This famous and fiery cuisine isn’t easy to make. It demands attention to detail, numerous ingredients and a nuanced palate. Just outside Chengdu, writer Lauren Teixeira undertakes the task of preparing a classic dish – under the eye of a professional chef.
Photos by Philippe Lejeanvre
One Monday afternoon in spring, I find myself in a professional kitchen. I’m surrounded by stainless-steel stoves and battered woks. On the prep table in front of me are no less than 12 different measured ingredients and a heaving circular chopping block with a hunk of pork. And in my hand is a razor-sharp cleaver.
This is Bu’er Ye You, a high-end restaurant in Sanshengxiang, a village on the outskirts of Chengdu. It’s one of many nongjiale – or “farmhouse joy restaurants” – in the area, specialising in home-style Sichuan cooking.
I’m feeling less farmhouse joy and more anxiety. You see, I’m here for a cooking challenge. My mission is to learn from a professional chef – and then recreate alone at home – that most classic of dishes: hui guo rou, or double-cooked pork. The secret, my teacher chef Zhong Jian explains, is to slice the pork neither too thickly nor too thinly.
His directive is of course much harder than it looks, and when I painstakingly saw off a slice, Zhong deems it way too fat. “It’s okay,” he says neutrally. “You’re not used to this method.” I wither a little at the solemnity in his voice, wondering what the guests in the dining room outside would think of my feeble attempt.
After all, people from Chengdu are nothing if not serious about their food, and the city remains the undisputed gastronomic capital of China. Ironically, the spicy-numbing cuisine’s popularity means that its essential qualities are sometimes exaggerated, resulting in a loss of subtlety. The popularity of food delivery apps, too, has spurred restaurants to sacrifice quality for quantity, as expediency is required to turn a profit.
But come the weekend, Chengdu urbanites descend on Sanshengxiang to enjoy Sichuan cuisine the way it used to be – pure, made with farm fresh ingredients and no-frills presentation. Most restaurants are run by farming families who switched to the hospitality business when interest in country food picked up around the turn of the millennium. Today, the village streets are jammed with new whitewashed farmhouses in a traditional Sichuan architectural style that whip up communal meals like roast fish, barbecue meat and hotpot chicken.
Earlier today, Bu’er Ye You owner Zhang Qiang told me that going down to the nongjiale is a quintessentially Chengdu pastime. “Chengdu is a leisure city. People love to spend their time sitting outside, playing mahjong and drinking tea,” he said. “And the environment is much better down here, too. People can relax while enjoying the fresh air.”
While diners may find it relaxing, I couldn’t have picked a more intimidating location for my self-imposed challenge. Bu’er Ye You is known for its top-quality homestyle Sichuan food. On weekends, the zen nouveau-Chinese-style garden is packed with urbanites feasting on the day’s set menu. The lunch service later today will involve classics like red oil lung slices (hongyou feipian), mouth-watering chicken (kou shui ji) and roast duck, as well as some spins on traditional dishes like pineapple-glazed mountain yam and mala (numbing-spicy) fish.
Zhong, who normally commands a staff of four from the nongjiale’s tiny but immaculate central kitchen, is patient with me. The 28-year-old Zhong has been cooking Sichuan food since he was seven or eight years old. Hailing from the countryside of Deyang, an industrial city northeast of Chengdu, Zhong grew up learning the ins and out of homestyle Sichuan cuisine from his father and uncle, both of whom worked as cooks in the nearby county town. “I was cooking almost as soon as I could hold a cleaver,” Zhong says, grinning.
The dish we are working on, hui guo rou – which literally means “back to the pot pork” – gets its name from the way it’s prepared. Typically, a slab of pork is boiled, sliced thinly and then tossed back into the wok to be stir-fried with peppers and spices. But Zhong tells me this is not the whole story. As legend has it, the cooked pork was originally placed on ancestors’ graves along with a jug of wine as an offering of respect. But because Chinese peasants were poor and meat was scarce, according to Zhong, the pork was often reclaimed after the ceremony and sent “back to the pot”.
Far from the days of leftover ancestor meat, hui guo rou is now one of the most ubiquitous dishes not only in Chengdu but in China, a staple menu item everywhere from hole-in-the-wall canteens to high-end eateries. At its best, the dish of tender pork belly robed in a luscious umami sauce and flecked with spicy peppers is a transcendently delicious (if hardly nutritious) experience. But its popularity has allowed disappointing approximations to proliferate, and today it’s all too common to order a hui guo rou that’s overly sweet, overly spicy or simply overcooked.
Or too thickly sliced, in my case. To demonstrate the correct technique, Zhong chops a slab of pork with mind-boggling speed and precision into perfectly even slices. I get the sense he could make this dish with his eyes closed.
Meat thickness aside, Zhong’s second principle for perfect hui guo rou is to mind the doubanjiang. The key to the umami flavour is this miraculous Sichuan condiment, a spicy fermented bean paste. In fact, doubanjiang is the secret behind an astonishing number of Sichuan dishes; pungent and flavourful, it imbues everything it touches with rich spiciness and a deep scarlet hue. The best doubanjiang comes from Pixian, a county in northwest Chengdu that’s so famous for the sauce that the town and the bean paste are practically synonymous.
“If you have good doubanjiang,” Zhong says, “you don’t really need to add any other condiments.” But being a true blue Sichuan cook, Zhong shows me the complete method. In addition to doubanjiang, Zhong and his sous-chefs lay out a matrix of condiments including garlic, ginger, sugar, salt, sweet bean sauce (tianmianjiang) and preserved black beans (dou chi).
Once the wok is smoking, Zhong throws in the sliced pork and stir-fries it until the edges of the pork just start to curl. Then he adds the doubanjiang and fries it for a few seconds, advising me that it is important not to overcook the sauce. After this he tosses in the other condiments plus the green peppers or erjintiao (which I have also failed to properly slice) and stirs until the ingredients are thoroughly covered in delicious sauce. The result: a perfect hui guo rou.
Can it really be so simple? Can patience, excellent knife technique and a complete list of ingredients make the difference between real Sichuan food and half-baked knock-offs? For the second part of the challenge, I have to make the dish – unsupervised – at home. In order to give myself a leg up over Zhong, I splurge on wuhuarou, the fattiest cut of pork to make my dish extra delicious. I find the same type of green pepper at the market and pick up some sweet bean sauce. I already have Pixian doubanjiang in my cupboard.
After boiling the pork for only a minute so as not to overcook it, I set it aside and set to work chopping the peppers as Zhong showed me earlier today. The trick is to rotate the pepper with each chop – and I’m starting to see why the demands of the market have caused most commercial cooks to resort to shortcuts. I take my cleaver to the cooled pork and slice it as thinly as I can. After stir-frying the meat with the sauces and generous quantities of garlic and ginger, I think the result tastes pretty good.
But I have to put my dish to the test.
“The pork slices are too thick,” Zhong says when I return to him that afternoon. My heart sinks. Despite the patient teaching, the best of ingredients and ample time to cook it right, my hui guo rou is no better than some home-delivered imposter. I was optimistic to think I would be able to please a professional Sichuan chef after just a half-day’s worth of instruction.
Then he takes a taste. “Not bad at all.” I hold my breath.
But just when I am about to congratulate myself, he adds: “It’s a bit too sweet. Next time don’t put in so much tianmianjiang.” Then he picks something out of the dish with his chopstick. “See how the pepper is slightly blackened? That means you sautéed the doubanjiang a little too long.”
I’m not too crushed by this decidedly gentle evaluation. It is this kind of attention to detail, after all, that puts chef Zhong’s cooking a notch above your average hui guo rou. In the rush to feed the city’s increasingly busy urbanites, these nuances are too often lost. I resolve at that moment to keep working on my hui guo rou and create a dish worthy of the chef’s exacting standards.
And then comes a ray of encouragement. After another bite, the chef takes my Tupperware into the kitchen with him: he is going to eat my hui guo rou for lunch.
Chengdu resident Lauren Teixeira recommends the city’s top spots to stay, visit and wine and dine
IMAGES: IMAGINE CHINA (CHONGDELI ZHUXIA HOTEL);
SHUTTERSTOCK (YU ZHI LAN, WANGJIANGLOU PARK)
Yu Zhi Lan
This tiny 18-seat house restaurant serves up a nightly tasting menu of exquisite haute Sichuan dishes that’s an absolute must-not-miss for lovers of the city’s
24 Changfa Street
Tiantian Family Feast
For highly reliable home-style Sichuan cooking that hits the spot every time, look no further than this spot, which is so beloved it has over half a dozen locations around the city.
No. 16 Unit 18 Yulin East Street
For artisanal cocktails in a mood-lit setting, there is no better spot in Chengdu than Lotus. On weekends this uber-chic spot is packed with the city’s young and glamorous.
No. 5 Unit 4 Qinglianshang Street
Museum of Contemporary Art Chengdu (Chengdu MOCA)
It’s worth the trip out to Chengdu’s southern suburbs to experience this world-class museum nestled in the middle of a software park. The sleek building hosts up to four travelling exhibitions a year.
C1 Tianfu Software Park, Tianfu Avenue; chengdumoca.com
Chongdeli Zhuxia Hotel
This tiny 12-room boutique hotel is a true hidden gem, tucked inside an alleyway in Chengdu’s well-
preserved Chongdeli historic space. A café and tasting restaurant are located just across the alley.
No. 1 Chongde Lane, Jinjiang District
This serene park of thick bamboo forests and elegant pavilions is the perfect place to take a quiet stroll and enjoy a cup of tea at one of traditional teahouses overlooking the Jin river.
30 Wangjiang Road
Fly to Chengdu with Hong Kong Airlines and take the spicy challenge! Click here