Learn Chinese in China

Grandma's Fennel Potatoes 茴香老奶洋芋

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This is another wildly popular Yunnan favorite that has gradually migrated to other parts of China. Yunnan cuisine has a knack for using unlikely ingredients in imaginative ways which sets it apart from many other better known food styles. Yunnan cooks embrace boldly fragrant herbs, such as fennel and mint, and they marry them to our famous hot peppers without batting an eye.


Today we will see how that works with Grandma's Fennel Potatoes 茴香老奶洋芋。The potato 土豆 is called "foreign tuber" 洋芋 here for reasons that go back to the days when Yunnan was a remote backwater province, populated by proud minorities, rebels and outlaws. Things like potatoes, introduced from other parts of China, were foreign indeed.


Most of China's potatoes are produced in the northeast 东北 and northwest 西北, but Yunnan also produces an abundance of good ones, especially in its high, rocky northeast, specifically Qujing 曲靖 and  Zhaotong 昭通。This part of the province is as proud of its potatoes as Honghe Prefecture 红河州 is of it's paddy rice, grown in the famous terraced fields 哈尼梯田 of Yuanyang County 元阳县,which crown the Ailao mountain range 哀牢山 in the southeast of the province.





But Yunnan's best potato fields are not as photogenic as its rice paddies 水稻。




I bought some of these potatoes today at the big Sunday wet market 菜市场 from a vendor who had a mountain of them stacked six feet high. It was a struggle to only buy a few; he kept trying to stuff more and more in my bag. Wound up with about 1 斤,roughly 500 grams for 3 Yuan. Larger potatoes, with a more uniform shape and fewer blemishes cost 4 Yuan. Those big pretty ones might have been better for "French frying" or other dishes where they remained more intact. Also bought a bunch of small scallions 小葱。





The fennel 茴香 here is gorgeous, picked young and sold complete with the slim roots, for only 2 Yuan per bunch. Fennel is a relative of carrots, and western varieties have a large bulb on one end. But this Chinese fennel is grown for its delicate lacy fronds, which are aromatic and full of flavor.




Scrub the potatoes and chop them into thick slices. Steam them until they are done 蒸熟; check them with a fork or the point of a knife. You can cook them in the steamer basket of your rice cooker just as well, but I wanted to use a stove-top steamer pot today because that way I could use the boiling water to strip the skin off a ripe tomato. (Dunk it for 30 seconds, then peel under cool running water.)




We saw this tomato technique recently in the recipe for scrambled eggs with tomato. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53734-the-basics-tomatoes-and-eggs-番茄炒鸡蛋/




While the potatoes are cooking, prep the other ingredients, scallions, dry red peppers 干辣椒, garlic 独蒜, ginger 老姜。 Take a moment to make sure everything is lined up, ready to go.






When the potatoes are done, let them cool enough to be able to handle, then skin them and break them up. You can use a tool or put a glove on one hand and break them up that way. They do not need to be totally mashed and smooth; just soft enough for your toothless old Grannie to be able to gum them down.











Oil your wok; use high heat at first. Begin cooking the aromatics until they release their aroma 爆香。




When you add the potatoes, turn the flame way down because they are easy to burn. As you stir them up, add a half teaspoon or so of salt. TIP: Sprinkle the salt in with your fingers, because it is difficult to distribute it evenly if you rely on stirring alone.




The last thing to go in is the finely-chopped fennel. Toss it around 翻炒 for a minute or so, and then you are done.




Serve it up. Works well in place of rice, alongside a meat dish 荤菜, a green leafy vegetable 青菜 and a simple soup 汤。




I should point out that you can easily make this without the fennel. You can also omit the tomato. Like many popular dishes, this one has endless variations. Every restaurant will have its own individual take on it. But it's also definitely "make at home," family-style food 家常菜 of the highest order.



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This makes me feel very hungry!


Another easy one to try at home. I must have been a rabbit in a recent past life, I crave for all forms of fennel...but your fennel is not finocchio, the fat bulb with an aniseed flavour that I braise with sardines to make Sicilian pasta. It's impossible to find fennel with fronds in Wales, even the bulbs are rare in the shops, this is the most vegetable-deprived place I've ever lived in.

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Right, @Luxi -- this isn't finocchio or fenouil, with that big delicious bulb being the star. Not sure that European variety grows here at all; I've never seen it for sale. Perhaps the bulb develops if the plant is left in the ground longer. This fine, lacy fennel is popular here as a stuffing for dumplings 饺子, combined with ground pork and ginger. 茴香猪肉饺子


You would really have a treat here at my neighborhood market. Evey time I go there, I find at least one or two fresh vegetables and fruits that I've never even seen before. It's an endless bounty of produce. I'm always torn between buying some of my old favorites and trying something brand new. Wind up doing a little of each.




Wanted to add a footnote about eating things like this dish today that have pieces of broken up or cut up dried red peppers which aren't meant to be chewed and swallowed. They add flavor to the dish, but as you go along you simply pick them out with your chopsticks. If necessary, you just spit them out. That's not impolite or uncommon.


Chinese dishes often have inedible things like that in them when served; small chicken bones used to drive me nuts when I first arrived. Cooks don't feel compelled to remove such superfluous bits in the kitchen; it isn't part of the culinary tradition like it is in the West.


IMG_9335.thumb.JPG.67b5d5a7940da4b0fb224edfa7319166.JPGA prime example would be the process of eating chicken feet 凤爪, in which you spit out more than you swallow.

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Indeed nor part of the eating tradition. But then it is part of the dining and culinary traditions across East Asia to feel free to ask 这怎么吃? or equivalent if one is unacquainted with it. I can't imagine getting a straight answer to "How does one eat this?!" in the Western dining tradition.


However, 谢谢你告诉我们怎么吃!

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Yesterday when out and about I had a tasty dish of fennel and tofu soup 茴香豆腐汤 at lunch. That's not a particularly Yunnan way of serving fennel, but it was a refreshing accompaniment to the rest of the meal.




These fennel fronds are often served in an omelette  here. Sometimes they are just quickly stir-fried with a few almonds and served beside something rich like roast duck 烤鸭。


One of the characteristics of Yunnan cooking is to take something that elsewhere might be used as a minor seasoning ingredient 辅料 or as a garnish 陪料 and making it the star of the show instead. That approach is possible only in places where such ingredients are fresh, abundant, and cheap.


The best example here is mint, where you can buy a big double handful of it very fresh and beautiful for 1 块钱 or maybe even slightly less.


58d07d4b13e84_mintsoup.thumb.JPG.21d1368226b53a86bb2b916519aa0cea.JPGWe looked at mint soup last year.



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