Wei Zi Prawn Hot Pot (no website yet, but you can get an idea of their menu at Just Eat) between Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush opened only three months ago. Though as their name reveals they are equipped with tables with in-built stoves for shared hot pots, you might want to make the trip to South West London for their dry pots – and their la zi ji. Not that I can comment on their hotpots, since I haven’t tried them yet. But I definitely know that those two dishes are worth coming for.
Now it has to be said that I am someone who has fallen in love with Sichuan food after being introduced to it by Chinese friends in Sichuan restaurants in NYC. On solo trips I was very content with simply getting patient (and not-so-patient) waiters to understand that I wanted to order ma po tofu or la zi ji in order for me to feast on them. The concept of tones in the Chinese language still seemed alien and silly to me – hence the impatience on the part of some waiters. Now that I am learning Chinese I have also started looking at the characters, and writing this blog has made me dig deeper to unravel what lies behind different names for the seemingly same dish.
La zi ji (辣子鸡), or literally translated Chilli Chicken, is in fact a Chongqing and Sichuan speciality (Chongqing city being a close neighbour to but no longer part of the Sichuan province, with its cuisine argued as being even spicier than in current Sichuan*). Various if subtly different ways have developed to approach and prepare this dish, with different Chinese names, then translated deviatingly into English on Sichuan restaurant menus. In Sichuan, cooks usually use chicken on the bone to make this dish, no questions asked, but in many restaurants both in London and New York they are likely to let you choose between the boneless or with-bones option. In most cases you will either be asked your preference, or be served the chicken-breast-boneless version. While it is less frustrating to eat the dish without bones (given how little actual flesh you can get from chicken on the bone), the drawback of eating it without bones is that breast is said to be less intensely flavoured. How do chefs here get around this? Why, with battered deep-frying of course!
One of the techniques used to make la zi ji is that of dry-frying. It is indeed a technique unique to Sichuan, which typically involves cooking your main ingredient in a pan with a good amount of hot oil without any kind of batter or coating. While the outer layer of your chicken becomes desiccated, inside its flavour becomes concentrated, all this due to the intense heat driving off interior moisture.
The Chongqing deep fried version will include, you’ve guessed it, some deep-frying. But the fact that in most London-based Sichuanese restaurants the chicken in la zi ji will be battered in flour before being dipped into oil is hardly surprising. After all, a cooking method which gives its main ingredient a more crispy and layered taste, is likely to become the preferred one over all others. And yet, perhaps due to bad press regarding battered deep-fried foods and their healthiness, they are rarely if ever named or described that way. Not so at Wei Zi Prawn Hot Pot, where 重庆辣子鸡 is not described as Chongqing spicy chicken as the literal translation would be, but rather as Dry Fried Chicken in Batter with Chilli. A combination then of two different methods, combining the flavourfulness and crispiness of both worlds.
Deep-fried, if done right, doesn’t have to be all that unhealthy as we may think. Although deep-fried food is submerged completely in hot oil at temperatures as high as 200 degrees Celsius, this heat also means that the oil is unable to penetrate further than the outer surface. With the hot oil heating the water within the food, the resulting moisture repels the oil and keeps it from seeping in. Reducing the temperature of the oil, however, or leaving the food inside for too long will break down the wail of anti-oil protection. If your la zi ji feels juicy but not greasy inside, then rest be assured it was deep-fried in the proper manner. And although their Dry Fried Chicken with Chilli (山城辣子鸡 – literally translated as mountain city chilli chicken, perhaps because Chongqing is indeed a mountain city clinging to the steep banks of the Yangtze river) is definitely recommendable, for me their battered version is a juicy powerhouse of flavour, giving you layers and layers of taste and texture.
The other dish, which they may perhaps become more famous for given the name of the restaurant, is their prawn dried pot described on the menu as Dried King Prawn with Chilli (干锅大虾). Now I know it’s a dry pot, rather than a hot and soupy one, but the two are indeed strongly related. Both can be served in communal pots, both in individual ones, although in China they are both shared. Hot pot of course increases the commensality factor due to the waiting process, hence the prolonged eating affair, and the whole thing just feels more intimate, dipping your own chopsticks in and out of the broth where others have gone before.
Dry pot at Wei Zi comes in a small, pretty dish, to be shared with your dining partners as you would all other fares (if you so wish). I have tried the lotus one (recommended both for its flavour and texture) and the prawn concoction. It reminded me of a mini Ma La Xiang Guo (麻辣香锅) reduced to only prawn and potato (which was another lovely touch to the dish). Ma La Xiang Guo is something like the no-soup equivalent of hotpot, in the sense that you pick your ingredients from a variety of vegetables, meats and seafood and then share the stir-fried result with your friends and family. I will write more about Ma La Xiang Guo in another post, but for now know that the Ma La Xiang Guo sauce (also available to be bought in supermarkets) is freakishly addictive. And all those memories of having it at food courts in Flushing, Queens of NYC came pouring back when I took my first bite of Prawn Dry Pot at Wei Zi. Ready yet to take your first bite? Or if you already have, don’t forget to share your comments here.
Area: Brook Green (between Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith), West London
Closest tube: Goldhawk Road (Hammersmith & City and Circle line); Shepherd’s Bush (Central line and Overground); Hammersmith (Hammersmith & City, Circle, Piccadilly and District line)
Address: Wei Zi Prawn Hot Pot
236 Blythe Rd
London W14 0HJ
*Wright, C. 2005. Some Like it Hot: Spicy Favorites From The World’s Hot Zones. Harvard Common Press. See p. 156
Hot pot = 火锅 (huǒ guō)
Dry pot = 干锅 (gān guō)
Prawn = 虾 (xiā)
Big = 大 (dà)
King prawn = 大虾 (dà xiā)
Potato = 土豆 (tǔdòu)
Chongqing = 重庆 (Chóngqìng)
Chicken = 鸡 (jī)
Fragrant = 飘香 (piāo xiāng)
Mountain = 山 (shān)
City = 市 (shì) or 城 (chéng)