天府川菜馆 – Chongqing Hotpot at Dainty Sichuan
176 Toorak Road
03 9078 1686
Being Singaporean Chinese, I actually think I’m quite Asian in mindset and philosophy. In fact, I’m phenotypically a walking cliché: I love bargains, I take pictures of my food, I line my bins with 2 plastic bags, I can’t hold my alcohol and I think pomeranians are cute.
However, in terms of culture, I am sadly not very Chinese at all. Having made a couple of friends from China, I’ve had a glimpse of their world-view, manner, speech and taste in food. It’s quite different. I have a nominal understanding of Mandarin and sometimes wished I’d studied it harder in school.
Hao liked my post about the unscripted hotpot and was eager to have me to try 天府川菜馆. Apparently, this place serves extraordinarily good Chongqing hotpot. Hao and his friends call this place “天府” Tianfu. I never heard of it, but when he said it’s in Toorak I asked “Ooh, is it Dainty Sichuan?”. Hao had never heard it called that. In the end, we surmised that it was. Ha ha, lost in translation.
Seriously, it’s a rather silly name, “Dainty”. Sichuan cuisine’s unabashed use of red-hot dried chillies knocks the socks off my feet and ignites a dynamite in my belly the next morning. There is nothing dainty about that! 天府川菜馆 actually means, in a diluted sense, “Tianfu Sichuan Hall”. Maybe “Tianfu” was phonetically translated into “Dainty”. Heh.
We arrived early on a Wednesday evening. Tianfu’s exterior was covered with posh dark stone and it looked imposing. Its interior had a feel of a rich, modern chinese eatery with some traditional elements. It held dark wooden tables with a hotplate in the centre and one wall was covered with a gaudy yet pretty gold illustrative wallpaper. There are tables upstairs without a hotplate in the centre where you can dine on Sichuan food.
Yuanyang ‘double taste’ hotpot Normal stock surrounded by a ‘moat’ of spicy stock
You order your hot pot dishes by filling a form, reminiscent of yum cha places that don’t have trolleys. We chose the Yuanyang double tastes hotpot, and circled the least spicy chilli degree. You then choose your dipping sauce and the foods that you want with the hotpot. I wanted to know how Hao eats his hotpot and asked him to choose dishes that pleased him. He could read the Chinese words on the form, while I had to rely on the lame-o English translations.
Someone from Nanjing wouldn’t really like the same things as a Singaporean would, right? To my surprise, Hao chose many things I liked. He circled sliced fish, sliced beef, beef tripe, shimeiji mushrooms, spinach, potato noodle, lotus root and garland chrysanthemum. Only potato noodle was unfamiliar. Garland chrysanthemum turned out to be tang-oh (茼蒿), a familiar delightful leafy vegetable with a fragrant punch. Tang-oh cooks beautifully in soups, so it’s perfect for hotpot.
The hotpot arrived promptly, both stock soups were rich with ingredients. I saw dried mushrooms, chinese herbs, tomatoes, spring onions, red dates, goji berries, sichuan peppercorns and lots of other unidentifiable Chinese-y things. The wife of Tianfu’s owner had spent time in Chongqing city learning traditional hotpot cooking. Maybe that’s why I could sense a depth of authenticity applied to the hotpot presented to us. The soup base’s ingredients had a palpable freshness and quality, i dipped my chopstick in and sneaked a taste… very nice. Rich and flavoursome. The spicy soup, despite being at the lowest chilli degree, still contained a colossal pummelling of chilli-hotness!
I was confused at first how I was to proceed with having this meal. Which soup do you put your ingredients in? Hao got me to put bits of ingredients in both, I awkwardly did as he said. Some ingredients like the potato noodle, fish and lotus root took a longer time to cook, you can throw them in and fish it out later. The veggies, beef and beef tripe can be cooked quickly. I soon learnt that the mushrooms soaked up the soup into their spongy bodies. So mushrooms cooked in the spicy soup bordered on scorching my mouth into ashes. I accidentally ate a few sichuan peppercorns with my first spicy mushroom and had a numb mouth for 5 minutes. What a curious bead of toxin!
We took this meal at a leisurely pace. The potato noodles, when cooked, had a slippery transparent chewy texture that I found quite novel. Hao suggested I cook the ingredients in the normal soup first and just before eating, dip it briefly into the spicy soup like a dipping sauce. I enjoyed this meal. Beautiful soup, great conversation and fresh accompanying ingredients. I found that both soups were so flavoursome that we didn’t really need to order the dipping sauces.
In front of Hao, I felt very clumsy with my chopsticks. I couldn’t even pick out the cumbersome lotus roots and slippery potato noodles! Hao conducts his eating with a graceful and respectful manner towards food. It is a way of eating that I, with my Singaporean upbringing, simply do not possess. I’ve come to accept that I am more Singaporean than I am Chinese. And It won’t be long before I am more Australian than I am Singaporean. When that happens, I think I will dearly miss the part of me that’s Chinese.