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon cornstarch (or as needed)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese chili paste with garlic (can use more or less depending on taste)
1. Parboil the noodles in a pot of boiling water for 3 minutes. To make sure noodles do not stick, loosen up the noodles with chopsticks as they boil.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan. Add the pork, bok choy, carrots, broccoli, snow peas and onion, and stir-fry until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Remove the vegetables to a platter.
3. Add the remaining ingredients, stirring until thickened. Add the pork and vegetables and stir well until the mixture comes to a boil. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Serve.
Yield: 4 servings.
*You can substitute a chicken breast, cut into strips, for the barbecued pork. In this case, stir-fry the chicken until nearly done, remove the chicken from the wok and continue as directed with the recipe, adding the chicken and vegetables to the sauce as the last step.
Photo: Courtesy of Tablespoon
Labels: American Chinese cuisine, Cantonese cuisine, Chili pepper, Chinese cuisine, Mott Street, Sichuan pepper, Szechuan cuisine, United States