Adventures in Szechuan Cuisine.
The beguiling flavors of Szechuan cooking have always fascinated me when eating in Szechuan restaurants. A combination of hot, sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, aromatic, and salty aromas fill the air as flames flare around sizzling woks swirling in constant motion as hissing ingredients are magically transformed into dishes with all the fiery pleasures of Szechuan cuisine. It is as astonishing as it is, at first, intimidating for an uninitiated cook.
However, once you muster the courage to tackle this amazing cuisine, it is quite easy to master, and opens the door to a whole new adventure in cooking. Most ingredients can be found in Asian markets, and if not found, I have included some easy to prepare facsimiles as substitutes in a series of Szechuan recipes that I will be posting over the next several weeks.
While explanations may seem lengthy this post is meant to be primer of sorts on slicing, dicing, ingredients, and stir frying used in many Szechuan dishes. So bear with me and you will equipped and ready to turn out some amazing Szechuan meals from your very own kitchen.
A few words about a Wok.
Stir frying is essential in preparing Szechuan cuisine and begins with a carbon steel wok. A must have that is very inexpensive, so go out and purchase one if you don’t have one already. There are many fancy/pricey woks out there and I have tried several, but basic is better in this case and it will make all the difference in ramping up the heat for fast fire stir frying.
Curing the wok is quite simple and absolutely necessary before you start cooking as there is a coating on the carbon steel that must be burned off before using the wok for cooking. This will take about an hour, but once it is done you will have a non stick wok that will last forever.
Place the wok over high flame and heat for 10 minutes. Best to have the doors open and the exhaust fan running as there will be quite a lot of fumes at first as the coating burns off.
Remove the wok from the flame, add some light vegetable oil and spread it over the inner surface of the wok using a paper towel held with tongs. Return the wok to the flame and begin rolling the wok and tipping the sides into the flame to evenly heat the entire inner surface of the wok. The steel will begin to darken and the oil will begin to build up a coating that will eventually render the wok non stick.
Remove the wok from the flame and run a paper towel over the inner surface to remove any burn off residue. Using a clean paper towel, again, oil the inner surface of the wok and spread the oil evenly over the entire inner surface. Return the wok to the flame and repeat the process described above 5 to 6 times. You will find quite a lot or residue on the paper towels at first, but by the 5th or 6th cycle the towels should come out pretty clean. The steel with have darkened with a slight bluish color.
Your wok is now ready for stir frying!
Storing the wok. After stir frying rinse the wok with water only! Dish detergent will remove the oil coating you have so diligently created. Towel dry the wok and lightly oil the inner surface of the wok before storing. This will protect the wok from rusting and preserve the non stick coating.
To preserve the non stick surface of your wok I highly recommend that you use a large long handled wooden spoon or bamboo stir frying spatula. The metal stir fry spatulas sold in kitchen shops will slowly scratch away your carefully honed non stick surface.
Szechuan Beef: Serves 2 or double for 4.
I would not recommend stir frying more than 4 servings at a time unless you have an industrial size wok. It is important to maintain high heat and surface contact when stir frying.
8oz/225g rib eye or flank steak
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (Chinese cooking wine)
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoons cold pressed peanut oil
Cut the beef into thin strips across the gain of the meat.
Combine the Shaoxing, soy sauce, brown sugar, and peanut oil in a non reactive bowl. Whisk to combine and add the beef strips. Massage the marinade into the beef and set aside to marinate for 30-60 minutes at room temperature.
Stir Fry ingredients:
As the stir frying will be fast and furious, it is essential that you gather all of the ingredients together in separate bowls arranged in the succession of their addition to the stir fry. You don’t want to be looking around for things once the stir frying begins, believe me!
- marinated beef strips
- 1 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons cold pressed peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 8 green onions
- 1 inch nob young ginger root, peeled
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
- 6 small dried chilies
- 1 teaspoon Szechuan pepper corns, lightly crushed
- 2 tablespoons doubanjiang (see note)
- 6 celery ribs, sliced
- 14 snap peas
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- 1/3 cup Shaoxing wine
- 3 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1/3 cup stock or water
- 1 ½ teaspoons corn starch
Separate the white parts and green parts of the green onions. Slice the white parts in half lengthwise, and then slice crosswise into 1 ½ inch /4cm batons. Slice the green parts crosswise on the diagonal into ¼ inch/1 cm pieces (about ½ cup)
Slice the peeled ginger into thin slices lengthwise. Stack the slices and again slice into thin batons lengthwise.
Halve the dried red chilies lengthwise, remove the seeds, and slice into 1/8 inch/1 cm strips crosswise.
Slice the celery stalks into thirds lengthwise, and then slice crosswise into 1 ½ inch/4 cm batons.
Snap the stem off the end on the snap peas and remove the strings on both sides.
Note: Doubanjiang is a Szechuan fermented broad bean and dried chili paste that is not unlike fermented pastes used in most Asian cultures that imparts a distinctive base flavor to the finished dish. It is generally salty, sour, and pungent. Doubanjiang is hard to find outside of China, but there are a few vendors that offer it online at inflated prices and with no guarantee that it is indeed the real thing.
I came up with a concoction that, while not authentic, is a reasonable substitute.
- ¼ cup fermented salted soy beans
- 3 tablespoons cup crispy chilies in oil (Kwong Cheong brand/Singapore)
Combine the fermented soy beans and crispy chilies, including some of the red oil, in a bowl and mash together into a course past.
Combine the stock and cornstarch and whisk to combine and set aside.
Now that all the preparations have been made and arranged in order of succession you are ready to give the stir frying performance of a seasoned Szechuan chef.
Remove the beef strips from the marinade and drain. Reserve the marinade to add to the stir fry later.
Fire up the wok over high flame for a minute or two. Add 1 tablespoon of peanut oil and when nearly, but not yet, smoking add the beef strips and immediately begin tossing the beef around the wok using the recommended large long handled wooden spoon or bamboo stir frying spatula. Turn the beef over after 1 minute and continue to stir fry for an additional minute.
Remove the beef promptly and set aside.
Lower the flame to medium high and add 2 teaspoons peanut oil and 1 teaspoon sesame oil to the wok and when nearly smoking add the onions, ginger, garlic, dried chilies, and crushed Szechuan pepper. Toss the ingredients vigorously around the wok for 1 minute.
Make a well in the center of the wok and add the doubanjiang (or substitute) and smash it against the bottom of the pan and then stir into the other ingredients and stir fry an additional 1 minute.
Add the celery, snap peas, and sesame seeds and toss to combine. Then add the reserved stir fried beef and toss to combine.
Add the Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and reserved marinade and deglaze the wok while tossing to combine. Give the stock cornstarch mixture a quick stir and pour into the stir fry. Continue to stir fry until the sauce thickens, about 2½ to 3 minutes.
Add the green onion slices and toss to combine.
Promptly serve the stir fry with steamed rice and dig in!