“While cooking, we don’t measure ingredients. We cook with our heart.“ ~Yáng Hóngyǐng 杨宏影
Chengdu, Sichuan, China — In 2007, a visit to Chengdu with my nephews barely hinted at the flavors and character I had yet to discover three years later. The difference between traveling guided by a Lonely Planet versus traveling guided by locals, can for the moment be best described by saying, “Was blind but now I see.” Through serendipitous internet ties, a popular Sichuanese blogger and restauranteur Jiǎng Yì 蒋毅, introduced me to Wáng Āyí 王淑玲 (mother) and Yáng Hóngyǐng 杨宏影 (daughter). As Wáng Āyí motions the simplicity behind famous Sichuan dishes, Hóngyǐng introduces each dish using Chinese and English.
The kitchen is long and wide, clean, bright, and the counter is lined with bowls of ingredients. Wáng Āyí uses her left hand to mince pork she will use for Má Pó Dòufu. She slides her cleaver to scoop the meat into a bowl and keeps a little on the blade to add umami to the Wuchang fish. Hóngyǐng asks me if “American people steam food” and I rattle off a list of foods often steamed. These family visits give my hosts and I much needed opportunities to demystify our cultures.
Fifteen minutes after steamed over high flame, Qīngzhēng Wǔchāng Yú (清蒸武昌鱼, Steamed Wuchang Fish) is tender, light, the meat flaky and fragrant from ginger, scallions, rice wine, and soy sauce. Wuchang fish is a type of bream fish, but this dish can be prepared using other whole fish such as carp, grouper, or sea bass.
Another dish, famous in Sichuan, is Suāncài Yú (酸菜鱼, Pickled Mustard Greens and Fish). Wáng Āyí, pickles her own mustard greens and peppers, as well as makes her own dòubàn jiàng (豆瓣酱, chili bean paste/sauce), in earthenware pickling jars she stores on the balcony.
Every piece of fish is soft and zesty from the sour and salty mustard greens. One story behind this dish tells of a servant who pickled vegetables with salt after noticing fellow servants struggling to eat old vegetables. After soaking them in salt and water for several days, the vegetables were delicious and used in many recipes thereafter. Another story follows how a fish was dropped accidentally into a soup of pickled mustard greens from whence this dish was born.
Hóngyǐng shares endearing details as the cooking lessons proceed. She loves listening to all kinds of music and lets on that she enjoys listening to Lady Gaga. During holidays, when the family members come together, all the men cook together. Jiǎng Yì, the only male in the room today, doesn’t take backstage while Wáng Āyí cooks. He slices the fish for the soup, chops the chicken into 1-inch pieces for the Làzǐ Jī (辣子鸡, Chicken with Chillies), and tosses the pieces into the bubbling oil, crisping the outside while maintaining a moist and tender center.
Everything in the wok is ablaze with color of red Sichuan peppers, but the stinging spicy aroma flows out of the wok filling the kitchen. Each of us in the kitchen step away from the stove, but the cook is bound, squinting his eyes while tossing the chicken pieces hastily lest the peppers should blacken and burn.
In the past, Chinese rarely ate raw food. Liángbàn Cándòu (凉拌蚕豆, Cold Mixed Broad Beans) is as Hóngyǐng calls it, a “Chinese salad.” The broad beans are boiled until tender, then mixed with a medley of potent flavors, and left to cool until meal time. Liáng means cold and bàn means mixed. Cucumbers, potatoes, spinach and more can also be parboiled or splashed with hot oil in order to not serve raw.
I thought I knew what Má Pó Dòufu (麻婆豆腐, Pock-marked Old Mother’s Tofu) was until I had the real thing in Chengdu, Sichuan. Going to the Asian food aisle in a Western supermarket and picking up a packet of the Ma Po Tofu instant powder to help your hamburger meat, won’t do justice to the real Má Pó Dòufu.
Huājiāo (花椒, Sichuan peppercorn) is the magic spice I’d been missing until I moved to China; it not only numbs the senses from the burn of chillies but suffuses the olfactories and taste buds with another woodsy-citrusy-pine-floral flavor. This 19th-century dish is a famous Chengdu dish once served by Lady Chen who was indeed pock-marked. All the fame and deliciousness of her tofu couldn’t bring her a better name, but one would be hard-pressed to find a household in Chengdu unable to whip up a plate of Má Pó Dòufu. Get the recipe!
As time passes, Ài Cǎo (艾草, Wormwood) has become more scarce in Sichuan’s markets. Wáng Āyí mixes a little sugarcane-preserved Wormwood with glutinous rice flour and pats together cakes she fries in the wok.
As if eating as many possible now could preserve these cakes from disappearing from existence, Ài Mó Mó‘s (艾馍馍, Glutinous Wormwood Cakes) herbal-sweet flavor stretched my appetite a little more, after eating all of the above. Learning more about dishes in China becoming rarities, I have a strong urge to consume them.
I want to remember how these endangered specialties taste, perhaps the same way my dad remembers theatres presenting two special features, a newsreel, and popcorn all for a dime. Wáng Āyí says the herb is no longer easy to find, but just as the ingredients vanish from market stalls, the repertoire of home-style recipes I fear are departing with them. Busy lives, urbanization, and the ease of consuming ready-made foods are amongst some of the factors leading to treats such as these turning into childhood memories.
Together, Hóngyǐng and her mother tell stories and describe their culture through food. Wáng Āyí demonstrates how simple it is to preserve culture through easy-to-cook dishes. Furthermore, one doesn’t need a measuring cup or spoon to learn these dishes. As Hóngyǐng puts it, one need only use their heart.
About the author
Shanti Christensen (湘緹), Storyteller and Food Explorer, travels China meeting families who teach her their favorite home-style recipes. She writes and photographs for ShowShanti.com while collecting recipes for her future cookbook. Her Filipino mother and Danish-American father passed their wanderlust and passion for food to her through their own stories. Shanti and her husband are from San Francisco and have lived in Beijing since January 2007. Shanti enjoys making dinner for friends and family, bringing new flavors and tales to the table.