Monday, 24 August 2009
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Last Saturday, while I was at the Earth Day event at the Bookworm, I picked up some purple potatoes grown by a local organic farm. I would have bought some anyway, but I was particularly impelled to do so having had a conversation with a Chinese friend about them the very night before. Rui waxed lyrical about the purple potatoes he'd eaten in
This week I've been rather busy and haven't had much time to cook, but the other day, almost a full week after I bought them, I finally got to use my purple potatoes. I decided to make a simple potato salad, using a mixture of the purple potatoes and normal ones, dressed with lemon juice, sesame oil, garlic and sesame seeds, and sprinkled with some finely chopped red onions and cucumber. The result was both rather pretty and rather tasty – although having said that, I couldn't really discern a difference in taste between the purple and normal potatoes in the salad; and at about 3 times the price of normal varieties, a purple potato habit is not one I think I should get into.
Thursday, 18 June 2009
When I used to live across town from the university where I taught, I would often stop on my cycle home to eat a snack which is the closest thing I've found to a Chinese hamburger (in a good way). Most days this snack vendor was there, next to a bus-stop on the road running along the river, and at rush hour they did a pretty brisk trade among the commuters.
What first caught my attention and caused me to pull over somewhat recklessly, were the many small bamboo steamers built into the vendor's portable stall, stacked several high and now and then emitting little puffs of steam. Once I'd got closer, I saw that the snack itself consisted of a small pouch of flat bread, stuffed with chucks of beef that was cooked in the tiny steamers with ground rice and chillies. Once this mixture was done, it was placed into a small bowl and mixed together with spring onions, fresh coriander, more chili powder, and ground Sichuan pepper; the finished mixture was then stuffed into the pouch of bread, and was thus ready to eat. The result, was totally delicious � slightly spicy, slightly numbing, but also wonderfully fresh-tasting from the coriander and garlic.
Since I moved house a couple of months ago, I don't go up to the river so much, and so don't get to eat this snack as often as I'd like. The other day however, I set off at 5pm with camera in hand and a mission: to eat the snack again, take a photo of the stall and, most importantly, find out it's name.
The lovely couple running the stall, Mr Pa and Sister Zao remembered me, and happily posed for photos. They are there everyday, they told me, from 5pm till 8.30pm, with another hour in the afternoon spent by the gates of a big middle school up the road. And the snack's name, it emerged, is zheng long niu rou ga bing (蒸笼 牛肉旮饼), a name not easily translated (ga means corner/nook/recess/out-of-the-way place), so I will for the sake of convenience just call it 'steamed beef bread pouches'!. I should also add that the snack is actually not native to Chengdu, but, as it's sign proudly proclaims, is a 'Famous Leshan Snack' (Leshan is a city about 2 hours south of Chengdu, famous for being the site of Dafo, the tallest stone Buddha in the world).
The snack was easily as good, if not better than I remember it, and I happily munched away while sitting by the river. There is another snack in Chengdu which I've heard referred to as the Chinese hamburger � a rather greasy concoction of egg, dough and minced pork � but I much prefer this version.
Steamed Beef Pouch stall
Corner of Bin Jiang Xi Lu and Jiangxi Jie
Everyday, 5pm till 8.30pm
Friday, 15 May 2009
OK, so maybe that's exaggerating it a little, but really, this is quite a discovery.
First, take a vegetable; any plain, not very flavorsome vegetable – courgette perhaps, or better still, bamboo – you know, the kind of vegetable that lies around for ages after you've bought it, the kind of vegetable you see and think “Ooo, that'll be nice”, and now you're wondering what to do with it. Take said vegetable, and cut into thinish slivers (about half a cm thick).
Now, finely chop perhaps 3 cloves of garlic, and cut up a few spring onions into 5cm long chunks.
Next, the cooking part. Heat up a couple of tablespoons of vegetable/groundnut/canola oil in your wok, add the garlic, and almost immediately afterwards add the vegetable slices. Stir-fry on a high heat until pretty much almost cooked, leaving it for a minute or so every now and then so the veggies get nicely golden. Add the spring onions, and a minute or so later add 1-2 tablespoon of soy sauce. Fry the whole lot for another 30 seconds, season with salt, turn off the heat, add about half a tablespoon of sesame oil and.......
TAA DAA! A rather boring, somewhat tasteless vegetable is transformed into a delicious, mouthwatering piece of edible art. Served with freshly steamed white rice this dish is a brilliant quick, healthy and ridiculously easy dinner for one; or, of course, it can be served alongside other dishes as part of a larger meal. Feel free to improvise; my current favourite is bamboo shoots (竹笋 zhu2sun3), and also green pepper slices, but as long as you stick to the magic formula (garlic+spring onions)+(soy sauce+sesame oil) you really can't go wrong. Bon appetite!
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
In famously spicy Sichuan food, chillies are everywhere, and appear in one's meals in many different forms - from fresh to dried, pickled to fermented. These sesame-stuffed chillies though, until I picked them up in the supermarket last week, I'd never seen before, although I had heard of them. On the website of my friend Taylor's company, Lotus Culinary Travel, there is a photograph of a beef dish that uses homemade ones, and recently my friend Fran raved about a Ganbian Sijiedou (Four Seasons Green Beans) she'd eaten that had also used them.
Though many years ago I once witnessed a chili eating competition between two friends (inevitably culminating in a fight for the tap), eating the chillies themselves is actually not really done in China - their presence in a dish is usually just for flavour. These though, can be eaten - on the packet it says 'hao chi bu shang huo' (好吃不上火), roughly translated as 'delicious and won't start a fire in your mouth'!
The packaging also, oddly, features both English and Russian ingredients lists - do Russians like to eat chillies I wonder?...
Anyway, I first used them the other night in a dish I actually created myself – deep-fried, battered aubergine pieces, served with stir-fried red and green peppers, red onions, Sichuan pepper and dried chillies. This time, I just replaced the dried chillies for these ones – they gave the dish pretty much the same kick as the ordinary chillies, but also added a nice crunchy element too. Nonetheless, as Cam pointed out, they're really more of snack than a cooking ingredient – though certainly not a snack for the faint hearted...
P.S. I just did a little Googling to find out if the plural of chilli is spelt -is or -ies (I'm still not sure), and came across this lovely quotation from William Makepeace Thackeray (work not specified):
'A chilli,' said Rebecca, gasping, 'Oh, yes!' She thought a chilli was something cool, as it's name imported, and was served with some. 'How fresh and green they look,' she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. 'Water, for Heaven's sake, water!' she cried.
Tuesday, 28 April 2009
Sunday, 26 April 2009
But living in China, as in so many ways, has changed my cooking habits completely; not long after arriving here I had a kind of tofu-epiphany (if you can imagine that), and I am now a fully-paid up member of the Tofu Fan Club. Perhaps this turnaround was in part due to the incredibly wide variety of tofu products available here compared to the rubbish selection in the UK (all health food shop tastelessness as far as I could tell). Go to any market in Chengdu and you will find many stalls/stores that specialize in tofu, and positively brim with the stuff; smooth, fresh blocks (0n the far left in the photo below), slightly crumbly and more fragrant ones (to the right of the latter), deep-fried bite-sized cubes, millimeter-thin tofu 'skin', and the kind that stars in the recipe below, 'dry' or smoked tofu (in the photo, all the darker ones), which comes in many shapes and sizes (including that rather phallic one in the middle there...)
For a while, vegetarian Cam refused to touch this stuff, saying that it tastes too much like meat. Eventually however, he succumbed to it's smoky, chewy charms, and it's now a regular on our table. The following recipe (picture at the top) is based on a dish I had at a very modest eatery one time for lunch. The smoothness of the tofu contrasts wonderfully with the crispness of the celery, and the Sichuan pepper and chillies lend it that awesome mala (numbing and spicy) kick.
Smoked Tofu and Celery
Serves 2-3 as part of a family-style mealAround 100g smoked tofu
Several sticks of celery
3-5 spring onions
4-8 dried chillies (depending on how spicy you like it!), cut in half and seeds discarded
1 teaspoon of whole Sichuan pepper
1 tablespoon of rapeseed oil
2 teaspoons of sesame oil
Salt to taste
1. Wash, dry, and cut the tofu into roughly 5 cm x 1 cm 'fingers'. Wash the celery, discard the leaves and cut into same shape as the tofu. Wash the spring onions, discard the outer layer and then cut into the same shape as the tofu and the celery (I hope you're noticing a pattern here!)
2. Heat the rapeseed oil in a wok, then add the chillies and Sichuan pepper.
3. When the chillies and peppers are starting to get fragrant, add the tofu, celery and spring onions.
4. Stir-fry over a high heat for about 3 minutes, or until all the ingredients are piping hot.
5. Season with salt, turn off the heat, add the sesame oil and then serve.