Sichuan cuisine is one of the most popular and most widely served cuisines in China. It’s reputation for being hot, spicy and numbing often precedes it.
As a big fan of Sichuan cuisine, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Sichuan Food Festival held at Café Mix at Sydney’s Shangri-La Hotel. All the aromatic and pungent flavoured dishes were created by guest chefs from Shangri-La Hotel, Chengdu. Yes, that’s right, the chefs flew all the way from Chengdu, China to showcase an authentic representation of the hot-and-spicy aromas of Sichuanese cooking for all Sydneysiders.
我非常喜欢餐厅的装潢 – 无辣不欢！这无不让我想到四川菜的每一种佐料。四川烹饪文化向来有“一菜一格，百菜百味”的称誉。其调味品有花椒、胡椒、辣椒，合称“三椒”；葱、姜、蒜合称“三香”；以及郫县豆瓣酱、永川豆豉酱等让川菜格外得清鲜醇浓、麻辣辛香。刚刚走进餐厅，我就已经闻到了空气中弥漫的鲜辣味。
Looking around, the room was decorated with Sichuan’s key seasoning, chillis! As the saying goes, ‘one dish with one flavour, with one hundred dishes come hundred flavours.‘ Peppers, black peppers, chilis, broad bean chilli paste, shallots, ginger, and garlic are all core fundamentals to Sichuan cuisine, which is what makes the flavour itself so deep, rich and intense. We smelt the spiciness in the air before we even started dining.
Apart from its hot and spicy flavour, Sichuan cuisine is also well-known for its numbing palate. The numbing flavour mostly comes from Sichuan peppercorns. This is also one of the reasons why I like Sichuan cuisine so much — the peppers bring a numbing flavour that accompanies perfectly with the punchy hot and spicy flavours. I love that the numbness slowly builds up on your tongue and saves your taste buds from getting completely insentient by the chilli.
Now, are you ready to get numbed with me?
The festival featured a sumptuous seafood selection for which Café Mix is known. Blue swimmer crabs, black mussels, prawns, squid salad, pacific oysters and Sydney rock oysters; Café Mix never lets me down its fresh seafood, the perfect starter to a feast.
在海鲜区我最爱的一道菜就是海胆沙拉（Sea urchin noodle salad）。沙拉是由番茄、甜椒、海藻、洋葱以及鱼籽调拌而成的。海胆稍带甜味，味道鲜美，入口即化。但是由于海胆的腥味，一般情况下我只能吃几个便罢休。这里的海胆沙拉完美的中和了海胆的腥味，蔬菜更是带来了一份新鲜和清脆，真的是芸芸众口啊！
My favourite seafood item was the sea urchin noodle salad, with tomato, sweet peppers, seaweed, onion and caviar. The urchin was sweet, rich, and creamy, melting on my tongue into a briny pool of heaven. Normally I wouldn’t eat more than a few pieces as the sea urchin can get too rich, but the salad of veggies and noodles added a crispy flavour to the dish and it was absolutely AMAZING!
I liked how Café Mix noted ‘hot’ for this cold dish of chili & chicken salad (口水鸡). To be honest, although I’m a big fan of spicy food, I have never tried going hot from the very beginning. I plucked up courage to finally take the first bite of the salad and yes it was spicy but definitely not in a bad way! People say spicy foods can suppress your appetite and sometimes even produce a burning sensation on the skin and mucous membranes; thankfully, this dish was absolutely not the case. It’s much like having some kimchi before having Korean BBQ, the more you eat, the more you crave the mains. The succulent chicken was moist from being marinated in the spicy sauce and the cucumber and black fungus brought a refreshing crispiness to the dish, creating a harmonious union of flavours and textures. Although the intensity of this red chilli sauce may cause you to sweat just at first glance, let me assure you that it’s well worth breaking into a sweat for on this cold, windy and rainy autumn night.
Since I had the spicy salad as starter, I decided to go all out with dan dan noodles （担担面） as my second dish. If you’re a noodle lover, then to forgo this spicy noodles would be a real shame. As a traditional Sichuan dish, dan dan noodles consists of a spicy sauce containing preserved vegetables, chilli oil, Sichuan pepper, sesame paste and/or peanut butter and minced beef or pork. I prepared myself for wanting milk after my first bite as the dan dan noodles I had in Sichuan came swimming in a chilli-laced broth that seemed impossible to finish without constantly gulping water. The dan dan noodles here had more of a sesame sauce flavour than spicy, which I found very pleasant and easy to eat as I was able to enjoy the noodles while appreciating the other flavours in the noodles.
I was also tempted to try the more spicy version for research sake, so I went to the noodle station and asked for more chilli sauce. The chilli oil I added wasn’t burning hot at all but perfectly accentuated the flavour of the minced beef. The stir-fried meat was crispy on the outside but still fairly tender inside, and the crispy-chewy texture and savoury, nutty, spicy, and smoky flavours were so enjoyable especially when the meat was soaked into the chilli oil and sesame sauce.
Another famous dish from Sichuan is mapo tofu （麻婆豆腐）, which the chef claimed to be the second most spicy dish at the buffet. A thin bright red film of oil covered the dish, teasing us with suspense of its deep flavours. From my experience, when eat mapo tofu, you need to remember two things:
1. Never eat it when it’s hot
We have an old saying in China: ‘心急吃不了热豆腐’, meaning ‘more haste, less speed’. It literally means ‘you can’t eat hot tofu without patience’. That’s the tricky part of tofu — the inside is still hot even if the outside is already cold. So you’ll want to pay extra attention to prevent your mouth and heart from being burnt.
2. Never doubt this is one of the best dishes to pair with the rice
Luckily there was something to pair with if all the spicy dishes made your throat burn. Steamed rice or sticky rice would be the best choice. As a Chinese I can guarantee you, the firm and chewy textured rice can never go wrong and we absolutely LOVE it in any circumstances. Best of all, the rice can soak up all the wonderful flavours.
自助餐“最辣之王“的桂冠还要非辣子鸡所属。你看看那些辣椒啊，想必你也不需要我告诉你它有多辣了吧。鸡肉是被剁成小块后用料酒，糖，盐，五香粉，酱油腌制半个小时，再炸至金黄，然后和葱段姜片蒜片、料酒、黑胡椒粉、五香粉、酱油和白糖大火翻炒而成。这样烹饪的鸡肉外焦里嫩，麻辣中透着鲜香。如果你问我这样的变态级麻辣菜品该怎么吃，那么我倒是有一个建议给你 – 永远不要停下来！每咬一口，你就会感受到辣子鸡的麻和辣，越吃越麻，越嚼越辣，所以最好的方法就是一次性吃到够，不要给味蕾消化麻辣的时间和机会。我最爱的还是这道菜的麻味。尽管它狠辣，但是却并不是第一口下去就直接会辣昏头脑。你会慢慢感受到麻和辣在你的口中累积，再慢慢散开到每一个味蕾。没错，辣子鸡就是滋味可口，神秘惊喜，让人欲罢不能。
The ultimate spicy dish according to the head chef was chilli chicken (辣子鸡). I mean, just look at those Sichuan chillis! The marinated, deep-fried pieces of chicken stir-fried with Sichuan chilli bean paste (doubanjiang, 豆瓣酱), Sichuan peppers, garlic and ginger and the chicken meat was crispy outside and just tender and plentiful inside. The pepper and chilli heat was powerful and snappy. If you ask me how to eat this kind of crazy hot dish, I have one advice for you — don’t stop eating. As each bite gets more and more tingling and spicy, you’re better off eating everything in one go as this dish itself is a one-shot wonder. One thing that really stood out from this dish was that although it was extra-spicy, it didn’t overwhelm me straight away. You feel the slow build-up in your mouth and the heat and numbing feeling will linger on your taste buds. The real beauty of chilli chicken is that it’s complex, addictive and absolutely surprising.
If you think there are only spicy dishes in Sichuan cuisine, then you’re completely wrong. Café Mix also offered a bountiful of authentic dishes includes mix vegetables with bean-curd sauce, steamed grouper with shallots, braised beef with lentils and Sichuan beef brisket, to mention a few. The Sichuan beef brisket was indeed the best I have ever had! It was well marinated, bursting with subtle spice, and deliciously robust with the meat being mouth-wateringly tender and moist.
最后的最后就是甜点啦。无论我吃得多饱，也一定吃得下甜点！和平时一样，这里有两个甜点吧，一个是中式的，另一个是西点。中式甜点吧有我最爱吃的蛋挞。据说这些蛋挞都是在中国城里纯手工制作的。在西式甜点吧里，我直奔焦糖布丁。香格里拉大酒店的传媒主管Deane Brosnan告诉我们，西点都是由澳洲获奖甜点师Anna Polyviou的团队制作的。她在三年前强力加盟悉尼香格里拉，致力于带给大家最美味的甜点。
Last but not the least, the desserts. There’s always room for dessert! There were two dessert bars as always, one Chinese and one western. The Chinese dessert bar had my favourite egg tarts, which were handmade from Chinatown. As expected, I found crème brûlée straight away at the western dessert bar. The director of communications at Shangri-La Hotel Deane Brosnan told us, all the desserts were created by the award-winning master-chef Anna Polyviou, who joined Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney three years ago.
I was also delighted to see white fungus soup (银耳莲子汤); my mum used to make me this soup when I was sick. In Chinese traditional medicine, it has been used for more than 2000 years for small ailments. It is also said the snow fungus is beneficial to women’s skin. The soup was slightly sweet and the white fungus was soft and moist. This dessert is not only yummy but also nourishing, especially good for the throat and lungs.
I was also lucky enough to have a quick chat with the head chef Li Tok Fan, who is the Chinese Executive Chef at Shangri-La Hotel in Chengdu. He told me he always flies all over China and the world with the team as guest chefs. This time they’re staying in Sydney for two weeks and will go back to Chengdu after the festival ends. One of the key considerations when producing this menu was needing to tone down the level of spice for the Australian palate while trying to keep the flavours as authentic as possible. Well, as a Sichuan food lover who cannot handle as much spicy as Sichuan people, I really appreciated this considerate adjustment.
The Sichuan food festival buffet at Cafe Mix was priced at $85 per person. It was available from 6pm – 10pm from 4th to 13th April 2017.
Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney
176 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, Sydney NSW
Phone: (02) 9250 6206
I Ate My Way Through dined as guests of Shangri-La