Sichuan quick-fried lamb.
Sichuan quick-fried lamb. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Diana Lampe

In the spirit of the Chinese New Year festival - Friday, January 31 till February 14 - these recipes are from the Sichuan province in southwest China - a pepper-hot pumpkin soup, cold spicy sesame noodles and tasty quick-fried lamb. For a cool end to this meal (not from Sichuan), there is a luscious fruit salad with almond tofu - actually a jelly.

The original pumpkin soup recipe comes from a little book in my collection called Everyday Chinese. My friend Patty Yang translated Chinese recipes for the cold noodles and quick-fried lamb for me. I have used Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice as a reference and I highly recommend it.

Sichuan pumpkin soup.
Sichuan pumpkin soup. Photo: Diana Lampe

The main recipes are for Chinese-size servings as you would have in a restaurant, but you can easily increase the quantities. The Chinese ingredients can be found in Asian shops.

Sichuan pepper: Sichuan pepper is a reddish berry with an enticing woody citrusy aroma and a hot and numbing impact in the mouth. Sichuan pepper is one of the spices in five spice powder. It is quite addictive. Toast and grind as you need it. Spread the pepper out on a tea towel and pick through and remove gritty black seeds and small twigs. Toast in a heavy pan over very moderate heat until fragrant and beginning to smoke, being careful not to scorch it. Grind the seeds while hot with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. Sieve through a fine strainer and discard the pale bits left behind.

Chinese sesame paste: Sesame seed paste or sauce is made from roasted sesame seeds and is not like tahini which is made from raw sesame seeds. The oil separates in the jar on standing, so mix it well before using. It can be diluted with sesame oil. Peanut butter can be used as a substitute.

Sichuan favourite: Cold spicy sesame noodles.
Cold sesame noodles. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Chinkiang vinegar: Chinkiang vinegar is black rice vinegar made from glutinous rice in Zhejiang province. It has a deep smoky flavour that is similar to balsamic vinegar. Chinkiang vinegar (I use Gold Plum brand) is inexpensive and handy to have in the pantry.

Chilli oil: Chilli oil can be very spicy so look for a mild one or make it yourself. The chilli sediment in the jar can be used as well if you like spicy hot food.

Preserved vegetables: Preserved vegetables are popular in China, made from cabbage, salted mustard greens or turnip. It is used to add flavour to dishes, particularly soups. Preserved vegetables can be found packed in crocks, cans and sachets from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. Rinse before use to remove some of the salt. Store in a glass jar in the fridge.

Fruit salad with almond tofu.
Fruit salad with almond tofu. Photo: Diana Lampe

Agar-agar: Agar-agar is a seaweed-derived setting agent and useful for vegetarians who wish to avoid gelatine. You can buy agar-agar powder in sachets, enough to set one litre of liquid.

Cold spicy sesame noodles

Serves 3-4

2 generous handfuls (about 175g) fresh bean sprouts

200g dried or 300g fresh wheat noodles or linguine

1 tsp canola or peanut oil

1 poached chicken breast or roast chicken, shredded

2-3 tbsp finely chopped spring onion greens

2 tsp toasted sesame seeds

1 Lebanese or telegraph cucumber (optional)

Sesame sauce:

1½ tbsp Chinese sesame paste

2 tbsp water

1½ tbsp tamari or light soy sauce

2 tsp Chinkiang black vinegar

3 tsp sugar

2 tsp finely chopped garlic

2 tsp grated ginger

¼ to ½ tsp toasted and ground Sichuan pepper

2-3 tbsp chilli oil

1 tsp sesame oil

Mix together the ingredients for the sesame sauce. Taste and make any adjustments you like. It will be quite spicy: it will be less so when mixed with the noodles. Chill.

Boil a large saucepan of water and add salt. Have a bowl of cold water with some ice cubes ready. Throw the bean sprouts into the boiling water for a few seconds, then lift them out and plunge into the iced water. Drain and chill.

Add the noodles to the boiling water and stir to separate. Cook for the time suggested on the packet or until tender. Drain the noodles and tip into the cold water. Drain and toss with the teaspoon of oil to stop them sticking and spread out to dry in an airy place. Keep in the fridge until needed.

If serving the cucumber, peel, cut in half lengthways and scrape out the seeds. Cut at an angle.

Serve the noodles in one large bowl or four small ones. Place the bean sprouts in the bowl or bowls first and then the noodles.

Arrange the shredded chicken on the top.

Scatter the spring onions and sesame seeds over as a garnish. At serving time, pour the sesame sauce over the noodles and mix through.

Serve with the cooling cucumber on the side if you wish.

Variation: The noodles can be served without the chicken if you prefer, or with ''five-spice hard tofu'', cut into julienne, as an alternative.

Sichuan quick-fried lamb

Serves 3

250g lamb loin (backstrap) or leg steak, cut into thin slices

3 tbsp canola or peanut oil

4 cloves garlic, sliced

2 tsp finely chopped ginger

1 baby leek or 2 spring onions, diagonally sliced

1 red chilli (optional)

a few sprigs of coriander, chopped, for garnish

Marinade

3 tsp tamari or light soy sauce

3 tsp Shaoxing wine

½ tsp toasted and ground Sichuan pepper

2 tsp cornflour

Seasoning sauce

1 tbsp tamari or light soy sauce

1 tbsp Chinkiang Chinese black vinegar

2 tsp sesame seed oil

¼ tsp sea salt

1 tsp sugar

Combine the marinade ingredients in a dish and marinate the lamb for 20-30 minutes.

Mix the seasoning sauce ingredients together in a small bowl.

Heat the wok over high heat. Add oil, then add the meat in two batches and fry until it changes colour. Take out and set aside.

Use the remaining oil and reheat the wok. Add the garlic, ginger and leek or spring onion and stir for just a few seconds to flavour the oil. Return the lamb to the wok, pour in the seasoning sauce and stir-fry for a few moments longer.

Tip into a warm serving dish and garnish with coriander. Serve with steamed rice and a Chinese vegetable.

Sichuan pumpkin soup

Serves 6

1 litre chicken or vegetable stock

500g butternut or Japanese pumpkin, cut into small dices

3 tsp preserved vegetables, rinsed and finely chopped

½ tsp ground white pepper

125g Chinese green vegetable - gai lan (Chinese broccoli) or bok choy, shredded

salt to taste

Heat the stock in a medium-sized saucepan and when it boils add the diced pumpkin. Simmer for five minutes or until tender. Add the preserved vegetables and white pepper, and simmer for a minute. Then stir in the shredded greens and simmer for another minute. Taste and add salt if needed and extra pepper if you like.

Fresh fruit salad with almond tofu

Almond tofu is the Chinese name for the dish because it resembles tofu, but it is actually an almond-flavoured milk jelly set with agar-agar.

Almond tofu

200ml condensed milk 800ml water 1 tsp almond extract 1 sachet (7g) powdered agar-agar (not coloured) Tip the condensed milk and water into a saucepan. Sprinkle the agar-agar powder over the surface of the milk. Place on the heat and stir constantly as the milk comes to the boil - it can boil over, so take care. Take off the heat and add the almond essence to taste. Pour into a 20 x 30cm lamington tin or similar-sized container and leave to cool and set. Cover and chill.

Syrup

To make a quantity of light syrup, bring ½ cup sugar and 1 cup water to the boil and stir to dissolve the sugar; simmer for a few minutes. Chill.

Fruit salad

Make a chunky fruit salad with fresh seasonal fruits. I recommend using at least five fruits in your salad. I used lychees, peaches, cherries, pineapple, mango, kiwifruit, passionfruit, red dragon fruit, star fruit and grapes. You could use plums, raspberries, banana, honeydew or rockmelon and, when in season, strawberries, apples, pears, oranges and mandarins. Pour the syrup over the fruit and macerate in the fridge for a couple of hours. At serving time, cut the almond tofu into small cubes (1.5cm) and carefully lift out of the tin. Arrange in a large glass bowl or individual dishes in layers with the fruit salad and syrup. Serve chilled.

Diana Lampe is a Canberra writer, email: dlampe@bigpond.net.au