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Kung pao chicken and the art of patience

Editor: zhenglimin 丨China Daily

02-24-2018 17:38 BJT

At least two chefs reckon that if you want to get that recipe right you need to try it a thousand times.

It was no big deal for chef Wei Jinting of the old Beijing Hotel when he stir-fried about 100 portions of kung pao chicken together using a shovel-like spatula in a massive wok for a State banquet in the late 1960s.

Poached beef with hot chili. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Poached beef with hot chili. [Photo provided to China Daily]

When another chef, Wu Zhen, his son-in-law, asked him how to measure the amount of salt and other condiments that he quickly scooped out of the buckets at that time, Wei says: "Trust your instincts."

"You have to cook kung pao chicken a thousand times before you know how to get it just right."

Wu Zhen did just that, and now his version of this well-known Sichuan dish is served at his own restaurant called Zen in Qianmen Street, Dongcheng district, one of the best known pedestrian streets in Beijing.

In Beijing's restaurant scene, where global dishes or dishes with all kinds of global influences are served, Zen flies its own colors, sticking to only the most traditional Chinese recipes.

The cooking philosophy at this restaurant is "soft fire makes sweet malt". Most of the dishes served are kung fu dishes, ones that call for meticulous care, lengthy preparation and sophisticated skills.

It is an eatery that tries to preserve dishes from old State banquets under the guidance of Wei Jinting, in his 80s, who still visits the restaurant once or twice a week to impart traditional cooking skills and recipes to novice chefs including his son-in-law Wu Zhen.

"We see an increasing loss of tradition in the food we eat today," Wu says. "Some of the old cooking skills are dying out."

Whenever Wei talks about this, he looks sad, Wu says.

"So my wife and I were motivated to open our own restaurant, and the initial thought was to show filial piety."

Wu used to be a designer and an amateur chef.

Kung pao chicken is given the nostalgic treatment at Zen, something that may overturn what you expect in this dish.

Sweet-and-sour, spicy, gloopy - none of these descriptions applies to the dish here.

In Wu's way, the burning sensation of the red chilies is removed, and the chilies turn a crispy texture, and display a brownish red color and are easily edible.

"A mild charred-and-spicy flavor with just a smidgen of a fruity litchi taste is what we do for kung pao chicken," Wu says.

"We use the whole sanhuang chicken (a small bird breed with brown feathers). Then we debone the whole chicken and dice the meat."

 Marshal chicken hotpot, named after Marshal Chen Yi (1900-72), one of the nation

Marshal chicken hotpot, named after Marshal Chen Yi (1900-72), one of the nation's founding fathers. [Photo provided to China Daily]

To get rid of a gooey sauce while maintaining super tender chunks of meat, Wu says, a critical cooking skill is ran zhi, which means to toss the entire contents of a wok into the air and let it all fall into the wok while catching flames inside the receptacle.

"It must be cooked fast enough, within 35 to 40 seconds, once the chicken is added. Only in this way can we develop the flavors while simultaneously retaining a crisp, fresh crunch of chilies and juicy meat."

This quick-cooking skill requires sophistication.

"It's hard to manage the time and the strength of flames, and achieve a good wok-hay flavor," Wu says.

"Some diners complain that we tone down the spiciness too much. But we still stick to the traditional way of cooking this dish as it was enjoyed at the State banquets in the 60s and 70s.

"Some have a deep love for what we do, and some dislike it. We don't cater to all customers. If people crave for the very spicy type of Sichuan food, we may not be the right place."

For me the kung pao chicken at Wu's place is luscious.

In these stressful times, Wu's eatery tries to offer an ambience of tranquillity and relaxation, and harmony with a Zen-like interior in natural wood colors and soft tone, giving it an atmosphere that is anything but swanky.

Pork tripe stuffed with meat is cooked by primitive, complicated methods that involve filling the tripe with prepared soup stock, lean meat, peas and water chestnuts, steaming, and cooling down to serve as a cold dish.

Sliced cold chicken with  baijiu flavor. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Sliced cold chicken with baijiu flavor. [Photo provided to China Daily]

One dish that you may not find elsewhere is Marshal chicken hotpot, named after Marshal Chen Yi (1900-72), one of the nation's founding fathers. The dish is devised from a Sichuan dish called lantern chicken with radiant spicy soup in a pot with a lid that resembles a lantern.

"In the early 1970s lantern chicken cooked by my father-in-law Wei Jinting at the old Beijing Hotel was one of Marshal Chen's favorites," Wu says. Later on, Wei renamed it Marshal chicken hotpot and has imparted his recipe to Wu Zhen.

Yu xiang rou si (fish-flavored shredded pork), is another featured Chinese dish given the traditional treatment at Restaurant Zen.

"A most critical ingredient of this dish is yu la zi, traditional Sichuan pickled chilies fermented in a sealed container with fish inside for a year," Wu Zhen says. "So there is a fish taste in that yu la zi chili sauce."

However, this traditional method of making the fish-flavored chili sauce is rarely seen in restaurants today because of the slow and complicated procedures; and people use spicy bean paste instead.

But Wu sticks to the original method, and his dish well proofs the "fish fragrance" although there's actually no fish involved in the dish.

At Zen, I also had a most healing Chinese dessert, walnut puree, an exquisite dessert soup of old Beijing-style delicacy. Rich and creamy even though there is no dairy added, this soupy dessert brings out an enchanting fragrance and aftertaste of walnuts and jujubes, the two main ingredients.

The dessert is such a wonder because not only does it delight your tastes bud, but also does good for your health, if you believe the widely held belief in China that walnuts help nourish the brain.

"These days many people want something new in their dining some creative dishes, but we look back in terms of recipes, trying to preserve the most authentic ones," Wu says.

"In a marketing sense we are bucking the trend, and it's hard to say whether what we are doing is a good thing. But one thing is certain: we feel honor bound to pass on the most precious culinary traditions to the next generations."

If you go

Zhi Can (Restaurant Zen)

Tuesday to Sunday: 11 am to 2 pm; 5:30 pm to 9 pm.

Third floor, 97 Qianmen Dajie, Dongcheng district, Beijing


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