FLAVOURS OF PLACES: SICHUAN

Sichuan Pepper

We were delighted to chat to Fuschia Dunlop – an expert in Chinese gastronomy – on the flavours of Sichuan…..

What is the one flavour which epitomises Sichuan for you?
If we’re talking individual seasonings, then Sichuan pepper. If we are talking flavour profiles, then ‘fish-fragrant flavour’, a combination of pickled chillies, ginger, garlic, spring onion, sugar and vinegar.

What makes this flavour special?
Sichuan pepper is a sensation combined with a flavour: the flavour is citrussy, the sensation a lip-tinglng feeling that the Chinese call ma (the word also means ‘pins-and-needles’ and ‘anaesthaesia’)

Chongqing HotpotIn which dish / dishes does this flavour appear?
You find the ma tingliness in classic dishes such as mapo tofu and Chongqing hotpot (left).

Does the flavour bring back any special memories?
Actually it brings back bad memories of my first trip to Chongqing, when I didn’t know what Sichuan pepper was, and found it shocking an unpalatable! They do use it in fairly excessive quantities in Chongqing – not the best place for a first experience!

Is this flavour common throughout the country?
No – that’s what makes it so distinctively Sichuanese. (Although it is now used in Sichuan restaurants all over the country.)

Is this flavour native to Sichuan? If not, how did it become popular?
Yes, it’s an ancient, native spice – the original Chinese pepper. Black/white pepper is known in Chinese as ‘barbarian pepper’ because it was a later, foreign import.

Why do you think this flavour is so important to Sichuan?
It’s very stimulating, which suits the sluggish, humid Sichuan climate.

Do you think this flavour reflects the people or the country in any way?
Sichuanese people are famously lively and they call young women there ‘spice girls’ (la mei zi), so yes!

Is this flavour connected to any particular traditions?
An ancient symbol of fertility, it is traditionally thrown over bride and groom at weddings in some rural areas.

Finally, what’s the strangest flavour you’ve come across in Sichuan?
Perhaps ‘strange flavour’ (!), guai wei, a mix of sweet, sour, salty, tingly, spicy and umami tastes. But overall, the ma of Sichuan pepper is certainly the most unusual.

Fuchsia DunlopFuchsia’s latest book is called ‘Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking‘ (Bloomsbury 2012)
Website: www.fuchsiadunlop.com
Twitter: @fuchsiadunlop
Instagram: fuchsiadunlop
Photograph of Fuchsia by Colin Bell

FLAVOURS OF PLACES: IRAN

Sabrina's Maast-o-Khiar (yoghurt, cucumber and mint dip with walnut, herbs and rose petals)

We were delighted to speak to ‘Private Chef, Supper Club Host, Cookery Teacher, Writer & Travel-junkie’ Sabrina Ghayour about the flavours of Iran…..

What is the one flavour which epitomises Iran for you & why?
Rose water – Only the best roses from high up in the mountains of Iran are plucked and used to extract their unique perfume in order to make rose water.

In which dish / dishes does this flavour appear?
In many dishes, mostly desserts and ice creams.

Does the flavour bring back any special memories?
Tasting my first Persian ice cream (Akbar Mashti) as a kid.

Is this flavour common throughout the country?
Yes

Is this flavour native to Iran? If not, how did it become popular?
The highest grade and most perfumed rose water is, however there are other lesser potent versions from other countries around the Middle East.

Iran Rose

Why do you think this flavour is so important to Iran?
Because its key ingredient is unique to Iran.

Do you think this flavour reflects the people or the country in any way?
Not especially.

How is this flavour prepared & sold?
Extracted, distilled and bottled.

Is this flavour connected to any particular traditions?
Only of dessert making.

Finally, do you think this flavour will remain integral to Iran in years to come?
Yes I very much hope so

PersianaSabrina’s new cookbook ‘Persiana – Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond’ is now available on Amazon, most book retailers and supermarkets.

Web: www.sabrinaghayour.com
Twitter: @SabrinaGhayour

FLAVOURS OF PLACES: MAURITIUS

Vanilla

In the first of our new series of articles exploring the flavours of places, we spoke to the brilliant Selina Periampillai of Taste Mauritius. We really need to try some of those rum bananas…..!

What is the one flavour which epitomises Mauritius for you & why?
There are a few flavours that remind me of Mauritius, thyme, cinnamon, pineapple, coconut! So its difficult to pin point it down to one flavour but for me I think the most prominent I would say would be vanilla. Its sweet, wonderfully aromatic, strong and fabulous in Mauritian cuisine.

In which dish / dishes does this flavour appear?
Well vanilla is used in alot of desserts on the island, almost always combined with pineapple, bananas as a carpaccio or flambee dessert, mousse, creme brulee, the local island rum can also be spiked with vanilla pods as well as other flavours to enhance the rum giving it a spiced flavour. In some savoury dishes you will find vanilla combined with coconut chicken or with duck. On a recent trip to Mauritius I had vanilla oil drizzled on to a tartare dressed with pineapple and passionfruit.

What does the flavour look & taste like?
The vanilla pods from Mauritius are mainly sourced from neighbouring Madagascar, where bourbon vanilla is produced and is some of the best in the world, here the pods are “juicy”, succulent almost, they don’t resemble thin, dried pods you might get in the supermarket, they are thick, rich and velvety brown in colour. They taste aromatic, with mellow warm floral notes, that’s the best way I can describe it!

Does the flavour bring back any special memories?
The smell of vanilla brings back memories of baking cakes for me more than anything, from when I was young my mum would always be baking cakes on special occasions or when I was a cake baker/decorator years back and the sweet smell of most my cakes wafting out the oven would have the comforting aroma of vanilla!

Is this flavour common throughout the country?
Yes, you can find vanilla being sold in the markets in Mauritius, individually or in bundles, plus in most of the supermarkets. They are better value for money over here than in the UK which is why I always bring back lots from my trips to Mauritius. The main tea plantation on the island, Bois Cheri produces its most popular vanilla infused tea which is sold everywhere in Mauritius. There is also locally produced vanilla honey produced on the island.

Is this flavour native to Mauritius? If not, how did it become popular?
In the 1800’s the French shipped vanilla beans to Reunion and Mauritius, the tale has it that a 12 year old slave Edmund Albius from Reunion Island discovered how to pollinate flowers by hand and the pods began to grow. Vanilla plantations began in Runion Island (Ile de Bourbon) by the late 1800’s Madagascar, Reunion, Seychelles, Comoro became the Bourbon Islands or Vanilla Islands today. So Mauritius being so close to its neighbouring islands now also uses vanilla in abundance in its fusion cuisine.

Why do you think this flavour is so important to Mauritius?
Vanilla is the ultimate and most common flavouring for being used in baked goods and desserts. On the island it is available in abundance, it important to sellers, people trying to make a living and the production of goods it is used in.

Rum Bananas

Do you think this flavour reflects the people or the country in any way?
I think it definitely embodies the tropical, exotic idea of the island, vanilla is a great match with some of the exotic fruits of the island, like victoria pineapples, lychees, coconut, papaya and mango. It represents the local’s livelihood and traditions that go back generations in families from harvesting crops, vegetables, fruits and vanilla is a rich crop something sought after worldwide. Mauritius is is also part of the “Vanilla Islands”.

How is this flavour prepared & sold?
Its sold individually or in bundles in the markets and supermarkets. Or you can buy them from specialist suppliers on the island.

Is this flavour connected to any particular traditions?
It is traditionally used in cakes, desserts and now savoury dishes on the island, it is an important flavour that’s associated with Mauritius among pineapple, turmeric (saffran),chilli, cardamom and cinnamon.

Finally, do you think this flavour will remain integral to Mauritius in years to come?
Yes, there is always a demand for it in the hotels and restaurants around the island. What with how fusion and diverse Mauritian cuisine is vanilla is always going to frequent menus and its part of the Vanilla Islands, being so close to Madagascar they get the best supply and produce.

I run a Mauritian supperclub from my home, regular pop up events and Private Catering in London specialising in our fusion cuisine. I frequently use vanilla to spice my Mauritian rum, use in desserts (especially) my flambee banana or pineapple and have delved into flavouring savoury dishes with duck, chicken and prawns. We always finish our supperclub meal with Bois Cheri Vanilla Tea which is a fragrant, floral, sweet tea great to create a warming chai with cardamom. My website is www.tastemauritius.com or follow me on Twitter @tastemauritius or Facebook @yummychoo

CHAI WALLAH

Masala Chai
Talented chef & author, Ivor Peters was one of the first people to congratulate us on our Masala Chai chocolate and I’ll always be grateful for such kind words from someone who obviously knows his Puri from his Paneer. And since his recent cookbook is jam-packed full of beautiful Indian memories & recipes, I thought I’d ask The Urban Rajah for his personal memoirs on India’s favourite refreshment……

“Some would call it a routine, I prefer to think of it as a ritual, my Grandfather’s military career instilled in him a sense of daily order. His shoes were buffed and polished and shone like black gold, they sat patiently by his dresser waiting to be addressed, his striped tie lay folded next to his socks. Like many of his generation he was a dapper man and wore formality with ease. He’d start the day with a quick immersion in reading a set of proverbs or poetry before laying out the ingredients for his brew. His beloved chai involved a huddle of green cardamom pods waiting to be cracked in a pestle and mortar, a simmering pot containing enough whole milk for 3 or 4 glasses (enough for my slumbering grandmother). Ceremonially he’d slip in a couple of tea bags and watch them glide in the milk pond like inflatable lilos before weighing them down with a scoop of sugar. Then went in the cardamom pods bobbing around like lifebuoys, followed by crushed cloves, ground fennel, stripped ginger and a skinny cheroot of cinnamon. Gently and slowly the milk turned a gorgeous caramel.

He used the brewing ritual as an opportunity in time to recite his morning’s read “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” I watched his broad frame moving at a glacial pace as he used a spoon to gently swim the tea bags around the pan never crushing them. When ready he’d pour enough strained masala chai into a tea glass then lift it high enough to pour it dramatically into an empty bystander below, repeating the process several times to aerate the chai, agitate the spices and create bubbles on the surface. No doubt he’d seen the process being performed in the food bazaars across the Indian Subcontinent. For as long as I can remember, whenever I slept at my Grandparents, my Nana-Ji would perform this ritual.

In our accelerated world it reminds me of the importance of rituals, a chance to pause, order, reflect and enjoy a moment in time. Wonderfully choreographed, thoughtfully executed, the ritual of my Grandfather’s masala chai produced not only a delicious blend of tea, but a valuable set of instructions for life….taste takes time to cultivate”.
www.urbanrajah.com
@urbanrajah