Saturday, September 01, 2007

Szechuan cookery (a brief rant)

As you might have gleaned from my haiku on this topic yesterday, I am unconvinced about the supposed marvellousness of Szechuan cooking.

It is generally very highly rated in China, perhaps the most popular of the 6 major regional cuisines (the Chinese always have to have a numbered list for everything). Its defining characteristic is the use of really ridiculous amounts of chilli.

Now, I'm not a wuss about hot food. Far from it. I like it hot. Bring it on. I can take a chilli or a curry pretty damned strong. However, these hot dishes that I like are always something more than just hot - there are other flavours going on in them as well. In most Szechuan dishes I've tried, it's just hot. Very, very, very hot - and nothing else.

In fact, apart from the chilli, the rest of the dish is usually a bit shite. One of the most common Szechuan specialities you see here in Beijing is lazi ji - chilli chicken. The chicken is in very small pieces and coarsely chopped up, full of bone fragments; then it's deep fried into oblivion, until it's crispy and dry and shrivelled and tasteless. Then they conceal it under an enormous cone of dried chillies (also uneatable). It is the most ridiculous non-event of a dish I've ever encountered. (The other big favourite is shuizhuyu, a kind of fish stew swimming in chilli oil. I've never eaten this because fish makes me puke at the best of times; but meat versions I've tried are similarly hot and greasy but otherwise tasteless.)

The local delicacy in the Szechuanese city I visited the other day (not sure if it's a province-wide thing) was a type of cured pork. "Rather like bacon fat," one of my hosts, who'd spent some time in the UK, told me.

Er, no, it WAS bacon fat. Just the fat, and nothing else. What had they done with the meat? Now, I like bacon. And I like bacon fat. But - compared to the wonderful Irish bacon on which I was brought up, for example - this just wasn't especially nice bacon fat. And throwing a few slivers of fat into a bed of some tasteless green vegetable or other does not make a dish.

If this is the best cuisine in China, then.... China's cuisine really must rate pretty low in the world rankings.

It's not, though. There are many dishes, many cooking styles in China that are far tastier than this rubbish. Guizhou food, Yunnan food, Hubei food - now these have something to be said for them....


John said...

After reading you saying "what do they do with the meat?" I just had to post a comment. For what little I know of Chinese cuisine in general it sure does to me seem that they use a lot of offal so what does happen to the meat?
Where we come from we're used to the modern industrialisation of the offal business. When was once a common sight to see faggots, kidneys, liver and such on British menus now these are things you have to go quite far to find on offer these days for good or for worse. That's not to say that offal can't be nice; it's had something of a small re-emergence recently if Radio 4 is anything to go by and still remains a part of British cuisine but most of it does end up in giant extruders along with the stuff that no human could eat to become pet food and economy burgers.
So, what about China? Is it a classic case of corruption and only the (literally) fat cats get the cream so to speak or is it just that I've been reading too much about the repulsive side of Chinese food and that actually prime cuts of pork (mostly pork I understand) and other meats are just as common in a regular dish? I would love to know more.

Froog said...

Well, it's a very large topic, of course; but my impression is that Chinese cuisine is chiefly characterized by the paucity of its meat content. It developed against a background of scarcity - of meat, anyway (at most points in Chinese history, rice and vegetables have, I believe, been fairly abundant; but meat-producing animals have always been a comparative rarity): most dishes seem designed to disguise the relatively low meat content... delivering it ground, cubed, or thinly sliced, amid a welter of vegetables, and with what little flavour there is masked by overpowering spices.

There are very, very, very few dishes that actually give you a single, recognisable chunk of an animal - and that is something I rather miss. I suspect this is the reason for the great popularity in recent years (in Beijing, anyway, it has been the food fad of the Noughties) of small restaurants specialising in grilled chicken wings. There might not be a lot of meat on a chicken wing, but it is way more meat in one place than you find in most Chinese dishes.