In China’s heartland, in the province known as Sichuan, each mouthful of food is a bite of history. The iconic flavors of this region — the searing chilies, numbing Sichuan peppercorns and aromatic garlic of its home-style foods, as well as its refined and rich banquet dishes — are regarded by China’s gastronomes as signatures of one of the country’s greatest cuisines. But it was not always this way. Not many Chinese and even fewer Westerners know that the recipes of this enormous province were written in blood and sealed with genocide.
The Yellow Tiger
It started back in the mid-1600s, during the waning days of the Ming Dynasty, when Zhang Xianzhong captured Sichuan and proclaimed himself emperor of the area. This murderous brigand was called the Yellow Tiger because he was a giant with a jaundiced complexion, strong jaw and unquenchable thirst for killing.
According to “The History of the Ming,” more than 600 million people died in Sichuan province at Zhang’s command. While the numbers are open to debate, the consequences are clear: Sichuan was empty, its people butchered, its culture wiped clean at the whim of one man.
Immigrants enrich cuisine
Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum, and once the Yellow Tiger had been killed, the central government in Beijing organized a vast influx of natives from more populous provinces to the south and east — mainly Hunan and Guangdong — to replenish the rich lands of Sichuan. These recruits most likely also came from the colder reaches of China’s north and west. As they set down roots, the immigrants introduced their traditional cooking styles and created a fusion cuisine that changed the face and flavors of Sichuan forever.
Traces of this culinary heritage are still evident in Sichuanese cooking, in the robust flavors of Hunan and the refined cooking of Guangdong, the delicate fish dishes from the fertile river valleys to the east, and the hearty noodles and beef dishes that still grace the tables of nomads and farmers from China’s northern great plains.
Today’s Sichuanese cuisine is so distinctive that it is hard to imagine it otherwise. But just before the massacre, a dictionary of Shu yu, the local dialect, was written, providing clues into Sichuan’s earlier food: a stew called hua la tang was made of vegetables, meat, bean curd and rice noodles with “lots of grated ginger added.” Are you like me in thinking that this sounds much like suan la tang, or hot and sour soup? Other local foods included pickles, mushrooms and a mochi-like rice paste called ziba that is still popular throughout the southern inland regions of China.
Chili peppers arrive
What’s missing in all this are the fiery chili peppers that have come to embody Sichuan’s cuisine. Sichuan peppercorns and garlic have long held sway in many of China’s regional dishes, but peppers are the upstarts that thoroughly overhauled Sichuan’s cuisine.
Chili peppers originated in the Americas. It was most likely not long after that dictionary was written that the peppers blazed their way into China’s heartland either via Portuguese merchant ships or through trade routes from India and Southeast Asia. Only then did central Chinese dishes come to be slicked with red hot oils, spiked with crispy dried chilies, and sparked with that herbal zing of fresh peppers.
The ingredients in a dish can tell us stories, and maybe nowhere more than in central China. Sichuan’s annihilation at the hands of a single bloodthirsty lunatic led to the rebirth of the beautiful region as a culinary lodestone. In this light, a bowl of noodles becomes a gift from an unknown person of long ago, whispering her life through the spices and lacing the broth with her unwritten story.
The following recipe, for won tons of coastal Guangdong bathed in the intense flavors of the spicy heartland, illustrate this well. If you’re not a huge fan of the chili pepper, serve these wontons in a light chicken broth and they’ll still be both traditional and delicious.
Sichuan-Style Wontons in Chili Oil
紅油炒手 Hongyou Chaoshou
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, 4 to 6 as a main entrée (approximately 80 to 90 wontons)
For the dumplings:
For the skins:
For the sauce:
- Cut the ginger into ½-inch pieces, and whirl in a blender or food processer with about ½ cup of the stock. Strain out and discard the solids.
- Rinse the pork and pat dry with a paper towel. To prepare the meat in the traditional manner, lay a wet kitchen towel under a heavy chopping block and cut the pork into 1-inch slices. Use the back of one or two cleavers to pound the meat into a fine mince, pausing to remove any white tendons from the meat. If you wish to use a food processor, cut meat into 1-inch cubes and pulse until finely chopped.
- Place minced pork in a large work bowl and use your hands to stir in the ginger-flavored stock, beaten eggs, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, the whites of the green onions and the sesame oil. Stir the meat in one direction and slowly add the rest of the stock in small increments so that the pork absorbs all of this liquid. It will be light and fluffy.
- Chill the filling for an hour or longer, if you have the time, as this will firm it up and make it easier to wrap.
- Before wrapping the wontons, place two baking sheets next to your work area and cover them with clean tea towels. Dust towels lightly with flour. Have a couple extra towels ready to cover the filled wontons — the skins will crack if they dry out. Place a couple tablespoons of cool filtered water next to the filling, as well as a flat piece of wood or bamboo, or a small spatula or blunt knife. If you are going to cook the wontons right away, fill a large pot with 2 quarts water and bring it to a boil while you fill the wontons.
- Use your dominant hand to scoop up the filling and your other hand to hold the wrapper. Curl your fingers in a loose fist with your wrapper hand and place one wrapper on top of the circle formed by your forefinger and thumb. Wet a finger on the other hand and draw a circle on the wrapper. Scoop up about a tablespoon of the filling and place it in the center of the wrapper, and then fold one corner up over the filling to form a triangle. Lightly wet one of the bottom angles and bring both bottom angles together, seal these two ends by pressing them together, and your wonton is complete. Place the filled wonton on a flour-dusted towel, cover it with another towel, and wrap the rest of the wontons the same way.
- You can freeze the uncooked wontons by just placing the wontons on the towel-covered trays in the freezer for a couple of hours until they are frozen solid. Remove the wontons to a freezer bag and keep frozen until you are ready to cook them; they can be boiled directly from the freezer and should not be defrosted first.
- Mix together the sauce ingredients (except for the peppercorns and onions), taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, and divide the sauce among however many bowls you wish; feel free to double the sauce if you really enjoy spicy flavors.
- To cook the wontons, drop them in small handfuls into the boiling water while stirring with a wooden spoon. As soon as the water comes to a boil, pour in 1 cup cold water. Bring the pot to a boil again, and pour in another cup of cold water. When the pot boils again, the wontons should be floating gracefully.
- Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to gently remove the wontons into the prepared bowls. Toss them lightly in the sauce and sprinkle with the chopped green onions. Serve immediately.
Red Chili Oil With Toasty Bits
麻辣紅油 Mala hongyou
Makes about 3 cups
- Pour oil into 4-cup saucepan and add the chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. Bring the oil to a boil and then immediately reduce heat to low so oil gently bubbles. Do not cook peppers over higher heat as they will then burn rather than color the oil and infuse it with their fragrance.
- After about 10 minutes, place the orange peel in the oil. I found through trial and error that this is the best way to determine when the chili oil has been cooked to perfection: Keep simmering the peppers in the oil over low heat for another 15 to 20 minutes or so, until the orange peel has turned brown. At this point the peppers will be brown and crispy but not burned, the oil will have a gentle smokiness, and it will still be a bright red.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and let it sit overnight. You can either discard the orange peel or chop it finely and add it to the oil for a subtle citrusy perfume. I like to strain out a portion of the red oil and keep it in a squeeze bottle next to the stove; the rest can be poured into a clean jar along with the toasty bits and spooned out as needed.
- Either way, store the oil in a cool, dark place. If you don’t use it every day, it will keep longer in the refrigerator. Use within a couple of weeks for optimum flavor and freshness. Try it on anything that could use a little oomph.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Photos from top:
Sichuan peppers. Credit: David Hagerman
Coarse and fine dried chilies, and Sichuan peppercorns. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips