Kevin Hui’s father came to Dublin from London when his mother got a job here as a nurse. Eventually both parents were working at Chopsticks on Dame Street. In the late 1960s, they eventually opened up their own place, Lotus House, in Dun Laoghaire. “Everyone came through Lotus House,” Kevin explains. “Guys and girls dated, some of them got married and had kids who would come work there after.” In fact, Lotus House is a little like Genghis Khan of Chinese Ireland. Anyone born in Dublin with Chinese blood likely has a Lotus House connection.
Kevin, who is mild mannered, tall, and has an easy laugh, studied in London. His Irish is fluent, his Chinese, not so much. “I’m Irish,” Kevin tells me. That’s the thing that throws me, because I grew up with people who looked like me. We sulked and listened to Nirvana at the local Sunday Chinese school. Kevin was Irish and then came home and grew bean sprouts in the bathtub. “Also, I never wanted to have a restaurant,” Kevin tells me. When Kevin’s family closed Lotus House and opened up a new restaurant, Kevin had a master’s in biochemistry from London’s University College. But as the oldest child, Kevin moved home to help his parents. It’s a duty that many Chinese kids feel and many of us don’t fulfill.
It was Kevin’s idea to do a fine-dining establishment as was had in Asia, London, the States, and elsewhere. It was also Kevin’s notion to do Sichuan cooking, even though his family was from Hong Kong. Most people in Ireland who had Chinese restaurants were from Hong Kong, migrating as they did from Belfast. For better or for worse, Cantonese food here had nothing to do with the subtle, expensive, seafood flavours.
In China, Sichuan is an entirely different and marvellous place. It’s fiery food, distinguished by fresh flavours and cold dishes. Freezing cucumber and chicken that pops, plus the famous peppercorns that set the mouth alight. Another thing: many of my Chinese friends have likened the lilting Sichuan dialect to Irish, and the Sichuan culture is infused with musicality, country rhythms, and magic. Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, is where all the ghosts come to live after they die.
When China Sichuan opened in 2008, it was at the height of the Celtic Tiger, but when Chinese restaurants were still serving chips and chicken balls. China Sichuan was going to be something different. “Oh yeah,” says Kevin, “Then the earthquake happened.”
Kevin had lined up Sichuan chefs when the greatest earthquake of the century hit China. Woops. They recovered. Six years later, they moved to Sandyford, to a desolate location. At the China Sichuan Sandyford, an hour from town on the LUAS, one is surrounded by empty office buildings and the wind blows fiercely. But here, Kevin tapped into the authentically Chinese mentality. Many Chinese abroad believe lao-wai (our term for foreigners) prize convenience over quality. However, a Chinese person will travel miles for a great meal. This is especially true in Hong Kong, where Chinese people will take three trains, walk through a garage, ring a buzzer, and say a secret password, if the dinner is good enough. In fact, the journey there only sharpens the savour of the food to follow.
The result? China Sichuan has been beloved in this country for many years for making authentic and luxurious Chinese food, and not compromising itself. Fresh local ingredients. No takeaways. Rabbit stirfried with green tea. Dublin prawns in salted egg yolk. The Sandyford premises are chic but not trendy, beautiful wood and a sommelier.
Kevin’s a modest guy. He talks mostly about his mistakes. He says, “One mistake that I made was trying to literally translate all our dishes. Like Yu Hsiang pork. For years, at Lotus House, it was ‘garlic sauce’ pork.” Yu-hsiang, or Yu xiang, is a tradition in Sichuan and Hunan cooking. It flavours pork, beef, chicken, and possibly most popularly, aubergine. Translated, it means “fish flavor” but yu-hsiang is never coupled with fish. Kevin decided, in the interest of authenticity to return the dish to its roots. “Once I translated it from the Chinese into Fish flavor pork, no one ordered it any more.”
Yu-hsiang sauce is chili and fermented soy bean paste. It is attributed to Sichuan and Hunan. The story goes that a wife of a fisherman had the usual sauce waiting for when he came back with his catch, and when he came home fish-free, she poured it over some meat and called it yu-hsiang.
I have another theory. “Yu” 魚is the Chinese character for fish. “Xian” 鮮 which in Chinese for centuries has been translated as fragrant but which I have always attributed to seafood, and which has a fish radical. What’s more, Xian translates to the Japanese term umami, a flavor with which many people are familiar, and both xian and umami abound in seaweed, shellfish, fish roe, and anchovies. It is also abundant in mushrooms and fermented things, in soy sauce, miso, and fermented bean paste. When we describe something as Xian or umami, we say that something has that inexplicable flavor of the sea. But some people don’t like be reminded of the fishy connection.
Fish flavor pork is umami pork. Take the hour long journey out to Sandyford to eat it.
Fried Pork Shreds in Garlic Sauce/ “Fish Flavored Pork Shreds”/ Yu Xiang Rou
- 200g pork steak
- 1 egg white
- 15g corn flour
- A pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp water
- 6 tbsp vegetable oil
- 10g finely chopped ginger
- 10g finely chopped garlic
- 15g Sichuan garlic sauce*
- 15g granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp Sichuan vinegar *
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine or white wine
- 5 tbsp chopped scallion
- 5 tbsp corn flour mixed with 5 tbsp Water
1: Take the pork and cut it into thin slices. Then cut the slices into very thin shreds
2: Place the pork shreds in a bowl with the marinade and mix thoroughly. Let marinate for five minutes.
3: Heat a wok on high heat and pour in the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, (you can tell as the oil starts to smoke), add the pork and stir fry quickly for around 30 – 45 seconds, until the pork turns white in colour. (This process is called “velveting” and a common step in Chinese cuisine. When you run strips on meat in oil until it is partially cooked, it softens and silkens the meat, hence the term “to velvet.”)
4: Drain the excess oil from the wok.
5: Add the ginger, garlic and Sichuan garlic sauce until the oil turns red and you can smell the garlic and ginger.
6: Add the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and wine and stir fry for a further minute.
7: Finally add the scallions and cornstarch mixture. Stir fry for another 10 seconds and serve on to a serving dish, with some steamed rice
* China Sichuan imports their own sauce and vinegar but similar versions are available in your nearest Chinese supermarket. Kwanghi and Mei like Lao Ganma sauce, and a Chinese black vinegar like Chekiang.