Mr. Zhang taught me many things. Let's start with this: No Soy Sauce.
In September we ate, over the course of 5 days, seven or eight meals at the Chengdu "fly" restaurant of Zhang Lingchen and his wife. One thing I love about these low-key establishments is the accessibility of their kitchens. Want to learn how to cook a few local dishes? No need to sign up for a class. Just find a fly restaurant serving food you that strikes a chord and hang out in the kitchen.
Granted, some cooks will be more receptive than others to close observation and note-taking. When we asked, Mr. and Mrs. Zhang opened their door wide.
We had some wonderful meals at Mr. Zhang's table. They all came from a kitchen that justifies use of the over-used adage "less is more".
A cement floor, a single window, two doors, a small refrigerator. Two gas burners (I only ever saw one used at a time),
a simple shelf holding wok-ready fresh ingredients,
and a wok-side table displying Mr. Zhang's mise en place.
Left to right, top to bottom (disregard the bowl at the very upper left; it's a dish in progress):
sliced green onions, Pixian chili bean paste, soy sauce, black vinegar
sliced green chilies, sugar, MSG, salt, chopped ginger
salted black beans, cornstarch, chopped garlic, thickly sliced garlic.
Not in the photograph are a bowl of chopped tomatoes, whole dried red chilies (2 varieties, one for fragrance and one for heat), and whole hua jiao (Sichuan "peppercorns"). On a shelf under the table, pickled ginger and pickled red chilies, and sliced local leeks.
Mr. Zhang's restaurant shares a narrow alley with a couple of others. His is always busy, even when his competitors are quiet. Many of his customers come from nearby construction sites and run tabs that they pay when they receive their salaries. But others come from beyond the neighborhood. After a couple of visits we saw familiar faces. We're not the only ones who like Mr. Zhang's food.
One of the restaurant's most popular dishes is corn and edamame stir-fried with sliced green chilies and sometimes, la rou -- pine bough-smoked and air-dried pork belly.
If you visit Chengdu you must eat la rou. And if you live somewhere with lax customs and visit Chengdu, you must pack at least 3 vacuum-packed kilos of la rou home with you. That's what we did in September, and we're wishing it had been 5 kilos.
One night I watched first Mr. Zhang and then Mrs. Zhang, when the Mr. disappeared on his motorbike for half an hour, make yumi huangdou larou pian (corn with edamame and la rou slices). As with many of Mr. Zhang's dishes this one contains no soy sauce. In fact, other than the la rou it incorporates no ingredients explicitly "Chinese".
This is one of a few things that I took away from Mr. Zhang's kitchen -- salt is used as often, perhaps more often, than soy sauce. I don't think I once saw him add soy sauce to a vegetable dish. Which, if you've ever gawped at the vegetables on display at a market in Chengdu, makes perfect sense.
When you're working with ingredients as beautiful as those which Mr. Zhang has at his disposal seasoning beyond salt would be overkill.
Mr. Zhang's Stir-fried Corn and Edamame with Sliced Bacon
This is not a difficult or time-consuming dish (that can be said for most everything from Mr. Zhang's kitchen, actually). After you've gotten your ingredients together -- which may be very quick indeed if you're using frozen veggies -- it will take all of three to five minutes to cook.
La rou is probably not available where you live -- substitute a really good quality bacon (smoked is best, but it doesn't have to be), or maybe guanciale, or any other super porky cured meat. Don't cut off the fat! And don't overdo it with the protein -- there's plenty of meat here, but it shouldn't overshadow the flavors of the vegetables. Instead the meat's saltiness and the smokiness of the wok should enhance them.
What makes or breaks this dish is a pan or wok hot enough to give a little smokiness. I've successfully stir-fried on an electric stove using a flat-bottomed non-stick frying pan, and I make do now with a wok and a crappy gas burner. The secret is letting your pan get so hot that a drop of water sizzles and evaporates on contact.
This is a great, easy anchor dish for a Chinese meal -- paired perhaps with something spicier and a plain soup. It's also wonderful topped with a fried egg!
1 or 2 long green chilies, sliced about 1/4-inch / 1/2-cm thick
1 to 1 1/2 cups each corn kernels and edamame -- if using frozen, do not defrost
1 1/2 - 2 inches/3-5 cm of bacon (or other cured pork product) sliced about 1/8-inch/ 1/4-mm thick
Cooking oil -- preferably rapeseed or peanut oil
- Heat your pan/wok to very hot. Test by flicking in some water -- it should sizzle and evaporate.
- Add a glug of oil, pick the pan/wok up and swirl the oil over its surface.
- Throw in the green chili and bacon/pork. Stir-fry for 1 minute.
- Add the corn, the edamame, and a pinch of salt. Stir-fry for 1-3 minutes. How long will depend on whether you're using fresh or frozen veggies and how hot your wok is. You only want to barely cook the vegetables. The corn should not be soft.
- Taste a bit of vegetable for salt and add a bit more if necessary.
- After one final stir, plate and serve, preferably with rice and maybe a simple soup or another stir-fry.