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  1. You can have Kung Pao Chicken 宫保鸡丁at the all-you-can eat Chinese buffet in the strip mall on the outskirts of Smalltown, Texas, USA. I know because I’ve eaten it there. Panda Express also dishes up a ton of it at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Concourse B. You can always count on it to form the cornerstone of an honest, solid meal. East or West. But if you start chasing it around Mainland China, you will quickly find that the name is the same wherever you go, but what the waitress delivers to your table definitely won’t be what you remembered having last week down the road a piece. It varies all over the map. More so than most popular dishes. Why is that? Gongbao jiding originated in Shandong during the latter Qing. Chicken and peanuts were both staples of Shandong Cuisine, which is also know as 鲁菜 lu cai. The Governor of Shandong Province 山东省 was a real aficionado of that particular taste combination; anecdote has it that he would even occasionally fiddle around with cooking it himself instead of just relegating the task to his staff. We are talking about Ding Baozhen 丁宝桢(1820年-1886年.) Shandong Governor Ding was originally from Guizhou 贵州省 and that is where he began his political career. When his relatives and friends from back home visited him at the Governor’s Mansion, he couldn’t wait to introduce them to his Shandong “find.” They were suitably impressed and carried the word back to Guizhou. The dish was quickly adapted to the local palate, and soon became a staple of Guizhou Cuisine 黔菜 (Qian Cai) as well. Guizhou loves hot food, so the fire quotient was ramped up. Guizhou also insists that sour be part of the flavor mix. That was accomplished by including pickled vegetables 泡菜。 In his later years, Ding was appointed governor of Sichuan. Not surprisingly, he took his culinary discovery with him. Once again it was modified for local tastes and to make use of prized local ingredients such as Sichuan peppercorns, also known as prickly ash, a mouth-numbing member of the citrus family 花椒 huajiao. Today Gongbao jiding 宫保鸡丁 definitely belongs to the cannon of best-loved Sichuan Cuisine 川菜 chuancai. Ding continued to attract favorable national attention by revising the salt tax codes and by refurbishing the famous Dujiangyan Water Conservation System 都江堰水利工。In the course of his long career, Governor Ding caught the eye of the Qing Emperor in a positive way, and before long his favorite dish got picked up by the power elite in the northern capital city. It earned a proud place in Beijing Cuisine. So today your order of Gongbao Jiding 宫保鸡丁 can have many faces. Not to worry; they are all pretty darned good. I’ll show you one very decent recipe that’s not difficult to cook up at home, but I make no extravagant claims to it being the “one true way” or the “gold standard.” (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) The finished product and the vegetables. Start with the meat. Use two large chicken breasts if you plan to make enough for 3 or 4 people to share as part of a Chinese meal. I suggest buying fresh chicken, instead of frozen chicken breasts since they have more taste. The two I had today weighed 0.549 kg (a little over a pound.) I sliced them open first off so they wouldn’t be quite so thick, then proceeded to cut the meat into roughly one-inch cubes. 鸡丁 Safety tip: Put a folded piece of damp paper kitchen towel under the cutting board so it won’t scoot around. Marinate the cut chicken in a mixture of 1 beaten egg white 蛋清, ½ teaspoon cooking salt 食用盐, ½ teaspoon ground white pepper 白胡椒粉, 1 tablespoon of yellow cooking wine 料酒, and a heaping teaspoon of corn starch 玉米淀粉。Put on a disposable glove 一次性手套 and massage the seasonings into the meat. Let it marinate 腌制 in the fridge about 15 minutes. Notice that the marinade isn’t “soupy.” It coats the meat without much excess. Wipe a small amount of cooking oil around the inside of your wok and heat it with low flame. Put in a heaping teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 and stir them until you start to smell their lemon-zest aroma. Take them out and let them cool. Meanwhile, cook a handful of peanuts 花生米 the same way. You want them to slowly toast, but not scorch or burn. Keep them moving over low flame for a couple minutes. They become crunchy as they cool, not while they are still hot. Crush the toasted Sichuan peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or in a bowl with the back of a stout soup spoon. Toasting and crushing them like this greatly increases their flavor. Set them and the roasted peanuts aside, turning your attention to the vegetables. Cut the red bell pepper 红甜椒 into thumb-sized pieces and chop a cucumber 黄瓜 into cubes 丁that are about the same size as the chicken. If you are using long Chinese cucumbers as shown, no need to peel them. Cut the spring onion into rounds, using only the white part. Mince 切碎 a thumb of ginger 生姜 and a clove or two of garlic 大蒜。 Prepare a thickening sauce 勾芡酱 by putting a heaping teaspoon of corn starch and a half cup of water into a bowl. Stir well to dissolve. Stir in a tablespoon of sugar 白砂糖。Add a tablespoon of cooking wine 黄酒, a tablespoon of dark vinegar 老陈醋, a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and about a third as much dark soy sauce 老抽。Set aside. Prep finished, time now to cook. Get the chicken from the fridge, stir it up. I always like to lay out the ingredients and mentally rehearse what goes in first, what follows, and so on. I suppose you could even arrange all your “mis en place” dishes in time-sequence order if you were of a mind to. “Hot wok, cold oil” 热锅粮油。I realize you knew that. Preheat it before adding two or three tablespoons of cooking oil. I used corn oil today. Flame on medium 中火 instead of high. Chicken requires a different approach from pork or beef. Add the chicken in one layer, spreading it quickly with your chopsticks (not all mounded up in the center of the wok.) Leave it alone for a minute or so, allowing it to sear. Carefully scrape it up and turn it over, trying to minimize surface tearing. It should mostly have changed color from pink to white by now and have a little bit of golden crust. The goal for this first stage is to only cook it two-thirds or so; not completely done. Only takes two minutes max. Add the crushed Sichuan peppercorns and 4 or 5 dry red peppers 干辣椒。I usually just tear these peppers in half as I add them. Some people cut them into smaller bits with scissors. Stir everything well and then add the chopped cucumbers and red bell peppers. Add new ingredients to the center of the wok; that’s the hottest part. Then stir it all together. Give it a minute or so, allowing flavors to blend, stirring and flipping all the while 煸炒,翻炒。 Now the thickening sauce goes in, mixing it well because the solids will have settled in the bowl. Stir everything well for a minute or so until you see the chicken and vegetables developing an attractive sheen. Last of all, add the peanuts and incorporate them more or less evenly 拌均匀。You want the peanuts to have a very short cooking time so they will retain their crispy texture. Plate it up 装盘。Admire your handiwork. Snap a photo with your phone. Set it on the table. Call the team to come dig in. Gongbao jiding and steamed rice 蒸饭 are just about inseparable, so plan ahead and have some rice ready when the chicken comes off the stove. Took a little over half an hour today, maybe 45 minutes including clean up. I listened to the Sutherland - Pavarotti Turandot while working. London Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta. Although this is fun to make at home, it’s also an easy thing to order in a simple restaurant. Any random six-table Mom and Pop joint will be able to turn it out. I often supplement it with a clear green-leafy vegetable soup. 苦菜汤 kucai tang, for example, is easy to find and serves the purpose of turning this into a real meal: veggie, meat, and soup. Tasty and won’t break the bank. Try it soon and see what you think! Here's the recipe all in one place to make it easier to use: (Click "reveal hidden contents."
  2. It should come as no surprise that the best version of this classic dish is the one Mom always made back home when you were just a tadpole. Nonetheless, you can still turn out a decent approximation today without much fuss. Be glad show you how. 红烧茄子 -- red cooked eggplant, soy sauce braised eggplant. Above: The finished product and the main ingredients. Long Asian eggplants 长茄子 work best because they have tender skin. No need to peel them. One or two long green peppers and a red one. I’ve used mildly spicy green peppers 青椒 and a red bell pepper 红甜椒。One large spring onion 大葱 and a clove or two of garlic. I used gentle single-clove garlic 独蒜。A thumb of fresh ginger 生姜, which has a milder flavor than old ginger 老姜。Don't fret if your garlic and ginger are not the same as mine; just use a little less of them. Start with the meat, pork 猪肉。Rinse it and slice it thin across the grain then chop it several times on the cutting board 菜板 with your kitchen knife 菜刀 to turn it into small pieces, not quite as small as if it had been ground. I use meat that is about 80% lean 瘦肉 and 20% fat 肥肉。Marinate it with a teaspoon or two of corn starch 淀粉 and a tablespoon or two of cooking wine 料酒。This is called “velveting” the meat and it helps make it tender. Wash the eggplant and cut it on a bias. This is called a “rolling cut” and what you do is hold the eggplant with one hand and give it about a quarter turn with each angled slice. 切滚刀快。Couldn't photograph the actual process without risking the loss of a thumb. Put it in a big bowl and toss it with a couple tablespoons of vinegar 白醋 and a teaspoon or so of salt 食用盐。Toss it well and let it stand about 10 minutes. This removes a good deal of excess moisture without letting the eggplant become brown. Mince 切碎 the garlic and thinly slice the ginger into rounds 切薄片。Wash and cut the peppers into strips 切条, removing and discarding the seeds. Slap the spring onion with the side of your knife to break it and partly flatten it; then cut it into thin slices. This allows it to cook fast and eliminates any “bite.” Prepare a braising sauce by adding about 2 tablespoons of light soy sauce 生抽 and the same amount of yellow cooking wine 料酒 to a bowl. Mix in about a half a tablespoon of dark soy sauce 老抽, a half teaspoon each of salt 盐 and granulated sugar 白砂糖。Stir in a tablespoon of corn starch 玉米淀粉 and a cup of water. Here’s where to put the 味精 MSG if you use it. I like about a fourth of a teaspoon. Ready now to fire up the wok. It's always good to assemble everything you will need; then look it all over critically like a general before going into battle. Once you are "over flame," the process goes real fast. You won't have time to fumble around looking for stuff. By the way, I’ve already got the rice working off to the side in the electric rice cooker. It takes about 30 minutes, and I want it to be ready when the other food comes off the stove. That way everything can hit the table hot. Don’t forget the culinary school adage, 热锅冷油。Get the wok hot over high heat before swirling in a couple tablespoons of oil. This lets it coat the metal better and makes the food less likely to just soak it up. I used rapeseed oil 菜籽油 today because it adds a pleasant note to eggplant, but it’s fine to use any oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut oil or corn oil. Olive oil won’t cut it. Fry the meat quickly together with the garlic and ginger. Keep it all in motion with your wok tool 锅铲 over high flame for about a minute, until the meat loses its pink color. Add the eggplant a handful at a time, squeezing out the extra liquid as you do so. My two eggplants left behind over a half a cup of their intracellular water. Stir 煸炒 and flip 翻炒 the food steadily over high heat until you start to see the eggplant taking one a bit of golden color 变金黄色。 That’s the point at which to add the sliced peppers. They don’t require much cooking time. After a minute or so, mix in the braising liquid, remembering to stir up the corn starch which has settled to the bottom of the bowl. The eggplant will need 4 or 5 more minutes, all the while uncovered. Keep it all moving, don’t let the sauce get too thick and scorch or stick to the wok. It’s fine to add more hot water as needed in small amounts, quarter of a cup or so at a time. I splash it in from a tea kettle. Check the eggplant frequently as you stir to see if it is done. The way to do that is to try to cut a piece of it with the edge of your spatula, pressing against the side of the wok. You are “there” when it still resists slightly, but then gives way without requiring too much muscle. Last of all, blend in the sliced spring onions. As you work the dish, it will acquire a deep color plus a glossy sheen; it will give off a complex aroma. Serve it up! What I often do when just making it for two is to start with one plate for each of each of us that has rice plus the eggplant, served 盖饭 “gaifan” style. No deep philosophic reason; it just looks nice. Hope this dish is something you might feel inclined to try. It’s not tricky or treacherous to execute. Reasonably healthy and memorably delicious. If you have no way to cook where you live, it's still good to be aware of 红烧茄子 (hongshao qiezi) since it's readily available in restaurants, small and large, all over China. -------------------- Cook’s footnote 小窍门: You will need to make two decisions ahead of time. First, whether to add meat or not. It’s good either way. Generally speaking, I add meat in order for it to become a “one-dish meal.” Otherwise, I leave it out. Second decision is whether or not to pre-fry the eggplant. The most common restaurant version includes that step. It gives the eggplant an improved texture but comes at the cost of quite a bit of extra trouble. Also, there are many ways to cut the eggplant. It’s OK to get creative.
  3. Prompted by a recent question in another thread (https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/59118-revisiting-the-classics-家常菜/?tab=comments#comment-459919), here's some simple help on picking the right soy sauce. My neighborhood supermarket has 30 or 40 brands on several yards of shelves. If one just walked in cold, the choice would be nearly overwhelming. In figuring out what kind of soy sauce to use, It helps to divide them into broad categories or types. Light soy sauce 生抽 is far and away the most commonly used. If a recipe just calls for "soy sauce" without specifying further, best strategy is to use light soy sauce 生抽。It is made by fermenting soybeans for several months. The higher grades usually have a longer fermentation time. Look for brands that have no additives (many of the cheaper ones are laced with MSG.) These better ones often bear the designation 特级 te ji, which roughly means "top grade." Expect to pay 15 to 25 Yuan for a 500 ml bottle. Please click the photos to enlarge them. Here's the kind I have used for the last 5 or 6 years. Notice that it says 不加味精 (no added MSG.) I'm not against small amounts of MSG, but would rather add it judiciously with my own hand instead of having unknown amounts of it hiding in my soy sauce. The arrow near the bottom points to where it says 特级。It has fermented 280 days; that's what the large number means. Same company makes one with a shorter time (180 days) and another with a longer time (380 days.) I take the middle road; the middle way. This brand also has no preservatives. You can also buy soy sauce in large plastic jugs for little more than the price of Coca Cola. You could afford to take a bath in it, not that you would want to. That stuff is made with lots of zippy "instant chemistry" and has only a passing acquaintance with the soy bean to which it owes its name. Best avoided. It's easy to get seduced by "special purpose" soy sauce being promoted just for making one kind of food. One can buy a special type of soy sauce for steaming fish 蒸鱼豉油 and another soy sauce that has been flavored with tiny 虾米 dried shrimp 海鲜酱油。One other common type is promoted as being specifically for 红烧肉 red-cooked pork. It typically contains star anise plus a little cinnamon. There's nothing wrong with these, but they take a lot of extra cabinet space and aren't really necessary. You can use plain soy sauce just as well and add the extra seasonings by hand as required. Low-sodium soy sauce exists, and will usually be labeled 低盐酱油, meaning "low salt." It would be a mistake to think that "light soy sauce" means it is low in salt. Some brands are labeled as being "natural and organic" 天然有机。I don't have any experience with them. When I use soy sauce in a dish, I dial back the cooking salt 食用盐 a little to allow for it. All soy sauce contains flour in addition to fermented soy, so it's not gluten free, just in case that is something with which you are concerned. The second main kind of soy sauce is 老抽,usually rendered into English as "old soy sauce." or "dark soy sauce." It is used in cooking, not as a table condiment. It's quite a bit more concentrated than "young soy sauce" 生抽,and typically contains both flour-based thickeners and molasses-type sweeteners. It is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, whereas light soy sauce just runs right off. If I'm using a casual Chinese recipe that calls for both 生抽 and 老抽 without specifying precise amounts, I will use three or four times as much 生抽 as 老抽。Old soy sauce imparts a deeper color to a dish but not a whole lot of flavor. It is very often made with fermented mushrooms added during processing to enrich the taste, to make it more substantial. Here's one I've used several years with good results. Note the arrow pointing out that it is also 特级 (top grade.) Costs about the same as 生抽, 15 or 20 Yuan for a 500 ml bottle. Sometimes one also uses a very thick soy sauce as a dipping sauce for roast meat or duck 烤肉/烤鸭, alone or mixed with plum sauce. It is slightly sweet and comes in a wide-mouth jar; thick enough to require a spoon to serve it. If you are looking for general-purpose Chinese cooking soy sauce, that's not what you are after. Pass it by. In summary, your kitchen cupboard will be just fine with a bottle of 生抽 and another of 老抽。It's worth shelling out the little bit extra to get 特级 editions of both.
  4. I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the classics of Chinese cuisine, things you run into again and again in simple mom-and-pop restaurants all over China. Would want to focus on dishes that are easy to make at home; ones that don't require exotic ingredients or specialized equipment. Have bought the fixings for 红烧茄子 -- hongshao qiezi (red-braised eggplant) and will make it later tonight to kick things off. It's good either meatless for vegetarians, or with meat for omnivores. The method of making it is easy to adapt to other red-braised dishes, such as Chairman Mao's beloved 红烧肉 -- hongshao rou (red-braised pork,) red-braised ribs 红烧排骨, red-braised chicken wings 红烧鸡翅 and so on. My short list so far has 鱼香肉丝 -- yuxiang rousi (fish-flavored pork slivers), which doesn't taste anything like fish, but is spicy and loaded with southwest charm. The same technique and flavor palette can be used with eggplant to make 鱼香茄子 -- yuxiang qiezi if one does not eat meat. Also thought I'd make 扬州炒饭 -- yangzhou chaofan (Yangzhou fried rice,) not only because it's great in its own right, but as a rough template for how to make other kinds of fried rice. Please let me know what else you think should be included. Everyone is also welcome to post their own recipes, preferably with photos to make them easier to understand and use.
  5. Chanced onto some real nice shrimp this morning at a decent price. Could not resist. Sautéed them quickly using a method that provided lots of flavor without much oil. I'll show you how. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) This is 18 large shrimp, a little over a pound, 450 grams. Pull off the heads, remove the dorsal digestive vein, and either just cut away the legs or peel off the shells. Cooking them with the shells on makes them more juicy, but it means a little more trouble at the table. Today I opted to remove the shells, an operation which took a little over 10 minutes. Leave the tails attached. Wash the shrimp under running water and drain them in a strainer. Pat dry with a paper kitchen towel. Marinate in the fridge between 30 minutes and one hour covered with a sheet of plastic wrap 保鲜膜。The marinade consists of: 1 tablespoon each of yellow cooking wine 黄酒,light soy sauce 生抽,and oyster sauce 蚝油 plus a generous sprinkle each of sugar, salt, and ground white pepper. The longer marinating time allows them to cook fast and have less risk of drying out. While the shrimp are marinating, I prep some aromatics: a couple slices of young ginger 生姜, and a couple large single-head garlics 独蒜, finely minced. (Old ginger 老姜 and standard garlic are stronger; so use less of them.) Three to five dry red peppers 干辣椒 torn into two or three pieces. (If you can't get these, use crushed chili flakes.) Just before you're ready to fire up the pan, add about a tablespoon of corn starch 玉米淀粉 to the shrimp and mix well. This allows the marinade to coat them better, locking in more flavor. Use a flat bottom non-stick pan for best results 平地不粘锅。Set it on the flame but don't let it get screeching hot before you add a generous tablespoon of a neutral oil (such as corn oil) and lay the shrimp in one at a time with chopsticks. Don't just dump them in; don't crowd the pan. Let them sear undisturbed for about a minute on medium heat. When the tails become deep pink, flip them and add the aromatics. Another minute and they're done. Serve them up. 装盘。They go well with a simple vegetable and steamed rice. (I served these with baby bok choi 小白菜。) These shrimp have a bold flavor and a pleasant texture. Quite a bit less oil than the method I showed you last time. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58622-spicy-chinese-twice-fried-shrimp-油炸虾仁/ Hope you will give them a try!
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    Steamed fish 清蒸鱼

    I tend to forget about fish because I’m living in the interior (Kunming) instead of on the seacoast. But yesterday I saw some nice “fresh caught” ones on ice and bought a single 银鲳鱼 (yinchang yu) of about 450 grams. In English these are called silver pomfret. They live in the coastal waters of southern China, SE Asia and India. Cost ¥15.80, about $2.25 US. The seller cleaned and gutted it 清理 (qingli)。Please click the photos to enlarge them. Steaming 清蒸 is a very popular way to prepare fish in China and that’s what I did last night. Washed the fish out 洗净 and rubbed it with a wet paper towel to remove the few remaining tiny scales. Cut off the pectoral fins and enough of the tail so that it would fit into my steamer. Deeply cross hatched the flesh on both sides and rubbed it down with cooking wine 料酒 (liaojiu) followed with salt 食用盐 (shiyong yan) and white pepper 白胡椒粉 (bai hujiaofen)。Put slivers of ginger 生姜 (shengjiang) and spring onion 大葱 (dacong) into the cuts and some into the cavity as well. Let it marinate 腌制 (yanzhi) like that 10 or 15 minutes. Then transferred it onto a bed of halved spring onions plus more ginger and set it into the preheated steamer 蒸锅 (zheng guo)。 (Water already boiling.) These relatively flat-bodied fish only take 5 or 6 minutes to cook, depending on size. At 5 minutes I open the steamer and check the flesh with a fork. It should be white and flaky. If you cook these small fish too long, they become sort of rubbery and tough 肉老了 (rou laole)。 Lift it out and pour off any excess steam condensation water 多余汤水 (duoyu tangshui)。Some usually pools in the bottom of the steaming dish. Discard the onion and ginger slivers that have cooked with the fish. Spread on a tablespoon or two of light soy sauce 生抽 (shengchou) or better yet use the same amount of special fish steaming sauce that is readily available in Chinese markets. It is called 蒸鱼豉油 (zhengyu chiyou) -- photo below. It’s a seasoned soy sauce that has some taste similarities with oyster sauce 蚝油 (haoyou)。Cover the fish with slivers of spring onion 葱花 (conghua -- the white part) and finely sliced carrot 或萝卜丝 (huoluobo si)。 Heat a couple tablespoons of high-grade peanut oil in a small pan until it just begins to smoke 威冒烟 (wei maoyan)。Pour that over the fish in its serving dish. It should be hot enough to pop and sizzle as it instantly cooks the scallion and carrot, carrying their flavors into the fish below. (My photo does not do the process justice.) The flesh of this fish is buttery and tender. Furthermore, it doesn’t have a lot of tiny bones 鱼刺 (yuci)。 One fish feeds two light eaters if served with vegetables, soup and rice. If the fish are small, 400 to 500 grams, it wouldn't hurt to make two. It's OK if they overlap a bit in the cooking dish. If you’ve been thinking about making a Chinese fish at home, this 清蒸鲳鱼 (qingzheng changyu) is a good one to try. Widely available, tasty, inexpensive. Healthier than frying. Footnote about the steamer: If you don’t have a dedicated steamer pot, you can set a shallow dish on a wire rack in your wok, add some water, put on the lid. Available in any small neighborhood supermarket 超市 (chaoshi) for 10 or 15 Yuan. Called 蒸菜架子 (zhengcai jiazi)。
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    End of the season 青头菌

    It's almost the end of wild mushroom season: the summer rains are playing out, cooler days arriving. Selection is limited, prices climbing. I paid ¥60 for a little over 500 grams of 青头菌 qingtou jun ("green head mushroom") a couple days ago and they were decent but not prime. This is another of those Yunnan mushrooms that don't really exist to any significant extent in the west. Their Latin name is Russula Virescens and they grow in mixed mountain forests, broad leaf and pine. The best ones come from the lower NW of the province: Chuxiong 楚雄, Baoshan 宝山, Dali 大理。 Decided to make them into a hearty soup, building on a rich home-made chicken stock. Normally I would use them solo so they would shine, but this time they shared the limelight with several other vegetables to round out the flavor. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Cooked them with 苦菜 kucai, 番茄 tomato,洋葱 onion, 大蒜 garlic, and chicken thigh meat 鸡腿肉。 Served the soup one day with rice and the next day with noodles. Tasted good; full and mellow. Recipe on request. Overall it has been a great year here for wild mushrooms. Plenty of rain with sunny days in between the showers. One will still be able to get good ones in restaurants for several more weeks, but they will cost more than most of us regular folks are willing or able to pay.
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    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。
  9. Summer is wild mushroom season in Yunnan, peak time for skilled hunters to find them in the forest and peak time for you to find them in the market. Peak time to eat them in a restaurant or make them at home. Today’s report is about a robust and spicy mushroom sauce concoction that can turn the humblest bowl of noodles into a memorable gourmet treat. It's highly prized in Yunnan, 云南特产,though not well known in other parts of China or in the west. Shown here with sautéed red bell pepper 红甜椒 strips on top of freshly made 碱面 noodles. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) In the interest of keeping costs down, one can use a mixture of several varieties of mushrooms, including some which are less expensive. But since we have had a bumper crop of Jizong 鸡枞菌 this year, Yunnan’s prized “termite mushroom,” I splurged and used just that one kind to make a deluxe version: Jizong sauce 鸡枞菌酱 or jizong oil 鸡枞油。 Here’s a quick look at the process. If you need a detailed recipe, let me know. Pictured below is a kilogram of jizong wild mushrooms, picked within the last 24 hours in the wild. Cost me 135 Yuan. Found them once again at Kunming’s main wild mushroom wholesale market 木水花野生菌批发市场。Getting a little more savvy about the acquisition process: Bought these from the back of someone’s van instead of from an official vendor who had paid rent on an inside stall. (Below right.) Before cleaning, separate the stems and tops. This prevents sand from the stem (菌柄) from washing into the gills of the cap (菌盖)。Nothing worse than biting down onto a mouthful of gritty mushrooms. Well, that’s not quite true. A poison “look-alike” mushroom would be worse. Fortunately, these jizong 鸡枞菌 are safe. It’s not a “tricky” variety. Once they are thoroughly cleaned, by which I mean trimmed and brushed and scrubbed and rinsed, shred the stems by hand and slice the tops into coarse chunks. The spices 调味品: Twice as much garlic as ginger by volume. A generous handful of dry red peppers 干辣椒。I use a local pepper which has lots of flavor but not too much heat. It’s the 丘北 Qiubei pepper, from Wenshan Prefecture 文山州 in the SE of Yunnan province. I will only use a tablespoon or so of the dried 花椒 (Sichuan prickly ash) shown here, not the whole bowl. At the end I’ll add some fresh green ones and mix them in. Heat the wok over medium heat, add a lot of fragrant rape seed oil 浓香菜籽油, 300 to 500 ml, and fry the aromatics until you smell them, being careful not to let them burn. Add the mushrooms after draining and shaking out all the rinse water 沥干水。Stems go in first to get a head start, followed in a minute or two by the tops. Stir almost non-stop in order to prevent sticking and scorching. Medium fire at first, then quickly change to low. As they cook, the mushrooms will “sweat” out their water and break down, reducing quite a bit in bulk. If you wish to moderate the effect of the chilies, you can pick some or all of them out after a few minutes. In about 30 minutes they start to take on a golden color. Add a small amount of salt at that point. No other seasonings. Continue frying them until the color deepens, becomes richer. Mine required between 30 and 45 minutes, constantly attended. I took off my shirt, put on headphones and tuned in to an audiobook. At long last, scoop everything out, all solids plus the remaining oil. Let it cool. This was the first time I have made this, so I'm not an expert. Kept sending WeChat snapshots back and forth to a friend who has made this at home for years. He would say, "add more oil" or "it needs to be more golden, cook it longer." The finished product can be stored in a crockery jar for a couple months, maybe more. I keep mine in the fridge, but am told that's being overly cautious. My friends just keep it on a kitchen shelf beside the 红油 (hot chili oil.) The Chinese name translates as "mushroom oil." 菌油 -- 鸡枞油 or 油鸡枞。The technique involved is not at all the same as what western culinary traditions call either a ragout or a ragu. Even calling it a "sauce" is a bit of a stretch. Wish I could talk it over with Julia Child, but she's gone. Is making this great stuff cheap, quick and easy? No, afraid not. Furthermore, it requires lots of oil and cleanup is a chore. But is it delicious? Yes, in a major way. Use it on noodles, as above, or as a condiment to give some zing to a bowl of chicken soup. Put some in with your wonton 馄饨 broth. Add it to fried rice. Slather some on a hot steamed bun 馒头。 The mushrooms retain enough texture to require that you chew them. As you chew they release layer upon layers of complex earthy flavors plus a huge hit of umami. Aftertaste is clean and almost sweet. An authentic “Bite of China.” An authentic “Taste of Yunnan.” 云南风味食品。Hand made at home with care. Better quality than what you could purchase on line or in a store. You know for sure that only top ingredients were used and you know that no shortcuts were taken. To my way of thinking, that makes it worthwhile.
  10. Been buying and cooking lots of wild mushrooms this season (summer 雨季)。Have gone a little bit nuts over them, in fact. They are Yunnan’s pride and joy, available for only a small portion of the year. Must be hunted in the mountains and harvested by hand, can’t be planted and grown like ordinary vegetables. Not sure if there is sufficient interest here to make it worthwhile to post complete and detailed recipes. Will gladly make them available on request but meantime what I’ll do instead is just give you a quick glimpse into a few ways they can be enjoyed, family style, without any special equipment or sophisticated culinary skills. A couple weeks ago I bought a batch of 鸡枞菌 jizong jun which only have a scientific name and a nickname in English. (Collybia termitomyces/”termite mushrooms.”) They must grow right above a termite nest in the wild. Can’t be cultivated. Chinese often call them “King of wild mushrooms” 野生菌之王 because of their scarcity, appealing texture and flavor. Easiest thing to do with wild mushrooms is to make them into a hearty soup or stew 煲汤/炖汤。That’s what I did with these. Made a chicken stew using half a full-flavored free-roaming chicken 土鸡。Didn’t mix the jizong jun 鸡枞菌 with any other mushrooms so as to let their flavor shine. After all they are “the King.” (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Frankly, it’s a moderate amount of hassle to clean these, to get them from looking like the first photo above to the second. Requires scraping with a paring knife and scrubbing with a stiff toothbrush, plus judicious soaking, many rinses. Some edible wild mushrooms are known to contain traces of poison and make you sick if eaten raw or under-cooked; these are not among their number; these are completely safe. First chop the chicken and cook it in a pressure cooker 电压力锅, adding ginger, garlic and spring onion. When the chicken is barely tender add the mushrooms and finish by simmering with the top of the pot open. Simple and delicious. The mushrooms have a color and texture resembling that of chicken; they have a full-bodied flavor which is faintly nutty. Can serve this as part of a larger meal or with rice on its own. Bowl of soup; cup of rice. Another time I bought a combination of 青头菌 and 鸡油菌。These both are “safe” wild mushrooms (no traces of poison) and they go very well together. In combining mushrooms, one must consider texture as well as flavor: They need to cook at about the same rate. These are both less expensive than 鸡枞菌。 清透菌 qingtou jun (Russula virescens) can be translated as “green head mushrooms” but they aren’t common in the west. This is what 青头菌 look like. They have a slightly chewy texture 口感 and a subtle sweet note in their aftertaste 后感。 Combined them with 鸡油菌 jiyou jun (Cantharellus cibarius), called golden chanterelles in the west. They have a faintly fruity aftertaste and are sometimes nicknamed “apricot mushrooms.” Made a hearty soup or stew again, this time using small pork ribs. In China, pork ribs 排骨 come in two main kinds, the big hefty ones cut from up near the backbone, and the smaller ones from farther down near the front/ventral side . These smaller, more tender ribs are called 肋排段 and cost a little more. As before, started the pork ribs in the pressure cooker, adding the wild mushrooms when the ribs were just about done. Spring onions 大葱 on top for garnish and extra flavor. The beauty of these hearty mushroom soups or stews is that after eating them “as is” on day one and two, you can easily transform them into interesting one-dish meals by the addition of compatible vegetables and some pasta 面食。 Once I cooked in some mildly spicy green peppers and served them over curly noodles 火锅面 (a bit like ramen.) Another time I cooked in a green leafy vegetable 苦菜 and some ripe tomatoes 番茄, serving them with fresh rice noodles 米线。I either saute or blanch the vegetables before adding them to the left-over mushroom stew. These wild mushrooms also stir-fry well, and another day I’ll take you there, show you those. That's probably the most common way to find them in restaurants unless one is dining at a specialty establishment featuring wild mushroom hotpot 火锅 (delicious.) Links to other recent wild mushroom articles: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58788-kunming-behind-the-scenes-wild-mushroom-wholesale-market-木水花野生菌批发市场 / https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58735-yunnans-termite-mushrooms-鸡枞菌-jizong-jun/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58742-turn-leftovers-into-fried-rice-剩菜变成炒饭/ ---------------------------------------------------------------- Informal Poll: Just for my own interest, could you let me know if you have ever had a chance to try fresh wild mushrooms? If so, was it in China? How about dried wild mushrooms? Comments? Questions?
  11. Most of the year one can only find dried lily bulbs 干百合, suitable for making porridge 百合粥, but during July and August fresh ones 新鲜百合 hit the market in a big way. Versatile and tasty. These are one of those things that you won’t find in the west; reason enough to try them while you’re here. These root bulbs grow deep in moist soil, concentrating nourishment so the lily plant can form its flowers. Botanists call them "storage organs" and refer to them as "energy reservoirs." They have a firm and slightly crunchy texture, not unlike that of fingerling new potatoes; a pleasant, mostly bland flavor with a mildly sweet aftertaste. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) assigns them lots of benefits. They are frequently recommended as a food that can help rid your system of excess internal heat; plus they moisturize the lungs, thus reducing cough 润肺治咳。Furthermore, with continued use they are said to promote restful sleep at night 安眠的作用。 (This lily flower is a Baidu picture.) Ducked out between rain showers this afternoon and bought some at the local farmers market. Decided to pair them with tender snow peas 荷兰豆 and a sweet organic carrot 有机或萝卜。Added a few slivers of Yunnan ham 宣威火腿 to boost the flavor. Minced one head of single-clove garlic 独蒜。(Please click the photos to enlarge them.) The seller had older, more mature snow peas (shown on the left of the frame above) as well as the very tender young ones that I was after. Bigger ones are cheaper, but both kinds are inexpensive. Wash them and snap off the stem. These usually don’t have tough “strings” along the seam. Scrub and slice the carrot (doesn’t need to be peeled.) Here's a closeup showing how these are mostly "pod" at this stage, with only undeveloped peas inside. Lily bulbs grow in moist sandy soil , usually requiring full sun. They need to be washed well, all grit removed. The way to do this is to take them apart by hand, peeling off one petal at a time. Each bulb has a woody "stem" or "bud" that should be removed and discarded, as should any brown or damaged parts. These tough central bits become next year's flowers, but they aren't good to eat. Wash the petals again after they are “disassembled.” Each bulb required almost a minute. I used three of them. I blanched the cleaned lily petals and the sliced carrot for half a minute in a pot of lightly salted water. If the snow peas had been more mature and tougher, I would have blanched them too. Heat the wok over high flame, add a little oil. Start with the ham and minced garlic. Add the lily petals and carrot slices. Keep them moving briskly for half a minute or so until they begin to soften. Add the snow peas. Stir and flip, shake the wok, only about a minute more. You want the vegetables to be tender, but still retain their crunch. Add a light sprinkle of salt (remember that the ham is salty.) That’s all. No need for chili peppers or complex sauces. You want the gentle flavors of the lily, carrot, and peas to shine. Serve it as part of a larger meal or alone with steamed white rice. Clean and simple taste. Fresh seasonal combinations like this are one of the glories of China. Not much trouble; not much expense. Don’t let them pass you by.
  12. Instead of just reheating leftovers 剩菜 on day two, why not give them a new face? It’s easy to transform them into a tasty and attractive fried rice 变成炒饭。 A few days ago I made a large batch of stir-fried mushrooms and spicy green peppers. Came out good. Ate it as what Chinese call a “gaifan” dish 盖饭 (as shown below right.) Had all I wanted for supper, but some was left in the fridge. Next day I finished it up as fried rice 炒饭。It’s a good trick to have up your sleeve, and today I’ll show you how. Here's the original dish, as shown above left: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58735-yunnans-termite-mushrooms-鸡枞菌-jizong-jun/?tab=comments#comment-456710 Fried rice works best with day-old rice. The Chinese term is 隔夜饭 (translates as “last night’s rice.”) The texture and moisture content of rice that’s a day or two old makes it easier to handle in an application such as this. The typical Chinese family always has some day-old rice on hand. Use more rice than you think you need; the volume of the rice should be greater than that of the other ingredients. I usually add a touch of color, in this instance one small diced tomato. Spread the cooked rice in a thin layer on a large plate and spend a couple minutes breaking up any lumps with a spoon or your gloved fingers. Don’t wait and just try to do it later on the fly when your pan is over the flame and everything is moving fast. Heat a pan or wok to medium-high, non-stick is OK, add a small amount of oil. This doesn't require the blazing high heat of an authentic stirfry 炒菜, so an electric burner will get the job done. Mix the leftovers with the tomato bits. Heat the contents thoroughly, until they begin to sizzle. You want the flavors of anything new to combine fully with those of your leftovers. Now push the mushrooms and peppers to the sides and spread the rice all across the central portions of the pan. Break it up with your spatula, rapidly alternating between pressing with the flat part and chopping with the edge. (It won’t work if you just dump a large clod of cold cooked rice directly into the pan. Your dish will never recover.) Gradually combine the rice with the mushroom mixture, continuing to work out any lumps. Sprinkle in a pinch of salt. If you do this with your sprinkling hand held high, it distributes better. When everything is well mixed and heated through, serve it up. Mound it loosely onto a plate. That’s all there is to it! I garnished with what was supposed to be a rose carved from the outer layer of a ripe tomato. I watched a chef do it on TV but realized later it was not as easy as it looked. By the way, it’s normal on the Chinese mainland to eat fried rice with a spoon. You will get odd looks if you struggle along valiantly with chopsticks. The closeup shot is to show how most of the grains of rice are only in small clusters, no big clumps. Professional chefs sometimes boast about how every grain of their signature fried rice 招牌菜 is separate and distinct. Afraid I have not reached that level of skill. Making a chao fan 炒饭 is an easy way to “repurpose” the contents of those mysterious small plastic containers hiding towards the back of the bottom shelf your fridge. If your leftovers are skimpy, you can stretch them with a scrambled egg or two. The most reliable way to do this is to scramble the egg alone as a first step and then remove it. Just cook it a little bit; you want it soft and tender, though not runny. Just add it back at the very end. Hope you will give 剩菜炒饭 a try at home.
  13. 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.
  14. This delicious flavor combination is popular all over China, especially in the summer months. The two main ingredients, long green beans 四季豆 and eggplant 茄子, are both thought to help the body deal with hot weather. I was reminded of how good it tastes this weekend as a guest at a business lunch in a “home style” 家常菜 restaurant known for its Yunnan take on such well-known dishes. Today I decided to make it at home while the mental image was still fresh in mind. Here's the restaurant version. I didn't think to snap a picture until it was nearly gone. Hence the half-empty plate. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Yunnan food is not quite as fiery hot as that of Sichuan and Hunan, but it is definitely no shrinking violet when it comes to using a bold palette of spices. This dish is a good example of how Yunnan cuisine constructs a distinctive regional flavor. These beans 四季豆 are as long as my forearm. My neighborhood outdoor farmers market has several related varieties, all inexpensive and fresh. I picked a nice-looking bundle, paid 3 Yuan, and then moved on to find some eggplant. At this time of year lots of small eggplant are being harvested, some no longer than my outstretched hand, from wrist to fingertips. I bought 2 that were a little larger than that. Paid 2 Yuan for them. Bought a red bell pepper 红甜椒 for 1.50 and a couple of moderately-large spring onions 大葱 for one more Yuan. Ingredient total at this point was under 8 Yuan. Factor in some garlic and ginger plus bottled sauces, and you are looking at a lavish total investment of around 10 Yuan. Washed 洗净 and cut the vegetables 切段, making the sections of green bean and eggplant approximately the same length. The pieces of eggplant were strips, about the size of a finger 切条状。Finely chop a little garlic and ginger, smash and slice the spring onion, sliver half the red bell pepper, and set out a tablespoon of doubanjiang 豆瓣酱。This is a spicy fermented bean and chili sauce that originated in Pixian County, Sichuan. 郫县, not far from Chengdu 成都。 Not shown is one small rice bowl containing a mixture of my liquid ingredients, prepared so that they can be added quickly without having to measure when the pan is hot and food is cooking fast. (1 tablespoon of soy sauce 酱油, 1 tablespoon of dark aged vinegar 老陈醋, 1 tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒, and 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce 蚝油。) A second small rice bowl contains a half teaspoon of corn starch 玉米淀粉 mixed with about two tablespoons of water, to be added at the end as a binder and thickening agent 勾芡。 Preheat the wok over high flame; when it’s hot, add a couple tablespoons of cooking oil, 2 or 3 depending on the volume of the eggplant. I think rapeseed oil 菜籽油 works best for this since it isn’t overly delicate, stands up well to high heat and adds a little flavor of its own. Add the eggplant, stirring constantly until it becomes tender and starts to take on a golden color. Remove it to a pan and set it aside. If your wok is well seasoned, it won’t need washing at this point. You can just wipe it out with a paper kitchen towel and add another tablespoon or so of oil. Continuing to use high flame, add the cut green beans and stir fry them for two or three minutes, until they become slightly tender and start to look “crinkly” and develop speckling with dark in color. You don’t want them to actually scorch, but a little color is desirable. Below right, you can see the "breath of the wok" (wok hei or 锅气/镬气) as the beans near the end of their cooking time. It's closer to smoke than it is to steam. When you shake the pan, sometimes small tongues of flame jump into it. Adds depth to the flavor. Scoop them out into a pan. Set them aside. Wipe the wok and add a little more oil. (It won’t need much; a teaspoon or two.) Put in the ginger 姜末, followed by the minced garlic 蒜泥, thinly sliced red bell pepper 红甜椒丝 , chopped spring onions 葱花, 4 or 5 dried red chili peppers 干辣椒, and the doubanjiang 豆瓣酱。Stir fry these together until they are well mixed and you can smell the aroma. Add back the beans and the eggplant. Combine them well with the spices. Now add the bowl of wet seasonings, a pinch of salt 食用盐, a pinch of sugar 白砂糖, a pinch of MSG 味精。If it looks too dry, add a splash of boiling hot water (not cold water; you don't want to slow down the cooking process.) Cover and cook on low heat for two minutes. Remove the lid and mix in the corn starch slurry 水淀粉。 After it comes to the boil again, it’s ready to serve. Plate it up! Goes real well with steamed rice and part of a small roast chicken. At the restaurant it was just one component of a big lunch spread at a round table that had a dozen other dishes: chicken, pork, beef and fish. Vegetables that were steamed, boiled and fried. A couple types of soup. We rotated the center of the table slowly and had our fill of a fine assortment of Yunnan specialties. Can’t do all that at home of course, but still wanted to reproduce one small piece of it today and show you how. Here's the recipe all in one place if you would care to give it a try: (Please click "reveal hidden contents.")
  15. Local peaches have come in. 10 Yuan per kilo for small, slightly irregular ones; 15 Yuan for the larger, prettier specimens. The seller I visited at the farmer's market 农贸市场 was from Chenggong 呈贡,Kunming’s university and government suburb an hour or so to the south. The fruit orchards there aren't ancient, but they still long predate these relatively recent encroachments of civilization. This part of China has several kinds of peaches; friends tell me there are four main ones. The ones I got today were 水蜜桃 (“honey water peaches.”) Here’s what they looked like in the market. The peaches to the friendly lady's right are the big ones, the one to her left front are the small ones. Not a whole lot of difference to the casual eye. Most of my Chinese friends turn up their noses at soft peaches. A peach is supposed to have every bit as much crunch as an apple. I disagree but am unable to buy fully ripe ones unless I drive out to the fruit farm, which is a lot of trouble for a family of one. As you probably know, now is the time to be eating peaches 桃子, apricots 杏儿, plums 梅子 and nectarines 油桃。These are the so-called “stone fruits of summer” and all can be poached to excellent effect. I will show you how. These are the “small” peaches I bought this morning. Eight of them made a kilogram and cost me 10 Kuai. I bought a kilo of the larger ones last weekend. Six of those made a kilo. Wanted to see if there was much if any difference beyond the size. I think the big ones were a little riper, maybe slightly sweeter, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Don’t just rinse them off, scrub them well several times with a clean dishcloth or peel them. Most of my Chinese friends recommend the latter. If I were feeding growing children, I would follow suit, but since I’m not, I usually don’t take that extra step. This weekend I made them with the skins on; today I peeled them. Difference in time spent was minimal. Chop the flesh off the stone. Don’t fuss around playing surgeon and trying to get every last little bit. Leave them rough cut and nibble them afterwards like a squirrel. 不要浪费。Assemble some condiments and half a lemon. Today I used cloves 丁香 and cinnamon 桂皮。Last weekend I used ginger 老姜。Carefully strip the zest off half a lemon (avoid as much of the white part as you can.) You will put this in with the fruit along with the juice of half a lemon. I used brown sugar 红糖 both times because I happen to have a large supply of top-notch brown sugar, hand made in a small town in Zhaotong Prefecture 昭通州。It was a gift. One could equally well use rock sugar 冰糖。Whatever you use as a sweetener, start with a about a tablespoon and add more if you like things sugary; less if your tastes run in the tart direction. Put a little water in a saucepan, a cup or so, and dissolve the sugar over low to medium heat. Put in the other spices. Add the cut peaches and enough additional water to almost, but not quite, cover them. Simmer uncovered over low heat for about 10 minutes. Check the tenderness of the peaches with a fork. If you like them softer, cook them a little longer. If you are left with too much liquid, turn up the flame briefly and boil it off. I had some poached peaches in the fridge leftover from this weekend and I mixed them together with this new batch at the last minute, letting them all come to a rolling boil in the interest of food safety. Didn't want to risk their going bad. Pour the fruit into a pan or bowl and let it cool. I usually can’t resist having a helping or two while they’re warm and aromatic. I store them in a re-purposed quart jar that I’ve sterilized with boiling water. You can buy new quart jars for very little at the nearest supermarket, 沃尔玛 or 家乐福。The fruit will keep refrigerated in its juice for 4 or 5 days. If you make a real big batch, it’s best to freeze some. These poached peaches are tasty mixed with yogurt. I sometimes also put them on oatmeal in the morning. Now is the time to act on this project, ladies and gentlemen. At first peaches are nowhere to be found. Bingo, they miraculously appear and suddenly are everywhere, cheap and good; then poof, they vanish for another year. Seize the moment. If you snooze, you loose.
  16. We both know that sweet and sour anything starts out in the “win” column by default, but sweet and sour lotus root is even better than it has to be thanks to the vegetable it is built on being so all-around appealing. Even served mostly plain, lotus root is thoroughly delicious. Crunchy texture, similar to celery or apple, flavor subtly sweet. Lotus root exemplifies the notion of food which is "light, clean and refreshing." I probably should stop right there and beg your indulgence to play “Mr. Science” for a minute so we can get one burning issue clarified and out of the way: Lotus root is not really a root; it’s a rhizome. A rhizome is actually part of the plant's stem, not part of the root system. This lotus plant grows best in shallow lakes and muddy bogs and most of the stem runs parallel to and beneath the surface of the ground. This submerged stem is pinched into fat segments, resembling links of sausage. These segments store nourishment to feed the growing plant. They are chocked full of nutritional goodies and they are what is harvested as a foodstuff. Rootlets emerge from the nodes and go down, deep into the mud, while vertical stalks also originate at these nodes to go upwards, giving rise to spectacular holy flowers. Photos Baidu Digging them up is demanding stoop labor, not for the weak or dainty. You wade into the muck up to your knees and pull hard after loosening them with a stick or spade-like tool. Put the harvested lotus pieces on a flat-bottom boat or mud sled. Photos Baidu When you buy them in the market, the seller weighs out as many of these segments as you need. Sometimes two or three small ones are sold joined together. More often the individual “links” are 8 or 10 inches long and can be bought separately. The lotus lady where I usually get mine always asks how I plan to use it, so she can select pieces with the appropriate level of tenderness for me to buy. Today she asked, “你会炒还是炖?” (Will you fry it or stew it?) For stews, a big old tough piece is best. I explained my culinary plan, at which she nodded sagely and suggested one that “had my name on it.” I agreed, she scraped away most of the dried mud and weighed it. My trophy cost 11 Yuan, weighing in at a little over 900 grams. I try to select a lotus piece that is heavy for its size; but this is supremely inexact since I just heft two or three and make a face intended to convey I know what I’m doing, mostly for show. What does count, however, is to buy a piece of lotus that has closed ends. If the segments have been separated improperly, sand and grit get into the interior of the lotus are extremely difficult to fully wash away. The photo below right is taken end-on to show what I mean. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Next stop was for a red bell pepper. Spoiled for choice, I easily found a beauty. Peppers are abundant and perfect now. A large, shiny unblemished one cost 4 Yuan. Green peppers were half of that. These peppers start out green, and to get red ones, the farmer must leave some on the bush longer to allow them to ripen in place before picking. Extra time, extra risk. Makes them cost a little more. At home I decided to cook it up for a lazy Sunday lunch. The plan was to have it alongside a grilled chicken leg with a glass of iced Dian Hong 滇红茶 Yunnan red tea. Listening to Mozart fitted in somehow and I had Don Giovanni coming through bluetooth earphones. It was the Vienna Philharmonic recording with Sherrill Milnes and Anna Tomowa-Sintow. Note: Strategic thinking is important here. If you prep things in the wrong order it’s more work. But no worries: you have just received a battlefield promotion from grunt private to full bird colonel, so “big-picture” strategy has become your bread and butter. What I advocate is to divide the task into several distinct and separate parts and address the lotus itself last. If you clean and slice the lotus at the outset, it will discolor to an ugly brown unless you submerge the slices in cold water. Then you are committed to drying them well before frying. Better to eliminate that step entirely by dealing with the lotus last. With that rationale in mind, I got busy on the sweet and sour sauce first. Six tablespoons 汤勺 of vinegar go in a bowl. Three of those are white vinegar 白醋 and three are dark aged vinegar 老陈醋。 White vinegar is more sour and acidic; dark aged vinegar is more mellow and rich. A half-and-half blend works out just right. One tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 completes the liquid part of the sauce. Add 4 tablespoons of granulated sugar 白砂糖, a teaspoon 茶勺 of cooking salt 食用盐,and a half a teaspoon of MSG 味精. Mix this well several times. The solids are granular and tend to settle to the bottom. Equal amounts of vinegar and sugar is the most common recipe equation. If you like your sweet and sour sweeter, go a little heavier on the sugar. The opposite holds true as well, and I’ve elected to use slightly more of the sour note in my mix today. Then I make the thickening sauce by combining two or three teaspoons of corn starch 玉米淀粉 and about a half cup of cool tap water. This doesn’t need to be exact. Slice the red bell pepper 红甜椒 into thin rounds, discarding the white pith and seeds. Crush and coarsely chop a head of garlic 蒜头。(I use single-clove garlic 独蒜 because it’s milder.) Survey your handiwork, checking mentally to be sure you haven’t skipped anything essential. Everything else is ready now, so turn your attention to the lotus. I go so far as to even put the pan on the burner (don’t turn it on,) add a tablespoon of oil, and get my spatula handy before starting "lotus work." I generally use a flat bottom non-stick pan 平地不粘煎锅 for this dish, even though a wok will also do just fine. Scrub the lotus with a brush under running water. The piece I bought today has both ends closed. As mentioned, that’s important because the last thing you want to turn out is an order of gritty lotus root. Serve it to the wrong table, and there goes your hard-earned Michelin star. Poof! Just like that. Peel it with a vegetable peeler or scrape vigorously with a very sharp knife. Work quickly; the clock is ticking now. If you dally, the whole thing will change from pearly white to muckle dun. Slice it into rounds about ¼ of an inch thick. If they are slightly uneven it doesn’t matter, but it’s best to avoid cutting large chunks, wedges or slabs because they will require more cooking time. Uniform pieces are one of the keys to success with this dish. Turn on the gas, medium flame, and quickly sauté the garlic. When you start to smell its aroma 爆香 (15 or 20 seconds) add the lotus and stir it briskly 翻炒 so as to coat both sides with oil. When it just barely begins to color 七成熟 add the sweet and sour sauce, stirring it to coat the lotus well. Cook it for a minute or so, still over medium heat, tossing the lotus so that all of it gets well sauced. Add the corn starch suspension; stir and toss a minute more. Add the red pepper rings. The lotus slices and the peppers should maintain their crisp texture; keep the flame at medium and shake the pan with one hand while you stir with the other. When the juice thickens 粘稠 and most of it has been absorbed, you are done. Transfer it to a serving plate with the remaining sauce poured on top. This is a dish which wins most prizes if eaten right away because the lotus and the peppers are still 脆嫩 crunchy but tender then. It’s not the end of the world if it comes down to room temperature, but don’t make it an hour or two ahead on purpose since it's less interesting if it becomes soggy. Sweet and sour lotus root is a warm-weather staple throughout most of China, and it is especially beloved in Yunnan. Hope you will try it and see what you think. Here's the recipe all in one place for your convenience: (Click the "Reveal hidden contents" tab.)
  17. China doesn’t have a strong tradition of cold soups. No signature Middle Kingdom Gazpacho or colorful Dongbei cold Borscht. That doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot come up with a refreshing hot-weather way to use local ingredients with a tip of the hat to Jacques Pepin or Julia Child. That’s what I’ve been doing lately with this year’s bumper crop of crisp cucumbers, peppers, limes and mint. Since you won’t find this on the take-out menu at Mr. Wang’s Noodle Heaven, that’s all the more reason to learn to make it yourself at home. I’ll show you how I do it. (Skip to the bottom if you just want the recipe.) I usually buy the large “English-type” cucumbers for this recipe. The long, skinny Chinese ones with the darker, bumpy skin also work. The two I bought today weighed about 600 grams, a little more than a pound. Should have bought a third but didn’t decide to use them this way until I got home. As you know, mint is much beloved in Kunming, and is always in good supply. I bought a double handful for only 1 Yuan. Washed it and trimmed out the few tough woody stems, leaving a cup of leaves and tender stems. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) I coarsely chopped the cucumbers after peeling them and scooping out the seeds. One had seeds that needed to go, the other one didn’t (they were very small and tender.) Rough chopped the garlic, half a small red onion, and half of the hot green pepper (these are mild.) If you don’t have fresh peppers handy, a few drops of Tabasco will do instead. Put the cucumbers, mint and all the other vegetables into the blender or food processor along with the juice of one large lime (about two tablespoons.) Added about a half a cup of cold water from the fridge, a little at a time, to make it easier to blend. Whiz it up in short pulses until it’s liquid and smooth. Pour it into a mixing bowl, add a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, a tablespoon of aged vinegar, a teaspoon of large-grain salt, and a generous grind of black pepper. Stir it well and add one cup of moderately thick, unsweetened yogurt. (I make my own.) Increase the yogurt to 1.5 cups if you prefer a "creamier" result. Mix well with a balloon whisk and refrigerate for at least half an hour, until thoroughly chilled. Garnish with a sprig of mint and some diced cucumber when ready to serve. This is enough for two people who will want seconds, or enough for four if they are not big eaters. Chilled cucumber mint soup hits the spot as a light lunch next to a chicken salad sandwich and it also works well as the first course at supper. Here's the recipe. (Click "Reveal hidden contents.")
  18. It’s tomato soup in the summer, all over China. Here that usually means tomato and egg soup or tomato and tofu soup. This time of year, I make one or the other nearly every week. Both are easy, quick and delicious. Neither will break the bank. Good tomatoes are key: It’s worth paying a little more for ones which are vine ripened and fresh. I look for ones sold by small-scale outdoor 露天 growers instead of ones produced in huge quantities inside large plastic Quonset hut tents 塑料大棚。(Please click the photos to enlarge them.) I buy from a seller who is proud of his wares, who will gladly give anyone a taste. My minor wrinkle is to eschew his huge red perfect beauties and take smaller tomatoes that are blemished instead. Don’t look as nice but taste every bit as fine. 7 Yuan per kilo instead of 10. If the big tomatoes don’t measure up, I select miniatures instead, even though they are a little more work. Cut a shallow “x” on the bottom of each tomato; plunge them in boiling water for less than a minute. Cool them quickly under cold running water or plunge them into an ice bath. Slip off the skin, remove the stem and core. Cut them into cubes; sprinkle them very lightly with salt. (Salt early and often but do it with a light hand; don’t just wait until the end.) Finely chop the white part of a medium scallion; mince two or three coin-sized rounds of ginger. Then turn your attention to the dark horse that is the surprise star of this dish: Fuling Zhacai 涪陵榨菜 pickled mustard tuber. It is well worth a short detour. Beyond any doubt, zhacai is China’s number one pickle. It’s as much a part of everyday life here as sauerkraut is in Germany. The best of it comes from Fuling District in Chongqing Municipality. If the name Fuling strikes a note, it could be you heard it before as the place where Peter Hessler’s book was set: “River Town; Two Years on the Yangtze.” At harvest, this knobby and fibrous section low on the stem of certain varieties of mustard plant is first strung like a string of pearls and hung to air dry for several months. Then it is pickled in brine, chilies and spices for several more months. After that it is slowly pressed to extrude most of its moisture (the name 榨 comes from the pressing.) The best-known example of this condiment is made in Fuling, and that can be bought just about everywhere in cans, jars, or even small foil single-dose pouches. You may have had it served as part of an airplane meal to add a bit of spice to otherwise bland staples. Here in Kunming, I buy some which is locally made from my spice seller. Today I bought 200 grams 二两for 5 Yuan. They are a husband and wife team who hand make all the regional classics from scratch. For example, they also do a great job of Pixian Douban Jiang 郫县豆瓣酱 (originally the pride of Sichuan.) I quickly rinse a bit of this zhacai in a bowl of cool tap water to remove excess chili heat, though that is optional, not required. (I use it as is in other applications.) Chop it up to make it easier to eat. It retains a distinct crunch. No need to remind you how texture is valued here every bit as much as flavor. Ready to light the fire. Last minute check. What I usually do is run through the ingredients in the order I will need to add them to the skillet: Ginger, tomatoes, zhacai, scallions, water, eggs. I’m using a non-stick pan, so I oil it before it gets hot. One tablespoon of corn oil, swipe it around with a piece of kitchen towel. When my pan gets to medium, in goes the ginger. Never use more than medium heat with a non-stick pan; they just are not made for it. Don’t wait for the ginger to become brown; as soon as you smell its aroma, put in the tomatoes. Continue to work fast; these only need a minute or so to begin breaking down and releasing their juice. Add new things to the center of the pan, just like you did with your wok. Next up is the zhacai. Let it heat, then spread it around. Mix everything well. Follow that with most of the spring onions. Hold back a few for garnish. Stir well and let the flavors blend. Add 500 ml to 750 ml of warm or hot water. I have kept the pot of hot water that I used for boiling the tomatoes to remove their skin. It’s off to one side. Sometimes I make this as a thin soup when the rest of the meal is filling and heavy. Other times I make it thicker so it can be a more central part of the meal. Add about ¼ teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精。This contains some MSG, so skip it if you prefer. Taste the broth to see if any more salt is needed. (Remember the zhacai is salty.) Now you are ready to add the eggs. Stir them a few times with your chopsticks and add a pinch of salt. Turn off the flame and pour them in gently without any stirring. If the soup is boiling hard or you stir vigorously, the raw eggs will break up and kind of disappear, just make the soup cloudy, failing to add an interesting texture contrast. Now give it one or two slow stirs with a spoon. Once the eggs are evenly distributed, turn on the flame and bring the pan just to a boil. Immediately turn it off again, garnish with scallions and serve. This is one of those soups that I had mentally written off as "ho hum" until I personally tried making it a year or two ago. Didn’t expect it to be so interesting and complex. Today it has become one of the reasons I look forward to the arrival of premium tomatoes every summer. Can’t wait to get some home just for this very purpose. Hope you will try it and see what you think. Here’s a condensed version of the recipe to help you along, in Chinese and in English. Tomato and egg soup – 番茄鸡蛋汤。(Click the "Reveal hidden contents" link below.)
  19. Spring means asparagus 芦笋 here in Yunnan. My neighborhood wet market has recently looked like the scene of an impromptu Kunming Asparagus Festival: Neat green stacks of them everywhere. Even saw white ones, raised underground in complete dark. For the next two or three weeks, quality will be high; prices will be low. Time to invite the “King of Vegetables 蔬菜之王” home to dinner. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) You might be surprised to learn that China is far and away the world’s largest producer of this noble and nutritious vegetable. 7.84 million metric tons were grown in 2017, only about half of them destined for export to other parts of Asia. (Graph in a footnote below.) The rest find their way onto China’s dining tables. Even though asparagus somehow don’t seem quite “Chinese enough” to carry the flag overseas, they are quite popular here. Today I combined them with vine-ripened cherry tomatoes 樱桃番茄, even though larger tomatoes would work just as well. I seized an unexpected opportunity: The vendor had priced them low to sell fast because she knew they would be mush by tomorrow if they stayed on her stand. I snapped up a kilo for 9 Yuan. Used a third of them in tonight's dish. It’s such a treat to able to find tomatoes that are grown in small batches, outdoors 露天。These beat the pants off ones that are farmed in huge volume inside large plastic domes 塑料大棚, picked green, shipped a long way in refrigerated trucks and then “quick-ripened” with ethylene gas. My bunch of asparagus cost 12 Yuan. They weren’t much larger in diameter than a Number 2 pencil. Lower grades were available for less, but these caught my eye and won my heart. To fix them, first snap off the woody base of the stalk. Don’t use a knife; that leads to waste. Discard these bits or freeze them to use later in a soup. Clip off the flowery tops and set them aside, since they take only seconds to cook. Cut the remaining stems into pieces an inch or inch and a half long. It’s traditional to do this on a bias 滚切, the argument being that this exposes more of the interior pith to the pan juices and lets them develop a richer flavor. Blanch 焯 these stem segments in lightly salted water for 5 to 10 minutes. It improves the result if you squeeze half a small lime into the pot. The shorter blanching time is for thin stalks, the longer time for thick ones. Mine were tender enough at 6. Took them out with a large strainer and cooled them fast with cold water to stop the cooking process and keep them al dente. Ready to stir fry now. Last-minute check, like a pilot settling into the cockpit of his jet: tender asparagus tops in one bowl, blanched stems in another. Tomatoes cut in halves or thirds, finely-minced garlic 蒜蓉 and ginger 姜末, about a tablespoon of each. I used young ginger 生姜 for this instead of old ginger 老姜 because it has a gentler flavor. I used single-clove garlic 独蒜 instead of the standard kind 大蒜 for the same reason. A tablespoon of neutral oil such as corn oil 玉米油。Rapeseed oil 菜籽油, popular here, would not be the best choice because it imparts too much extraneous flavor. Spread it around with a folded paper kitchen towel or the back of a spoon while the pan is still cool. Go for medium heat, adding the ginger when the pan is ready 加热后。Give the garlic a few seconds head start, then sauté 煸炒 them both fast until they begin releasing their distinctive aroma. Don’t let them burn 不要炸糊。I usually lift and shake the pan with one hand while stirring with the other. Add the tomatoes plus a pinch of salt and stir briskly until they start breaking down and letting go of their juices. Chinese salt 食用盐 is often extra fine. I would suggest getting in the habit of literally using your fingers to add salt by the pinch to reduce the risk of using too much. Then put in the blanched asparagus stalks. Another pinch of salt follows these. (Salt early and often, but with a light hand. Don't just wait till the end.) New ingredients go in the middle of the pan, as shown above. I’m using a flat bottom non-stick skillet 平地不粘煎锅 instead of my big wok because it fits the volume of the dish better. Medium heat throughout. Asparagus cook fast. Roman Emperor Augustus coined the phrase "faster than cooking asparagus" to describe quick surprise military action. In go the tender asparagus tops. Splash in a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of dark vinegar 老陈醋。Sprinkle in a small pinch of sugar 白砂糖 and a small pinch of MSG 味精。Another pinch of salt if you think it’s needed after tasting. Stir and flip to combine 翻炒。If you want to give your dish a professional touch, now is the time to add a splash of 水淀粉。This is a teaspoon of cornstarch mixed in a cup or small bowl with two or three tablespoons of water. It binds the flavors into a unified whole and thickens the sauce so that it will coat the vegetables better. Gives the finished product a “restaurant polish.” Plate it up along with a bowl of steamed rice. Bearing in mind that China doesn’t really distinguish between a side dish and a main, you can make this recipe more substantial by folding in a couple of tender scrambled eggs 炒鸡蛋 at the end. In the event that you are tired of eating out at Mr. Wang's Noodle Heaven, where everything comes to you loaded with salt, sugar, and MSG, swimming in mystery oil, consider making something simple like this at home instead. Inexpensive, quick, delicious. Footnote: Table of world asparagus production: (click to display) Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/279556/global-top-asparagus-producing-countries/
  20. You can buy several flavors of milk tea 奶茶 at a stand around the corner for a dollar or two. I'm not against that, but sometimes I make it at home so as to be more careful about what is actually in it: no artificial coloring, flavoring, preservatives or sweeteners. Plus I can make it as strong or as light as I'd like. Drink it hot or cold. It's not much trouble. Let me show you how. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Start with some rich-bodied black tea 红茶, 5 or 6 grams. That's about one heaping tablespoon if you don't have a scale. I use a good grade of Fengqing Yunnan Red 凤庆滇红。About the same amount of dried rose buds. These are available in supermarkets or pharmacies in addition to tea stores. They come in several sizes, the small ones delivering a bit more flavor. Bring about 3 cups of water to a boil and add a generous spoon of rose flowers. Rinse them beforehand because they may have collected dust in the bin. Simmer 5 or 6 minutes. You can smell their distinctive floral "rose" aroma. Turn off the heat and add the tea leaves. Let the tea and rose buds steep together for 5 or 6 minutes, no need to stir it. Leave it a bit longer if you prefer your tea strong. These Dian Hong Yunnan red teas are quite aromatic all by themselves, so now your pot of tea smells really good all throughout the house. Pour in the milk, one container or package of 240 to 250 ml. Bring it back just barely to the simmer. When you see bubbles around the edge of the saucepan, turn off the fire. Don't boil it hard or it will form a "skin" on top. That isn't dangerous, but it's unattractive. Strain out the solids and then add a spoonful of honey. A teaspoon if you are feeling restrained; a tablespoon if you have a sweet tooth. I use an organic wild honey 野生蜂蜜 from Simao 思茅 where the bees feed on the flowers of Pu'er tea. It becomes crystalline pretty soon after I buy it. Sometimes I turn it back into a liquid by putting it into a hot water bath for a minute or two, but generally I just use it as it. (Don't microwave it.) This recipe makes two generous mugs of full-bodied honey rose milk tea. You can taste the rose and the honey and you can for sure taste the tea. The three flavors combine harmoniously and are perfectly balanced. Sometimes I make a double batch and save part in the fridge since it tastes just as good cold as it does hot. Hong Kong in particular has a huge crush on hot milk tea, albeit a different version, especially at breakfast and lunch. Not surprising that it's big anywhere Cantonese people have migrated over the years, from Southeast Asia to San Francisco's Chinatown. I hope you will try it and see what you think.
  21. Last week we looked at the Chinese BLT; today here are two other sandwiches that you might not have tried before. The first one presses salted duck eggs 咸鸭蛋 into service. This is one more of those foods that is not well known in the west even though it is immensely popular everyday fare throughout the Sinosphere. You have doubtless seen them in stores and markets if you live here: blue-gray in color and larger than chicken eggs. Inside, the yolks are deep yellow with a rich, slightly-salty flavor. You may have run into them simply sliced open and served as part of a multi-course meal. Or perhaps your Beijing grandmother crumbled one into the morning porridge 粥 on winter mornings when she knew you were facing exams. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) (Photo above right is a Baidu stock picture, not one of my own.) They are made by brining duck eggs for several weeks and then packing them in a special red mud mixed with ash and salt, allowing them to air-dry. This loads them with flavor and cures them so that they can be kept without refrigeration at home for a couple of months. I buy them in the neighborhood wet market from Mr. Yang for 1.5 Yuan each. He offers some that are still covered in red earth as well as the "cleaner" edition on the right in the photo below. They are available in different sizes and he usually asks me if I want ones with a strong flavor or ones that are mild. (I opt for more flavor.) Note that these are different from "Century Eggs" or "Thousand-Year Eggs" 皮蛋 that we have talked about before. These don't have that strong sulfurous note; they simply are rich and somewhat salty. Very "egg-y" tasting. Slice a steamed bun/mantou 馒头 or a huajuan 花卷, which is what I've used here. Slice a ripe tomato and salt both sides. Part of a sweet onion completes this part of the prep. The baker was hard at work when I bought the bread, puffs of steam rising out of his stacked baskets. This time I decided to toast my bun in spite of it being fresh. Spread the toasted bread with mayonaise and put it together: egg, onion, tomato. Eat it "open-face" -- Continental style. Slightly messy to handle, but lip-smacking good! ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Another non-traditional sandwich that has now become a staple in my house is built around lufu 卤腐, a prized Yunnan fermented tofu, pickled in a spicy brine. Other parts of China have something similar called furu 腐乳 that is not quite as pungent. You can find it in crocks or jars in stores, but I buy mine directly from one of the spice and sauce merchants at the neighborhood market because it is fresher. The photo below left shows two kinds of lufu, both cut into square chunks. One is Shilin 石林 style, the other is the Yuxi 玉溪 variety. A single large cube of it costs 2 or 3 Yuan. Slice it prior to use so that it's easier to spread. If you are eating it beside a main dish as a table condiment 辛辣调味品, just pinch off a bit with your chopsticks. Slice the bread and do the same for a fresh cucumber. Slather on lufu and put it together. The result is intense. You will know you are no longer in Kansas. Both of these are treats you won't find at Subway anytime soon, so you are better off trying to make them at home. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Footnotes: 1. Here's more about "Century Eggs" 皮蛋 -- You can see how they differ from the "Salted Duck Eggs" 咸鸭蛋 used today: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53530-century-egg-rice-porridge-皮蛋瘦肉粥/?tab=comments#comment-409678 2. Here's a short photo essay I found about how lufu 卤腐 is traditionally made: http://www.sohu.com/a/223291723_661256
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. Early spring in Kunming is glorious. The cherry blossoms open in February; by the end of the month the peach blossoms are everywhere too. Soon the golden fields of rapeseed flowers turn the karst hills of the outskirts into a stepped yellow sea; the crabapple orchards start releasing their flowers when gusts of spring wind blows, covering nearby roads with a pink and white snowstorm. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Now it’s mid-spring; Tomb Sweeping Festival 清明节 has passed. It hasn’t rained here since before the start of the month, today being Wednesday the 17th of April. This means it’s great for doing outside activities, riding my bike, walking in the park. But it also means the internal humors that TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) prattles on so much about are holding my metabolism for ransom. I’m told one ignores these factors at one’s peril. It’s real easy to get sick just now; it's a treacherous time. 风热感冒 in particular looms large on the horizon. Skin gets itchy and dry. That’s easy to see. Nose gets crusty inside; in every block of sidewalk when I’m on foot, I meet people with tissue rolled up and sticking out from one nostril or other in response to a nosebleed. Scratchy throat, slight hacking cough, nothing productive. What’s going on deep inside is not quite as obvious. TCM deals with imbalance between heat and cold, stagnation of Qi 气; all sorts of other oddities like wind in the thymus or spleen. Incomprehensible stuff. Took me about ten years of living here to begin taking heed to this strange and very foreign business, based on principles that are at best difficult to grasp. Furthermore, these beliefs are not well proven by the western scientific method at whose alter I burned incense throughout a long working life. (Medical practice for 35 years; now retired.) Chinese people, average garden-variety Chinese people, young and old, believe in the notion of food as medicine. Food as curative medicine, to take when you’re sick and trying to get better, and preventive medicine to take in order to stay healthy. You can talk about this subject with cab drivers, tailors, waitresses and cops; you can talk about it with the tousled guy who sells cigarettes and booze 烟酒 at that stall on the corner, or the the uniformed chap who lifts and lowers the gate at the parking lot in front of that newish mid-range hotel in the next block. What they tell you when queried may differ in certain details, often going back to what their mothers taught them when small, but every single person you talk to will have something to say; nobody will just draw a blank and look at you like you are nuts. I grew up in South Texas, the son of educated but working-class parents. My personal deck of early memories contains quite a few do’s and don’ts, but outside of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and an abiding belief in the restorative powers of chicken soup when fighting a cold, I really cannot remember much in the way of “food as medicine” hand-me-down lore or parental advice. Not to say that such advice is not to be had in the west. But I’d say it’s not exactly mainstream, at least not to the extent that it is here in China. I can remember reading paper-bound books as a teen, bought for a dollar, about the powers of apple cider vinegar or the amazing abilities of natural honey. What else? Not much. Hmm, that cannot be right. Wait, let me think harder. When my memory strays much beyond those narrow confines, I dredge up recollections of that middle-aged lady with the flowing gray hair and the tie-died dress at the health food store urging me to buy this or that expensive herbal supplement instead of just a quick, easy bottle of “One-A-Day” multivitamins. If you get to know her, it won’t be long before she wants to refer you to her iridologist to have your irises “read.” She may even give you a hot tip about that new “colonic therapist” who just started business out on the north edge of town. Not to say that what she has to offer is wrong; but it is mostly “fringe” stuff, not well-accepted or mainstream. In China, however, by contrast, health maintenance advice based on eating right is completely mainstream. You don’t have to be a quasi-fanatical macrobiotic gluten-free vegan to have some degree of knowledge about what to eat and when in order to avoid various internal imbalances that most of us don’t even know about, let alone care about. I was in that last camp, not knowing and not caring, until very recently. I still don’t know much but have decided to at least start listening to the “folk wisdom” of some of my friends and neighbors about a few of the basics. My lady friend from the deep south of Honghe 红河州, my coach at the gym, who hails from Zhaotong 昭通, the smart young guy from whom I buy tea (from somewhere west of Dali, near Baoshan 宝山) the old lady who cleans my house once a week (native of Kunming back before so many streets were paved) and the man who parks cars at my apartment complex (originally from Chongqing) have all chewed my ear about this within the last few days. They did it out of concern from someone they perceive as at risk by virtue of being clueless and foreign. Surprisingly, they all said the same thing, as though they had been raised and rehearsed by the same mother: The weather now is warm, dry and windy. In order not to get sick I need to drink more liquids, eat more vegetables, especially green leafy ones, plus consume lots of raw fruit. It's OK to have meat, but it needs to take a back seat to the plant-based items in my diet, at least for the time being. The Chinese internet is full of more specific advice on how to go about this, how to carry it out. I cannot give you a truly well-informed opinion about which bits of this doctrine are right and which bits are wrong. But I can give a few ways to implement the simplest, most basic of these ideas in case you live in similar climate and seasonal circumstances. Having finally reached the end of this long and perhaps controversial intro, today I would like to simply show you one easy way to begin at the beginning. Learn about a “cooling” beverage that you can whip up at home. It quells the internal fires of late spring. As a bonus, it tastes good. You already know that Yunnan is in love with mint 薄荷 so it should come as no surprise to meet it again here. I've previously shown you how to prepare it as a soup and as a salad and as an ingredient in a stir fry. Today it stars in a beverage. I bought this handful of fresh mint at the neighborhood wet market this morning for 1 Yuan. Not all the vendors will part with such a small amount. They tell me their margin is slim and they don't want to bother weighing and bagging such a tiny sale. In the grocery store down the street it is weighed out and pre-bundled in bunches that cost 2.5 Yuan each. Sometimes I must get more than I want, but generally find some way to use the remainder. Wash it and pick out any bruised stems or discolored leaves. I typically wash it in three changes of tap water in a large basin. If that runs clear, then I stop. If not, I wash it some more. Put a quart of water in a pot and set it over high heat so it will come to a boil without wasting too much time. When you see a healthy rolling boil, put in the mint, leaves, stems and all. Don't stir it. Just let the pot return to a boil and then shut off the flame. Leave the mint alone for the next hour. Turn your attention to the citrus. Kunming has an abundance of these small limes 请柠檬。They are juicy and cheap whereas yellow lemons 黄柠檬 are expensive and often not very nice. The decision is easy: go with the green ones and don't look back. I squeeze five or six of them into a bowl. Then I cut the remains into quarters. Set them aside. After about 30 minutes, the mint water in the pot begins taking on a rich emerald color. Add the juice and the rinds into the pot. The water will still be hot enough to extract all the flavor from the solids. Don't worry about the seeds; you will strain them out later. No need to boil it again. Let it stand undisturbed for another 30 minutes, making a total time in the pot of one hour. If you put in the limes too early, oils come out of the peel that can make the resulting brew bitter. While the mint and limes are steeping 浸泡, get started brewing some tea 泡茶。I usually go for 红茶 red tea (called "black tea" in the west) but it's fine to use green tea if you prefer. Once or twice I've even used Pu'er tea 普洱茶。It's a matter of your personal taste preference. In fact, real tea leaves are not essential to this concoction at all. You can make it with just mint and lemon alone. Nevertheless, what I generally do is just put the tea in a bowl and ladle some hot water out of the pot. It's still got enough heat to work if you are generous with the leaf and let the tea steep for 5 or 10 minutes. I brew two or three bowls like this. pouring the liquid back into the pot each time. Now strain the contents of the pot: mint and limes. Hand squeeze the small lime quarters to be sure you have gotten all their flavor. Sweeten the resulting tea after it's strained. I use wild honey from Simao 思茅 (the famous city in Yunnan which has currently been renamed as Pu'er City 普洱市。) A generous tablespoon of this per quart of brew is just right for me, but you could use more or less. If you don't have access to good natural honey, don't despair. I've seen recipes that use rock sugar 冰糖 instead, as well as ones which use granulated sugar 白砂糖。If using the latter, I think it works best to turn it into simple syrup first. Boil one part sugar with one part water until all the granules dissolve. This way you wind up with a drink that is equally sweet all through instead of having sugar settle out at the bottom of the pitcher or glass. Here's the end result. First pour on the left, second pour on the right. Notice that it gets a little cloudy as it stands. This might prevent the drink from ever achieving the top rung of fame at Starbucks, but I assure you it does not affect how it tastes in the slightest. It might be pushing my luck to try to tell you how to drink it. After all we are all consenting adults here. Nonetheless, I will say that Chinese traditionally don’t drink this beverage ice cold. It would be unusual to see a local person serve it in a tall glass over ice. The old folks 老头 of my acquaintance will serve it and drink it 常温 chang wen, which means a cool room temperature, a few degrees below lukewarm. Bear in mind that China is the land of "beer off a shelf" instead of "beer out of the ice chest." You might have been surprised and even upset when you first ordered a “cold one” in a restaurant with a meal. Regretted ever getting onto the airplane. "Good heavens, I've wound up in a country that doesn't know beer is supposed to be cold." But by now I'm sure you are used to it even though it might have been a rocky transition. Personally, I store this drink in the fridge in a carafe and drink it from a glass, but without ice. That’s cool or liang 凉, cold enough to be pleasant without shocking the system. It’s typical to sip it slow, not quaff it off all in two or three big gulps. That is supposed to be better for the digestion. But since you are most likely equipped with a western stomach instead of a Chinese version, I will leave that step completely to your discretion. However you make it, however you drink it, this beverage is a winner, even apart from its medicinal qualities. Try it and see what you think. 薄荷柠檬茶。
  25. 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.
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