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Monday, 18 February 2013

Sichuan fried potatoes with ginger and chilli

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! I saw this recipe on ‘Exploring China: a Culinary Adventure’, an excellent and very interesting TV show that was on a few months ago with Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang. The majority of the food we think of as ‘Chinese’ is actually just from one province (Guangdong), and the food from the other provinces is all really different. Sichuan province is in Southwest China, and mainly very damp and cold (sounds familiar). As the weather is so miserable, their cuisine is packed full of chilli and Sichuan pepper, to keep them warm. So of course, Sichuan pepper was something I needed to investigate. And luckily, my superpower of ‘dork’ came to the rescue.

I love organising things. I have always been the kind of person to alphabetise their bookshelf, and my DVDs are organised by genre, and then director. Sometimes, like the guy in ‘High Fidelity’ I re-arrange everything on my bookshelves as an enjoyable way to spend an evening. So when my amazing flatmate Claude said that I could organise her/our spice cupboard, I was over the moon. It was like a treasure trove. When I found Sichuan peppercorns I was so excited, because it meant that I could make this recipe.
The spice cupboard, organised
Sichuan pepper (花椒) also known as ‘flower pepper’ is not closely related to either black pepper or chilli pepper – it is part of the rue or citrus family. It has a unique aroma and flavour that is not hot or pungent like peppercorns or chili peppers. Instead, it has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth (caused by its 3% of hydroxy alpha sanshool). The tingly numbness has been described as being a little like the sensation of drinking a fizzy drink, or licking the top of a battery (I am told that people who grew up with older brothers will know what this feels like). If you aren’t lucky enough to live with a Claudie, you can buy Sichuan flower pepper at The Spice Shop – either online, or at their stores in Notting Hill or Brighton (they also make excellent spice blends).

*update* I just found Sichuan peppercorns in my local suparmarket - Schwartz brand I think.

This is a really interesting recipe – I don’t think I had ever eaten Chinese-style potato before. The pickled ginger gave it a really interesting zing, and the Sichuan pepper was just incredible – making the whole dish really delicious and totally different from anything I had ever eaten before. Although the potatoes were definitely cooked, they were much more ‘al dente’ than I am used to potatoes being. The next day however, I put them back in the wok with a little soy and more pak choi, with a fried egg. And it was completely heavenly.

Serves about 4. It is best served as part of a Chinese feast with many other dishes.

450g/1lb potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (the recipe doesn’t specify, but I used salad potatoes, thinking that floury spuds would just disintegrate and burn at the bottom of the wok)
1 tbsp groundnut or vegetable oil
3 tbsp coarsely chopped garlic
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tbsp finely chopped pickled ginger
1 - 2 de-seeded and finely chopped fresh red chillies (to your preference, but the dish is supposed to be spicy)
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry or sake)
1 tsp chilli oil – use more if you want to be more authentic
1 head of pak choi, stalks and leaves separated (optional)
1½ tsp roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Stack the potato slices and cut them into matchsticks. Soak them in a bowl of cold water with a teaspoon of salt for five minutes, then drain thoroughly and dry with kitchen paper or a tea towel.

Heat a wok or large frying pan over high heat until it is hot. Add the groundnut/ vegetable oil, and when it is very hot and slightly smoking, add the garlic, gingers and chillies, and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Season with salt and pepper, then add the potatoes (and pak choi stalks if using) and gently stir-fry for a minute or two until they are well coated with the spices and flavourings.

Add the sugar and rice wine and continue to stir-fry gently over a high heat for five minutes, or until most of the water has evaporated and the potatoes are cooked. Add the pak choi leaves when this is mostly done. When the potatoes are cooked, add the chilli oil, sprinkle on the peppercorns and serve at once.

Reheated the next day with a little soy, more greens and an egg. Bliss. 

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