The seventh Slow Food International Congress was held recently in Chengdu in China, the capital of the province of Sichuan. It’s the UNESCO capital of Gastronomy and is now officially a Slow Food City.
China was honoured to be chosen as a venue for the Congress which focused on the impact of climatic change on countries and communities around the world. Banners were erected throughout the city of 14 million people to welcome the 500 delegates from more than 90 countries. The strong message was: “Change your Food – Stop Climate Change.”
For whatever reason or reasons, climate change is a reality – it’s probably part cyclical but there’s no doubt that many elements of modern day living contribute to the problem, not least our present industrial food system which is estimated to produce 40% plus of all the greenhouse emissions. It was also painfully obvious that many of the countries like Bangladesh, Senegal, Kenya, Moritania, Burkino Faso, that are experiencing the greatest impact of climate change did little or nothing to contribute to the problem. It will be our present 10-year-olds and younger who will have to cope with the devastation our generation has contributed to with reckless abandon.
Chengdu and the province of Sichuan have the most bio diverse cuisine of any region in China. We ate brilliantly from the time we arrived till we left a week later. A small group of Slow Food delegates who signed up for pre congress trips were fortunate to be granted access to places not normally open to westerners including the venue where the original spicy Pixian Doobanjiang or Douban sauce is made. This feisty chilli sauce is described as the soul of Sichuan food and it becomes pretty addictive, a quintessential Chinese flavour. It’s been made since 1666 between the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasties. During the Huguang Tian Sichuan migration at that time, one of the Chen family ancestors discovered that the fava beans they were bringing with them as the staple had gone mouldy so rather than throw them away they decided to try to dry them in the sun. The emperor tried with them with lots of chilli and discovered it was a brilliant combination so out of that was born the fermented sauce that’s now a fundamental condiment in Sichuan food.
The Chengdu Spice Market was another highlight – stall after stall piled high with spices. We had lunch in the Tibetan Quarter. In a traditional Tibetan restaurant, we ate yak in lots of different ways and at last I got to taste yak milk with butter, definitely an acquired tasted but I loved it.
We stopped at a motorway café and it was fascinating to see what was for sale in the supermarket – cooked chicken feet, drumsticks and pig snouts in little packets like Tayto crisps to snack on…
The City of Chengdu pulled out all the stops for the 500 Slow Food delegates. At every dinner, there was amazing entertainment – dancers in elaborate costumes, singers, magicians. Carlo Petrini of Slow Food International thanked the city of Chengdu for the warm welcome and generous hospitality but didn’t mince his words about climatic change and the importance of supporting and rewarding those who look after the land and produce nourishing food to keep people healthy. There’s no healthy city without a healthy countryside.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sisters’ Dumplings
These sweet or savoury dumplings, which are served in little bamboo steamers, are named in honour of two pretty sisters who sold them around the Fire Temple, Huogongidian, in the early 1920s.
Makes about 20 dumplings
For the dough
For the Sweet Dumplings
To make the savoury stuffing, soak the shiitake in hot water from the kettle for at least 30 minutes. Crush the ginger with the side of a cleaver blade and put into a small cup with a little cold water to cover. Chop the drained and squeezed shiitake finely and mix with the pork. Stir in the Shaoxing wine and sesame oil and season to taste with soy, salt and pepper. Add just enough of the ginger fragrant water to make a paste.
To make the sweet stuffing, toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over a gentle heat until fragrant, taking care not to burn them. Place in a mortar with the peanuts and crush finely. Moisten the sugar with ½-1 teaspoon of cold water, then add the nuts and the flour. You should end up with a stiff paste.
Line a steamer with a piece of clean muslin.
To make the dough, combine both rice flours with enough cold water to make a stiff, putty-like paste.
Roll the dough into sausages and break off walnut sized pieces. Take a piece in your hand, roll into a sphere, then flatten gently and make an indentation in the centre. Place a little of one of the stuffings in the indentation, and draw up the edges of the dough to enclose it. Roll the sweet filled dumplings into globes and place a dot of cochineal or a few red rice grains on top, if desired. Roll the meat filled dumplings into globes and then draw up the top of the dough into a pointy tip.
Place the finished dumplings in the steamer and steam over a high heat for 8-10minutes. Serve immediately.
Taken from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fish Fragrant Aubergines
Fuchsia, author of seven books and an engaging speaker was brought over by the Chinese government to speak to the Slow Food delegates about Sichuan’s food.
Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a Chinese meal
Cut the aubergines lengthways into three thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.
In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 180C. Add the aubergines in batches and deep-fry for 3-4 minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.
Drain off the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame.
When the wok is hot again, add 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).
Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary.
Add the fried aubergines to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavours. Then stir the potato flour mixture, pour it over the aubergines and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then serve.
From Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Cold Chicken with a Spicy Sichuan’s Sauce
Cut or tear the chicken as evenly as possible into bite-sized strips or slivers and place them in a deep bowl. Cut the spring onions at a steep angle into thin slices. Mix them and the salt with the chicken.
If using sesame seeds, toast them gently in a dry wok or frying pan for a few minutes, until they are fragrant and starting to turn golden, then tip out into a small dish.
Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.
When you are ready to eat, pour the sauce over the chicken, and mix well with chopsticks or salad servers. Arrange on a serving dish and sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired.
Taken from Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop
Chengdu Chicken Broth
My favourite Chinese breakfast.
Serves 6 approx; makes about 3.5 litres (6 pints)
Chop up the carcasses as much as possible. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cover with about 3.4 litres (7 pints/17 1/2 cups) cold water. Do not add salt.
Bring to the boil. Skim the fat off the top with a tablespoon. Simmer for 3–4 hours. Strain and remove any remaining fat.
Prepare a selection of additions and condiments in separate bowls. Bring the broth to the boil. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add a portion of chosen noodles, then a selection of greens which will wilt in the simmering broth. Add a couple of dumplings and fish or beef balls if using. Allow to heat through. Transfer to a deep bowl. Add topping of your choice, spring onions, coriander, chilli sauce or peanuts. Eat with chop sticks and a Chinese spoon.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved