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  1. abcdefg

    The Kunming Cucumber Rickey

    It would be best to confess up front that I have finally caved in to popular demand. Here's the drink recipe for which you have all been clamoring. Cuba has its Mojito and Daquiri, Mexico is home of the Margarita, and Kunming boasts the Cucumber Rickey. As the days heat up it's difficult to resist a refreshing after-work libation. With one as crisp and clean as this ready to hand, your prayers have been answered. I promise not to tell if you have more than one. The ingredients, a short list, are at their best right now. Perfect time to buy: quality high; price low. What you will need per person, be it man, woman or child. (Wait. I got carried away. No children allowed at this party.) 1. One small lime -- 青柠檬 2. A half or a third of a cucumber, depending on size -- 黄瓜 3. Gin -- 1.5 ounces or maybe even 2 if you don't have many pressing items on your agenda this evening 4. Simple syrup -- A tablespoon for each ounce of gin. (Footnote below on how to make simple syrup.) 5. Club soda -- 苏打水 (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) We have three kinds of cucumber in the local wet market just now. First we have these large ones, as shown in the photo, which I call "English cucumbers." Then we also have the long, skinny "Asian" ones, the length of your forearm. They are smaller in diameter than these "English" ones, with a thicker and darker green skin plus more prominent bumps. The third kind is the smaller "Persian" cucumbers, which have dark, smooth skin. Any of these will do just fine; they are interchangeable here. Don't let yourself be bogged down in detail when pursuing this project. Forge ahead. Victory belongs to the bold. No need to remove the cucumber skin; just wash it well. Slice about a third of it into long, thin slivers, as shown. I use a ceramic-blade peeling tool; but I could use my trusty Chinese vegetable knife 菜刀 just about as well. Use one whole lime if they are small. Too much lime juice is better than not enough so err on the side of generosity instead of parsimony. I cut two or three wedges from the lime and squeeze the rest into my glass. I dice an additional inch or two of cucumber, putting it into the bottom of the glass along with the wedges of lime. Add a tablespoon of simple syrup for each ounce of gin. More if you like your drinks sweeter; none at all if you happen to be a purist. (A "how to" on simple syrup follows below.) Notice, if you please, that all these photos are streaked with long shadows. Please construe that as evidence that the sun is well over the yardarm and it's time for a little righteous alcoholic refreshment. Now muddle this all in the bottom of the glass with a roundish soup spoon or similar. Add the gin and crush everything up a little more. The idea is to coax the lime and cucumber to release their delicious essential oils so they can diffuse throughout the other ingredients and become part of the whole drink. Bartenders have an actual dedicated instrument for this, but I would suggest spending you hard earned cash on more gin instead of a silly single-use tool. I first discovered this drink one very wet night in Kuala Lumpur when my plans got rained out and I took refuge in the rooftop bar to soothe my disappointment. Wind was lashing the palms outside by the pool, making quite a racket. I could barely hear the mellow jazz coming over the speakers. This drink is just as much at home on the Pacific Rim as it is in Europe or Latin America. The featured brand that night, being poured at a discount, was Hendrick's in the black bottle. It's a gloriously complex "craft" gin distilled in Scotland and it has cucumber and rose notes all its own to start with. But lately I've been buying Gordon's or Seagram's, since they are on special at the nearest Carrefour for only 49 Yuan per bottle (750 ml.) The glass that I use could probably be called a "large, sloping-walled old-fashioned," except that I bought it right here in China. Line it all the way around with the thinly sliced cucumber strips, add ice cubes and top it off with club soda 苏打水。Stir once with a light hand. That's all there is to it. Eat the cucumber as you go along. A variant of this drink includes mint, and I will take you there another time.
  2. Since I'm in China I usually eat Chinese style, complete with rice bowl and chopsticks. But every now and then I get a definite hankering for one or another old favorite from back in the US. Earlier this week I succumbed to an illicit desire for a BLT sandwich (bacon, lettuce and tomato.) You know by now how much I hate to brag, but it turned out exceptionally well. Let me show you how to do it, here in your new China home, instead of spending a pile of Dollars or Yuan on a plane ticket back west. First buy some mantou 馒头。I know, I know, you would prefer a crusty San Francisco sourdough or a chewy loaf of deli rye from Brooklyn or Bronx. These steamed buns are not quite the same, but they will do in a pinch. I buy them at my local wet market where they typically go faster than hotcakes and consequently are always extremely fresh. That's important since they don't age well. This seller boasts a baking technique that originated long ago in Shandong. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) They start them over a large cauldron of simmering water outside the open-front stall. Don't think I've ever seen a taller stack of steamer baskets 蒸笼; ladder required for access. These metal baskets have holes in the bottom so steam goes up through all of them. An athletic young guy clambers up and down the stack re-arranging them and moving some over for immediate sale when they are done. It's a bewildering process; don't know how he keeps it straight in his mind. Several kinds are available, some made with corn meal 玉米面 and others made from whole wheat 全麦。Some are folded back on themselves several times, look almost braided, and are studded with sesame seeds 芝麻。These are called 花卷 hua juan. I buy some of each. They are still warm when I get them. The sign says: "Buy three, get one free." I usually go for supermarket sliced bacon instead of wrestling with a slab of the real stuff, 腊肉 la rou, which requires a higher degree of dedication. I would not presume to tell you how to cook bacon in the privacy of your own home, but I usually start it in a small amount of water to render and remove some of the fat. The last part of the bacon ritual lets it get crisp in the pan over low flame when the water has boiled off. The photo above shows a 花卷 on the left and a standard 馒头 on the right. If you feel the call to go whole hog, buy a slab of 腊肉 and knock yourself out. I've done it a few times and it yields good results. Also, you can slice it thicker than you can find in the supermarket. Here's where I buy it when struck with the urge to do it the old fashioned way. 47 Yuan per kilo 千克。 While I'm at the neighborhood wet market 菜市场, I pick up some lettuce 生菜. Though many varieties of leaf lettuce are available, I don't think I've ever seen tight round heads of iceberg 球生菜 for sale locally. The one I generally go for is a flavorful variety of Romaine. If the lettuce doesn't look nice, I make my sandwich with fresh spinach. Yes, don't remind me. That's not how they do it at Sal's Diner. As I rounded the corner with green leafy vegetables in hand, I saw a small boy walking a reluctant crawfish on a leash. 小龙虾 Arguably the most important ingredient of all is the top-shelf, partly vine-ripened tomato 番茄。I was excited to find these last time just by pure dumb luck. Tasted a wedge right on the spot and then bought a large bag full. The sign says they are local 本地 and grown out of doors 露天。The 正宗 is for emphasis, kind of like saying "genuine" -- pronounced "gen-you-wine," with emphasis on the last syllable. These develop more flavor than the ones grown in large plastic tents 塑料大棚。But I cannot claim any credit for discovering these on my own. I watched a local chef buy a bunch of them first even though they cost more than the ordinary ones. Once home, I washed the lettuce well and dried it by rolling it gently in a towel. Sliced a couple of tomatoes and salted them on both sides. Thinly sliced part of a big red Bermuda onion 洋葱。 Sliced the mantou 馒头 as well. Spread a bit of mayonaise on the bread and put it together. (Mayo and Mustard available at Carrefour or WalMart.) Eat these "open face" Danish style, lettuce on top. Otherwise it gets too thick for anyone except a crocodile to handle. Uncork a bottle of white wine or pop a beer. Who said you can't have all the comforts of home right here in the Middle Kingdom? Well, you almost can.
  3. This is a dead simple soup made with only two main ingredients, a green leafy vegetable and plain tofu. Chinese have a soup with almost every meal. It often does double duty as the beverage. Tea is not served until after. The soup I'll be showing you today is "poor people food" not something you would find at an imperial banquet or a state dinner for big shots in Beijing. My China recipe basket here in Kunming has two parts. One for things that are quick to whip up on a week night when I'm eating alone and the other part for things that I would call "labor of love" projects that I would be more likely to make for guests on the weekend. This soup holds a place of honor in both camps. Let me explain. Tonight I made it for myself to have with a couple of sliced fresh tomatoes, steamed rice and a piece of roast duck 烤鸭 from a stall in the market. It supplied the green vegetable necessary for a balanced meal and it only took five or ten minutes to prep and half that to cook. Two weekends ago I made it as part of a dinner for friends to go alongside a Chinese chicken curry served atop rice 咖喱鸡肉盖饭 and a "smashed" cucumber 拍黄瓜 salad. It shines in a situation like that because it can be finished at the last minute with minimum labor. Here's what kucai 苦菜 looks like while still growing (photo from Baidu,) and after I purchased 3 Yuan worth and brought it home for supper today. One of the games I no longer enjoy playing is "What is this stuff called in English." It's best just to refer to it as "kucai," (kootz-eye) using its Chinese name. Why? Because the dictionary says that in English it would be "bitter sow thistle." How unappetizing can you get? I would never eat anything with such an ugly handle, even though I love "kucai." (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) It is one of those vegetable that you can find any day of the year in a fresh market or even in the supermarket. It's so popular that people here often just call it 青菜, a generic term for "greens," kind of like in the American south you might say "greens" instead of taking time to be clear about whether you mean mustard greens or turnip greens or collard greens. It has a slightly bitter flavor, prized by Chinese because it tends to offset other dishes that have prominent spices or are fatty. Also, it has "cooling" properties that make it great for use in hot weather. Lots of Chinese cooking is about preparing things that regulate internal heat and thereby act as preventive medicine. Baidu (a popular online Chinese-language encyclopedia) says there are 9 distinct varieties that are grown in different parts of the country. My market usually has three or four. I tend to lump them into ones with very large leaves and ones with relatively small leaves. These latter are more tender and less bitter; they are what I usually buy. They go by the non-scientific nickname of 小苦菜 or "small" kucai. In buying look at the roots as well as the leaves; they are a good indicator of when the plant was picked. The roots should have small filamentous "rootlets" as well as just the main white part. I try to usually shop for vegetables in the morning because sellers often keep misting them with water all through the day so they will look nice. Towards late afternoon, they get soggy; the flavor becomes "dull." Once I get them home, I trim off the roots and cut them into pieces about three inches long. My Chinese friends gasp in horror at that level of waste, but I honestly don't think they add anything and they are devilishly hard to get clean. Wash the greens well in several changes of water, until all that rich red earth is rinsed away. Nothing is worse than gritty soup; it will cost you your Michelin star. If you take a mid-morning stroll along the small side streets of my old and not-terribly-affluent neighborhood, you will see young waitresses sitting on low woven bamboo stools 草凳子 outside small open front cafes washing vegetable in pans while gossiping about their boyfriends and wondering if that handsome new cook might still be available. It's a ritual of meal prep that gets handed down to the least senior employees. Some dishes require soft tofu 嫩豆腐 to turn out well, and others must have firm tofu 老豆腐 instead. This soup can be made with either kind. I bought a generous chunk, about 450 grams, for 2 Yuan. Used half of it for this dish and put the other half in the fridge to scramble with eggs tomorrow morning. Rinse the tofu and cut it into bite-sized pieces. The kind I bought today was firm. It's just what the tofu lady had that looked freshest. Put some frozen stock on the stove to thaw in a two quart pot. Add enough water to fill the pot about two-thirds full. I sometimes make bone stock 骨头汤 (mostly pork bones) and chicken stock 鸡汤 on a rainy afternoon when I'm bored and freeze it in convenient "drinking glass" sized chunks. If you don't have stock, you can use chicken bouillon 鲜鸡汁 or just plain water. I sliced three small tomatoes. Now that it's spring, they again have lots of flavor. I usually buy smaller tomatoes that are gown in open air 露天 instead of the huge photogenic ones that are raised in large plastic tents 塑料大棚。I prefer the ones that someone raises as a sideline instead of the ones that are produced by the ton. Cannot swear it, but I think they usually taste better. My favorite egg seller's middle-school daughter raises some as a pocket-money project. That's where these came from today. When the water and stock come to a boil, put in a scant teaspoon of salt and add the greens. Let the pot come to a boil again, and then add the tofu. When it boils again, the soup is done. You want the vegetables to be tender but still have some crunch, and you don't want the tofu to cook apart. Taste and see if it needs more salt. Finish the soup with a teaspoon or two of sesame oil 香油 and a large pinch of MSG 味精 (about a fourth of a teaspoon.) A word of caution about Chinese salt: it can be very fine, making it easy to over-salt things. For cooking I prefer a coarse sea salt or large-granule Kosher salt, but can't always find those here. Before serving it make a small bowl or two of dipping sauce (zhan shui 蘸水)。You serve this to each diner so he or she can use it to add flavor to some bites of vegetable or tofu. You lift individual bites out of your soup bowl with your chopsticks and dip them into the sauce, using as little or as much as you want. Sometimes I use ground red pepper 干辣椒粉 but tonight I used a home-made red chili sauce 红油 that I had in the cupboard. A tablespoon of the hot stuff, a tablespoon of aged vinegar 老陈醋 and a tablespoon of clear soup from the pot. Serve it up proudly with a smile. It's not a complete meal on its own, but it plays well with others: easy to combine with whatever else you might feel like making or already have on hand, including left-over pizza. I like that it does not compete for attention with the star of the show, but it still adds a lot to the overall dining experience, sort of rounds it out, makes it complete. Try it and see what you think. Might add as a footnote that if you are eating out in China, this is a "failsafe" thing to order in any small restaurant, north, south, east, west. No weird "surprise" ingredients and a good way to get some plain vegetables when you tire of them arriving at your table over-salted and swimming in oil.
  4. Now is the time for cauliflower: it's at its best in local markets. We find two kinds at the wet market near my house, one being the traditional tight head of cauliflower such as is popular in the west, and an organic 有机 variety which has longer-stalked, gangly, looser florets. This latter kind has more flavor, and it's the one I usually buy. It's the one I bought today. Here's what they look like. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) Dry frying or 干煸 (gan bian) is a cooking process popular in the southwest of China: Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. The idea is to cook a mild vegetable with a minimum of extra moisture so as to concentrate the vegetable's flavor. 干煸花菜 (gan bian huacai) is popular here and you can find it in most restaurants, large and small, at this time of year. If you like Sichuan food 川菜, you are probably familiar with dry-fried green beans 干煸四季豆 (gan bian siji dou); they are a staple menu item, both here in China and overseas in the western world. It's a dish that has been successfully exported. I'll show you a straight-forward way to make this nice cauliflower dish at home. Doesn't take much time; requires no fancy tools. Today I was making it for one, and I used about a third of a head of organic cauliflower, the kind with the longer, somewhat spindly florets. Use your fingers to tear it into shreds. Large pieces of stalk should be cut into thin pieces. If you are using western cauliflower, with the bigger florets, cut it up into thin slivers. The idea behind this is to allow it to cook fast with dry stove-top heat. Thick pieces would require a different cooking method to become tender. Soak these cauliflower pieces in dilute salt water for about 20 minutes. (I used a scant teaspoon of salt in nearly a quart of water.) While it is soaking, prep the other ingredients. Many Chinese recipes call for using fat pork belly meat 五花肉 (wuhua rou) sliced thin. Others call for sausage. Today I used Yunnan slow-cured ham from Xuanwei county, in the NE mountains of the province. 宣威火腿。Sliced it thin, alongside some minced ginger 老姜 and garlic 大蒜。Tore up two or three dry red chili peppers 干辣椒 and sprinkled out a half teaspoon of cumin seeds 孜然。I had some tasty cherry tomatoes 小番茄 in the fridge, and I sliced a few of those. Since the quantities were small, I used a non-stick saute pan today 不粘平底锅, but I could just as well have used a wok 炒锅。Quick fried the garlic, ginger, peppers and ham slivers over medium heat until they began releasing their aroma 去香味。Careful not to burn the garlic; only takes 20 or 30 seconds. Drain the cauliflower and blot it dry, then add it to the spices in your skillet. Stir it with a flipping motion 翻炒 of your spatula or wok tool 锅铲 keeping the heat between medium and high. When the cauliflower begins to take on a bit of golden color 变金黄, add the small tomatoes. At this point you could also add some fresh hot green peppers 青辣椒 for more heat, or sliced spring onions 大葱 for greater complexity. Reduce the heat to medium now and continue stirring until the cauliflower is tender-crunchy and the tomatoes have lost most of their moisture (about 5 minutes.) Add a sprinkle of salt and another of sugar. (Remember that the ham has some salt, best not use too much.) Add a teaspoon or so of light soy sauce 生抽 and another of dark aged vinegar 老陈醋。Don't be tempted to add water to make a gravy, as you might if this were a standard stir-fry. You want all the flavors to be absorbed into the vegetable as it cooks. It's ready when the stalks yield easily to being pinched with chopsticks. Plate it up 装盘 and dig in 动筷子。This can be served with rice as a side dish in a larger meal. If you prefer a vegetarian version, just leave out the meat. The finished product!
  5. Fennel 茴香 (huixiang) here means the fragrant lacy fronds of the fennel plant; not the solid bulb that you are used to seeing in the west. If you've traveled much in China, you have probably met it paired with ground pork in dumplings 茴香猪肉饺子, but in Yunnan it's the prime ingredient of a very tasty soup. Yunnan takes pride in making main dishes out of several items that you are used to thinking of as seasoning or garnish. Mint is one such that we have looked at before. Link to that: Mint soup Today I'll show you how to make an honest, straight-forward soup from fennel and silky tofu. The process couldn't be more simple. My concern, however, is that you might not be able to get fresh fennel fronds overseas. Even though the plant has a long growing season, the fronds are delicate and surely don't travel well. Pretty sure they are usually just discarded, like carrot tops. Here's the kind of fennel we are talking about. Bought some this morning in the market. Three big handfuls at 1 Yuan each. (Fennel in the middle of the image.) Stopped a few minutes later on "tofu row" for 2.5 Yuan worth of Mrs. Zhang's best small-batch soft tofu (嫩豆腐)。Note how the firm tofu (老豆腐) in the foreground stands up straighter. The soft tofu towards the rear is bulging and leaning over. Please click the photos to enlarge them. At home I washed the fennel and chopped it into pieces a couple inches long. Three slices of fresh ginger 生姜 and a piece of aged dry tangerine peel 橙皮, just to kick it up a notch. Don't fret if you don't have aged tangerine peel; it's not essential; just leave it out. In fact it's worth pointing out that this is an extremely flexible recipe: if you want more fennel or less fennel, that's OK; if you want more tofu or less tofu, that's OK too. Make it the way you like it. Give the ginger a sharp whack with the side of your caidao 菜刀 cleaver knife to partly crush it and then put it plus the tangerine peel into about 750 ml of chicken stock. One can make this soup more dilute or more concentrated according to taste. If you're vegetarian, it's fine to use plain water instead of stock. Let these seasoning ingredients simmer about 10 minutes to extract more flavor. (Maybe next time I'll simmer them even longer.) Rinse the block of tofu and cut it into irregular pieces, suitable in size to be picked up easily with chopsticks. Gently add the tofu to the stock and simmer it a couple minutes with minimal stirring. This makes the tofu more likely to stay intact instead of falling apart. Then lift the tofu out with a strainer so it won't get too fractured and beat up while you cook the fennel. The fennel only takes two minutes or so. You want it to retain some crunch and not be completely soft. When it has reached that point, add back the tofu. Season with a scant teaspoon of salt 食盐, a dash of white pepper 白胡椒粉, and a half teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精 ji jing. This latter seasoning, popular in China, is like granulated chicken bouillon plus a small amount of MSG. Let it come back to a simmer, and you're almost done. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed (might need a little more salt, depending on your chicken stock.) Serve it up. As an afterthought, I garnished the dish with a couple of thinly-sliced cherry tomatoes. I'm sure they caught your eye in the market picture up top. Obviously, I had to buy a few. Big tomatoes are not great right now, but these little ones have lots of flavor with a pleasantly tart finish. Served it with a bowl of left-over chicken rice. It probably would make a nice lunch alongside a grilled pannini sandwich.
  6. This is one of those dishes for which there are a hundred casual recipes on the internet, most of them sorely lacking. It has been oversimplified to death; but good results can be achieved with a modicum of effort. The bonus is that if you master the technique you will find it is transferable to a dozen other tasty dishes, all of which use this Chinese braising process. I'll show you how to do it. Buy 16 chicken wings, the medium joint. These should weigh about half a kilo or one pound. I've included a quick review of chicken wing anatomy below. The part to buy for this dish is the 鸡翅中。They cost more than the first joint, the 鸡翅根, but they are easier to work with because their size is more uniform, they don't have one large end and one small end. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) You will need 3 or 4 large spring onions 大葱, a thumb of ginger, 4 to 6 dried chilies 干辣椒, and a teaspoon of Sichuan prickly ash peppercorns huajiao/花椒。 Toast the huajiao 花椒 and the dried red chilies 干辣椒 over low heat until they begin to release their aroma. Scoop them out and pound the 花椒 with a mortar and pestle or simply crush them in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Tear the dry chilies into sections. Cut the white part of the spring onions into long pieces 切段 and slice the ginger into coin-sized segments. (The ginger does not need to be peeled.) Rinse the chicken, shake it dry, 洗净流干水分, poke a couple holes in each side with the point of a paring knife. You don't need to marinate the chicken for this recipe; it will acquire plenty of flavor as it cooks. Chinese poultry recipes usually have a step designed to remove any "off" flavors 去腥味 and cleanse the meat of blood 去血。This one is no exception. Put some of the spring onion and ginger into a deep skillet or wok along with the toasted and crushed Sichuan peppers and the chilies. Add a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒。Boil this stock for a minute or two and then add the chicken. When the water comes to a full boil again, scoop the chicken out and set it aside to drain. This quick blanching step 焯 also serves the important function of thawing any frozen places so that all the wings will be the same temperature and can cook uniformly. Blot the wings dry with paper kitchen towels. Wipe out your wok or skillet 平地锅 and add two tablespoons of cooking oil. I generally prefer corn oil, 玉米油 though for this dish rapeseed oil 菜籽油 or peanut oil 花生油 are also fine. Add the wings and brown them about 3 minutes per side. If you have too many to do them in one batch without crowding, divide them in half. If you squeeze them all in too tight, they won't brown and will stew instead. The skin will never become crisp; it will be mushy and unappealing. By the way, even though I'm a firm believer in a standard, well-seasoned iron wok for most Chinese cooking, this browning step works best if you have a non-stick utensil 不粘锅。 Remove the chicken when it is golden 金黄 and add your liquid ingredients to the wok or fry pan. The cola needs to be standard old-fashioned Coke. Coke Lite or Coke Zero 零度 won't work. The artificial sweetener breaks down and turns bitter when cooked. Furthermore, the sugar is necessary for the meat to develop a pleasant caramelized surface. Pour in 250 or 300 ml; don't dump in the whole bottle. Two or three tablespoons of light soy sauce 生抽, two or three tablespoons of Chinese cooking wine 料酒 or dry sherry, and only one scant teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。If you use too much dark soy sauce, everything will just acquire a nasty axle-grease color. To these add the remainder of your spring onion and ginger plus a teaspoon of salt. When it reaches a gentle boil, add the pre-browned chicken wings. Let it simmer uncovered about 10 minutes over low to medium heat. Then pick out and discard the spring onions and ginger slices. Now you are ready to thicken the sauce by reducing it carefully over low heat 小火慢炖。Be attentive and don't let it scorch since that will ruin the flavor profile. This stage usually takes about 10 minutes, but depends somewhat on your pan and flame. Might take a little longer. Stir it gently and slowly, but stir it a lot. When the sauce develops a rich color and is almost gone, you're ready to plate it up. Sprinkle on some minced cilantro 香菜 and white sesame seeds 白芝麻。These wings can be eaten right away while nice and hot, or served later at room temperature. The chicken is tender and moist, not dried out, and has a rich flavor. The glistening skin is intact and not soggy or falling off. No surprise that this recipe was a favorite of the Qianlong Emperor. (Smile) To be truthful, there are many ways this dish can go wrong; it isn't foolproof; it does require some care. But if you can master the process, you will find that it provides a key to a host of other tasty traditional braising recipes such as red-cooked ribs 红烧排骨。
  7. It's cold outside: Time for a big bowl of winter melon soup 冬瓜汤。In all fairness, this is one of those family favorites that can be enjoyed any time of year. It's mild and warming; not difficult to make. Sometimes I cook it without meat, but today I used ground pork meatballs. Let me show you a reliable and straightforward way to go about it. At the market you will usually see two kinds of winter melon. Admirably, the nomenclature couldn't be easier: namely big 大 and small 小。Wish all ingredient names were always that obvious. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) The big ones, pictured on the right, are so large that you would have to use both arms and grunt to heft a whole one off the ground. They are always sold in small sections, such as those just in front of the friendly shopkeeper. Notice the white "frost" on the surface. This is where these gourds got their name. They actually grow better in the summer months, but way back when, a long time ago, their appearance reminded someone of a snowy winter. Smaller winter melons are also for sale, left part of the picture. They are more fibrous and work better in stir-fry dishes. This seller also has lush, deep orange butternut squash 南瓜, near the back of the picture. These all grow on vines, often trellised to improve yield. Her husband and her brother tend the farm, south of the city. She comes to town to sell the bounty. Both kinds are really cheap. For under 5 Yuan you can buy enough for two or three meals. The big ones have a texture somewhere between that of a watermelon and a cucumber. Donggua has a bland flavor, ever so slightly sweet. They aren't eaten raw; and they shine as an ingredient in soup because they don't eclipse other flavors. Often they are paired with pork spare ribs in a hearty soup 冬瓜排骨汤。I'll show you that one another day. One of the reasons this vegetable is such an integral part of Chinese family-style cooking is that it can keep a long time after being picked: 3 or 4 months if it hasn't been cut. For many of China's lean years it was a "go to" peasant food, along with cabbage 白菜。It could be grown without a lot of pampering; didn't require the sort of modern plastic tents 塑料大棚 that today make summer vegetables available nearly year round. The seller will peel and seed it if you ask her, but I usually do that at home since I might not use it all at one go, and it keeps better with the peel on. Today I rinsed it and peeled it with my knife, then cut away the soft central pith. Sliced it into pieces a couple centimeters thick as shown. I bought a few flavorful organic carrots 有机胡萝卜, some spring onions 葱,single-head garlic 独蒜, and a piece of ginger 老姜。Cut these up as pictured, taking pains to mince the garlic and ginger really fine 切米. The Chinese term for this kind of cutting means that they should be minced into pieces no larger than grains of rice. I bought some pork, ground to order with about 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat (by eye.) Pork prices have gone up recently because some pigs have had to be killed to prevent spread of a nasty virus. This has impacted stockpiles and supply lines. Put the ground pork on a chopping block 菜板 and minced it even finer with my cleaver 菜刀, turning it this way and that plus folding it over on itself half a dozen times. Then mixed it in a bowl with half a teaspoon of salt, a fourth teaspoon of ground white pepper, a tablespoon of soy sauce, one egg white 蛋清, and of course the minced garlic and ginger. Stirred it all together really well 搅拌均匀。 Put about 750 ml of water on the stove to come to a simmer and then spooned in the seasoned meat, forming it into approximate spheres using two teaspoons to make them round. Sometimes I put on a disposable glove and shape it with one hand, using a squeezing motion. Drop these one at a time into the simmering water and let them partially cook. When they all float, after about 2 minutes, lift them out gently with a strainer and put them in a bowl. We will finish cooking them a little later. Since the carrots take longer to cook than the winter melon, start them first. Sometimes I use sections of corn on the cob instead of carrots. They can be put in right along with the winter melon. When the carrots become nearly tender (can be pierced with a fork) add the winter melon. It cooks fast, usually only requires about 3 or 4 minutes. When it's partially translucent 半透明 and tender (can be pierced with a chopstick) then return the meat balls to the soup. Give it all another 4 or 5 minutes for the meat to finish cooking and allow the flavors to blend. Keep the pot at a low simmer; a rolling boil would overcook the vegetables and meat, plus make everything kind of fall apart. The best Chinese clear soups are made by cooking the ingredients just barely long enough. I've chopped some fresh cilantro 香菜 as well as the spring onion 葱花。Just before the soup is finished, I taste to see if it needs more salt and sprinkle these aromatic leaves on top as a garnish. Dish it up. This mild-flavored soup can be served as a side dish or it can be served with steamed rice 米饭 as a light meal. Adjust the amount of liquid to suit your taste. I prefer it kind of concentrated, and that's the version that is shown here today. In a restaurant, it's more likely to be somewhat thinner. This is one of the advantages to cooking things at home. This glorious but humble soup started as the food of farmers and factory workers, eventually becoming so well accepted that it's now found in five-star banquets. It's another of those authentic regional dishes that I'd never heard of, let alone tasted, until coming here a decade ago. It probably would not sell well at the all-you-can-eat China Star Buffet on the strip mall in Smalltown, Texas, USA. Try it and see what you think. Nothing flashy. Just honest family-style Chinese food. The real deal.
  8. It is with some trepidation that I will try to give you a little background on how tofu is made and consumed here in my part of China (Yunnan, Kunming.) Since it is such a vast topic and I lack expertise, what I did was just walk around my neighborhood wet market and take snapshots of the tofu that was readily available. I'll simply show you the photos and tell you what I can about what they show. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It goes without saying that other types can be found in supermarkets, the result of rigidly standardized large-scale industrial processes. These are nicely wrapped and have ingredients and expiration dates listed on the package. But they often come with flavor enhancers, preservatives, stabilizers, and coloring agents to make them sell better. My 老百姓 neighbors eschew them as "factory food," and find their way to the wet market to buy the "real stuff" instead. It also goes without saying that tofu differs from place to place within China, and even more so when talking about those from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and so on. These often represent the taste preferences of members of the Chinese diaspora who landed and settled there many years ago. These "foreign tofu's" also often reflect changes made to incorporate local ingredients: coconut milk on such and such island, fish sauce in such and such port, and so on. All tofu starts out as soy milk, extracted with heat from soybeans, that has been acidulated to produce curdling or coagulation into a solid form. That basic raw tofu is then strained and pressed into blocks. It can be pressed a little or a lot, making it thin enough to need to be kept in a pot, or a little thicker, sort of like jello, or a lot thicker and firmer like cheese. (I have oversimplified grievously.) Here's a look at some of that basic raw tofu. In the two photos above, you can see a color difference between the tofu in the foreground and that in the background. The "whiter" tofu in back is softer; it is called 嫩豆腐 (nen doufu) or "tender" tofu. That in the front is slightly firmer and is called 老豆腐 (lao doufu) or "tough" tofu, though it isn't very tough at all. Some recipes work best with one, some with the other. Tofu vendors frequently sell other things as well, things that are often paired with tofu or things that can easily be made with the same raw materials. Photo on the left shows soy bean sprouts and mung bean sprouts next to the nice lady who sells them. Bottom left in this photo is a non-tofu item that is often eaten instead of tofu; it's made from bean sprouts that have been processed differently, often with addition of some natural gelatin. Goes by the name 凉粉 (liang fen) around here; in the west, when it can be found, it gets the odd name "grass jelly." In these parts it's usually cut in strips and served cold with a sauce of chilies and scallions. Sometimes the tofu is barely solidified at all, being described as "silken." This extremely soft style is known here as "tofu flowers" 豆花 and is used in making several delicious dishes such as 豆花米线 (tofu flower rice noodles) which is one of Kunming's signature snacks 小吃。Douhua mixian 豆花米线 is shown below right. The food stall offers a meatless version or a version with seasoned ground pork. I'm not vegetarian and I enjoy the kind that has meat, as you see here. It is sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and includes pickled chopped greens 泡菜 and several kinds of herbs to achieve a result that is just this side of Heaven. Often tofu is processed instead of being consumed in it's raw, unadulterated state. One of the most common things that is done to it is to press it, removing some moisture and allowing a concentration of flavors. This process is particularly prized when the water with which the tofu has been made tastes good on its own. This is true of the deep Artesian well water of Jianshui 建水 and Shiping 石屏, both ancient cities in SE Yunnan's Honghe Prefecture 红河州。 Here is some of that on display at the stall where I usually buy it: Not surprisingly, these rectangular sheets of pressed Shiping tofu come in different tastes and textures. You can buy firmer or softer; milder or more flavorful varieties, tailored to your preference or cooking application. Some of this tofu has been allowed to ferment slightly and is formed into small "packets" shown at the rear of both photos above. This tofu is "mildly stinky" 臭豆腐 -- a far cry from the hugely pungent product popular in Taiwan. In the far left of the photo just above, in a white basket, is the notorious "hairy tofu" 毛豆腐, that has a very distinctive look, aroma, and taste. The photo below left shows another vendor's hairy tofu. Some days it's more photogenic than others. Below right you see a snack stall on the edge of the market where the guy is grilling the small briquettes of stinky tofu to serve hot with a spicy dipping sauce. You belly up to the bar facing him, sit on a low stool, and eat your fill. He keeps track of your consumption with small colored beans and and the sharp eye of an experienced casino croupier; you settle your account after eating your fill. Once tofu has been pressed it can be brined and then smoked, as discussed in the recipe posted here yesterday. As you can well imagine, the finished product is affected by the kind of tofu one pressed to start with and then how it was soaked, in what and for how long. Finally, the flavor and texture are further dictated by how it is smoked, over what wood or twigs and for how long. It comes in several shapes, analogous to the way smoked cheese varies: a smoked Edam is not the same as a smoked Provolone. One from this maker may not be exactly like that from his neighbor. Sometimes tofu is deep fried, puffing it up and giving it a golden color. It can then be eaten with a sauce, or served together with dishes that contain lots of gravy, such as red cooked pork 红烧肉。Here below left is some of it coming out fresh from the wok. That's a good time to buy it, instead of later the same day after it has sat around in a plastic bag getting stale. Sometimes tofu-making byproducts are for sale, such as tofu skin that has risen to the top of the pot during processing. It can be air dried or fried, and is usually sold as tofu skin 豆腐皮。(Below right.) Numerous special local wrinkles exist, such as this vendor who only sells tofu made with the water of a prized mountain spring in NE Yunnan's Xuanwei County 宣威县。It sells for a small premium but there is always a line outside his stall, telling me that it's in high demand. I've tried it, but honestly can't tell the difference. One part of my neighborhood wet market is "tofu row" with about 25 vendors near each other. Some have the usual fare, and others have exotica. Some make it completely on the premises and others have workrooms nearby where the rent is cheaper. They resupply throughout the day by motorbike or electric scooter 电动车。 This vendor makes his on the premises and has a workshop behind the sales area. You can see a tall pot on the stove, in the left corner. Probably has more kinds than anyone else. Unfortunately he is not very forthcoming and doesn't like to chat about his wares. You point and he bags it up; you hand over your money and leave. Not even a thank you. What I do from a practical standpoint is buy certain tofu staples over and over from the same one or two vendors. Then from time to time I branch out and try new types or new variations on the old types. I often ask the sellers for their recommendations as to cooking methods. Sometimes I try something in a restaurant that I would like to try to reproduce, or watch something being made on TV. Before moving here a decade ago I seldom ate tofu at all; in fact practically never. Now it's something I have about once a week. Good source of protein without many calories and it is definitely economical. For better or worse, tofu has become part of my China life. Here's a link to the last two tofu recipes: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56990-addictive-smoked-tofu-青椒豆腐干/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56975-sunday-brunch-tofu-and-eggs-豆腐炒鸡蛋/
  9. Today is Sunday in Kunming. I don't have to go anywhere soon or do much of anything. Woke up late and wanted a breakfast that would be substantial enough for me to painlessly skip lunch. Already had the ingredients for this on hand, all that was needed was to whip it together. Thought I would show you the method since it's a versatile dish that one could reasonably have for a light supper along with a soup or salad. Cheap, nourishing, easy to make. Tofu here comes in many kinds. This recipe can be made with most of them. What I had in my fridge was soft tofu 嫩豆腐 in a small block that I had bought earlier in the week. Rinsed it off 洗净, cut it into small pieces 切小块 and simmered 焯 them gently for about 10 minutes in lightly salted water 盐水。Scooped them out 捞起来 into a bowl. Drained away the water 干水。This removes any off taste 腥味 and makes the tofu less likely to fall apart later when handled. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) Cut up 切段 one medium spring onion 大葱, a ripe tomato 番茄, and a clove of garlic 打算。Shown together here with three free-range eggs 土鸡蛋。 Using medium heat, saute 煸炒 the aromatics (onion and garlic) until you can smell them 爆香; they don't need to become brown. Add the tomatoes followed by the drained tofu cubes and turn them 翻炒 gently until they begin to change color and become a little bit golden 变金色。 Stir the eggs 搅拌 and add them, reducing the flame to between low and medium. Be restrained with your spatula 锅铲 so as not to break things into small fragments. I used a flat-bottom non-stick pan 平底不粘锅 which made it easy. Add a sprinkle of salt 食盐 and another of MSG 味精 if you use it. A tablespoon or so of light soy sauce 生抽 also improves the flavor. When the eggs are no longer runny, the dish is done. Don't overdo and turn them to leather. Plate it up 装盘。Goes well with a pot of green tea 绿茶。 Try it out; see what you think. This is a good straight-ahead project that will give you an intro to working with tofu.
  10. Last week I had something real good in a local restaurant and today I tried to reproduce it at home. That is always a risky proposition, but what I wound up with was a pretty good adaptation even though it required more labor than initially expected. As you know, Kunming is famous for its cross-bridge rice noodles 过桥米线, as is most of southern Yunnan. One local eatery which I frequently visit is known for its variations on the old, time tested theme. They offer a variety of vegetables and meats to put in the boiling hot broth: sometimes they offer seafood, sometimes pigeon or quail, other times it's wild mushrooms that takes center stage. Last week they were trying out beef combinations with mint. One dish was called 滇味牛肉过桥米线 which had thin-sliced cooked beef 白切牛肉, green peppers 青椒, and mint 薄荷。It was available at an introductory price of 15 Yuan, down from 17 list. The other new menu item was those ingredients plus sliced beef stomach tripe 牛肚, called 金牌牛肉过桥米线 at the special price of 23 Yuan instead of the usual 25. If you aren't familiar with Yunnan cross-bridge rice noodles, please take a look at this previous discussion. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/52493-yunnan-cross-bridge-rice-noodles-过桥米线/?tab=comments#comment-404109. Here's what it looks like in the restaurant, complete with raw quail eggs and chrysanthemum flower petals. (Click the photos to enlarge them.) Small plates 碟子 of cool or room temperature items are brought to your table along with a bowl of uncooked rice noodles. The waiter next delivers a bowl of extremely hot broth 高汤, and you put it together yourself, adding ingredients one at a time so they cook quickly on the spot. The noodles go in last of all, so as not to prematurely cool off the broth. My home adaptation of this dish saw me making it on the stove. If I had owned a free-standing hot plate or induction burner, could have done it right on the dining table instead. The flavors of beef and mint seem like they were meant for each other and the combo is a staple of Yunnan cuisine, much as lamb and mint are wedded in some western traditions. This dish showcases the marriage of beef and mint. Here's how I did it; here's how you can make it yourself at home. First, let's look at the beef. Bought a piece of rump roast, about 800 grams. Didn't actually need that much; a third or even a fourth of it would have been enough for today. But the trouble involved in slow cooking it means that it makes sense to cook a big piece and have some left over for other projects. Buying beef in the market tends to be an adventure. Works best if you are armed with some knowledge of the various cuts. They aren't identical to those used in the U.S. This cut sells for about 50 Yuan per kilo and doesn't have much waste. Slice it in half and tie the two pieces with twine so it will cook more evenly than if it had a thick "head" and a thin "tail." Bring it to the boil quickly in lightly salted water to clean it of blood and surface impurities, throwing away that water. Beef here in China tends to be tough, at least the most economical cuts do. So it's best to keep that in mind and cook it in a pressure cooker 高压锅 on high for 25 or 30 minutes. Let it come down to a safe temperature naturally over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, don't need to use a "quick-release" method. If you don't have a pressure cooker, you can slow simmer it for 60 to 90 minutes until it's tender when pierced with a fork. Include some ginger 老姜, garlic 大蒜, a cardamom pod 草果, one star anise 八角 , a piece of cinnamon or cassia bark 桂皮, and a bay leaf 香叶。A few "numbing" Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 and several dried Yunnan red peppers 干辣椒 are optional. (I admit liking to add them.) After it cools completely, slice it thin. This process gets you what is known as 白切牛肉, plain sliced boiled beef. It's one of the old standards of Chinese cooking. Often served just like that with a fragrant and spicy dipping sauce 沾水 at the start of a special meal. I saved the stock this produced and combined it with some chicken stock I already had on hand. Turned my attention to the vegetables. Most of China, and most of the world, views mint differently from Yunnan. Here it's a bonafide green leafy vegetable, not just a garnish or a condiment. We eat it by the handful, especially in summer since it's a "cooling" food 清凉。Here's a link to mint soup, which shows it in its "vegetable" role: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51575-early-kunming-summer-mint-soup-and-mangoes/ Used the crinkly-skinned spicy green peppers 虎皮椒 that are so popular here along with a red bell pepper mainly for color. Had a bunch of garlic chives 韭菜 and a bunch of very small spring onions 小葱。Washed and sliced thin as shown. I went through the mint as I washed it and tossed out any tough woody stems and damaged bits, being careful to not just wind up with leaves since small and medium mint stems have lots of flavor. Assembled the meat, shown here beside some home-made chili sauce 辣酱 and spicy pickled turnip greens 酸菜 cut fine. Got out a handful of rice noodles; this is about 1 Yuan worth. Put the stock 高汤 on low flame in a clay casserole pot, uncovered. When the stock barely began to simmer, I added the peppers. Let them cook a minute or so, until just starting to soften a little, then added the small spring onions and the garlic chives. Stirred it frequently so it didn't boil over. Now it's time for the thin-sliced cooked beef and a pinch of salt. (Don't need much because the 酸菜 diced pickled vegetables are salty.) As soon as the meat heats through, add the mint. Let these flavors combine for a half a minute or so, minimal cooking time. Add the rice noodles, preferably a few at a time instead of in one big clump. These are fresh noodles, straight from the maker. They have never been dried. If you're using dried noodles, probably best to start them off to the side in a separate pot of lightly salted water. We're done. It's ready. Eat up 动筷子!The mint combines great with the beef and the other flavors are completely harmonious. Every spoonful of broth makes you want to close your eyes and smack your lips. Try it, you'll see what I mean.
  11. Chinese chives, known over here as jiucai 韭菜, is an ingredient that's easy to find all over China and it isn't too challenging to track down even in the west. It's an ingredient that's fun to use because it is versatile, lending itself to many applications. It's also forgiving, not easily ruined when you are using it. I unexpectedly lucked in to a big batch this weekend and wound up cooking jiucai three days in a row. I had three days of jiucai feasts. The back story might be of interest. A hot springs sauna where I sometimes relax grows all its own vegetables organically out on the northeast edge of the city. It's one of their boasting points and is a claim to local fame. Whatever they bring in fresh in the morning, gets used up by the end of that same day; they are scrupulous about not holding anything over. "Completely organic and completely fresh" is what you can expect to eat on their premises, according to their promotional literature. They set a lavish buffet for lunch and another for supper. Breakfast is also provided, but it's a simple affair. If you are leaving anytime after supper, as you check out and settle your tab, they will ask if you want a bag of that day's leftover veggies. The receptionist won't let you pick through them or select what you want. One person, one bag; take it or leave it. I find it hard to say no to this kind of pot luck bounty, and usually smile and nod yes. This means that sometimes I walk out with a heavy bag of cabbage or half a dozen eggplants plus two carrots. This time my treasure was more jiucai than anyone could possibly eat at one go. Luckily, it keeps pretty well for a day or two in the crisper drawer of my fridge. Looses a tiny bit of it's fresh-picked bite, but not much. It's a pretty durable item. So now after three straight days of jiucai practice, I'm a self-declared expert. My best friend agrees, but we all know she's biased. In any case, I'll take great pleasure in showing you some jiucai tricks so that you can also perform jiucai magic at home, wherever you might live. This splendid green vegetable has a taste somewhere between that of onion and garlic, and is related to both. The flavor is more concentrated than either and it makes a very distinctive ingredient in many quintessentially Chinese specialty dishes, top among them probably being jiucai dumplings 韭菜猪 肉饺子。These rule the roost if you live up north, above the Chiang Jiang 长江, aka the Mighty Yangtze. Someone else will have to show you how to make those, since my dumpling skills are rudimentary at best. But today I'll gladly show you how to use jiucai in a stir fried scrambled egg dish 韭菜炒鸡蛋。Next we will make it up into crispy thin griddle cakes 韭菜煎饼。A day or two later, if there's sufficient interest, I'll take you through turning them into a tasty and simple fried rice 韭菜鸡蛋炒饭。All three were a hit with my Kunming friends. Never broke the bank or required excessive amounts of kitchen time. Trim off a little bit of the fibrous white root ends and discard any brown or wilted leaves. Wash them well, dry them, then chop into pieces 3 or 4 centimeters long. Break two or three eggs into a dish and mix them with chopsticks. I usually figure one egg per person when preparing this as a side dish to go with other parts of a meal. Scramble the eggs in a non-stick flat bottom skillet 不粘平底锅 with a little oil over low to medium heat. Turn the eggs out into a dish when they are barely done, don't overcook them. Sprinkle lightly with salt and set them aside. 备用 Wipe out the skillet, heat to medium, add a little more oil. Stir fry the jiucai until they wilt, but don't let them get real dark or burned. This usually only takes a minute or two. Add a light sprinkle of salt. Add back the scrambled eggs and cook them together for another half minute or so. Scoop them out into a serving dish. Set it on the table and dig in. This is a dish best enjoyed while it's still nice and hot, fresh from the flame. This goes well with nearly anything you can name in the wide realm of Chinese cooking. Its taste is distinctive but not overpowering. I've had it accompany a fish main course, or chicken or duck. One can simply enjoy it with a bowl of steamed rice as a brunch, or even with a bowl of Yunnan noodle soup 米线。 Hope you will give it a try. Eager to see what you think. On a spectrum of one to ten, this falls somewhere around zero on the difficulty scale. Highly suitable for fledgling Chinese chefs.
  12. This popular Yunnan lunch item is easy to cook but difficult to translate. It has no catchy English name. For several years I was sure 红三剁 meant "three red things that were chopped." This was always puzzling because it uses red tomatoes and pink lean pork, but combines those with very green peppers for color contrast. What happened to that third red ingredient? Regardless of the linguistic issues, I can show you how to whip it up at home. This is a quick and easy dish to make, doesn't require any fancy ingredients or techniques. Furthermore, it's difficult to mess it up; a good beginner 初级 project. A couple of nice ripe tomatoes 番茄,two or three long green peppers 尖椒, the white part of one large spring onion 大葱, a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜 and a small piece of fresh ginger 老姜。 Lean pork works best for this dish and I usually buy a piece of tenderloin 里脊。Marinate it 腌制 for 20 or 30 minutes with a couple teaspoons of cooking wine 料酒 and a teaspoon of corn starch 淀粉。Sometimes I also add a half teaspoon of sesame oil. Drop the tomatoes into boiling water briefly, score the skin with the tip of a knife and slip it off. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the seeds and pulp in the center. Chop them fine. Mince the ginger and garlic. 剁碎 Slice the spring onion fine. Do the same with the long peppers, removing the white fibrous sections and some of the seeds. These long slender green peppers are not very hot; the lady from whom I bought them at the market described them as "mild and fruity." Still, if you don't like spicy things at all, you could substitute sweet bell peppers 甜辣椒 (also called 柿子椒)。 Gentle reminder: You already started the rice, didn't you? Don't even think about heating the wok until the rice is ready. My rice cooker just dinged, took about 30 minutes plus a 15 minute soak. I checked the rice visually to make sure the surface had those important small steam holes. (Those tell you it's done.) Fluffed it up with a couple of chopsticks. Unplugged the cooker (don't leave it on "keep warm" 保温 or you will wind up with overcooked rice.) Closed the rice cooker lid, and now we are ready to proceed with the stir fry. Double check to be sure everything is ready; once you start the process, it goes fast. Today I used 150 grams of finely chopped meat 碎末肉 with two tomatoes and two long green peppers. These ratios are not critical, and you can make this dish by eye if you just use roughly equal amounts of meat, tomatoes, and peppers. First quick-fry 翻炒 the lean ground pork 猪肉末 with the minced ginger 碎末姜。Take it out and set it aside when about three quarters done 七成熟。The meat does not need to be browned, but it does need to lose its pink color. Wipe out the wok and add a little more oil. (Most Chinese families use a stiff bamboo whisk for this.) Stir fry the green peppers and the minced garlic for half a minute or so over high heat, being careful to not burn the garlic. When you can smell the aroma, add the tomatoes and the spring onion. Cook a minutes or so, adding stock 高汤 or water as needed to keep it from becoming dry and taking on a scorched note 糊。 Add the cooked meat and stir well, adding more liquid as needed. The result needs to be slightly soupy, not dry. Add salt 食盐 to taste and MSG 味精 if you like it. I usually add about a fourth of a teaspoon unless my guests ask me not to. Stir fry for a minute or two on medium heat. (Don't walk away.) And voila, the finished product. Serve it in a bowl beside steamed rice. My friends and I usually spoon some out and combine it with fluffy white rice in our individual bowls. Sometimes I present it as a plated "covered rice" dish 盖饭 because that looks extra nice. Either way, it tastes top notch. Hope you will give it a try someday soon, especially if you are in the mood for something with no good English translation.
  13. This cornerstone condiment is somewhat unusual in that it's not only found in every Southwest China kitchen for daily use in cooking, but it is found on nearly every restaurant table as well, in an open-top jar or small ceramic pot. You won't find a salt shaker on cafe tables in Kunming, but even the simplest 小吃店 snack shop has some of this 红油 readily available so you can easily add it to your noodles 米线, fried rice 炒饭 or wonton 红油馄钝。 Let me show you how to make it at home. Sure you can buy it ready-made, and that's better than going without. But when you make it by hand in your own kitchen you will know what goes in it. No artificial coloring or flavoring, no MSG, no unpronounceable stabilizers and preservatives. First and foremost you need some dried chilies 干辣椒。I made a small batch yesterday afternoon and it required two large handfuls, on my small kitchen scale this was 50 grams. Rinse them quickly to remove any dust, and spread them out to dry thoroughly in the sun. Smash a thumb-sized piece of ginger 老姜, two large cloves of garlic 大蒜。Coarsely cut the white part of one large spring onion 大葱。Set these aside and turn your attention to the dry spices. Cinnamon bark 桂皮 at 12 o'clock, followed by a smashed cardamom pod 草果,a piece of dried orange peel 橙皮,two or three star anise 八角,two bay leaves 香叶,four or five cloves 丁香,a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns 花椒,most of a tablespoon of white sesame seeds 白芝麻,and finishing up at 11o'clock with a teaspoon of fennel seeds 小茴香。Toast these quickly over medium-low heat in a dry skillet, shaking it constantly so they don't burn. Take them out and then toast the dry red peppers the same way, again being careful not to let them get too hot. This slight caramelization of the peppers really boosts the flavor of the finished sauce. (But I must caution you that this step is where it's easy to go wrong; it's easy to scorch them if your attention wanders.) Now grind the peppers fine either using a mortar and pestle or a blender 搅拌机。You want a coarse powder, not chunks and flakes. Might mention that if you want to tone down the Scoville heat a little, you can remove some of the seeds now, before you do the grinding. On the other hand, if you want to soup it up and give it more kick, this is the place to add a small amount of some other smaller, more pungent dry chilies, chopped fine. Plenty of options exist. Your 50 grams of dry peppers should yield about half a cup when ground. Pour this into a heat-proof bowl (I use metal) and scoop out a hole in the middle like the crater of a volcano. Now pour a little more than one cup of rape seed oil 菜籽油 into the skillet 平底锅 with the toasted dry spices and the ginger, scallion and garlic. Use medium heat to gently fry these flavor ingredients for three to five minutes. Don't let the oil get hot enough to smoke. When you can smell the aroma of the spices and can see the white scallions and garlic beginning to get golden brown 金黄,take it off the flame and strain the oil. Discard the solids and return the oil to the heat. When the oil reaches the point of just barely beginning to smoke, turn off the flame. Pour about a third of it into the dry peppers and stir quickly with chopsticks as it boils, fizzes and bubbles. Let the oil stand for another few seconds, most of a minute, and then pour another third into the peppers and stir, just like before. After a few more seconds, half a minute or so, add the sesame seeds and pour in the remaining hot oil, stirring it some more. It is said that pouring the oil in stages like this lets the hottest oil develops the fragrance (增香) of the ground chilies, while the second develops the red color (颜色变红) and the third balances their heat (会辣)。 The old Chinese kitchen saying that deals with this is 一香二红三辣。 Let it cool overnight to let the flavors blend before using. It also gets more red as it stands. Some of it can be stored in a small ceramic pot on the table and the rest can be put away in a screw-top jar in the fridge, where it will last 3 or 4 months. Of course if you live in Sichuan or Yunnan, you will use it all up long before then. In the photos below, I've poured some in a plate so you can see it better. This red chili oil 红油 is good stuff! Versatile and tasty. It's fragrant, rounded and balanced; pungent, yet without any sharp bite. Much more to it than simple liquid fire. Makes a great dipping sauce for 饺子 jiaozi, combined with equal parts soy sauce 酱油 and black vinegar 黑醋。
  14. This simple dish is reason enough to visit Yunnan. The province is famed for doing magic with half a dozen kinds of rice noodles, and this is one of the specialty dishes that contributes in a major way to that reputation. The best ersi arguably come from Tengchong 腾冲, in the west, not far from Burma. But they have definitely spread to Kunming. Instead of being extruded like most fresh noodles, whether wheat or rice, these er si 饵丝 are first kneaded and pounded into a firm cake and then carefully sliced. They are thicker and more chewy than ordinary rice noodles, which makes them delicious when fried then quickly simmered with a bold gravy/sauce (lu 卤)。During the process, the sauce penetrates the noodles as well as coating them with flavor. Here's what they look like: I've put some chopsticks on top to give you a better idea of scale. If you cannot get ersi where you live, you could use ordinary rice noodles by shortening the cooking time. One could also substitute wheat noodles, though the dish would not have quite the same mouth feel 口感 or taste 味道。 I bought them this morning in a street stall instead of my usual market. The vendor looked surprised and asked, "Do you know what to do with them?" I assured her that I did, but it reminded me that these aren't easily available all across China. They are one of the regional glories of Yunnan cuisine. This bag cost 2 Yuan and I used most of it today. Today I made lu ersi 卤饵丝 with some smoked pork just because I had it on hand. Usually I use roast pork belly 烤五花肉 bought from the market from a vendor who makes it fresh daily over slow coals in a clay oven. I've seen it in supermarkets for sale pre-wrapped. The recipe can also be made with plain ground meat, pork or beef 磨肉。 I paired this strong-flavored meat with a vegetable that could stand up to it as an equal: long green chili peppers 青椒/尖椒。 These are only medium hot and I take out about half of the seeds. Cut some in rounds, some in strips. One could tone it down by using bell peppers. Added a large spring onion 大葱 and some garlic, crushed with the side of my knife and chopped fine. Heat the wok, add some oil and give the meat a head start. Since my meat was already cooked by the curing process, I only gave it 30 or 40 seconds. Didn't want to dry it out. Added the vegetables and aromatics one by one, stirring and turning things over quickly 翻炒, with my spatula 国产 using high heat. Season with half a teaspoon of salt 食用盐, a tablespoon of oyster sauce 耗油, a tablespoon of soy sauce 生抽, and a teaspoon of prickly ash oil 花椒油。 I add about a quarter teaspoon of MSG 味精, but leave it out if it disagrees with you. A pinch of sugar is also optional (but suggested.) When these flavors have had a chance to blend and the vegetables have just barely begun to cook (don't want them to loose their crunch) add slightly less than a rice bowl of water (about a cup.) Stir it up, reduce the flame to medium, and add the ersi 饵丝。 Stir fry about a minute longer, until the ersi become slightly soft, just al dente, not too soft. If making it for the first time, it's best to err on the side of too short a cooking time. Maintaining the texture is important for an authentic result. Serve it up. In an unpretentious Kunming open-front café, they will give you a small bowl of clear broth 清汤 to sip as you eat, but between you and me, this fine dish goes very well with a cold beer. Give it a try and see what you think. Pretend you have been transported to Yunnan.
  15. Inspired by some other recent threads, I made time during my most recent visa stamp run (must exit China every 60 days) to buy a new cooking knife at the famous Hong Kong Chan Chi Kee knife store 陳枝記刀莊。 Was staying in Wanchai 湾仔 after returning from a visit to Macau to see the Dragon Boat Races 赛龙舟。Took the Star Ferry across to Tsim Sha Tsui 尖沙嘴 in Kowloon 九龙。The ferry is efficient and inexpensive. Taxi from the ferry terminal 码头 to the knife store, on Shanghai Street, took about 10 minutes and cost 45 HKD. Address: 香港九龍上海街 316-318. Bought their Number 2 knife, a thin-edged slicer with wooden handle, for 320 HKD. It's suitable for cutting up vegetables and meat, but not for chopping through bones. Got back to my hotel room and unwrapped it for photo purposes, only to find that I had somehow dinged the leading corner of the blade. It's not clear from the photo, but the damage was on the sharp edge, not the spine. Have no idea how it happened. I wasn't juggling lots of parcels or slinging it around carelessly. Had not dropped it or bumped it perceptibly. After lunch, I turned around and went right back. Rode the ferry across again; this time being easier because I knew the way. The man at the store swapped it for a new one, no questions asked. They were busy with other customers, and there was no chance to discuss it further or try to guess what had happened. He had earlier given me a short curb-side tutorial on how to sharpen it. Only 5 to 10 degrees of angle on a medium to fine whet-stone; making lots circles instead of changing sides too much. Sharpening the second side, he said, would only require a few strokes. The process didn't need to be symmetrical. I hope this blade does not prove too fragile. I definitely won't abuse it back in my Kunming kitchen, but I'm also unwilling to baby it. I like the fact that it is very, very sharp; should not take much effort to slice cleanly through tender things without tearing them up. The store was on a street with many other kitchen supply stores. I bought an instant-read thermometer which I will install ceremonially in a sleeve pocket on my white chef's smock along with a long tasting spoon (Only kidding; My kitchen has zero Michelin stars.) I've wrapped the knife very well, padding the entire edge with some styrofoam-type plastic that I found beside a trash bin on the street outside. It will travel back to Kunming in my checked suitcase, not in my carry-on, thank you very much. Will let you know how it works out. Related threads: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53912-chinese-cleaver-cai-dao-桑刀-or-菜刀-–-carbon-or-stainless-steel/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53947-hong-kong-residents-help-to-clarify-if-the-store-chan-chi-kee-陳枝記-still-exist/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/54134-show-your-cai-dao-wok-and-other-kitchen-equipment/
  16. Well, yes, I will admit that title is a bit of a stretch since salmon is far from a popular everyday food in China. Be that as it may, one of the things a person can do during this crazy COVID time is to occasionally make a nice meal for oneself. It is more than simple nutrition. I view it as a means of emotional self-care. Salmon was on sale this morning during early-bird hours at the supermarket. I bought a one-pound fillet for seven dollars and ninety-eight cents. At nine o’clock sharp I drove to the once-a-week local farmer’s market and picked up some decent early-season tomatoes and a few crunchy, thin-skinned cucumbers. A stand on the way out had some baby onions, and I snagged a small bundle of those as well. A piece of salmon is an investment. I never eat it all at one sitting. After it’s cooked, it will form the nucleus of several tasty meals during the early part of the week: Part of a colorful pasta salad, part of a salmon and avocado sandwich on whole wheat toast. But tonight, for starters, I simply poached it. Sliced a couple stems of celery along with the small onions. Could have added some carrot if one had been available. Smashed a clove of garlic with the side of my knife and sliced a thumb of ginger without removing the skin. Put these flavoring ingredients into a shallow pot with three cups of water and a half a cup of white wine. This is barely enough to cover the fish. Added half a lime, sliced and gently squeezed, two bay leaves and a teaspoon of salt. This poaching liquid is called a “court bouillon” and it gives the salmon a touch of additional flavor without overpowering it. The usual method is to bring the stock to a boil before adding the fish. This makes it all too easy to overcook the fish. So instead today I used the “cold start” method, putting everything together before setting the pot on the heat. This approach is described here if you would like to know more about it. Brought the pot to a boil over medium heat and immediately turned it down to the lowest setting. Cooked it uncovered for three minutes with only occasional small bubbles rising to the top. (A minimum “simmer” setting.) After three minutes I gently turned the fish over. After three more minutes I checked the internal temperature with an instant read thermometer to make sure it had reached the target of 115 degrees F. Lifted it out with a slotted spoon. Laid it in chunks onto a bed of tomatoes and cucumbers that I had already salted and drained of their excess water. Made a simple dipping sauce of mayo, a dash of mustard and a squeeze of lime. Had a side dish of steamed rice. Ate it all with chopsticks so I could pretend I was back in Kunming. I usually strain and save the court bouillon since by now it has a good deal of flavor. Tomorrow or the next day I will add a sliced pepper and use it to poach a batch of jumbo shrimp. Good eats are strong medicine in keeping the COVID blues at bay.
  17. These elusive jizong wild mushrooms 鸡枞菌 (no English translation) grow in the high backcountry of Yunnan and their life cycle depends on being just above a nest of termites 大白蚁。Their marriage is an obligate symbiosis in that the mushrooms are the main food source of the termites, and the termites allow the mushrooms to reproduce by aiding in spore transfer. If the nest of termites moves, the mushrooms die. They will probably reappear next year above the new nest. (These 2 are from Baidu) Most wild mushrooms, these included, cannot be cultivated. One must hunt them in pristine mountain forests the way one might stalk large game. Two years ago, in August, I took a driving trip into the Tibetan parts of NW Yunnan, up above Lijiang, along the road to Lhasa. One side of the winding road dropped off a thousand meters into a gorge, the other side was dotted with the parked cars of intrepid local fungus hunters. It was open season. The price of these famously delicious Jizong mushrooms 鸡枞菌 has gone up and up since demand exceeds supply. Not only are they are hard to find and have a short growing season, limited to the wet summer months, but they are highly perishable. They must be searched out, plucked, transported to market, bought and used within 24 to 36 hours. A kilogram of prime ones will easily set you back three hundred Yuan. Though I go all out and buy the “real ones” when cooking for friends, this time I was only feeding yours truly 一个人 and opted for a less expensive substitute: a taxonomically related mushroom that can in fact be cultivated and costs a fraction of the glorious wild ones. They are called “small black jizong” 小黑皮鸡枞菌, being diminutive and of dark surface coloration. Unlike some wild mushrooms, these are completely safe to eat; no chance of lurking poison 没有毒。The seller even offered some for free raw tasting on the spot. He provided a cup of pungent dark chili sauce for dipping, as you see below right. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) If you need help reading the mushroom sign, above right, click the spoiler ("Reveal hidden contents.") Chinese call these 人工的 (“man-made”) and Yunnan natives look down on them. I think they are darned good but must agree that they don’t have that distinctive “explode in your mouth” quality of the best wild ones 野生的。One taste of those and you will sell your soul for a second helping. Worse than opium 抽大烟。 Purveyors of cultivated mushrooms aren’t even in the same section of the market as the wild ones. The “wild sellers” squat on the ground beside their baskets. They usually look distinctly rural, scruffy clothes, dirt under their fingernails presumably from digging up the roots. The “cultivated guys” have actual stands so you don’t have bend or kneel to check out their wares. They offer a large variety of mushrooms; after all, Kunming is a mushroom capital for wild and cultivated ones alike. The traditional home-style 传统家常 way to prepare these is to just stir-fry them with spicy green peppers and lots of garlic, and that’s exactly what I did. Bought a handful of the crinkly medium-hot ones on the left below. The same seller offered five or six other varieties, with gradations of fire 辣 and sweetness 甜味。Peppers are not just about the heat: they promote complexity of taste; they make food interesting. Here are the mushrooms I bought. 300 grams for 20 Yuan. 小黑皮鸡枞菌。The seller has already cut away the roots, "shaping" the bottom of the stem like a school pencil. Buy ones with the caps fully or half closed, not sprung completely open like an umbrella. I cleaned them with a wet paper towel and a small brush then sliced them in half the long way. Cleaned and washed a couple of large spring onions 大葱, three heads of single-clove mild garlic 独蒜 and three of the crinkly medium-hot peppers. For an authentic Yunnan flavor, it’s desirable to retain part of the white membranous center when you chop the peppers. It supplies a subtly bitter note which helps in flavor balance. I keep about half the pith and most of the seeds. If you wanted less heat, you could omit the seeds. You wind up with lots of finely sliced pepper and minced garlic. If you are timid about such things, this dish might not be for you. Oddly enough, they don't overpower the mushrooms like one might suspect first time around. Slap the spring onions with the side of your Chinese cooking knife 菜刀 and break them down somewhat. Then slice them on a bias, about 45 degrees. This gives you “onion feathers” that release their essence quickly when introduced to the heat. Lets their flavors combine in seconds with your other ingredients instead of requiring minutes. Yunnan ham from Xuanwei County 宣威火腿, aged 12 to 18 months. Hard to go wrong with this flavorful meat in a dozen different applications. Notice how it is marbled. I cut away the rind but leave the exterior fat. If you first put it in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes that will allow you to slice it into fine slivers 肉丝 with very little effort. Cut across the grain. Ready now to rock and roll. Everything laid out below. Not pictured are my dry spices, namely salt and MSG, and my wet spices, namely light soy sauce 生抽, yellow rice cooking wine 黄酒, and aged dark vinegar 老陈醋。Set them out where they will be quick to use without having to search for them in the cupboard. If you anticipate being truly rushed, measure the liquid items into a small bowl so you don’t have to fumble with a spoon. Set your well-seasoned wok over high flame and when it gets thoroughly hot, just below the smoking point, add your cooking oil and swirl it around to coat. If in doubt regarding whether your wok is hot enough, sprinkle a few drops of water from your fingertips. They should “skittle” fast across the surface and disappear almost at once. 冷油热锅。 Add the garlic, peppers and ham. Stir and flip them continuously so as to have them cook rapidly and not burn. 不停的翻炒 When the garlic and peppers begin to soften and release their aroma 爆香,add the mushrooms. All new ingredients are added to the center of the wok; it's the hottest part. Leave them there a few seconds undisturbed before mixing with the other ingredients that you have pushed up the sides to make room. Gradually incorporate the new arrivals into what was there before. Continuing to use high heat, cook the mushrooms, peppers, garlic and ham together for a minute or two until the mushrooms become limber and develop a bit of golden color on their cut surfaces. Don’t walk away to check your Facebook; this dish can scorch and become ruined in the blink of an eye. Stir, scoop and flip with the wok tool 国产 nonstop as you shake the pan with your other hand. Blend in the “feathered” spring onions. Now is the time for your salt and MSG. Only use a little salt, because the Yunnan ham is salty. I added less than ½ teaspoon. A stingy pinch of MSG, probably no more than 1/8 of a teaspoon. One tablespoon each of vinegar, wine, and soy sauce, stirring after each new addition, so as to be sure they all get very well distributed. You want each bite to be more or less the same seasoning signature. As you see, it is taking shape. Continue to scoop and stir another minute or so. Presto, it’s done. Serve it up 装盘。 Prep for a dish like this can be somewhat laborious, but the actual "time over the flame," is no more than 5 or 6 minutes. This makes an excellent vegetable dish as part of a traditional Chinese family-style meal, along with a meat, a salad 凉拌, a soup 汤, and steamed rice 米饭。If I’m eating solo, like I was today, I turn it into a single-dish "gaifan" 盖饭 (as pictured below right) by putting it on a plate together with a small hillock of steamed rice. A bite of this and then a bite of that. Or I can even mix them a little bit with my chopsticks as I go along. Today I had a cucumber and tomato salad plus and ear of boiled corn to round out my simple meal. In the sad event that you don’t live in China, (you have my condolences) I suppose you could still make this dish using one of the more flavorful mushrooms, domestic or wild, from your homeland. They need to have some substance, a little bit of "chew," and should not be completely bland. If you are visiting China, especially the south, you could most likely find something similar in a restaurant by asking the chef for 青椒炒菌子。If you happen to be coming to Yunnan (lucky you) then it's a snap; you have it made. You will have your pick of mushroom dishes here from a slew of small, unassuming eateries as well as luxury establishments specializing in the precious wild ones.
  18. abcdefg

    Stir-fried noodles 炒面

    Here’s a quickie, cheap and easy, with endless variations. Last week I found some delicious red bell peppers 红甜椒 at the market. They were so good that yesterday I went back for more. Crunchy and sweet. 2.5 Yuan each. Used one today for this dish. Picked up some Yunnan cured ham 宣威火腿 and 2 Yuan worth of freshly made egg noodles 蛋面。 (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Boil the pasta first, adding a dash of salt and a small amount of oil to the pot (half a teaspoon or so.) Undercook it slightly (“al dente”) and toss it with some oil as you take it out. I add ground white pepper as I toss it. Set it aside 备用。Save some of the pasta water. (Some cooks suggest rinsing the cooked pasta, but I don't do that.) Quickly stir-fry the thinly sliced peppers, some garlic, a spring onion, and the ham. When the peppers are no longer stiff and the ham begins to change color, add the noodles. This took me about 2 minutes over medium-high heat, using a flat bottom non-stick pan 平地不粘锅。Mix it all together, stirring and flipping gently 翻炒均匀。Add a little of the pasta water that you saved to help things blend without scorching. The ham is salty, so the dish probably won’t need any more seasoning. You can change the vegetables and you can change the meat; you can even change the type of noodles. But if you want it to come out reasonably authentic, best not to use too many ingredients; this dish should be clean and simple. Family style 家常菜。 All done 做好了。Serve it up 装盘。Chow down 动筷子。
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    Chinese jam

    This stub on Chinese jam was spit off from a discussion of how to make chili oil 红油 at home. The way it happened was that I used a jar which originally held Bon Maman strawberry jam to store some of the chili sauce. That led to a discussion of Chinese fruit jam, or fruit jam in China, which we hope to continue here.
  20. Spring Festival 春节 bounty:A generous friend brought bought me back a big piece of slow-cured mountain ham from his village up in Zhaotong Prefecture 昭通州 and I asked about some of the favorite ways they used it back home. Today's dish headed the short list. Use the tender shoots of the garlic plant to make a simple stir-fry. I gave it a try and it turned out first rate. The complex aged ham was offset by the slightly sweet garlicky flavor of the tender spring vegetable. Let me show you how to do it yourself. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Lately these garlic stems been abundant and inexpensive at my local wet market. The ones I got cost 4 Yuan for a big bundle, and the sign says they were grown locally. This is another of those vegetables I'd never seen until moving to China. My background reading says they are sometimes called "garlic bolts" or "garlic scapes" in the west, though I admit to never having heard either of those odd names. Farmers cut them off so that the (underground) garlic bulb will grow larger. In any case Chinese love them and call them suantai 蒜苔。They are at their best right now. Later in the full heat of summer they become tough and somewhat woody; now they are juicy and tender. I bought one large bundle, washed them and cut them into pieces between two and three inches long. Trimmed and discarded a few brown tips. You can see the unopened garlic flowers near the growing end of most stems. (Yes, you eat that part too.) They have a pleasant garlicky flavor without any of that garlic bulb heat and bite. Almost sweet, though not quite. Texture is close to that of young asparagus. Washed and then cut a couple of small red bell peppers 红甜椒 into thin slivers (removing the stem and the seeds.) 洗净、去蒂、去籽、切丝。 Rinsed off a piece of ham and carefully cut it into very thin slices. Leave the fat, it adds to the flavor. (Sharp knife is essential. My trusty Hong Kong caidao 菜刀 did not let me down.) This ham was two years old; rich, complex flavor. The pigs from which it came are about half wild, roaming large pastures instead of being confined to small pens. Elevation 3,000 meters. Yunnan's most famous ham comes from Xuanwei 宣威, in Qujing 曲靖, a bit south of Zhaotong 昭通。It is similar in character to an Italian Parma ham. Smack a large spring onion 大葱 with the side of the blade to crush it and flatten it somewhat, then slice it thin. Partly flattening it like that makes the volatile aromatics release easier when it hits the heat. Boil a small pot of water and drop the garlic stems into it. When the water returns to a boil, scoop them out and drain them well 沥干水。You only want to blanch 焯 them; be careful not to overdo it. These were so tender I actually could have omitted that step. Readied my soy sauce 生抽 and some cooking wine 料酒。Put a teaspoon of corn starch into a rice bowl along with a tablespoon or two of tap water, mixing them together to make 水淀粉。Will use this in the last step to thicken the sauce and bind the various flavors. A little oil swirled around in the bottom of my hot wok to coat. Full flame, almost making it smoke. Add the ham, stir it around to render some of its fat. Quickly add the red peppers and spring onion, stirring constantly. Then in go the blanched garlic stems. Continue to stir fry 翻炒 briskly and shake the wok at the same time to keep things from sticking and burning. I've turned the heat to medium, but the steel of the wok is still plenty hot. It smells real good by now. Add about a tablespoon of soy sauce and the same amount of cooking wine. No salt or MSG needed. When the vegetables are just beginning to take on a golden color, add the corn starch solution and stir a few seconds more. The entire cooking time was only a minute or two: fast and hot is the ticket for this. You are done. Serve it up. Sip a glass of white wine. The vegetables are tender, but have retained their crunch. Eat it with steamed rice and a simple clear vegetable soup to make a light warm-weather meal. If you can locate the ingredients, give it a whirl. A farmers market would be the place to look for these garlic stems. I've seen recipes which use processed ham links 火腿肠 and young asparagus 芦笋。Not quite the same, but probably still good.
  21. Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节 has brought too much rich and spicy food my way, even though I dearly love it. And on top of that, I've been the recipient of a couple decorative boxes of million-calorie moon cake 月饼。Yesterday I attended two banquets, lunch and supper. Thank goodness the second one included a particularly welcome "recovery dish." It hit the spot and I vowed to learn how to make it. Wasn't hard at all: let me show you. It involves a sublimely simple stew of green beans 四季豆, zucchini squash 小瓜,and eggplant 茄子。 First, here's a quick look at some of the high points of yesterday's banquet number one. It was held in a private dining room on the third floor of a local restaurant. You can probably recognize most of these delicious Yunnan and Southwest China dishes. (I'll include a key at the end so as not to spoil your guessing game.) (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) This was washed down with beer 啤酒 and baijiu 白酒 (China's own "white lightning"), cola and orange soda being available in reserve. This busy, no-frills restaurant is popular with locals; I've been there several times. Their food is always spot on and service is snappy. According to their menu, they were founded in 1983. Late afternoon I visited the home of some friends for a home-made meal every bit as good. I actually prefer that setting since I can wander into the kitchen and watch how things are done. By about 6:30, we had another delicious but filling meal which included two pressure-cooked and deep fried pigs feet in a fiery sauce. Two kinds of sausage 香肠, red cooked beef 红烧牛肉, a chicken floating in lovely mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers 花椒鸡, on and on. Here's a look at the chock-full festive table, plus a close up of the very basic vegetable dish which was such a revelation. The lady of the house explained that the green beans and zucchini both had a slightly sweet taste and needed to be cooked together without the addition of any spices, not even salt. I thought that was strange and was afraid it might be boring, but by golly it did taste refreshing that way. She made it with enough water in the pot to provide a clear soup to have along with steamed white rice as the meal drew to a close. She said she often made it with eggplant as well. The zucchini were just torn into large chunks, "farmer crude." This morning I bought the ingredients at the wet market and explained to the bean seller what I had in mind. She cautioned me again to use no salt. "千万不要放盐。什么都调料不妨。" No if's, and's, or but's about it. I had my marching orders. These 四季豆 beans (left in the photo) are broader and "meatier" than their two-foot-long cousins (长豆)。You may have eaten them in their most popular incarnation: 四川干煸四季豆 (dry-fried Sichuan style.) Here's the starting line-up. Use long, skinny Asian eggplants. No need to remove the skin. These 小瓜 are not actually zucchini, but very close. Other members of the squash family will work as well. Wash the beans, trim the ends and cut them in half. Cut the zucchini and eggplant into large chunks, thirds or fourths. Put them together with the beans into a pot with enough water to barely cover and start on high, but quickly reduce the heat to a simmer. Remember, no salt. No cooking wine, no pepper, no vinegar; "no nothing." As the lady said, “什么都不妨。" Put on the lid, but leave it ajar. After 12 or 15 or minutes, when the vegetables are beginning to get tender, cut the core out of a fresh tomato and add it to the pot. The idea is just to use the boiling water to soften it; don't let it cook apart. Remove the tomato to a bowl and slide off the skin. Coarsely break it apart using a spoon plus a dull knife. Finely cut a couple of spring onions 小葱,some ginger 生姜 and garlic, 大蒜 plus a scant teaspoon of hot sauce 辣椒酱。(Not enough to make it fiery, just enough to wake it up.) Mix these with the crushed tomato. Add light soy sauce 生抽, a pinch of sugar 白砂糖, a pinch of salt 食用盐。This is to be your dipping sauce 蘸水。 Take out the cooked vegetables, serving them in a bowl with lots of juice. Keep the remainder of the juice to use as a subtle clear soup. Offer it at the end of the meal along with a bowl of rice. Kind of cleans the palate. Provides a gentle and refreshing change of pace from all the highly-seasoned and fried foods that were the stars of the meal. The vegetables are soft, but not mushy. This is a traditional accompaniment to a family feast. You may or may not find it in a restaurant because it doesn't have much glamour, doesn't do much to boost your 面子 ("face") when ordering it for guests.
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    Crazy for pickles 泡黄瓜

    Before moving here a decade ago I hugely underestimated Chinese love of pickles 泡菜。Fortunately, it was not a fatal mistake. Pickled vegetables of some sort are served with nearly every meal, including a nice salty-spicy dish of them with your porridge 粥 for breakfast. It's always risky to generalize, but this holds pretty much true from the frosty northeast 东北 to the humid sub-tropics of Canton 广州。 It's definitely true in Yunnan, where the predominant style of pickling is the one developed in neighboring Sichuan: namely long, slow fermentation in special crockery and glass jars with a water-seal lip that allows gas to escape while denying entry to stray unwanted bacteria. Not only are a wide assortment of vegetables transformed in this way, but the process is applied to such diverse ingredients as lake crabs and chicken feet. Some Chinese pickles are closer to being a relish or a chutney than they are to my usual mental image of a pickle: a big Kosher Dill carefully fished out of a wooden barrel at the old corner Deli, one block over from P.S. 106, Bronx, New York, circa 1950. Yunnan also has a truly perverse love affair with pickled fruit. One frequently sees street vendors selling small pickled pears and plums. They taste of anise, cinnamon and clove; right beside strong notes of chili, garlic and ginger. Some pickles are eaten raw, others are used as ingredients in cooking. Pickled greens 泡菜/酸菜 are often combined with fish and meat. (Recipe for pickled greens with fish slices here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51433-yunnan-spicy-fish-酸菜鱼片/) (And here's one for pickled greens with pork loin: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/47975-suancai-chao-rou-酸菜炒肉/) In the warmer months of the year, we are fortunate to have several varieties of cucumber here in Kunming, all of which invite pickling. I've been turning out at least one batch a week for the last few months. Thought I would show you how to make them yourself in case you have a "pickle tooth" too. Sometimes I use carrots, radish, bell peppers and even cauliflower, but today we will be sticking to cucumbers. (The method adapts easily to other vegetables if you prefer them.) This morning at the local wet market I found two of the three main kinds of local cucumbers: the long thin ones with bumpy skin (sometimes called "Japanese cucumbers," and the shorter stout ones with smoother light skin (sometimes called "English cucumbers.") A third kind that is smaller than either of these, with dark smooth skin, might have been present somewhere, but I didn't run across them and had no particular reason to seek them out. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The kind on the right in this photo are the ones that work best for "smashed cucumber salad" 拍黄瓜。(Recipe for that here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53783-another-simple-classic-smashed-cucumber-拍黄瓜/?tab=comments#comment-412400) The big ones on the left are the kind I bought this morning to turn into pickles. These two varieties cost approximately the same. The smaller, "gherkin-sized" ones, cost a little more. In selecting a fresh cucumber, regardless of size, nothing works as well as a gentle squeeze test. It should feel firm, without much give. If it's soft, that means it's old. These local cucumbers don't need to be peeled. The surface isn't bitter and they haven't been sprayed with wax or oils like they are in some US supermarkets. The recipe I'm using for these today is one that originated in Fujian and is popular in Taiwan as well. It made its way to Guangdong and Hong Kong, but isn't terribly popular here in Kunming. It's a "Quick Pickle" that doesn't require much time. It's also not terribly salty or sour: very well balanced, at least for my palate. Scrub the cucumbers and slice them into rounds about a half an inch thick (2 cm or so.) Don't peel them and don't remove the seeds. Notice that these have nice looking centers; if they were past their prime, the centers would have larger seeds and a network of large empty spaces. Peel the garlic 独蒜 and smash it into chunks, scrub the ginger 老姜 and slice it thickly, unpeeled. Cut the hot pepper 小米辣 into thirds and remove some of the seeds if you want to decrease the heat. The dry orange peel 橙皮 is optional, but the dried licorice root 甘草 is very strongly suggested. It adds a distinctive note and the resulting taste would definitely be less interesting without it. You can buy it in Chinese herbal pharmacies if your grocery store doesn't stock it. For each large pickle combine 2 tablespoons of soy sauce 生抽, two tablespoons of aged vinegar 老陈醋, and two tablespoons of white rice vinegar白醋. Add one tablespoon of sugar 白砂糖 and one teaspoon of salt 食盐。Do not add water. As the pickles marinate, they will release some of their own flavor-laden moisture. Put everything in a saucepan and boil it for one only one minute over low to medium heat. Remove it from the flame and let the pickles cool in this liquid. You can cool it in bowls if you want it to go a bit faster. When it is cool enough to handle easily, put everything into the jar and screw on the lid. Let it stand out on a shelf or counter top overnight, then refrigerate it in the morning. The pickles are ready to eat in 24 hours and will keep ten days or two weeks, though I confess I've never made a batch yet that possessed that degree of longevity. Let me be clear: the pickles didn't go bad; I just ate them all up. They improve with every passing day. On occasion I've made a half batch to replenish the jar, adding the new ones to the bottom. These pickles really do have a way of disappearing. I like that they have plenty of crunch, aren't too sweet, aren't too sour, aren't too hot, but still definitely are not too bland. They make a great mid-afternoon snack, along with a hard-boiled egg. You won't be struck by lightning, however, if you want to vary your own batch of pickles to taste. What I've hoped to provide for you here is a safe and sensible starting place so you can avert disaster while carrying out your own personal fine-tuning. I often eat them along with a sandwich, or better yet, alongside a fresh steamed bun spread with spicy fermented tofu. I was introduced to this sterling combination several years ago when climbing Mt. Emei 峨眉山 (in Sichuan, south of Chengdu) very early one morning trying to get to the top by sunrise. I stopped for a break beside the steep trail and two middle-aged ladies sat down beside me. They were friendly and shared their snacks, which were, you guessed it, mantou, lufu, and pickles. Plus a big thermos of green tea. As an impressionable youth, I was hooked for life. Three rounds of rehab have not put a dent in my shameful cravings or my ruinous pickle addiction. This morning I bought a folded steamed bun with sesame seeds (huajuan 花卷) instead of plain mantou 馒头。Ate the last few remaining pickles from my jar before starting a new batch. These had been marinating about one week and were bursting with flavor. A fine compliment to the spicy fermented tofu (lufu 卤腐) which is one of the odd-ball darlings of Yunnan cuisine. Life is too short not to eat plenty of pickles; especially home-made Chinese pickles. Give these a try and see what you think!
  23. Here's the backstory to yesterday's recipe. (Link, in case you missed it: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56622-spicy-green-peppers-and-mushrooms-香菇炒青椒/?tab=comments#comment-438182 ) Let me give you a look at my trip to the outdoor market for the ingredients. It's a look at my neighborhood wet market in early summer. It's also a daily-life taste of the non-tourist China. (As usual, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It was clear that lots of people had the same idea at the same time because it was hard to find a place to park my bike outside the gate. As previously mentioned, rainy season has arrived, and we all rush out to do errands when we get a blue-sky sunny day. We have begun to see some wild mushrooms for sale, though not the abundance that will be here in a month. As business is slow, the vendor even has time to puff his Yunnan water pipe, lower right. Instead of buying wild ones today, I headed for the large table where they sell an assortment of cultivated mushrooms. The boss was having a reflective moment, contemplating the meaning of life. Next door, I bought a pile of dragon fruit 火龙果. They were being sold by the pile 一堆 instead of by weight. You couldn't sort through them, but my pile had 4 fruits for 10 Yuan, so I wasn't about to complain. These had been brought up from Vietnam. One of the glories of this market is the large assortment of fermented condiments, pickled vegetables and vibrant Yunnan spices. Look at the lovely long red pickled peppers in the photo lower right. They are not as hot as they look and make a great accompaniment to a roast chicken. Today I bought a chunk of lufu 油卤腐, a specialty of nearby Yuxi 玉溪。It's a rather strange salty and spicy fermented product, made from hairy tofu 毛豆腐 pickled in chilies and oil for several months. It's pungent and sort of stinky; reminiscent of Limburger cheese, great spread onto a fresh steamed bun baozi 包子。 Even better when spread on one of these steamed braided buns hua juan 花卷。Doubt it will ever be a hit with Joe Sixpack back in Texas. Here's the source of the peppers in yesterday's meal. They are abundant just now. I bought the green ones 青椒 or 青辣尖椒, but red ones are available too. They are moderately piquant, and sometimes I prefer small red bell peppers instead. Yunnan people love their peppers and one can find a couple dozen different kinds. I stopped to say hello to Mr. Gao, purveyor of edible flowers. I sometimes cook the large yellow ones, but never got around to making the photos to show you. They are very tasty, but require some extra work. Today he had a basket of perfect jumbo figs, bottom left corner of his display. I bought a few one day early last week; an experience to be long treasured; goodness they were sweet. One fills you up and makes the sun shine even at night. A few meters away, a cluster of people looked over the lettuce and cabbage. It was a popular spot: prices were low and quality was high. It was early in the day, and the place I usually buy roast duck was just gearing up for round two. They hang the birds to air dry for a while before rubbing them inside and out with spices. Then they put them into sealed clay ovens to roast slow. This produces the famous Yilaing roast duck 宜良烤鸭 for which this region is famous. It rivals those from Beijing. They are prized for their tender meat and their crispy skin 脆皮。 Next door someone was selling roast duck by the kilo. They were cheaper because they were prepared somewhere off premises. Competition was stiff and they had a bowl of free samples that you could spear with a toothpick. This middle-aged couple lingered there a long time, sampling steadily as if trying to make up their minds. They didn't fool me and they probably didn't fool the duck seller; eventually they moved on without making a purchase. At the bottom of the frame, lower right, notice the big metal pan of spicy Yunnan chicken feet. They are not for the faint of heart. By now it was time for a bowl of one of my favorite local specialties, silky tofu "flowers" on rice noodles with a pungent pickled vegetable sauce 豆花米线。Mine had a sprinkling of ground meat, although they make a meatless version as well. 7 Yuan for a medium serving. The boss was bouncing a baby on his knee. I asked if it was his grandson. "No, he is my neighbor's.” 他是隔壁的。In a couple minutes the mother came over from the stall next door to reclaim her happy little boy. On the way out with my trophies, I passed some zongzi 粽子 booths just getting cranked up. Dragon Boat festival 端午节 is on the horizon and will be here in less than two weeks. Zongzi made with Yunnan ham 云南宣威火腿 are very popular here. Made my way back to the street, passing some free lancers selling small items they had carried in by hand. Outside the market proper there are always several small mobile vendors selling just a few items. Doubt they are really making a living; more likely just supplementing their slim pensions. The old man had brought in some small dried fishes, carried in two baskets on either end of a bamboo shoulder pole 扛。 When people back home ask me about the "Real China," I never know quite what to say, then I think about places like this. Ten minutes by bicycle from my apartment.
  24. With the arrival of warmer summer days, I've been looking for ways to have less fried food while still enjoying premium local fresh produce and bold Chinese flavors. Eggplant 茄子 (qiezi) is one of my favorite vegetables, and tonight I made it steamed for supper. Let me show you how. Bought three of these tender long Asian eggplants 长茄子 at the outdoor market, along with some mildly-spicy crinkly red peppers 红椒 and a handful fresh spring onions 大葱. Took three heads of single-clove garlics 独蒜 from my existing kitchen stash. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) When making an eggplant dish it's best to prepare the other ingredients first, saving the eggplant until last. If it stands too long in room air, the cut edges turns an unattractive brown color. So that's the sequence I followed today. If you're not used to cooking with these Chinese spring onions, I can save you some time. Don't try washing them to remove the sand and soil. Just grasp a few leaves and peel them all the way to the root end, then snap that part off. I cut them on a bias with my sharp Hong Kong knife 菜刀 so they would fall apart and blend better with the eggplant in the steamer. Next I sliced the peppers in half and removed the fibrous core as well as most of the seeds. Sliced them into julienne slivers 切丝。 Smashed the garlic, removed the skin, and then minced it fine 蒜蓉。 After washing the eggplants, removed the stems and cut them into long pieces 切条 without worrying too much about making them completely uniform in size like you would if using them in a stirfry. These eggplants are young and tender; no need to remove the skin. Put all the ingredients together in a shallow bowl and set it in a steamer. Had I not had a steamer, would have used a wok with a lid. Let it steam for a scant 7 or 8 minutes, until the eggplant pieces can be easily pierced with a chopstick. While that was going on, I made a simple sauce. Whisked together one part aged vinegar 老陈醋, one part light soy sauce 生抽, one part sesame oil 香油。Stir in a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精, and a big pinch of sugar. When it's done, lift it out. Remember that the dish is real hot, so best to use a tool such as the one shown here. Drizzle on the sauce, stir it gently and serve while nice and warm. Inexpensive, healthy, easy summer food. Give it a try and see what you think.
  25. The slow-cured ham of Xuanwei 宣威火腿 and the lightly-processed cheese from the high-pasture cattle north of Shilin 石林乳饼 are both big Yunnan favorites. It shouldn't be in the least surprising to learn that they are often combined, more often than not by simply steaming them together. It was a marriage of flavors made in food heaven and I would wager that nearly every family in this part of China makes it at home on a regular basis, using just ham and cheese without anything else. I make it with some regularity too, but tonight I fancied it up in a way that compliments the primary textures and flavors. Came out real good and the process was straight forward. Let me show you the method. The only trick if you live overseas might be finding authentic ingredients. I believe you could substitute another cured (not smoked) ham such as those from Smithfield in the southeasten US, and you could use a good quality Italian bufala mozzarella for the cheese. Wouldn't be exactly the same, of course, but it should still be good. Wash some red and green peppers and peel the outer tough skin off a mild Bermuda onion 洋葱。I used red bell peppers 红甜辣椒 and the long green half-hot chilies 青辣椒, but you could substitute locally available varieties, as long as they are fresh and full of flavor. Cut these vegetables up as shown; no need to be too fussy about it. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The cheese vendor offers to slice it at the time of purchase and I usually say yes because it saves some labor at home. He does it freehand, using a piece of stout monafilament string. He cuts it just right, but if you are doing it at home, don't slice it too thin, or else it will fall apart when steamed. China is not known for its cheeses, but this Yunnan product is an exception to the rule. Different versions of it exist around Dali, where it can be made from goats milk, and around Lijiang, where it can be made with milk of the great hairy alpine yak. I buy my ham in a block and then slice it myself, making the cuts thin but as thin as I might with prosciutto . I include a little fat, but not as much as most Chinese cooks. They often prefer the slices to be nearly a third fat. You could adjust that element to taste. My ham lady has a brother in Xuanwei Town 宣威县城 who hangs and cures these hams for about half a year. The prep work is simple and fast, and now you are almost ready to apply the heat. Select a shallow bowl that will fit in your steamer. If you don't have a steamer, you can use your wok with a wire rack and a lid. Spread a layer of onions in the bottom of the bowl, follow that with a layer of cheese topped with ham. Sprinkle on plenty of sliced red and green peppers, then do it all again. Two layers is usually enough, but there is no law against more if your dish is deeper than mine. This dish doesn't need any added salt because the ham supplies just enough. Place it in your steamer and set a timer for 25 minutes. At that point I usually wash up my knife, cutting board and any other prep dishes that might have accumulated. So much easier than waiting till later and it gives you clean work surfaces. Near the end of the cooking time, I usually make a tablespoon or two of thin corn starch slurry 水淀粉 to use to thicken the pan juices before serving. This makes a fine gravy to use in topping your rice. One nice thing about steaming a dish like this is it doesn't dry out. Nothing more to do until the timer dings, then lift it out. Pour some of the juices into the bowl with your corn starch slurry and combine well. Drizzle it over the cooked ham and cheese. The flavor of the vegetables melts into the primary notes of the mild cheese and the ham and does it without getting in the way or becoming confusing. I've made this dish for several Yunnan natives, and as conservative as they sometimes are, none have yet turned up their noses and walked away. Changing a classic comes with some risks and is not always successful. The "less is more" mantra often applies. But this time the modifications yielded a real winner. Try it yourself for your family or your friends and see what you think. Pretty sure you won't be disappointed.
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