Sichuan, Szechuan or Szechwan? Whichever way you spell it, does not change the fact that it is one of the most explosive, taste bud tantalising cuisines available. For some, eating Sichuan food can be a challenge and this is especially if the heat of chillies is not your cup of tea. Add to this the tongue numbing effect brought on by Sichuan peppercorns and you have a very unique melange having a rocking party inside your mouth. There are some other tamer dishes that can be ordered, so there is hope for those non-chilli lovers. My first real taste of the style of Sichuan cooking was at Sichuan House in Melbourne’s Chinatown and my blog piece on the effects that their dainty dishes had on me goes on and on with a very positive review of the food. I have been back there again to dine since, and while the standard of service is quite normal for a bustling Asian restaurant, run off its feet with loyal patrons, you can forgive them, as all is made amends for in their food especially the Cumin Pork which stands tall (literally) as my favourite dish.
In the vicinity of the Chinatown precinct I have found a few more restaurant gems offering Sichuan for the discerning palette and I recently ate at Pepper Chilli. The restaurant sits atop one level at the corner of Little Bourke Street and Exhibition Street, directly opposite Her Majesty’s Theatre. The decor is quite ordinary but appears clean and did not get as busy as Sichuan House does. There was no struggle for seats on a Friday lunch session and the wait staff were quite attentive to diners. This place looks like it should be busy and perhaps it is because it is hidden from street level that hungry diners (like myself on many occasions) walk on by not noticing the stairwell that you need to traverse up.
The menu is quite extensive and if you ask for the dinner menu (at lunch time!) you will get a folio type booklet with glossy pictures of the dishes to help you decide what to order. As I have already declared my love for Cumin Pork, I was somewhat disappointed to not find it on the menu. Instead there was a Cumin Lamb dish which I just had to order to stay true to my love. You don’t usually see cumin used extensively in Chinese cooking, but it would appear that it is the hero of this Sichuan dish, and rightfully so. The marinated lamb is cut into thin strips and has a nice tender texture nestled with a spicy sauce that goes so well together. The cumin is very pronounced and this is assisted by the generous dusting of Sichuan pepper. You just know your taste buds are there when your tongue starts tingling. You will have to overlook the little pool of oil that is also present as it too seems an all too familiar ingredient in many Sichuan dishes. As a traditional touch, or so I am told, the lamb is served on a bed of home made potato chips - Yes you heard right! The best part about this is that the potato absorbs most of the oil and the lamb can be enjoyed without the excess oil - if you choose!
The other meat dish we tried was Crispy Chicken in Chilli & Garlic Sauce. These were tiny morsels of deep fried, crunchy chicken wing bits, strewn through an endless bowl of dried chilli dotted with chunky slices of garlic. It was almost like finding nuggets of chicken gold amongst the vibrant chilli mix, and boy did they pack some flavour and heat for pieces so small. Even when we thought there was no more chicken remaining a little scrounge around in the bowl would reveal some hidden treasure.
For the vegetable contingent of the meal, I couldn't pass up trying yet another eggplant dish. In Sichuan House, the Fish Flavoured Eggplant is another must have so it made sense to see what Pepper Chilli conjures up with eggplant. The dish is something more like a braise of eggplant batons in a spicy but sweet sauce that is a welcome change when the heat gets a little too much from the other dishes. Tender eggplant is served on rice with a delicious sauce dotted with small pieces of carrot, spring onion and cubes of ham. At only $7.50 a plate, with a more than adequate serving it is the best value non meat dish I have found. I would even go as far as saying I would order it on it's own if I was not feeling to much of a glutton.
Patting the tiny beads of perspiration on my brow as the meal comes to an end, my mouth still tingling from the flavour-fest it had just endured, I felt satisfied that I had got my Sichuan fix and can now put Pepper Chilli on the "go to" list.
"Now there is a lot more Sichuan food to come as this meal inspired me to try out some of these dishes at home. So stay tuned for the recipes and pics soon"