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.
Friday, 24 April 2009
Snack vendor, Xi'an, January 2008. He was selling a glutinous rice sweet that was sadly rather average.
Tomatoes in a street-market, Hong Kong, February 2008.
Durian fruit shop, Guangzhou, March 2008. When I took this photograph I'd never eaten durian before - I took it for a friend who adores them. Now, as a confirmed durian-lover myself, I look at this photograph and drool (not only over the durian but also the cheap prices).
Empty rice-noodle bowl, Guizhou, March 2008.
Yunnan-style crisps pre-deep-frying, Lijiang, August 2008.
Some kind of savory melon, Xishuangbanna, January 2009.
Still life-esque eggs and spring onions, Laos, February 2009.
We started these adventures first in Xishuangbanna, at the very southern tip of Yunnan. About as far away from Beijing as you can get in the People's Republic, Xishuangbanna is in many ways entirely different to the rest of China – with it's tropical climate, Dai minority people and exotic fruits, it has a very South-East Asian kind of vibe. This was especially evident in the area's markets; at the huge airport hanger-style market in the regional capital Jinghong, I saw lots of foods that I've never seen elsewhere in China, including this mysterious green stuff.
I also saw for the first time many different varieties of foods I already knew – these neon chillies...
...and these scarlet pumpkins being just a couple of examples.
After such a tantalizing start, you can imagine that our expectations for Laos were pretty high, but sadly the food there turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. This was not, I don't think, due to any less an appreciation of food in Laos than in China, but rather due to Laos' relative poverty. The markets here were rather sad affairs compared to China's, where abundance is characteristic; in Laos' markets, the neatly arranged piles of vegetables were pitifully small, and there was not much in the way of variety either. Outside of the big towns, there also seemed to be less of a culture of eating out than in China – the restaurants we usually ate in were almost solely patronized by tourists, and the quality was accordingly pretty poor.
It wasn't all bad though! (she hastily types). We lapped up the delicious Laos coffee like there was no tomorrow...
...and in a little town called Nong Khiaw ate a fantastic local snack called 'river weed' on the menu. Wandering along the river, you would frequently see people knee-deep in the water collecting the grass, and then bashing the water out of it on a flat, slanting slab of stone. Here are a couple of photos of the river weed drying out in the sun, sprinkled with sesame seeds, garlic and tomatoes; when we ate it had been deep-fried, and was totally moreish.
Lastly, a mention should most definitely be made of what has been called Laos' national dish, foe. These rice noodles are usually served in a pretty boring clear soup, but are saved from banality by one's adding of a whole range of condiments and seasonings to taste, including freshly-squeezed lime juice, fish sauce, dried chillies, fresh mint and lettuce leaves and a whole load of others. Foe stalls, usually very basic places, are found in every town, village and market, and are often the cheapest meal in town. I ate a bowl of foe almost every day while I was in Laos, and the picture below is of one of the best, at the market in Udomxai.
Thursday, 19 March 2009
Earlier this year, Cam and I were in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and craving to get out of the city. Having talked for ages about jumping on a random bus and seeing where it took us, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to actually do it. From the town centre we boarded the number 2 in high spirits; yet 45 minutes later, instead of ending up in some pastoral idyll, the last stop turned out to be just another grim suburb.
With our time in Kunming rapidly slipping away from us, we realised we needed some local expertise, and so called our friend Joe, a Norweigan who is currently living in the city. Trying not to sound too desperate, I explained our predicament, and asked Joe if he could recommend anywhere we could go.
“Yes!” he said straight away, “you should go to Hao Bao!” And so it was that a couple of hours later we were in a mini-van, on a road snaking through thickly-wooded hills, to a destination more perfect than we could have imagined.
Kunming Hao Bao Qing Organic farm (昆明好宝箐生态农业园), 35 km north-west of the city, is, we were told, the oldest organic farm in China, established in 2002 and receiving organic status in 2005. The 110-mu (96 hectare) farm, nestled in a peaceful narrow valley, employs around forty people, growing vegetables and raising pigs, ducks, sheep, rabbit, turkeys and chickens – all to organic standards that are inspected every year. In addition, the farm also runs a restaurant and a small hotel, whose rooms are spilt between the main building and several cave-like rooms set into a hillside.
We arrived in the late afternoon, and before dinner I was given a quick tour of the main greenhouse by farm manager Li Gang. Everything at Hao Bao, Li Gang explained, takes much longer to grow than on a conventional farm, where fertilisers and pesticides are used to speed up the growing process; the pigs at Hao Bao, for example, are slaughtered at eight months old, as opposed to the normal four. Some of these are kept in a pen next to the restaurant, and munched away nosily on their dinner as we spoke.
It was soon time to eat our own dinner, the ordering of which turned out to be one of the highlights of our stay. The ordering of one's dinner at Hao Bao is perhaps the most lovely way of ordering food I've ever experienced. Instead of any sort of menu, we were led around the greenhouse, between beds thick with countless varieties of vegetables. Next, we decided what took our fancy, and pointed it out to a member of staff. As we returned to our table, our choices were dug up and cooked not ten metres away from where they were grown; five minutes later, the vegetables we'd chosen had been transformed into a simple but mouth-watering meal: fried egg and tomato, a cabbage soup, stir-fried fennel and stir-fried cauliflower. I'm not sure if I've ever eaten such fresh food, nor eaten a meal that was so delicious.
The next day after breakfast, farmhand Zhao Zhongming treated us to a full tour of the farm. In the smiting cold, we saw the main animal sheds, more greenhouses, and countless fields planted with spring onions, radishes, red cabbages and many more. Zhao Zhongming echoed Li Gang's emphasis on the slowness of their methods, and explained that vegetables, like the pigs, are only ready to eat after twice as long as those grown using fertilisers and pesticides.
With this approach in mind, and the comparative expensiveness of their products, I found it slightly hard to imagine how commercially successful projects such as Hao Bao can be; yet it seems that the awareness and popularity of organic food in China is growing. Hao Bao's vegetables are now being distributed through Green Kunming, a veg-box scheme, and it is now common to find an organic section in most major supermarkets. Furthermore, the widespread public outrage in response to last year's baby milk fiasco (and many other recent food safety scandals), seem to point towards an increasing realisation of the problems inherent in the current food industry.
Though I often revel in the cheapness of food in China, I also know that that cheapness must surely come at a price. While more natural methods of farming, like those at Hao Bao, are undoubtedly more expensive for the consumer, it is clear to me that these methods make the cost to both the environment and our health considerably less. As such, I sincerely hope that organic food will continue to spread in popularity in China, and that farms like Hao Bao continue to prosper.
(Additional information gathered from www.gokunming.com).
Wednesday, 11 March 2009
Friday, 6 March 2009
Eventually though, I was won over (though the baked bean thing continues still), and by the time I went to university, I was a bean addict. In my first year, I cooked an enormous vat of chickpea tagine to raise money for charity; in my second year, the communal house I lived in bought 20 kg sacks of dried beans (and yes, we did get through them all). Here in China, although beans aren't a stereotypically Asian foodstuff, I am nonetheless spoilt for choice: vegetable stalls abound with fresh green peas and plump broad beans, while the dried goods stores are filled with butter, aduki and black beans. These last (whose Chinese name, 黑豆, also means 'black bean') have become a regular ingredient for Cam and I, and here is one dish that we've particularly enjoyed recently. Though in the picture the beans are still a bit crunchy (I was impatient and didn't let them cook for long enough), I do think it would be better if they were completely soft, and so have indicated this in the recipe.
P.S. If you're worried about the errr, gaseous effects of eating beans, I've heard that if you use a fresh panful of water after bringing the beans to the boil for the first time, this can lesson their impact.
Black Bean and Butternut Squash Dip
About 3 handfuls of dried black beans
500kg of butternut squash
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 teaspoons of cumin seeds, roasted and then roughly ground
2 teaspoons of dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons of Thai-style chilli sauce
A handful of fresh coriander leaf, roughly chopped.
Salt to taste
1. Soak the black beans in plenty of cold, fresh water for at least 6 hours; once hydrated, change the water and then boil until soft and buttery (about 2 hours).
2. Peel the squash and discard the seeds, cut into even chunks and then boil until cooked, about 10-15 minutes.
3. Mash the cooked beans and squash together until smooth.
4. Add the garlic, cumin seeds, soy sauce, chilli sauce, salt and almost all of the coriander leaf and mix well.
5. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the rest of the coriander leaf and serve. This dish is particularly tasty when eaten with fresh and crusty wholegrain bread.
Friday, 27 February 2009
Friday, 20 February 2009
Sunday, 15 February 2009
The day started with Part 1 of Cam's presents to me: a beautiful non-stick wok
– perfect for pancakes.
After that, we headed out into the sunshine for a wander around Chengdu's oldest church,
ate a little snack – chilli-laden 凉粉 （liangfen， bean-starch jelly) and crunchy, heart-shaped broad beans,
and mooched around in the lovely tea-house opposite the church.
This is the tea I had,
and here is a glimpse of Cam's.
After such an, err, tiring afternoon, I was quite keen on eating out for dinner, but for some reason Cam was fixated on making 饺子 (jiaozi, dumplings) and soup for dinner. Being the simple soul that I am, I didn't suspect a thing, and so it was a wonderful surprise to come home and find Presents Part 2: a 3-layer bamboo steamer set, a long-handled ladle, and a fancy soup server that they have at restaurants that keeps your soup warm while you eat.
By this point I'd been sent into paroxysms of delight, as anyone who knows me can well imagine; all that was left to make the day complete was to cook a fantastic meal with all these new toys: a simple but refreshing mushroom soup, and not one but two different types of dumplings.
Now all I need to do is think of something similarly wonderful to do for Cam's birthday...
Friday, 13 February 2009
There they are left for several weeks to wind-dry until chewy and aromatic, and then served as ‘horse-ears’ (slices cut at a sharp angle to resemble a horse's ear), either cold or quickly stir-fried. Some weeks ago, perhaps provoked by all this sausage madness, I had a sudden craving for a British-style sausage sandwich – thick, grilled pork sausages, slick with tomato ketchup, and enveloped by soft white bread. I don’t often crave meat, but the intensity of this craving took me rather by surprise, and so I decided to break our normally vegetarian kitchen’s meat-cooking virginity and satisfy my desire.
First, I bought a couple of ‘bai-wei’ (white flavour, ie. plain) flat bread rolls from our local bakery, and then proceeded to the butcher to purchase the sausages. I had anticipated a little trouble here, what with wanting to buy so few, but rather than object to the number of sausages I wanted, the butcher at first simply refused to sell me any. ‘They’re not ready yet’, he said, ‘come back in a week or two.’ Pleadingly, I explained that in England we don’t dry our sausages, and that I didn’t mind if they were ‘bu hao chi’ (not delicious) now. Perhaps just to get rid of me, he eventually gave in, and after a few minutes of gentle frying in the wok, I finally realised my sausage sandwich dream. Though the meat had a (very pleasing) hint of Sichuan pepper, essentially it was exactly what I wanted – a proper British sausage sarnie. If I closed my eyes, I could have been back in in my mum's kitchen in Hebden Bridge.
Monday, 9 February 2009
Though I've always been a great food enthusiast, I've recently found myself becoming more and more obsessed with food; at the same time, I have also found myself becoming increasingly addicted to reading food blogs. From reading these blogs (whose writers seem to be having so much fun), I've realised that I too could turn my obsession with food into something productive. So, I've decided to join in the game and start writing a blog of my own!
Though obviously still in it's infancy, I plan for the focus of this blog to be primarily (but not exclusively) Chinese food, and the myriad ways in which culture interacts with what we eat.
The name 'Jessie and the Giant Plate' was suggested by my friend Katy, in homage to Roald Dahl's book 'James and the Giant Peach' - and, in her words, to reflect my insatiable appetite.