Pork ribs in dry pot from Cheng Du; also pictured, from the dried whole Sichuan chili peppers in the center (clockwise): Korean chili powder, anise, Sichuan pepper corn, Sichuan chili flakes (Photo by Kim Frost)
Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies? When it comes to Cheng Du’s pork ribs in dry pot, more is more. Named for the capital of Sichuan province, Cheng Du specializes in one of the eight great traditions of Chinese gastronomy: Sichuan cuisine. But unlike the more incendiary foods from Hunan province, Sichuan chefs create tension between bites by numbing the tongue and cheeks with fruity Sichuan peppercorns. Imagine: Just when you think you can’t take anymore, the burn stops. Your face flushes and sweat cools your brow. Your sip of water feels like a Novocain rinse. Then the tingling relief passes, and it’s hot chops again.
For pork ribs in dry pot, scallion, ginger, garlic and dried chili peppers get stir-fried together to season the wok. The whole peppers soften in their bath, building a smoky, flavorful base. You might eat a couple of pods in the finished dish, but consider the spent husks as you would bay leaves; they’ve done their duty. Adjustable incineration comes from Sichuan chili flakes and Korean gochugaru chili powder. Cumin enhances the pork’s sweetness. If you can coax out the specifics of Chef Chao Yu’s proprietary blend of Chinese medicinal herbs, drinks are on me. He infuses them, along with those numbing peppercorns, anise and cinnamon, in an oil that is poured on top of the pork, lotus root, celery and potatoes. That amalgamation, draining through the filled-to-bursting colander of meat, makes for a ball-drop moment.
Doro Wat from Nile Ethiopian Bistro (Photo by Kim Frost)
“Doro wat is a measuring stick for a chef’s skill: how the meat is cut, the seasonings. If you have an event and you don’t have doro wat, it’s not an event.” —Yeshareg “Yeshi” Demisse, executive chef and managing partner of Nile Ethiopian Bistro
Doro wat, that electric national dish of Ethiopia, necessitates cleaving a whole chicken into 12 pieces, then every step of assembly gets upgraded. Driving the stew is a sauce of slow-cooked onions, berbere (an Ethiopian chili blend) and niter kibbeh, a clarified butter jacked up with herbs and spices. After laying the chassis, drop in the chicken and trick out the simmer with finishing spices. Ethiopian fiancées used to make doro wat for their future in-laws to prove their mettle behind the culinary wheel.
Doro wat from Nile Ethiopian Bistro zips across the palate like an Audi, with a subtle acceleration of heat. Why? The difference is their finely tuned berbere, sourced from Ethiopia. It’s smooth, unlike overly salted or too-fiery commercial powders. Making authentic berbere takes a week: Chilies are roasted, crushed, then pounded with fresh ginger, shallots, garlic and basil flowers until they form a wet paste, which is aged for three days. Then the paste is spread out, sun-dried and crushed again. After gentle heating, that mixture is milled with roasted cardamom and fenugreek. Dried black seed and bishop’s weed are added before the final grind.
Want more flavor at home? Nile retails jars of its house-mixed berbere in the restaurant’s new brick-and-mortar location at 306 N. 29th St.
Pho from Pho Tay Do (Photo by Kim Frost)
Chef Ashley Doan not only grew up eating pho — pronounced “fuh” — at her family restaurant, Pho Tây Dô; she inherited her ardor for percolating hundreds of gallons of it daily from her mother, head chef Vinh Pham. Pham brewed and sold the brothy rice noodle soup on portable tables outside of her home in Biên Hòa, Vietnam, before moving to the United States.
Learning to make pho is trial and error, Doan says. “If you put even a tad too much cinnamon, that will block the other flavors. We weigh our seasonings, even though we both have been making pho so long we can eyeball them. My mom has been making this soup for over 50 years. Just me and my mom know the whole process. Even my younger sister doesn’t know the recipe.”
January 2017 will mark the 17th anniversary of the Rigsby Road noodle shop. The perfume of pho ghosts the room like animated clouds leading you to a table for a bowl of Dac Biet, the house special with meatballs. The scent — exotically musky from Vietnamese cinnamon, star anise, clove and black cardamom mingling with beef bones for hours — warms the body like a comforting shawl.
“What I like about pho, and I eat it almost every day, is that you make pho your own with crushed chili, hoisin or Sriracha,” Doan says. “I like black pepper in mine. Add bean sprouts and basil, if you like. It’s your soup.”