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.