Beef and Ox Tripe in Chilli Sauce is the dish that I simply had to choose as my first post on Sichuan food, since it has become one of my more recent obsessions. As with làzǐjī and mapo tofu, my beau and I are quick to judge a Sichuan restaurant based on the quality of such dishes (which really just means that we’ll return if it’s good, because we’ll want to have those specific-our-all-time-favourite Sichuan dishes all over again).
Indeed, as Fuchsia Dunlop has emphasized time and again, it is the combination of a multitude of different flavours within one single dish which is one of Sichuan food’s most salient characteristics. Unlike chefs from other regional cuisines such as Canton, Sichuanese cooks will mix all five basic tastes (salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter) in order to create strong and complex flavours while never obliterating the natural tastes of the raw ingredients.*
The dish, otherwise known as “husband-and-wife meat slices,” is one which began as a street snack in southwest China’s Sichuan Province in the 1930s by a couple who made a living selling them. Since they reformulated a recipe of leftover beef entrails with uniquely local ingredients such as Sichuan pepper, it was called “the couple’s slices of waste” at first, with the Chinese character for fei being “waste” from a butcher shop. But since in the English translation the name and quality of the dish were rather incongruous, a homophony Chinese character of lungs was used to replace the character for waste. Although beef lung eventually fell out of favour as being included within the dish, the character for lung has stuck and remained in the name.**
Nowadays fū qī fèi piàn is likely to be served in Sichuanese restaurants as a cold dish to nibble on before hot dishes start pouring in. Instead of lung slices the offal included would usually be ox tongue and stomach. This, together with lean beef, will be stewed in an aromatic broth and served with Chinese celery, toasted nuts, and a hot and zingy sauce. Something made right out of heaven.
With textures as highly valued in Chinese cookery as other components such as flavours, smells and form, the combination of the tenderness of the beef and the gelatine, rubbery bite of the ox tripe are far from accidental. It adds an extra layer of pleasure in the appreciation of food and makes that trip to a good Sichuan restaurant offering good fū qī fèi piàn so very worthwhile, as I am sure it will be if you make it down to Chilli Cool. Don’t be discouraged if it’s not love at first sight. It will be more likely you’ll warm up to it slowly in the same way as you might fall in love gradually and unnoticeably with a friend – until the realisation suddenly hits you.
Area: Kings Cross, Central London
Closest tube: King’s Cross St. Pancras (Northern, Victoria, Piccadilly, Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City line); Russell Square (Piccadilly line)
Address: Chilli Cool
15 Leigh St
London WC1H 9EW
Sichuan = 四川 (Sìchuān)
Chilli = 辣椒 (làjiāo)
Restaurant =餐馆 (cānguǎn)
Cold dish = 冷菜 (lěng cài)
Beef =牛肉 (niúròu)
Ox or cow = 牛(niú)
Waste = 浪费 (làngfèi)
Salty = 咸 (xián or han in Sichuan dialect)
Sweet =甜 (tián or gan in Sichuan dialect)
Sour = 酸 (suān)
Hot/spicy = 辣 (là or xin in Sichuan dialect)
Bitter = 苦 (kǔ)
*Dunlop, F. 2003. Sichuan Cookery. London: Penguin Books, p. xxxi.
** Article by Chen Chen 18 May 2016