Chongqing, the sprawling city along the Yangtze River, until recently part of Sichuan province, is noted for its distinctive and assertive cooking. It's relatively different to the cuisine of the Sichuan capital, Chengdu - spicier, more pungent and more incendiary than anywhere else in China. Chillies, Sichuan pepper, hot bean paste (doubanjiang), sesame seeds, ginger, garlic and pickles form the backbone of Chongqing's distinctive style, creating dishes of great complexity.
One of the most famous dishes from this city is Chongqing noodles. A dish that will bring tears of nostalgia to Chongqingren folk, this local speciality is mouth-numbingly spicy and addictive. Simply called xiao mian, meaning small noodles, this street food has an obscure history - some of my friends in Chongqing believe it first appeared in the early 20th century in the city's humbler neighbourhoods. A bowl of noodles built typically on everyday ingredients with some fiery, belly-warming spices, it rapidly became the noodle dish of choice for locals. Since then, this mala - hot and numbing - dish has spread globally.
The simple combination of fine wheat noodles, chicken stock, peanuts, pickled vegetables and seasonings is not tricky to prepare. It's the seasonings and pickled greens that make the dish - if you're after authentic flavours that will dazzle diners, it pays to make a trip to Chinatown or to your Asian supermarket for the key ingredients.
Look for dried Sichuan chillies; if you can't find them, Indian or Thai dried chillies are acceptable. And seek out green Sichuan peppercorns - more fragrant with a lemony scent than the pinkish-red variety and far superior. Look out also for Sichuan preserved vegetable (zha cai), a salty-sour pickle made from a kind of mustard tuber. The other umami-packed salted vegetable is ya cai from Yibin in Sichuan. I use the Suimiyacai brand.
Even though these are specific ingredients sourced from Asian grocers, by all means use substitutes such as Tianjin preserved vegetable or other fermented Chinese greens; they won't detract from the essence of the dish. For authenticity, chef Tina Li, of Melbourne's Dainty Sichuan, uses extra-virgin rapeseed oil to make her chilli oil, which her restaurant imports along with a thickish Sichuan soy sauce. Li also makes her own sesame oil - she considers commercial ones inferior. I've used sunflower oil for the chilli oil and Pun Chun premium soy sauce, which both work well.
These are the keys to making the dish sing: make your own chilli oil (shop-bought versions are pale imitations), roast and grind green Sichuan peppercorns to order (commercial ones lack punch), and make a thin purée of ginger and garlic to add depth and complexity.
Making Chinese chilli oil isn't difficult, but take care because dried chillies burn easily, and if they burn you'll have to start over again. Snip off the stems and discard any exposed seeds, then stir-fry the chillies continuously in a teaspoon of oil over low heat until they're fragrant (turn on the rangehood - chilli fumes can be irritating). Cool them completely, then pound them with a mortar and pestle to coarse flakes (I find this the best method, though they can be pulsed in a food processor). Place the chilli flakes in a large heatproof bowl. Heat 2 cups of sunflower oil until smoking. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for 5 minutes, then pour the oil over the chilli flakes and stir well. Leave this to infuse overnight before use.
Next dry-roast green Sichuan peppercorns over low-medium heat, stirring, until they're aromatic. Cool them, then grind them to a fine powder. After this, process the garlic and ginger in a blender to a fine purée.
The rest is pretty straightforward. Organise your just-made ingredients, and soy sauce, sesame oil, peanuts, preserved vegetables, and spring onions in bowls. Heat the chicken stock - typically strongflavoured homemade stock - and bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Meanwhile, add chilli oil and some of the flakes, soy sauce, sesame oil, peanuts and preserved vegetables to taste into serving bowls. Divide the noodles into serving portions and blanch them in boiling water. Place the noodles in the serving bowls. Ladle in the chicken stock and sprinkle the soup with spring onion to serve.
You can other add toppings such as braised beef and stewed chicken, and most Chongqing restaurants top the dish with two tablespoons or more of chilli oil. This dish can be challenging for the uninitiated or for the faint-hearted but once you've overcome the initial hot and numbing sensation, it's packed with intricate layered flavours. Grab your chopsticks and start slurping.
- 1 tbsp green Sichuan peppercorns
- 40 gm ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1-1½ litres (4-6 cups) chicken stock
- 500 gm fresh thin wheat noodles (see note)
- 60 gm roasted peanuts, crushed
- 100 ml sesame oil
- 50 ml soy sauce
- 150 gm (⅓ cup) Sichuan preserved vegetable (see note), thinly sliced
- 3 tbsp (¼ cup) salted vegetable (see note)
- 1 spring onion, thinly sliced crossways
- 700 gm stewing beef or beef shin
- 2 tbsp sunflower oil
- 2 spring onions (white part only), cut into 2cm pieces
- 5 thin slices ginger
- 2 tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste (doubanjiang)
- 1 star anise
- 60 ml (¼ cup) Shaoxing wine
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- ½ tsp five-spice powder
- 1 litre (4 cups) chicken stock
- 1 tbsp rock sugar, or to taste
- 100 gm small dried red Sichuan chillies
- 500 ml (2 cups) sunflower oil
- 1For braised beef, cut beef into 3cm chunks and blanch in a saucepan of boiling water (4-6 minutes). Tip into a colander and rinse well.
- 2Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add spring onion and ginger and stir-fry until tender (1-2 minutes). Add chilli bean paste, star anise and Shaoxing wine and stir-fry until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Add beef and remaining ingredients, bring to the boil, reduce heat to low, partially cover with a lid and simmer until tender, adding extra stock or water if sauce reduces too quickly (1¾-2 hours). Keep warm.
- 3For chilli oil, snip off chilli stems and cut chillies into thirds with kitchen scissors, discarding any exposed seeds (or they'll burn).
- 4Heat a wok over low heat, add chillies and stir-fry until fragrant and toasty (4-7 minutes). Add 1 tsp oil and stir-fry until chillies turn glossy and a shade darker (1½-2 minutes). Transfer to a mortar and pestle, cool for 5 minutes, then pound into coarse flakes and return to wok.
- 5Heat remaining oil in a saucepan until it begins to smoke (10-12 minutes). Turn off heat and cool for 5 minutes, then carefully pour oil over chilli flakes and stir (be careful, hot oil may spit). Set aside to cool and infuse for 2-3 hours.
- 6Return wok to medium heat, add Sichuan pepper and stir-fry until fragrant (3-5 minutes). Set aside to cool, then crush to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle.
- 7Blend ginger and garlic in a blender with 250ml water and a pinch of salt to a thin purée.
- 8Bring chicken stock to the boil in a saucepan, then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook noodles in batches in a wok of boiling water until tender (4-5 minutes).
- 9Divide peanuts, sesame oil, soy sauce, Sichuan preserved vegetable, salted vegetable, 2-3 tbsp chilli oil with crushed chillies, crushed Sichuan pepper and 1-2 tbsp ginger-garlic purée into warm serving bowls. Add hot noodles, ladle in hot stock and top with beef and spring onion.
Look for Yang Chuen wheat noodles. Sichuan preserved vegetable (zha chai) and salted vegetable (ya cai) are available from Asian grocers.