Sunday, April 26, 2009

Initiation By Fire - the best Sichuanese in Taipei

Tian Fu Jia Chang Cai
#5 Renai Road, Yonghe (MRT Dingxi)

I've already updated my "Small Eats" post to include this place. It was that good.

From what my students tell me, Dingxi is home to an enclave of waishengren from Sichuan. Missing food from home, especially at their advanced ages, meant that many people opened small eateries to cater to them. This is the only one I know of, but boy is it spectacular.

I should know; I used to live in Guizhou, right across the border from Sichuan and Chongqing. If anything, Guizhou food is hotter and more savory than Sichuanese; Sichuan got to be famous because its people migrated abroad. Guizhou-ren, being rather poor comparatively, never could finance their own diaspora. But there is a saying in China: Sichuan ren bu pa la; Hunan ren la bu pa; Guizhou ren pa bu la! It translates roughly into: The Sichuanese are not afraid of spicy food. Those from Hunan, of spicy food they are not afraid. People from Guizhou are afraid the food won't be spicy enough!

This place is a tiny little joint that's so popular that they've erected two benches outside for waiting customers. It's next to a fruit market and other similarly humble establishments. Just inside the door is a small wooden screen and just beyond that are groups of people eating the best food of their lives. Mainland accents (specifically, Sichuanese accents) mingle with people speaking Taiwanese.

Other than the massive amounts of red chili - Sichuan ren bu pa la - one notable thing about this restaurant is their hua jiao - or flower pepper. Fresh, good quality hua jiao has the effect of numbing one's lips and tongue, but not of blunting flavor; in fact, it deepens the flavor. Those who have been to that area know what I'm talking about. Most hua jiao in Taipei is a joke; it comes in little plastic canisters and has zero flavor. It most certainly does not numb the lips.

But this place imports its hua jiao from Sichuan. Normally I am not a fan of anything produced in China, but this is one huge exception. They then use whole peppercorns - handfuls of them - in their cooking.

All of the staples are here - the not-too-spicy yu xiang qie zi (fish-scented eggplant, which does not include fish), siji dou (green beans cooked in a distinctive and delicious combination of spices), gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) and fish boiled in chili oil.

Yes, you read that right. Fish. Boiled in chili oil.

It's not all chili oil - there's some water/fish stock in there too, as well as a few kinds of onion, garlic and ginger, soy sauce, more chopped red chilis (both dried and fresh), handfuls of the aforementioned hua jiao and pickled greens. But mostly, it's chili oil. And it's absolutely delicious, especially when washed down with some beer or restaurant tea.

A warning: this place is always packed, so be prepared to wait.

Also, the chef is a bit, shall we say, temperamental. He's the Soup Nazi of Taipei, but like the Soup Nazi, he's a genuine artiste. If he wants to take a break, he takes one, no matter if it's 7pm and you just got there. The place almost always stops taking orders by 7:30 because the chef wants to go home, and the waitresses seem terrified of him. But it's worth it. He's that good.

So get there early, sit back, order, and await your initiation by fire.

2 comments:

Tomasz said...

Hi,

found your blog while looking for that Chinese spicy food proverb. I used to live in China (Beilun) before and one of the things that I miss most (apart from my amazing colleagues) is that great spicy food.

Those dishes you listed make me hungry! Especially the beans ;)
Fish in chili oil with a group of friends is an amazing experience.

Enjoy while you can!

Tomasz

Daniel Freeman said...

I hope it's still there. Your review made my mouth water. I miss Chengdu, and I miss Sichuan food.

(I lived in Guizhou too for a while).