There aren’t many Westerners who can claim to know as much about Chinese food as Fuchsia Dunlop. After all, the Briton was the first foreigner to attend the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, matriculating at a time (the early nineties) when it wasn’t even clear if the regulations permitted it.
By then Dunlop had found her way through a culinary Hogwarts: on her first day at the Institute she and 50 Chinese students were taught how to make ‘fire-exploded kidney’ flowers.
For anyone who likes Chinese food, Dunlop’s autobiography is a great read. Titled Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper: a sweet-sour memoir of eating in China, it describes what it takes to be a Chinese chef.
A graduate of Cambridge University, Dunlop drifted to China to do post-graduate studies but followed her taste buds to her true vocation. Her decision to settle in Chengdu rather than Beijing also turned out to be inspired, since it brought her into contact with Sichuanese cooking – regarded as one of the four great cuisines of China.
One of the first things Dunlop learns is that skill with the knife is far more important in the Chinese kitchen than in Europe. She says there are three basic ways of cutting: vertical slicing (qie), horizontal slicing (pian) and chopping (zhan or kan). However, when the angle and direction of the knife is also considered, the number of terms expands to 15.
One of the legacies of this charming book is its impact on a small restaurant in Chengdu called Yu Family Kitchen. Dunlop gives a glowing description of the eatery and its chef, likening it to El Bulli and Ferran Adria. Chef Yu Bo is a man who takes his food and his ingredients very seriously. But helped by the publicity Dunlop has given him, Yu now welcomes a flood of foodies to his restaurant. Not that it’s easy to get a booking. Yu offers just one sitting a day, and has only six tables. He could have expanded, of course, but says that he feels it might mean sacrificing quality. Besides, Yu likes to be home by nine each night. On a recent trip to Chengdu WiC did get a table, but only after we’d paid a cash deposit in advance (booking is quite tough).
Yu’s set menu includes 31 courses. On arrival, there are 16 cold dishes on the table, arranged in square porcelain dishes and looking – in their variety of colours – like a work of art. They vary from the most creative peanuts you’ve ever sampled to spiced water bamboo. Each dish was delicious (the hassles encountered booking a table faded from memory with each bite).
Then came a succession of hot dishes, ranging from rich chicken soup with spring pea shoots to an elaborate tea-smoked duck – and ending with a dessert that infused apple with Sichuan peppercorn. Each portion is deliberately small and designed to showcase a range of flavours and textures. But the signature dish is especially stunning: edible calligraphy brushes. These are made from fine flaky pastry, concealing a minced beef filling. They are then dipped into an inkdish of sauce.
The restaurant is foreigner-friendly, with the waitresses able to introduce each course in English. The location is pleasant too: a traditional courtyard house in a heritage area of Chengdu (the city’s equivalent to Xintiandi in Shanghai). If you are looking for an excuse to visit the capital of Sichuan province, this is it.
A minimum of four diners is needed for bookings, although a larger group is preferred. The Yu Family Kitchen address is No. 43 Narrow Alley, Kuang Zhai Xiangzi
(青羊区下同仁路窄巷子43号近井巷子). Telephone: +86-28 8669-1975
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