Hutong beer haven Great Leap Brewing launched its spring season on Saturday afternoon with a Chilli Cook-Off competition.
I love me a good chilli, so this was an irresistible temptation for me. (Also, having got up at 7am to finish a mammoth article on marketing theory for a "Friday deadline" that I'd only been told about on Thursday evening, I felt in need of a little treat.)
The various chillis in competition were all very different, quite easy to distinguish; and all were pretty tasty. I had thought at first that the tiny plastic 'tasting cups' we were using were a bit niggardly, likely to be unsatisfyingly small, but in fact they accommodated a surprisingly decent four or five mouthfuls... and after sampling the 9 or 10 different mixtures on offer, I was starting to feel reasonably full (although the cornbread and dumplings being offered by the guys down at the far end of the tasting line certainly helped with that).
The official results - chosen by a panel of well-known Beijing chefs - don't seem to have been posted yet. (Aha - they have now.) The clear winner for me was the one that styled itself Long March Mete (??!! I can't find any reference to that as a Spanish cooking term. Maybe its creator just meant Meat? Or Mate??): this had benefitted from a really long slow cooking process, emerging rich in both taste and texture, much darker and sludgier (a good thing, for me!) than any of the others. Second place was a tough call between Kevin's Chorizo & Chinese Hot Sausage recipe and the memorably (subconscious-manipulatingly) named 'You'll eat it, and you'll like it!', which, with plenty of tomatoes and red kidney beans and a very nicely balanced flavour, was the closest to what you typically get - or hope to get - in a bar or restaurant chilli. Kevin (one of the winners, we were told, in a major Chilli Cook-Off in Brooklyn last year) explained that his chilli had no actual peppers in it, but was flavoured purely with the spices that had leached out of the sausages he'd sliced into it. I find that hard to believe, but, if true, it had worked astonishingly well, producing a fine slow-build heat that didn't overwhelm but eventually proved to be, surprisingly, the fieriest of the lot. However, I also found a slight hint of sweetness in this one that didn't appeal to me so much, which, along with its austere abstinence from any vegetable content, relegated it to a very close third place.
Honourable mentions should also go to Chile (not just a country!) and the Santorum. Chile was made by a young Irish couple, who generously loaded their spicy stew with vegetables, including some big chunks of potato - which may offend purists, but I like the variety and the fillingness of it. Santorum had a really interesting blend of flavours, and was probably the second hottest, but it was a bit runny for my taste; and the roasted peppers in it may perhaps have been over-roasted a little, producing an aftertaste that was a bit more ashy than smoky.
There was also a guy with an inventive duck-based recipe - although that may perhaps have been taking the "Chinese characteristics" idea a little too far. He was using Hainan yellow peppers, which I'd never heard of, but did seem to have an excellent flavour. Unfortunately, duck evidently breaks down into long fibres when you stew it, which doesn't make for a particularly appealing appearance or texture.
Apologies to the other three or four competitors whose names I've forgotten. I enjoyed all the chillis, but I'm afraid I didn't keep tasting notes (and I did get very drunk later that evening...).
I hope we'll see a few more events like this here over the summer. But perhaps not quite so expensive next time... (Asking a 120 rmb door fee for an event with basically no overheads is really a bit of a cheek!)
And don't pussyfoot around with the HEAT next time. Bring on the Guatemalan Insanity Peppers! (Ooh, a possible band name, that?)