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Orchestra of flavours

The Sichuan Food Festival at the Chola Sheraton is a well executed endeavour that combines spices which harmonically play themselves out on your plate

WRITING FOOD reviews can be a dangerous occupation. Put your foot in your mouth, and you're dead mousse. (Oh, ok... If you must nit pick... How about a dead crackling roast duck with honey sauce?) Imagine spending a lifetime with the uncomfortable feeling that your face is doubling up as a dart-board on a hundred hotel kitchen fridges? ("Ha... so you wrote that our `rich' fruit cake needs to apply for a bank loan, do you? Well, take that!")

Luckily (for this reviewer), the Sichuan food festival, on at the Chola Sheraton's Shanghai Club (ph: 28110101) till April 4, is a brilliantly executed endeavour, making snippy comments redundant. Bringing together an orchestra of spices that harmonically play themselves out on your plate, the festival combines the seven basic flavours, and makes them sing.

Authentic Sichuan food, they say, (Ok, Google says) "is famous for its ability to evoke a 100 different flavours." Chef Yang explains why, over endless cups of fragrant Chinese tea and steaming Tsujiao Hai Xian Tang (or Seafood Pepper Soup). "My food is complex," he says adding that the plethora of spices he uses ensures that practically every dish is "salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, hot and numb." The soup's a great example. Thin and semi-transparent, it's bristling with flavour - from the slightly tart taste of the citron pepper, balanced by just-boiled-and-salted slices of fresh prawn, cuttlefish and crab, to the small ponds of subtly flavoured seaweed floating on the surface.

The starters appear next in bewilderingly quick succession. Yuxiang Su Fengpian, which is spicy fried chicken tossed with chilly sauce, is I-wish-I-could-swallow-a-lake hot, but, like the Jiaoma Shutiao (fried slices of potato flecked with dried chillies and drenched in a hot pepper sauce) punishingly tasty: You'll want to stop eating because of the smoke coming out of your ears - but your chopsticks just won't cooperate. (Difficult things, these chop sticks.)

However, what stands out are the honey chilly lotus stems. They're diced lotus stems fried to a crisp and slathered in warm sauces. Spicy yet sweet, crunchy yet supple; they're a wild riot of tastes and aromas.

Sichuan food is elegant, know-it-all Google says, adding that it combines "very rare, hard to find ingredients and made using about 50 different complex cooking techniques..." Chef Yang concurs, as he watches a waiter carefully slice up a subtly spiced, flaky, rather annoyed-looking fish. "The Sichuan food most Chinese restaurants here serve is simple. Soya sauce, green chillies, vinegar. That's not Chinese!" he says indignantly.

He has a point. The city's Chigen Manjurian-brigade would have blushed in embarrassment if they saw the dessert he dished up. Languidly caramelly Darsan, revelling in sesame, paired with vanilla ice cream. A warm milk pancake envelope — crusty outside and mushy inside. And a crisp sweet praline sphere, with a surprise burst of papaya at its heart.

It's going to be difficult to face Chinese take-away after this. (Oh, oh... I can just see the soya-chilly-vinegar chefs scuttling into their kitchens with a new set of just-sharpened darts.) Sigh!


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