At the Brighton Fiery Foods Festival, I made the acquaintance of Jenny Song, entrepreneur and killer Sichuan cook from Chengdu. Jenny and her partner John run China Spice, a company that imports peppercorns, chilies and other traditional foods from Chengdu to the UK. The stall was doing a brisk business with eager customers trying out John’s claim that their Sichuan peppercorns put what we currently have in the UK to shame. John explains that the peppercorn business shares some tricks with importers of certain less legal products: the real peppercorns are cut with the cheaper, tasteless shells of other bushes and often dyed to look the part. Morevoer, even the real peppercorns we see tend to have hard black seeds inside – a pain to dig out – whereas well-picked peppercorns will be almost seed-free. The proof of the peppercorn is in the tasting and I cheerfully agreed to eat one – just one – peppercorn. It was astonishing. You start with the expected citrusty notes and numbing sensation, but these familiar experiences are just the beginning of a several-minute sensory play that includes fizzing and a dreamy feeling that’s actually a bit like being on drugs. In the nicest possible way. John was dead on: these are like tasting Neapolitan bufala mozzarella for the first time when you’ve only ever had string cheese.
China Spice do for Chinese foods what we’re used to with Italian or French products. They source from small-batch and artisanal producers, support farmers using traditional methods and introduce a greater range of products that make it possible to explore a cuisine in depth. They sell several types of dried chilies, including Shaanxi Horns and Dragon’s Back. (These latter grow on the spectacular rice terraces of Guilin, which I was dying to visit even before I learned they grew chilies there.) There may be other Chinese importers doing this, but I haven’t come across such high quality products before, certainly not aimed at English-speaking customers.
Meanwhile, Jenny has also released a self-published Kindle cookbook, Forget Chop Suey and Chow Mein: Sichuan Cooking. If you’re already a fan of Sichuan food from Fuchsia Dunlop’s work, you’ll find some of Jenny’s book familiar. She includes classic recipes such as double cooked pork and dan dan noodles, but also a some less obvious dishes such as four-season beans and exploding pork liver. Since it’s priced very reasonably, I’d still recommend it to Sichuan food lovers who want to build a repertoire of recipes. However, the book is probably more aimed at relative newcomers to the cuisine, for whom it makes a good starting point. Particularly useful, I think, is her section on dips, all of which are dead easy to make and flexible enough that you could incorporate them into your cooking in whatever way you fancied. Start with simple homemade chili oil and spring onion dip and work up to ma la zhi (spicy and numbing dip) and guaiwei zhi (bizarre flavour dip).
The book is clearly a labour of love, and one of the things I enjoyed was Jenny’s introduction, which discusses her family’s history in Chengdu. The food is always situated in a cultural context and all the way through we hear not just how Sichuan cuisine creates a culture in China but what it means to cook it in the UK. There’s a practical element to this: as an ex-pat herself, Jenny is alive to the problems of cooking without access to certain ingredients, but she also has a good ear for the cross-cultural patterns of food culture. For instance, she points out that she makes a dish with chicken wings in Britain because they are cheap, but back home in China, this would be the most expensive part of the chicken. Tasteless breasts are cheap there and rich dark meat at a premium.
I tested the book by cooking its ma po tofu recipe for some friends. Sadly, I don’t have pictures because the vultures descended on it immediately, but I can report what they said. Everyone at the table agreed it was by far the best ma po tofu they’d ever eaten. Words like ‘transcendent’ were used, and every last bit of tofu was scoffed. They were practically licking the bowl by the end. These are already pretty enthusiastic food lovers but they were shovelling that tofu away like it was going out of fashion. It was really, really good. You don’t have to buy China Spice products to make Jenny’s home-style recipes but they go very well together: I used both Pixian chili bean sauce and Sichuan peppercorns in making my ma po tofu and I’m sure their complexity helped create an authentic flavour.
The one criticism I’d make is that the book is not as professionally copy-edited and designed as it could be. It’s an issue I’ve come across with self-published books; so many people are taking advantage of the ease of publishing online with Kindle and Amazon that sometimes authors forget that the reader expects and deserves a well-produced book for her money. A freelance copyeditor needn’t cost a lot and, if you can’t afford that, bribe a friend to do the job. (I bet loads of people would have edited this book for chilies!) It might sound like a minor gripe, but I do think presentation counts and if Jenny and John are planning a second edition of the book, I’d recommend a clean-up.
Between the cookbook and the import business, I was really excited by Jenny and John’s commitment to Sichuan food in the UK. I’m now actually forcing houseguests to stick their noses in my bags of peppercorns, because the aroma of genuine Sichuan food is just so pleasurable…