Sichuan cui­sine has come a long way in Bei­jing and con­tin­ues to evolve with steady fol­low­ing. Ye Jun traces the fiery jour­ney.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SUNDAY FOOD -

At a time when many restau­rants see a de­cline in busi­ness, the long line at Meizhou Dongpo chain restau­rants is en­vi­able. The Sichuan food es­tab­lish­ment has seen an 8-per­cent in­crease in busi­ness from Jan­uary to May com­pared with the pre­vi­ous year.

re­cent govern­ment’s curb on spend­ing with pub­lic funds has af­fected many high­end eater­ies in Bei­jing. But like Meizhou Dongpo, Sichuan cui­sine seems to be an ex­cep­tion.

Salt, a restau­rant of­fer­ing Chongqing-style hot­pot which opened re­cently, re­flects the new trend.

Huang Ke, founder of Salt, says Chongqing hot­pot caters mostly to the mid­dle- and low­er­in­come mar­ket.

Orig­i­nally from Sichuan, he came to Bei­jing in 1983, and he has wit­nessed the de­vel­op­ment of Sichuan food in the cap­i­tal city.

In 1950s, the only Sichuan restau­rant was Sichuan Fan­dian in Don­grongx­ian Hutong, of­fer­ing high-end Sichuan dishes. Sichuan dishes were also avail­able at high-end places such as the Bei­jing Ho­tel.

In the 1990s, there were more Sichuan restau­rants. With the re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy, there were more im­mi­grants in the city in­clud­ing those from Sichuan prov­ince, who pro­moted the needs of their home-style cuisines.

Va­ri­ety and good taste are what at­tract cus­tomers to many small Chongqing snacks restau­rants on the street. But there were also restau­rants like South Beauty that give Sichuan cui­sine a face-lift by pre­sent­ing clas­sic Sichuan cui­sine in Western style for busi­ness-ori­ented cus­tomers.

The de­vel­op­ment of Meizhou Dongpo chain restau­rants in Bei­jing gives one an idea of how Sichuan restau­rant has made it big in the cap­i­tal city. The restau­rant was founded by a Sichuan cou­ple, who were or­di­nary chefs — one spe­cial­izes in hot dish, an­other in cold dishes.

Since they set up the restau­rant group in 1996, it has grown into a food con­glom­er­ate with more than 80 branches, spe­cial­iz­ing not just in Chi­nese food, but also hot­pot, and tra­di­tional snacks.

Now Wang Gang, the hus­band, is the man­ager of the group. Liang Di, the wife, is in charge of cre­at­ing new dishes, which she loves to do.

“The whole con­cept is to pop­u­lar­ize high­end dishes, and make pop­u­lar dishes finer,” says Guo Xiaodong, deputy gen­eral man­ager of Meizhou Dongpo, em­pha­siz­ing that low­er­ing down the prices of dishes is one of their aims.

All the dishes they de­velop, ac­cord­ing to Guo, are what com­mon peo­ple like to see and eat.

Their new sum­mer dishes in­clude fresh and and spicy, tongue-numb­ing in­gre­di­ents in­clud­ing Sichuan pep­per­corn.

Huang Ke’s Huang Fam­ily Old Hot­pot Restau­rant has re­placed the tal­low with clear veg­etable oil, to re­duce the greasi­ness.

He has also toned down the spici­ness. But he still uses a very typ­i­cal Sichuan iron wok with eight square di­vi­sions in which one can boil dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents.

Some clas­sic in­gre­di­ents for Sichuan hot­pot still re­main un­ac­cept­able to for­eign­ers. For ex­am­ple, pork gi­blet, chit­ter­ling, pork blood bean curd, and pork brain.

That is why Du Fei, ex­ec­u­tive chef with Shang Palace, Shangri-La Ho­tel Chengdu, only uses in­gre­di­ents most peo­ple can ac­cept.

The 40-year-old Sichuan na­tive be­came a chef 23 years ago.

“The chefs I met when I first started cook­ing were rather con­ser­va­tive in terms of the in­gre­di­ents they use, and the way they cook,” he says. “But now chefs are widely trav­eled. They have be­come more open-minded and dare to make changes.”

Boiled fish in soup with sour pre­served veg­etable is a very tra­di­tional Sichuan dish. Tra­di­tion­ally, chefs cook the dish with pep­per and black vine­gar be­sides red pep­per. Du has re­placed it with yel­low pep­per sauce from Hainan, white Chi­nese pep­per and Zhe­jiang vine­gar. It makes the dish look more ap­pe­tiz­ing and still taste good.

Du says the trend of Sichuan cui­sine has moved from strong tastes and fra­grant aro­mas to healthy, orig­i­nal taste.

“In­creas­ingly, peo­ple are ask­ing for or­ganic in­gre­di­ents. At the same time, dishes have be­come more pop­u­lar­ized, than high-end,” he says. Con­tact the writer at yejun@chi­nadaily.com.cn.


Dan­dan noo­dles cooked by chef Du Fei at Shang Palace in Shangri-La Ho­tel Chengdu.

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