Sichuan cuisine, one of eight distinct Chinese cuisine repertoires, is misunderstood. Many were led to believe the continental province deliver only hot dishes at the table, and most of them so fiery that all flavours could be lost. They couldn’t be more wrong to think that.
Sichuan cuisine has its reputation being “Each dish has its own identity, and 100 dishes feature 100 varieties of flavours.” The simplicity of condiment mix-and-match brings a flavorful cuisine to fruit, and the heat of chilies is only one of the climatic highs of Sichuan cuisine. Da Rong He, Sichuan cuisine’s ambassador for the province, is bringing its team of chefs to Man Wah of the Mandarin Oriental this September for a 9-day showcase of what Sichuan cuisine is all about
Previously engaging in full-houses during preceding years of joint promotions at Man Wah, the Mandarin Oriental houses its first Sichuan promotion at the hotel’s prized Chinese restaurant, bringing forth a taste of fiery passions in the land of plenty. The 9-day promotion will feature 25 signature dishes from appetizers to mains and desserts. In addition to a la carte menu items, diners can also choose between 2 set menus, including Da Rong He’s favorite dishes since its opening in 1999.
We began our culinary exploration journey from the cold dishes. “Bamboo Pith, Sichuan Peppercorn” is a light starter, featuring the top net-like cap of a fresh bamboo pith, piling on top of a bed of thinly sliced cucumbers.The bamboo pith may be thin, but its wafer like texture that gives way to each bite with a pleasant crispness to it. The Sichuan peppercorn takes effect but only to tickle on the palate, not a full-on numbing sensation.
While jellyfish isn’t anything new, tossing them in black vinegar and house-made chili oil bears a kick to the housemade chili oil. While gelee-like jellyfish heads are crunchy throughout, one should not miss the extra crunchy radishes, marinated and smashed lightly to absorb more vinegar marinade. The natural mustardy nature of the radish is now replaced with the lingering sweetness of the vinegar and a lightest tinge of chili oil heat.
A quintessential Sichuan signature, a dish titled ‘Husband and Wife Offal Slices’ actually brings thin slices of offal and toss them in a peppercorn-rich chili oil. Tripe slices have the best chewy texture while beef shanks are paper-thin. The great thing about these appetizers so far is that flavours are subtle and they exist within the range of sensation of the palate rather than an all-out heat or sweetness.
Glass noodles are made with mung bean starch and are cut in slippery noodles that are served cold. The dressing is a simple combination of chili oil and peppercorn. One should be used to a little bit of numbing sensation when one bites into the Sichuan peppercorns. Wheat dough is made into thin pockets not unlike the middle-Eastern pita bread.
While heat is packed in the preceding dishes, one may find it in an unseemly dish. The “Pickled Bamboo shoot, baby ginger, kale and walnut” comes in a decorative jar. When the contents are turned out from the jar, the fresh and tangy aroma of pickled peppers filled the room, but that’s not all, don’t miss sinking your teeth into batons of pickled bamboo shoots and tiny conches whose meat absorbed the flavorful brine.
The heat sneaks up on you as flavours built up on your palate and in the end, Ka-Pow, heat from the chilies filled the entire mouth. Intense the heat may be, it is going to make you crave for the next bite.
By now, our taste buds were ready to take on bigger main dishes. The two chili-centric dishes were next. Da Rong He’s signature “Steamed Fish Head, red chilies” is a stunning show stopper. A whole fish head is split into two and lay flat on a plate. The fish head is then covered with a house-pickled red chilies (2-3 months of pickling at least) and slices of sweet red pepper cover the top. Traditionally a dish frequently appearing in banquets, diners are invited to lift the soft sweet red pepper like a husband unveiling his bride for the very first time. The chilies were packed with fire but even that did not mask the freshness from the fish. It truly is an acquired taste especially to those who are not fond of fish heads to begin with but we strongly recommend you try them, as the gelatinous fish pieces melt into hot red chilies, and all is beautifully transcended into the sauce below, which the restaurant has paired with house-made noodles to soak up the last drop. The sauce is packed with flavour, and that included the strong intense heat that could make the lips burn.
Having sampled a hot dish with red chilies, we moved on one with dried chilies. The “Chinese Perch, peppercorn, chili, hot oil” is quintessentially Sichuan. The Chinese perch is deboned and filleted into butterfly shaped slices, and quickly cooked with hot oil infused with an abundance of Sichuan peppercorns and dried red chilies. The flavour of the oil itself is intoxicatingly spicy, and yet, while immersed in this spicy oil, the fish was cooked to a perfect soft texture and not affected by the residual heat from the spicy oil.
A break was much needed from the chili-spiked dishes. “Tea Smoked Duck” is a classic dish that’s difficult to master. Time and heat must be well-coordinated for this fabulous dish, and the chefs from Da Rong He certainly knew how to turn out a perfectly textured duck. Each duck weighed about 3kg, and they are carved and smoked lightly with Chinese dried blossoms and Camphor wood. The duck is smoked until just pink in colour and the skin soft. The duck flesh is super-tender with a light woody aroma.
Featuring abalone is a difficult task, but one is not to be overlooking the key ingredient in this dish. It is the house-grown bean sprouts. The sprouts are grown by the chefs at Da Rong He and were extra tender. They may look a little stubby at first but the beans and the tiny sprout brings a wonderful crunch to the stir-fry dish, taking up freshness from the abalone.
Rounding up a collection of Sichuan dishes is the “Five Grain Congee, Chicken Broth, Sea Cucumber, minced fish and taro”. We did not expect much from the congee, but we were mesmerized first by the blue antique pot holding the light congee as it arrived at the table. The congee is made with a chicken broth flavored with house made shrimp oil. The savory shrimp oil, when combined with minced fish and sea cucumber made a rather luxurious congee. The small taro root brings a different kind of gooey texture and even for people who don’t enjoy taro’s starchy texture will enjoy these small taro root in the congee.”
Aside from the above dishes, guests can also select from a menu of up to 25 different dishes available at the Da Rong He Sichuan promotion at Man Wah. The promotion runs from September 19 to 27 and reservations are strongly recommended.