People of the world! Every boy and every girl: In the lead up to our second annual Hot & Spicy Festival on Apr 20-21, we’re Spicing Up Our Lives with a few of the vendors to see what searing treats they’ll be doling out at the rapidly approaching fine spring weekend. This time: Sorry, founder of NAO Brain BBQ Bistro.
Winding your way through the slow-moving procession of shambling sightseers that thicken Nanluogu Xiang on any given day, it can certainly feel like you’ve entered a parallel universe. Do zombies rule the earth now? Are those brightly colored sticks they’re gnawing on candied hawthorns or bloody eyeballs? Is that restaurant over there serving brains??
While the zombiepocalype may not have arrived quite yet, NAO Brain BBQ Bistro has been serving up one of China’s more divisive delicacies on the busy strip for over six years, and show no sign of budging. We got chatting to Sorry, NAO’s R&D chef about why their spicy brain remains such a drawcard on the bistro’s menu, what makes Chinese spicy food superior to all others, and what visitors to the NAO stand at this weekend’s Hot & Spicy Festival can expect.
As Sorry would put it, “the brain is a good thing, I hope you have one.”
Did you attend last year’s Hot & Spicy Festival?
I didn’t go, but I read a lot of accounts of people who did. The Hot Chili Pepper Eating Contest is an idea that I like a lot, and I go to the Beijinger Burger Festival every year (I really have an extraordinary love for hamburgers, even my son is called Hamburger). I will attend this year’s event with a lot of friends who will also attend.
In your opinion, what are the important elements that help to make delicious spicy food?
‘Spicy’ is a feeling rather than a taste. The combination of sweet and savory in your mouth, plus Chinese spices, are the essential elements for cooking spicy food. We also use fresh ingredients to absorb all the spicy flavors, each with their own unique function and spicy elements.
Tell us about the spicy food you will bring to our Hot & Spicy Festival, and three of its unique features to prove why it is the best spicy dish in Beijing.
The spicy dishes we have prepared for the Hot & Spicy Festival are our signature spicy brain and a beef dish. For the spicy brain, we first remove the outer fatty layer so as to reduce its astringency, and then we use 21 kinds of spices and six kinds of peppers to make the signature spicy sauce. Then we slowly roast it whole for 15 minutes over fire, infusing the whole brain with a spicy and salty taste. Then it’s sprinkled with sour radish and sesame to balance the taste. In the end, the taste is soft and rich, but most importantly, balanced. I believe this is the best spicy food in Beijing, with a strong taste of China.
Our signature beef dish is Shandong yellow beef. We cut it into thin slices, add the Chinese marinade, and put each piece of beef on a skewer so that the beef can be evenly exposed to the flame and stay fresh and juicy. When cooking, it’s sprinkled with 13 kinds of spices, including pestle-and-mortar-ground pepper (which better exudes the aroma of capsaicin) and pepper powder from Maowen in Sichuan province. These are ideal for seasoning beef, and the smoky flavor of the grill and the aroma of the fat make the beef skewers really delicious, with a dry, smoky element.
What kind of beverage in your menu will go best with your spicy food?
Undoubtedly, it is our exclusive Chinese baijiu, dubbed the Eat Iron Beast Highball, a Chinese-style fragrant baijiu that we brew ourselves. We have reduced the strong alcoholic taste of Chinese liquor and changed its whole flavor profile so that it’s more refreshing and more palatable to young people. For serving with a meal, we added calamansi orange, lemon, and soda to make a refreshing cocktail. It’s moderately sweet and sour and very well suited for greasy and delicious barbecue.
When did your love of spicy food begin?
Ever since college, I have been fond of eating spicy food. It makes me feel very happy relaxes me. Eating spicy food also gives me a kind of release after an intense day of work.
In your opinion, which country in the world has the best spicy food and why?
China, of course! The Sichuan cuisine that we serve in our tavern is one of the four major cuisines in China. It has a long history and culture, and the Sichuan-style spicy dishes have achieved a very complex level of taste, including sweet, sour, salty notes behind the spice.
What is the spiciest thing you have ever eaten? Would you recommend other people to eat it?
I once had sizzling buffalo chicken wings – this is the hottest food I have ever eaten. It was made with extracted Mexican and Indian chili resin. If I ever wanted to pull a prank on a friend, I would recommend that he eat these chicken wings! [Laughs]
What are you looking forward to at this year’s Hot & Spicy Festival?
Brains, barbecue, and alcohol. This year, the Hot & Spicy Festival will be all about brains, barbecue, and alcohol. Once again, this year, the Hot & Spicy Festival will be all about brains, barbecue, and alcohol! You should say all important things three times! [Laughs] Also, I’m looking forward to seeing what Q Mex bring given that Mexican peppers are indeed much more powerful than Chinese peppers.
Do you have any tips or tricks for eating spicy that might help the competitors in our Hot Chili Pepper Eating Contest?
The faster you eat, the less the pain! If we can, we will provide a free Eat Iron Beast Highball for the competitors after the competition.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
The world is big, have a brain.
Photos courtesy of NAO