I knowww I missed the last two weekends of salads but last weekend was because I was in Chongqing and Chengdu shooting a travel/food video with the Guru Videos team. Four days later, after endless spicy hotpot resulting in a scorched stomach plus blistered-blemished skin, I really did need to get back on the salad train.
I don’t know how the Chongqingers do it; chilies all day, everywhere, unless it was dessert… and although I love spice and heat, I didn’t love all the oil that came with it, which ruled out eating a lot of vegetables since their soft leaves absorb the fiery liquid and oil like a heap of rags. Weirdly, the thin people all around seem unaffected; my theory on the matter is a metabolism-boosting combo of walking from place to place, lack of heating in the winter and frequent outdoor eating in the soggy cold of winter (torturous; I'll just say that and not revisit the endless shivering or the Uniqlo thermals sections again), and of course the pulse-quickening, sweat-beading power of the chilies.
We moved on to Chengdu, which is a bit like upgrading your groceries-shopping from Tesco’s to Waitrose, and where grandma lives. Now, Chongqing and Chengdu, the two most famous cities in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province, are immediately known for the spicy food. Only difference between the two is that in Chengdu, you have things like options and restaurants that by manage to keep their front doors shut and diners warm during the dead of winter.
This Sichuan-style salad is one of those non-spicy dishes that don’t compromise on robustness. You might recognise the flavours of this rich, thick sesame sauce, in the more familiar form of cold Chinese peanut noodles (can you hear your mind just going “slurp, slurp” right now?).
Its vegetable partner is the indigenous lettuce cultivar Lactuca sativa L., called youmaicai (yo-MAI-TSAI; 油麦菜) whose English name evades me as much as I research it. I'd call it “spear lettuce” or “feather lettuce” in honour of its uncanny resemblance to those retro feather dusters.
Refer to the photo; if your Chinatown market doesn’t have this guy’s sibling, just look for its cousins, which would be any sort of long, firm and crispy lettuce like romaine hearts and baby gem.
Enjoy this on its own or with a spicy main course, because its crispy coolness is like a light Tsingtao beer and the blanket of sesame sauce is a silky palette-blanket, like milk. By the way, a sesame-condiment fact: in Sichuan hotpot, foods dipped into the hellfire of spicy broth are given a second dunk in a small bowl of sesame oil to tamp down the heat. So chilies + sesame = solid pairing. The oil-on-oil thing is probably freaking you out right now but I found it not that bad... I am a sesame oil fanatic anyway, and just stick to less-porous foods with bigger surface areas like fish meatballs and slices of celtuce stem.
Note that Chinese sesame oil and paste are different from cold-pressed oil and tahini -- the Chinese way is to roast the seeds first before processing to coax out its deep, rich aroma. Swapping in tahini won't have the same effect so pop down to your Chinatwon market and grab an inexpensive pot of it.
What other sides do you recommend pairing with spicy food?
Lettuce with rich sesame sauce
Serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a salad
· 5 bunches of youmaicai (can swap in romaine hearts or baby gem lettuce)
· 1 Tbsp + ½ tsp Chinese roasted sesame paste
· 1 Tbsp + ½ tsp water
· 1 tsp good soy sauce
· ½ tsp Chinkiang vinegar
· ½ tsp light brown sugar
· ½ garlic cloves, very finely minced
· Black and white sesame seeds (one or the other will do just fine)
· 2 springs spring onions, whites and greens sliced
- Snap apart the individual leaves and wash them well. Give the leaves a shake to dry them off, slice off the ends, then measure out 12cm of length and slice; you'll have a neat, uniform "middle section" of stalks as well as the jumble of leaf tops. Lay down the leafy tops onto your serving plate in a flat layer, then stack the stalks on top neatly like a pile of winter logs.
- Measure out the sesame paste in a small bowl and set aside. In another small bowl, combine the water, soy sauce, vinegar, light brown sugar and the finely minced garlic. Gradually pour the liquid mix into the bowl of sesame paste, stirring as you go, until all the liquid has been added and you have a nicely emulsified, velvety sauce.
- Pour the sesame sauce across the vegetables, then top with the black and white sesame seeds and spring onions.