For many individuals venturing into the world of Sichuan cuisine, there’s always the looming question: is it too spicy for me? But according to Chef Kenny Chan Kai-tak, who hails from this spicy region of southwest China, the key to unlocking the heart of Sichuan food, especially for those who are wary of intense heat, is in the chilli bean paste.
With Sichuan-style dishes like mala hotpot, Chongqing noodles, and spicy chicken pot gaining popularity, it’s hard to imagine a time when such flavors weren’t a mainstay in Hong Kong’s food scene. However, this shift can be attributed to culinary pioneers like Chan. During the early 2000s, as the head chef of Yun Yan, he introduced the bustling city to authentic Sichuan dishes, meticulously crafted to appeal to both avid spice enthusiasts and newcomers.
It’s no coincidence that Chan has such a deft touch with flavors. He hails from a lineage of chefs, with his family being significant players in the culinary world as far back as the 1960s. Back then, in the absence of many Sichuan restaurants in Hong Kong, the family’s business revolved around the production of doubanjiang, the iconic chilli bean paste. This rich, fiery condiment is as fundamental to Sichuan cuisine as dashi is to Japanese cooking.
Opting to walk in his family’s culinary footsteps, Chan ventured into the kitchen. Instead of learning directly from a Sichuan master, he embarked on a journey through the world of Huaiyang cuisine, known for its intricate knife skills and originating from Jiangsu province. This intensive training equipped him with a strong foundation, which he seamlessly merged with his inherent knowledge of Sichuanese flavors.
Though he temporarily hung up his apron after Yun Yan closed in 2017, Chan’s culinary legacy was far from over. His immense talent and unmistakable touch with Sichuan flavors led him back to the kitchen multiple times. One notable endeavor was the establishment of Sichuan Lab, which unfortunately had to close its doors due to the pandemic. Today, he lends his expertise to Azure 80, a new restaurant showcasing the best of Sichuan and Shanghai cuisines.
Chan’s innovative spirit shines in his dishes. He creatively combines sliced pork with avocado, allowing the creamy fruit to enhance the garlic and chilli oil’s aromatic qualities. Another standout is his take on the traditional sour soup, where the inclusion of dried rose petals not only elevates the soup’s flavor profile but leaves a memorable rose aftertaste.
Chan remains a stickler for authenticity, especially when it comes to his signature chilli bean paste. He insists on sourcing it directly from Sichuan, explaining that the region’s humidity lends itself perfectly to the fermentation process, resulting in a spice that’s flavorful yet gentle on the palate.