Sweet salty sour bitter SPICY

A comment by Carrie on my latest post, where she mentioned her aversion to spicy foods, reminded me of just how varied a thing taste can be from person to person -- and even within the same person, over time.

I don't think that it is a coincidence that I developed a penchant for spicy food the year after I stopped binging and purging. When I was bulimic, the only foods that I could think about were desserts and other sweets; I could care less if someone was offering me a fantastic main course, because I only wanted dessert! Once I stopped purging, and then stopped binging, I found that I began to enjoy other foods again, too.

In China, three years ago, I wanted to eat green things. Green things, and chili peppers. At restaurants, where we mostly ate because the food was so cheap and so fresh, I would ask my husband to order at least one dish of stir-fried greens, and left the other dishes up to him. In retrospect, I find it interesting that, after eating so many sweet things for so long, my body was finally calling for other flavors. Chinese medicine would probably have an explanation for this, too: the Chinese believe that one should eat a balance of foods and flavors, whereas consuming more of one flavor may lead to ill health effects over time. For that reason, Chinese meals contain a variety of tastes, textures, colors, and cooking techniques. For example, fried whole shrimp may be balanced out by steamed dumplings, a simple sautée of field greens, and an eggplant casserole. Each person at the table is expected to each small portions of each dish, rather than pick one large dish for him- or herself. Interestingly, few foods are "demonized" in Chinese cooking -- fried and fatty foods are enjoyed just as often as baked and steamed items, but the quantities are rarely large, and they are always eaten in conjunction with other foods.

As I eat fewer and fewer sweets, it has been surprising how many other foods I have let back into my belly, or how many new foods I am now eating, like pickles, mayonnaise, and peppers, that I rarely ate during my eating disorder. I feel a loosening of boundaries, an expansive quality to my eating these days. Much of this is due, I am sure, to the fact that I have taken on so much of my own food preparation, which tends to demystify the foods that I eat. Coming back from China with a bag of Yúnnán peppers, I could hardly wait to make them into my favorite Chinese chili oil, the standard là jiàng (辣酱) that is served as an accompaniment in many restaurants in China. Fuchsia Dunlop promised an easy recipe for hot chili oil in her book Sichuan Cookery, which I picked up in China my last time around (American title: Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking). I love the British version of the book, whose cover features the very peppers that I am talking about! How delightful.

Today I got around to making the là jiàng. First I ground the peppers (lightly roasted) in my food processor.

I chose a small glass jar and put the ground pepper flakes into the jar, along with a piece of star anise.

Meanwhile, I heated some sunflower oil in a pan on the stove.

Next, I poured the hot oil over the pepper flakes and anise, and watched the flakes crackle and pop as the oil hit them.

A delicious fragrance resulted, fresh and almost sweet, as the oil chilled in the jar.

I added some of this oil to our dinner tonight, a simple chard stew over plain white rice. The oil is not spicy at all, just lightly touched with the sweet scent of chilies. I think that I added too much oil for the small quantity of chilies that I have -- but hey, you live, you learn. Next time I'll do three things differently: I'll use a candy thermometer to make sure that I get the oil to the right temperature; I'll use less oil or more chilies; and I'll seek out even hotter chilies in Chinatown, if they are to be had. What I do know is this: I'm sure to try this recipe again! It is so simple, and so much fun to see the sizzling chilies stain the oil bright red!

1 comment:

mustangreb said...

Ohhh man! I just tried that recipe out from her cookbook. It is soo yummy! Though I am sure it would be perfectly divine with fresh chili's! I just used what I had on hand, which were some red pepper flakes in a plastic spice container. I halved the recipe too, since I did not want to use up all my pepper flakes.
Also I was ruminating over all the Wonderful oils you could create with this recipe! Like garlic, basil, maybe lemon or orange!! Sigh! That is areally great cook book!