Can you handle the heat? Meet Andy Zhang – master of spices and creator of a chain of popular Sichuanese restaurants in Hong Kong, named after his family. We popped into Charlie’s Chilli Kitchen for a chat with the young restaurateur who is in his late twenties, on the business, different spices and the right way to eat them.
The twelve spices
“This restaurant, Charlie’s Chili Kitchen 十二味麻辣小當家, is named after my three-year-old son. On the other hand, the Chinese name of the restaurant translates to twelve flavours. Twelve is an important number to me. It symbolises perfection. (Pointing to the horoscope tattoo on his arm) the twelve horoscopes represent twelve characters, like different flavours, and together they represent a full cycle of karma.
What many people don’t know is that every Chinese province has a distinct spice character. Hunan cuisine is characterised by fresh-spice from its signature facing heaven pepper （朝天椒）. Cuisines in Guizhou and Yunnan are characterised by sour-spiciness（酸辣）. The mix of flavours is very appetising – just have a taste of fish in sour soup!
On the other hand, Hubei cuisine is characterised by dry-spice （幹辣）, dishes with reduced water content and giving a strong fiery taste. Chongqing is famous for numb spiciness (麻辣) consisting of pepper and chilli. Prepare for a numbing sensation on your tongue while you savour a Chongqing hotpot!
Sichuan cuisine is my favourite, as it is relatively mellow. Made from citrus peels, fennel and star anise, the scent spiciness （香辣）neither overpowers your cooking ingredients nor numbs your senses.
The right way to enjoy the spice
For starters, you can order our in-house cold platter ‘Couples’ Lungs’ – sliced beef and ox tongue in Chongqing chilli sauce.
I recommend ordering the ‘hot and mild spicy pot’ with the golden ratio of 2:1 for meat and vegetables. The reason is that vegetables give out water during the cooking process. You can truly enjoy the flavours without overly diluting the spiciness.
For vegans and vegetarians, I recommend replacing the meat with starchy food such as wide starch vermicelli, potatoes, and beancurd to absorb the goodness in the pot.
The spice obsession
“I hail from Zhejiang, a Chinese province known for its mellow seafood cooked with fresh, subtle spices and a preference for sweetness. Hence my family was never a fan of spicy food. My obsession with spice started in Shanghai. I had my first taste of chilli and I have never looked back!
Motivated by the lack of variety in the United States (when I was in college), I started researching and experimenting with Sichuanese and Chongqingenese cooking. To my surprise, my American friends loved my creations. After college, I arrived in Hong Kong for my Master’s in Philosophy but struggled to land a job after graduation. Therefore, I decided to start a chain restaurant specialising in spicy food.
My wife is from Guizhou and loves spice. It became my mission to gather authentic spicy recipes from all over China. We had a number of Chinese acquaintances, friends, and family members from different provinces coming to Hong Kong to further their studies. That presented a great opportunity for gathering recipes. And that was how our menu was born.
We create our own chilli paste from scratch using fresh spices and chilli oil. It really makes it different from chilli paste found in supermarkets, usually made from mixed vegetable oil and additives.”
The chilli catastrophe
“The first time we cooked Sichuan hotpot was truly memorable. Two of our chefs were throwing chillies in the wok, however, we did not anticipate the smoke from the chillies. Very soon the whole kitchen was filled with pungent chilli smog so thick that we cannot see each other. The chefs were cooking blind! We needed better ventilation. Everyone ended up wearing masks and I was surprised the fire department didn’t come storming through the front door.
The one thing I learned from trial-and-error in cooking is that beef always goes with potato, and chicken with mushroom – the combinations create pleasant chemical reactions. But I’ve also heard that bananas cannot be mixed with dates!”
Experience the spice of Andy’s restaurants yourself. Order from Charlie’s Chilli Kitchen and Andy’s Chilli Party on foodpanda.