Whether we’re heading to Sichuan province for a little culinary vacation or just looking for the best bowl of dan dan mian in the city, there’s one person we call for dining recommendations: Jenny Gao. Born in Chengdu and raised in Canada, Gao’s family still lives in Sichuan, and since moving to Shanghai in 2012, she visits them often. Over the past couple years, she’s turned her love for her hometown cuisine into a full-time job, becoming Shanghai’s unofficial Sichuan food ambassador.
For years, Gao was the writer behind Jing Theory, a popular food blog about Shanghai’s best places to eat, drink and more. In 2016, she launched Sichuan soul food pop-up Fly By Jing, a titular nod to Chengdu’s famous “fly” restaurants – hole-in-the-wall shops that are so popular they attract locals like flies. She also launched a line of gourmet food products, including a Sichuan chili crisp sauce and the zhong sauce she includes on her famed eponymous dumplings. But demand for her delicious sweetwater noodles and lazi fried chicken went well beyond the noodle bars and foodie events that Fly By Jing appeared at, and late in 2016, Gao launched Fly By Jing’s supper club.
Two nights a month, Gao invites 10 diners to her house for a dizzying, multi-course Sichuan feast. While many of the ingredients and cooking techniques are native to her home province, Gao incorporates her international upbringing into the dishes. In March, the “private kitchen” event was themed “Taste of the Sea meets Sichuan Soul” – and the first course set the bar high for the rest of the evening. An Ostra Regal oyster, freshly shucked and topped with a pickled Sichuan chili mignonette, amused the bouche of the entire table.
Although Sichuan is nowhere near the sea, some of the 13 dishes were more traditional than others, like the whole steamed freshwater fish topped with douban sauce, a fermented bean product, and layered with tofu.
But then a mash-up of western and eastern flavors hit the table, making us forget why fusion became a dirty word in the culinary world. The Peruvian classic seabass ceviche got a Sichuan makeover and was tossed with the numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorn, the fiery splash of homemade chili and the umami burst of “strange flavor” dressing (怪味). Guaiwai is common in Sichuan but rarely seen outside the region and is strange only in its addictiveness. Gao describes the flavor profile as “sweet, savory, nutty, spicy and numbing,” and diners can also see it on her menu spicing up dried fava beans, a traditional Sichuan snack.
In other dishes, Gao added ingredients to round out the Taste of the Sea theme. Most memorably, she creatively topped her famous zhong dumplings with flying fish roe, and her lazi dish subbed in cod tongues for the usual chicken.
April’s meal served up the bounty of Gao’s last trip to Sichuan, with rapeseed honey gathered from the hills of Mount Qingcheng and rare Sichuan sturgeon caviar making an appearance in the meal.
To find out when the next Fly By Jing Private Kitchen is, follow @flybyjing on Instagram or sign up for the mailing list on the website. (Pssst: the next dinners are scheduled for May 17 and 18). And if you’re in Hong Kong, keep an eye out as well. Gao has been known to head down there for pop-ups from time to time.
If you cannot wait for her next appearance, a meat-free version of her mapo tofu is on the menu at D’lish, a café that offers great vegetarian lunch sets and delivers from both Dianping and Ele.me. Or grab some of Gao’s sauce at Hot Box, and get creative in your own kitchen.