culinaria eugenius in london: facing heaven

My trip to London was all about Sichuan food.  Odd, I know, but I found not one but TWO Sichuan restaurants near the British Library, where I was locked to the desk for the week, and so I ate Sichuan no less than half a dozen times during the week.  Have you ever done that?  It’s incredibly self-indulgent to be able to try every single thing you wanted to try at a restaurant, knowing you’ll likely not be back to visit in a very long time, if ever.  So I did it.

Of course, I did sample some of the new British cuisine.  British food has undergone a SPECTACULAR renaissance.  This makes me have hope for Eugene.  I’ve been to the UK a handful of times in the past 15 years, and each time it gets better.  Still, I was dreading the week.  But the local food movement has swept London like The Great Fire of 1666, both originating in Pudding Lane.

Even train station dining has been infused with local goodness.  I bought my morning bread and delicious luncheon salad combos –minted pea and feta was the best — at Sourced Market at St. Pancras station.  Topped it off with a Scrumpy scotch egg (“Free-range SADDLEBACK pork, apple & sage – a timeless combination, Herefordshire in a handfull! …we dare you to resist!”) from the wildly successful Handmade Scotch Egg Company.  I took the dare and lost.

Best of all, London, still under the thrall of Fuchsia Dunlop’s wonderful Sichuan cookbook, Sichuan Cookery, has exploded with Sichuan restaurants.

The place at which I ate most often, Chilli Cool, is reviewed in the London Observer today.  Who says you need to turn to world-class urban centers to get your breaking cooking news, Eugeniuses?  (That’s a very flattering picture of the restaurant, by the way.  The window seat is mine!  I would look across the street at the pub serving jugs of Pimm’s.  The British Library is just a couple of blocks up the street, as the crow flies, in the middle of the photo.)  I’d recommend the place, as long as you don’t have your hopes up too high that you’ll be eating in a fancy place.  It’s small and humble.  The service is pointedly inattentive, and I found at least one “mistake” on the bill, but the prices are fantastic for London and food respectably good.

Without question, the best dish I had was a variation of the fried chicken with chiles dish I’ve blogged about before.  In fact, my blog may now feature the most pictures of this particular dish; that’s a claim to fame!  The Chilli Cool version verges from the Portland (and Dunlop) versions, as it adds cumin and a little sugar, both providing a slight graininess to the finished dish, and peanuts.   It’s an adaptation of a Mongol-influenced dish, lamb with cumin, that you’ll often see on other Chinese menus.  But with chiles.  They use real “facing heaven” chiles, too!

Facing heaven chiles (right) differ from our standard dried Chinese chiles (left) in just about every way.  The color is a deeper rust, and the flavor is deeper and slightly less spicy, too.  It tastes more like a gualillo than the bright, fruity iconic flavor of our dried Chinese chiles.

I’ve been looking for facing heaven chiles and real Sichuan broad bean paste for years now.  Greatly assisted by Kitchen Chick’s helpful guide to Sichuan ingredients, I have scoured Chinatowns in several cities to no avail.  My frustration seems widespread.  But finally, success!

Yes, that’s an authentic webcam shot of me in my hotel room, gloating dorkily.

I managed to find the chiles, as well as several varieties of Pixian spicy broad bean paste and other Sichuan ingredients, in a single supermarket in Chinatown, New Loon Moon on Gerrard Street, not to be confused with Loon Fung down the way.  I bought two of the last four packages available, so caveat emptor…move quickly or you might have to wait a while for the stock to be replenished.

As soon as I get my schedule under control and some canning done, I’ll start cooking again.  This has been a non-recipe food blog all summer.  This pains me, as you might imagine.  But when the cook can’t cook, the cook can’t develop recipes!  I hope to amend this very soon.