I’ve read a lot of Chinese cookbooks in my time, but none have quite captured my imagination and tastebuds in the way that Hunan has – although some of the pre-1980s cookbooks I’ve stumbled across do continue to be a source of hilarity when I flick through pictures of oddly arranged dishes, with the strangest choices of garnish (see fig.1) imagination indeed.
2014 brought a new, polished Chinese cookbook that is an absolute pleasure to read, with not a decorative rose or chiseled carrot in sight. Hunan is a collection of Mr Peng’s treasured dishes which are served at his London restaurant, Hunan, famous among diners for it’s no-menu approach, where diners are instead served up to 15 small tasting dishes. A true pioneer for authentic Chinese cooking, Mr Peng has poured his lifelong obsession with food into the book, and into the fiery, delicately flavoured dishes. There is an air of simplicity that runs through the book, in the flavours, ingredients and methods, which makes the innovative dishes seem far less intimidating to the amateur cook and has re-ignited in me, a zest for real, simple Chinese cooking, using a few basic ingredients. I tend to go nuts with lots of different spices and sauces, but I’ve learnt to calm these down and find flavour perfection in ingredients I now know I didn’t fully understand.
I’ve selected these two dishes from the book, which are so simple to prepare and full of flavour and texture.
Makes 4 portions
1 Chicken Breast, cut into strips
3 Fresh Red Chillies, sliced
3 Garlic Cloves, minced
Vegetable oil for deep frying
3 Spring Onions, thinly sliced
Salt and crushed Sichuan Peppercorns, to season
Coat the chicken with cornflour.
Heat a good glug of oil in a wok until it’s nearly smoking.
Deep-fry the coated chicken breast on a high heat until golden brown.
Dry-fry the chillies, garlic, spring onions until they become fragrant. Add the chicken to the pan, season with the salt and crushed Sichuan peppercorns, then stir through to warm before serving.
Red Oil Beef
Makes 4 portions
150g rib-eye beef, cut into 1cm wide thin strips
For the sauce:
1tbsp Red Chilli sauce
21/2cm piece fresh ginger, finely shredded
1tsp Tian Mian Jiang or sweet flour paste or Hoisin Sauce
2 Spring Onions, cut into medallions
2tsp crushed Sichuan Peppercorns
1tsp red wine vinegar
1tsp sesame oil
1tsp chilli oil
salt and sugar to taste
Finely shredded Ginger
In a bowl, mix all of the sauce ingredients together. Adjust seasoning. you need a sauce that’s hot and numbing.
Heat the sauce in a wok on a medium heat for about 1 minute until it becomes fragrant.
Add the beef and quickly stir through before removing from the heat. Ideally, the beef should be medium rare but you can cook it for longer if desired.
Garnish with ginger and coriander, and serve straight away.