Like most Americans, when it came to Chinese food, I grew up eating basic Cantonese fare, which had morphed into American-Chinese cuisine. You know what I'm talking about: friend rice, egg foo young, chow mein, chop suey, etc. I recall that in the Rivera family (as in probably every other family at the time), Friday night we would trudge to Chinatown and go to the Hong Fat Restaurant on Mott Street and order our perennial favorites: the aforementioned fried rice, baby spareribs, Cantonese noodles, chow fun, and (on special occasions) lobster in garlic sauce. Hong Fat is no longer around, having closed years ago. But Cantonese fare remains.
Then in the late 1970s, restaurants featuring Sichuan food started popping up in Asian neighborhoods. It was a far cry from American-Chinese. I was impressed, not by the spiciness of the food, but by the subtle uses of hot spices within the food. Sichuan dishes are not just hot, but they contain many flavors — sweet, sour, bitter, salty, fragrant, and aromatic. They not only stimulate the palate, but they make us more sensitive to those flavors. After years of bland Cantonese-style food, this was a revelation. I was hooked.
The hot component of Sichuan cuisine is in its use of chile peppers. But initially, chile peppers were not utilized in Sichuan cooking. The Chinese had their own milder variety, faraga, also called Chinese, of Sichuan pepper. The cuisine became even more peppery when Portuguese and Spanish traders introduced chiles to the region during the 16th century.
This dish is one of my favorites. An inclusive, simple, all-in-one meal that harbors the taste of this fabulous cuisine. This particular recipe is from my second cookbook, Feasting with the Ancestors (Sutton Publishing, UK).