Thursday, February 17, 2011

Christine Jagolino Reports on Sichuan Private Kitchen

Christine Jagolino on a culinary adventure in Indonesia.
Hong Kong correspondent Christine Jagolino has just filed this fascinating report on her visit to a private kitchen in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong.

Before talking to Christine, I'd read about private kitchens-- unlicensed restaurants with homestyle cooking-- but I didn't realize they were such a phenomenon.   In a place like Hong Kong, where  rent is sky-high and government regulations can be strangling, this kind of underground restaurant makes sense.  And of course, anything that's under the radar, so to speak, is infinitely more exciting.

For security reasons, there are no photos to accompany this report.

Thanks, Christine, for your take on the world of private kitchens in Hong Kong.  We eagerly anticipate your next report on cooking in Chengdu, one of three UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy.

Sichuan Private Kitchen
By Christine Jagolino
ESD Hong Kong Correspondent

I got together with my friends on Friday night for dinner at a Sichuan (also Szechwan) private kitchen in Wan Chai.  Private kitchens here are like speakeasys.  They’re hidden, not licensed, and found by word of mouth.  Private kitchens are easy to come by in Hong Kong, and they range in price, cuisine, ambience, size, and they will always be a unique dining experience.

This particular kitchen is located on the second floor of an office or apartment building, with no indication there’s anything special here, except for a string of fake chili peppers around the door.  The dining area holds as many people as can fit into the converted apartment.  Reservations need to be made ahead of time so enough food is available.

I’ve been to this place several times before, and always with a decent sized group.  The more the merrier and the more dishes we can devour.  We’ve celebrated Chinese New Year and going-away dinners here, and this particular dinner was a Christmas celebration.  The timing was perfect.  

This particular weekend friends were:
A.  Getting ready to go back home for the holidays.   
B.  Coming back home to HK for the holidays.

C.  Passing through HK on their way somewhere else for the holidays.

Hong Kong is a very transient town and it’s nice having everyone at one place at one time.

Our table is always like the U.N.  We have representatives from all over America, Canada, England, Vietnam, Singapore, China and Hong Kong.   These people are some of my closest friends and I consider them family.  We like to say that this particular private kitchen is where families are made.

Dishes are served starting from mild and gradually get spicier.  With a group, we get a little bit of everything.  Winter melon and a few other veggies, tofu, chicken, noodles, fish…  but the special guest of the evening is the mala pepper.  

The name of this Sichuanese peppercorn is taken from two Chinese characters: spicy and numbing.  The sensation is something my mother (who doesn’t eat spicy food) is still thinking about a year after visiting me in HK.  The only way to tame the intense heat is with beer.  Lots and lots and lots of beer.  And if you are worthy, the owner will challenge you to a chugging contest, and she will just about always win.

Sichuan is my favorite of the Chinese cuisine, and it is clearly not for the faint of heart.  Should you be brave enough to tackle this food adventure, be sure to wear dark clothing.  Chili oil gets everywhere!