In these doleful days of Chinese fast food, sauces arrive on trucks. The saucier is the guy who unpacks them. Your goopy mound of sweet-and-sour chicken may, in fact, owe less to Uncle Chen than to Uncle Ben, which sells gallon jugs of mall-ready sauce for $42.35. This corner-cutting obscures the elaborate saucemanship of Chinese cuisine.
No less than classic French cuisine, Chinese food should leave you pondering how to wipe the plate clean without actually picking it up and licking it.
Perpetuating the tradition of mortar and pestle, Super Wok, the formidable Sichuan bistro in Cary's Chatham Square, produces a few dozen vibrant sauces whose flavors seem never to overlap. These are sauces with personality: subtle dualities, deep consistencies, surprising outbursts, elusive insinuations. Chef Zengming Chen, a native of Fuzhou, is a soft-spoken man. His sauces, you might say, speak for him.
"To make a good sauce you need to incorporate all the right herbs," says Chen. "You cannot take the expedient route and omit one or two. And every herb needs to be imported from the Sichuan area. Without authentic Sichuan herbs, you cannot make authentic Sichuan sauces; without authentic Sichuan sauces, you cannot make authentic Sichuan dishes."
Super Wok serves a Sichuan red oil—smoky-sweet, garlicky, feisty without being fiery—that encapsulates these principles. Chef Chen learned the intricate sauce from a Sichuan master chef with whom he crossed paths while cooking in Philadelphia. At Super Wok, he ladles the sauce over slices of cold chicken breast (see below).
For all its nocturnal steeping and exotic ingredients, Sichuan red oil is well within the competency of any home cook willing to venture into an Asian grocery. Once you've ginned up a large batch of sauce, you have the basis for a kaleidoscope of guest-impressing dishes. It can be tossed with noodles, spooned over dumplings, added to stir-fries and drizzled over grilled pork, chicken or fish. Chef Chen proposes a cold squid salad.
I suspect—but have not confirmed—that the sauce would make an exalted barbecue marinade. I can see my neighbors sniffing the smoky breeze and saying to themselves, "That ain't the smell of burgers."
Seeking low-calorie flavor thrills, I have applied Chef Chen's sauce to the art of Korean-style pickling. I recommend unorthodox vegetables like broccoli stem, daikon, kohlrabi and Napa cabbage heart (i.e., the white, ostensibly inedible part). In their pastel geometry and gloss of oil, they make a little study in elegant minimalism and compete for attention on a crowded table.
Super Wok's Sichuan red oil
20 dried cloves
3 dried star anise pods
2 tsao-ko, i.e., dried black cardamom pods (see notes)
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns
1 1/2 cups vegetable or canola oil
1 tbsp. (15 grams) minced ginger
1/2 cup Korean chili powder (Assi or Ippi brands)
1 scallion, roughly chopped
1 package (400 grams) Chinese "brown candy" (see notes)
2 1/2 cups soy sauce (Kikkoman brand)
1 tsp. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. MSG (see notes)
3/4 cup minced garlic
Place the cloves, star anise pods, tsao-ko, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds and peppercorns in a small mixing bowl. Add 1 cup of water. Let the spice mixture steep overnight. Place the chili powder, scallion and ginger in a large mixing bowl, preferably metal (glass may shatter in contact with the hot oil). Heat oil to 275 degrees. Carefully add the oil to the chili powder, ginger and scallion, taking care to avoid dangerous splattering. Let the oil steep overnight.
In a 3-quart saucepan, simmer the spice mixture over low heat until reduced by a third. Strain the mixture and discard the solids. Return liquid to the saucepan. Add brown candy and simmer over low heat until melted. Add the soy sauce, dark soy sauce and MSG. Remove from heat.
Strain the steeped oil, discarding the chili powder, ginger and scallion. Add the oil and minced garlic to the spice/ soy sauce/ brown candy mixture. Once cool, transfer to a large glass jar with screw-top lid (I use a sanitized kimchi jar). Vigorously stir before serving. According to Chef Chen, the sauce will keep for two months in the refrigerator.
For sliced chicken: Simmer one or two chicken breasts at 170 degrees for 25–30 minutes (use a meat thermometer for maximum safety; the chicken should have an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees). Let the chicken cool to room temperature. Using a serrated knife, slice width-wise, maintaining the shape of the chicken breast. On the knife blade, lift the chicken slices and lay them on a plate. Generously spoon Sichuan red oil over the chicken and garnish with julienned scallion.
For pickled vegetables: To prepare broccoli stem, daikon, kohlrabi or Napa cabbage heart, peel the vegetables. Thinly slice the tender interior. Toss lightly with kosher salt and rest for 20 minutes. Squeeze out the moisture extracted by the salt. Arrange on a plate and top with a few spoonfuls of Sichuan red oil.
Notes: All ingredients are available in the Triangle's larger Asian groceries. Tsao-ko resemble marble-sized coconuts. Look for them among the spices and herbs on the dry-goods shelf. Brown candy (bin pian tang) is a Chinese brown sugar. It's sold in crystallized bricks. Korean chili powder—a cardinal ingredient of Korean cuisine—is not interchangeable with other forms of chili powder. It has a precise flavor, color and spice quotient. In Korean, it is called gochugaru; in English, it may be called "red pepper powder" or "hot pepper powder." It is available in both Chinese and Korean groceries, usually in 1-pound and 2-pound bags.