A work-related trip to Nanhui (a suburban region of Shanghai province) last week lent itself to the opportunity to try some traditional Sichuan dishes, an opportunity that I was particularly excited about. Having lived in Hong Kong, I’ve sampled mostly the oh-so-delicate Cantonese cuisine, along with some Fujian and Taiwanese, but not too much of that bold, spicy mainland Sichuan stuff I had heard so much about. To my recollection there actually aren’t too many Sichuan restaurants in Hong Kong, so I didn’t get to experience that chili- and garlic-packed brothy stuff, or the famously mouth-numbing citric heat of Sichuan peppercorn. Well, at Shu Yu Sichuan Restaurant (located right next to KFC, which I think is the only Western restaurant for miles) in the Nanhui town center, I did.
Browsing through the menu here is fun, as it is with most traditional restaurants in China that try (for reasons I still don’t understand) to translate the names of their dishes to English. Here are a few of my favorite entries. Some make sense. There was one that read “Saliva Chicken,” which was probably trying to be something like “Mouthwateringly Delicious Chicken.” “Bad Soybeans” probably means they are fermented in some way. “Big beautiful frog” made me giggle, but it probably echoes the pride of the chef – maybe his frog IS quite big and boxom. “Rape” here is obviously a misspelling of “rabe,” which is a little weird only because the photo does not depict broccoli rabe, but Chinese cabbage. “Pills, pills” doesn’t make much sense at all…..
Anyway, onto the good stuff. The first dish we ordered was the Pig Nose, which arrived at our table in a form that we were not expecting – thin slices of cold snout served carpaccio-style. I have seen pig noses and lips and ears and hoofs thrown into broth to thicken and flavor it, or turn it into an aspic. I’ve seen it stuffed and baked, breaded and fried, chopped into tiny unidentifiable pieces and used as a crunchy topping, doubling as a creative secret ingredient in trendy, modern and culturally ironic use-all-the-parts spots. I’ve never seen it served this way, as a crudo loud and proud, very minimally treated with what I think was only a bit of vinegar, though it might have been cured as well with minimal seasoning. Texturally it was great, fatty but not greasy or heavy at all, with the bit of white cartilage in the center adding that rubbery crunch missing (for better or worse) from its more noble cousin, the ham.
Next up, some chilled silken tofu with century egg. We did not know it at the time it came to the table, but this would be a much needed cooling element to the hot pot that would serve as the climax of our meal. It was also great on its own. The silken tofu was very delicate, nye impossible to pick up with chopsticks (I noticed both my dinner companions switching to the porcelain soup spoon to scoop the stuff up with). The mostly flavorless little clouds were beautifully seasoned by the dark soy broth at the base of the bowl, which added saltiness and umami, while keeping the tofu cool and refreshing. The chopped century egg went very well with the chilled tofu, its firm and gelatinous texture offsetting the fall-apart fragility of the tofu, while adding a deep, distinctive extra-eggy flavor that was not overpowered by the soy. A very simple and satisfying dish.
Next, we got some Chuanbei Liangfen, which is a slightly translucent jelly noodle made of mung bean starch and served chilled, topped with a Sichuan chili sauce and some peanuts for crunch and a comforting nutty flavor. The sauce is very complex in flavor, containing vinegar, Chinese rice wine, some ginger, along with tons of garlic, chopped chilis and chili oil, which make it spicy. I think there might have also been some fermented soybeans or broad beans in the sauce as well, because it was very rich in flavor, characterized by a salty and pungent umami quality as well as a hint of sweetness. The flavor of the sauce was quite enough to season the jelly noodles, which were a blank canvas in terms of flavor, but complex in texture. An intriguing dish and one that was pretty fun to eat.
And finally, our main course, the Sichuan Snakehead Fish Hot Pot. Impressive in size, color and quantity of ingredients used, but not in the quality of the fish itself, which was mostly skin – slimy, rubbery, bumpy, fishy, fatty, not very pleasant at all skin – covering very little of what I thought was murky and a bit dirty-tasting flesh. Although some of the spices from the broth came through and cleaned up this flavor, it seemed like the head and skin oozed it forth non-stop. Then again maybe this stinky pond odor/flavor was a component sought after by those preparing the dish and it was just me that it made cringe a bit. Otherwise, the hot pot itself was very tasty and, actually, when I removed every last piece of skin and muddled only the flesh in with the other ingredients, the fish was not bad either. Chilis, garlic, ginger, chinese broccoli stems, onions, scallions, daikon, peppers, even thinly sliced potato and, of course, lemony and lip-numbingly hot Sichuan peppercorn, all mixed in with a very spicy chili and peppercorn sauce and topped with toasted peanuts and crispy little twists of deep-fried dough to give the dish a bit of nutty, oily flavor and a crunchy textural contrast. After a few spoonfuls, the hot, dry heat of the chilis and the citric, oily heat of the peppercorns really kicked in and all three of our mouths were on fire. We were noticeably fighting over the last bits of cool, tranquilizing silken tofu, with no remorse. A delicious and very extreme dish – if only if it weren’t for that gross, loose fish skin wrapped all up in there…
Along with two liters of beer and a local soda, all this cost around $15…. Definitely not a bad little bargain for that price.