2000s Archive

China Bold

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A meal at the Turtle is a journey straight into the heart of Sichuanese folk cuisine. There is a subtle fish soup stained pale jade by pickled mustard leaves; braised beef with slender bamboo shoots in a sauce luxuriant with chiles; and fish robed in the brilliant red of pickled peppers and lolling in an exquisite broth. “This is one of the tastes of my childhood,” says Liu of a comforting rice-water soup, pulpy with chopped wild vegetables. “I ate it almost daily during the times of famine.”

Other delights include slices of rich, wind-dried sausages, discreetly aromatic with chile and Sichuan pepper; fragrant twice-cooked pork made with salted mustard greens instead of the more common Chinese leeks; and rustic buckwheat noodles scattered with slivers of chicken and soused in a punchy, seductive, sour-hot sauce. A glorious sequence of colors and flavors, the dinner at one moment excites the palate with spice and boldness, at another soothes with the gentle blandness of boiled roots and gourds.

Save for the gas burners lined along one wall, the Turtle’s kitchen has no modern equipment. Twenty-four young cooks scurry around wooden boards, chopping with cleavers and running out back to fetch pickles and pastes. Liu is a staunch advocate of traditional methods and carefully sourced ingredients, and he makes it a point to use mostly “green” meat and poultry (from animals and birds that have been reared on natural foodstuffs); local, seasonal produce; and, wherever possible, organic vegetables.

His impeccable sourcing doesn’t hurt, but the magic of Liu’s cooking lies in his pickled chile paste. Made from local chiles, yellow rapeseed oil, and salt, it provides a gentle, soothing heat and lends a sumptuous orange hue to his oils and sauces. “We let the jars rest on the damp ground,” the chef says as he shows a visitor around the storage sheds behind the restaurant, “so they absorb the qi of the earth.” He raises the lid of a waist-high jar of rough-glazed clay, and the scarlet flash of freshly pickled chiles momentarily lights up the room. Other lids are removed to reveal the dark, crinkly leaves of salted mustard greens, and lots of that legendary chile paste.

An entirely self-made man, Liu enjoys a lifestyle that would have been unthinkable before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. His large house, which sits adjacent to the restaurant behind a hedge of bamboo, is decorated in the European style, with a grand fireplace, enormous sofas, and an elaborate chandelier. But when it comes to food, Liu Shaokun is Sichuanese to the core. “I do enjoy eating fish with pickled vegetables,” he says. “But in the end, my favorite is twice-cooked pork.”

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