I was never a big fan cooking with Sichuan pepper but
its subtle nuances in this beef brisket has brought me back again.
Neil Perry’s love of Chinese food – first eating it, and then cooking it – goes back to his earliest memories. Since then, he has dedicated himself to mastering its unique balance of flavours and textures, culminating in the Spice Temple journey.
Here, in seductive and sultry surroundings, diners experience fiery heat, silken coolness and numbing spice. From signature pickles that fire up the appetite to classic yum cha dumplings, three-shot chicken, flathead drowned in heaven-facing chillies and Sichuan peppercorns, these are the authentic tastes of regional China.
Sydney celebrity chef Neil Perry has been cooking good food for well over thirty years.
In the mid 1980s, Blue Water Grill at Bondi was a casual eatery popular with locals and tourists. It wasn’t until the opening of his iconic Rockpool in February 1989 that Perry’s food began to evolve. Fresh seafood and casual cafe fare took baby steps towards a curious blend of cuisine that became what we now proudly call modern Australian.
Then in 2009, the opening of Spice Temple Sydney, inspired by flavours of Sichuan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Xinjiang and Yunnan was a masterstroke to capture the discerning palate of more exotic Chinese flavours.
Though I found the flavours at Spice Temple bold and at times overpowering, this restaurant is nevertheless a brave diversion from traditional Cantonese in Sydney’s fickle dining scene.
Six years on, the mood lighting at Spice Temple still requires the torch in your mobile phone to read the menu. Flavours are equally bold and the ambience still as seductive as ever. Perhaps it’s Perry’s take on how Chinese food should be presented ~ traditional flavours juxtaposed against an exotic setting.
Perry’s cookbook is a culmination of his trip to China in 2008 with Andy Evans, who had by then been appointed head chef of Spice Temple, his assistant Sarah Swan and Rob McKeown, a Chinese speaker and food expert. And one week in China, 28 meals and 280 dishes later, the food concept for the restaurant was born and recipes withered down to around seventy.
So when we received this beautiful cookbook courtesy of Dymocks and Penguin books, Mysaucepan and I were excited to check out some delicious looking recipes. And the best way is to throw a Neil Perry dinner party at home with a few friends.
Spice Temple cookbook by Neil Perry
For our dinner party at home, we wanted to treat our friends with a couple of entrees and Mysaucepan chose traditional pork dumplings with a spicy sour Sichuan sauce.
This recipe consists of making dough from scratch using just plain flour and water.
Mysaucepan decided to try it although pot sticker dumpling dough is readily available in Asian grocers in pre-made round sheets.
“This is a fair bit of work” she confesses. “The dough needs kneading and resting.”
For traditionalists who like making Chinese noodles, dumpling dough and some regional sauces like Sichuan sauce from scratch, this book provides detailed illustrations.
“I’m a practical accountant by training” I say to her.
“Some ingredients are better bought than made from scratch to save time coz it’s cheap anyway. The store-bought dough tastes just as good as these home-made ones” I add.
This is one of the rare occasions she agrees with me.
The cold shredded potato with chilli dressing recipe caught my eye because it is apparently food from the south-central and south-western provinces of Hunan and Sichuan.
I peel four cream delight potatoes, slice them with a mandolin and then julienne into fine strips. Salt is then added to the potato strips and left for twenty minutes to draw out all the water. Then, I blanch the potato strips with boiling water for five seconds and drain in cold water to stop the cooking.
Tossed with some sesame and peanut oil, diced pickled ginger, soy sauce, a pinch of sugar, chilli flakes and garnished with shallots and coriander, the crunchy potato strips are so refreshing in this warm summer weather.
On low heat, I have prepared a big cauldron of Chinese master stock (second image above) by simmering cinnamon, star anise, palm sugar, fresh orange peel, soy and black sauce, Shao Xing wine, ginger slices, whole garlic cloves and the green tops of shallots for about an hour. The aromas from this stock is beautifully fragrant in the kitchen.
For our main course, I have been slow-braising a one-kilogram slab of beef brisket in the master stock on very low heat. After three and a half hours, the stringy texture of the brisket is just about falling apart.
This recipe calls for hand-made noodles but unlike Mysaucepan, I am opting for an easier option by using spaghetti.
For a recipe like this one, I prefer parboiling the spaghetti noodles until much softer than al dente because this texture works better with the tender brisket and will absorb all the wonderful flavours from the rich sauce made with my master stock. The boiled noodles are tossed in a smoking hot wok with peanut oil, chilli bean paste, dry-roasted Sichuan peppercorns, dried red chilies, bold chunks of garlic, ginger slices, Chinese wombok and a good dash of Shao Xing wine.
The stringy and tender beef brisket has absorbed all the flavours from the master stock. I was never a big fan cooking with Sichuan pepper but its subtle nuances in this beef brisket has brought me back again.
Garnished with some freshly chopped shallots and coriander leaves, this beef brisket noodles have become one of my favourites which I have cooked twice since.
Meanwhile, Mysaucepan is baking a thin layer of sesame nougatine to a crisp and crunchy wafer for her mango mousse dessert with condensed-milk chantilly.
The mango mousse is delightfully light and pillowy against the crisp wafer of sesame nougatine. It’s a more elegant take on the mango pudding that we love to order for dessert during yum cha.
The recipes in this cookbook are organised in categories – pickles, Chinese dumplings, salads, cold cuts, hot entrees, noodles, rice, seafood, poultry, pork, lamb, beef, vegetables and desserts.
There are also detailed instructions that will navigate you through a host of the basics such as dipping sauces, pickled chillies and stocks for red and white meats.
The recipes are well-thought out to give a balanced perspective of red meat, poultry and seafood dishes using different cooking methods with an exciting blend of spices. For vegetarians, there are dishes that use a variety of Chinese greens, silken and soft tofu, salted duck and preserved eggs.
Spice Temple Neil Perry is one of the better cookbooks I have used because it dares to push the boundaries of regional Chinese cooking while maintaining a sense of history and tradition that make Chinese one of the great cuisines of the world.
The irony and reverence of these Chinese recipes are in its clever and creative conception by Neil Perry who is anything but Chinese.
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