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  1. 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.")
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.")
  5. 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.)
  6. 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/
  7. 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.
  8. 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
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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。
  12. 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.
  13. The anatomy of garlic: a key Chinese cooking ingredient. This post fits together with and expands on a thread I started yesterday, about how to use garlic bolts, or stems with Yunnan ham. (https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58187-gift-ham-and-garlic-bolts-蒜苔炒火腿/?tab=comments#comment-451727) I use plenty of garlic here in my Yunnan kitchen. Love it in all of its various forms. Some of the lingo might be new if you've just moved to China of if you've just begun cooking authentic Chinese food. Please allow me to tease it apart for you. What you normally buy in the grocery store or the market is heads of garlic 蒜头。Generically it's referred to as 大蒜。These heads are composed of individual garlic cloves 蒜瓣。It looks like this: In Yunnan, we have another kind of garlic, namely that in which the whole garlic bulb is comprised of one large un-partitioned clove. It's easier to work with if your recipe calls for a large amount of garlic (quicker to peel.) The flavor is a bit milder, reminiscent of a shallot. Dusuan 独蒜 is what it's called. You might have already guessed that because you know that 独立 means independent or separate. And you slice 切 or chop 剁碎 or mince 蒜蓉 these garlic cloves most of the time when cooking. Sometimes you turn them into a paste 蒜泥。You have probably met spinach stir-fried with garlic paste, since it's a very common menu item: 菠菜炒蒜泥 When the next season rolls around, the farmer or gardener plants some of the individual cloves to grow more. It takes several months (six or eight according to what I read) for the new crop to mature. In the early stages of growth, the tops are green and luxuriant. The garlic bulb itself is under the ground, the green tops consist of two parts. Lots of leaves and a single flower stalk (aka "scape" or "bolt" or "stem.") Both of these parts of the garlic plant are prized here in China. They are largely ignored by commercial growers in the US. I'm not sure about England and Europe. The leaves, below left, are sold as suanmiao 蒜苗。The flower stalks, used in the recipe that started this ramble, are suantai 蒜苔。The farmer trims the flower stalks away to allow more of the plant's growth energy to be directed into the garlic bulb, making them larger. Sometimes the stalks are straight and sometimes they curl, as shown below right. He leaves the long leaves alone and they eventually start to become brown, signaling that the garlic bulbs are ready for harvest. When the garlic is eventually harvested, the bulb is gently dug up and the long leaves are left attached. It is hung with the bulb down for weeks or months to get firm and dry. Then the garlic bulbs are trimmed and sold. Some are held back to divide into cloves and plant for next year's crop. Variations in this process exist for different varieties of garlic and for different growing conditions. It's not exactly the same all over the world and not even all over China. Additional "garlic words" for your flashcard vocabulary file: 大蒜 = garlic heads, general name for garlic. Don't confuse it with 打算。Different tones, different meaning. 大蒜末 = garlic powder 大蒜油 = garlic oil 吸血鬼 = vampire. Yes, of course garlic repels vampires. How could you possibly doubt it? The rest you can extract on your own from the text of this post and the one which preceded it. Let me know if you have questions, bearing in mind that I'm not really a farmer.
  14. Spring Festival 春节 bounty:A generous friend brought bought me back a big piece of slow-cured mountain ham from his village up in Zhaotong Prefecture 昭通州 and I asked about some of the favorite ways they used it back home. Today's dish headed the short list. Use the tender shoots of the garlic plant to make a simple stir-fry. I gave it a try and it turned out first rate. The complex aged ham was offset by the slightly sweet garlicky flavor of the tender spring vegetable. Let me show you how to do it yourself. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Lately these garlic stems been abundant and inexpensive at my local wet market. The ones I got cost 4 Yuan for a big bundle, and the sign says they were grown locally. This is another of those vegetables I'd never seen until moving to China. My background reading says they are sometimes called "garlic bolts" or "garlic scapes" in the west, though I admit to never having heard either of those odd names. Farmers cut them off so that the (underground) garlic bulb will grow larger. In any case Chinese love them and call them suantai 蒜苔。They are at their best right now. Later in the full heat of summer they become tough and somewhat woody; now they are juicy and tender. I bought one large bundle, washed them and cut them into pieces between two and three inches long. Trimmed and discarded a few brown tips. You can see the unopened garlic flowers near the growing end of most stems. (Yes, you eat that part too.) They have a pleasant garlicky flavor without any of that garlic bulb heat and bite. Almost sweet, though not quite. Texture is close to that of young asparagus. Washed and then cut a couple of small red bell peppers 红甜椒 into thin slivers (removing the stem and the seeds.) 洗净、去蒂、去籽、切丝。 Rinsed off a piece of ham and carefully cut it into very thin slices. Leave the fat, it adds to the flavor. (Sharp knife is essential. My trusty Hong Kong caidao 菜刀 did not let me down.) This ham was two years old; rich, complex flavor. The pigs from which it came are about half wild, roaming large pastures instead of being confined to small pens. Elevation 3,000 meters. Yunnan's most famous ham comes from Xuanwei 宣威, in Qujing 曲靖, a bit south of Zhaotong 昭通。It is similar in character to an Italian Parma ham. Smack a large spring onion 大葱 with the side of the blade to crush it and flatten it somewhat, then slice it thin. Partly flattening it like that makes the volatile aromatics release easier when it hits the heat. Boil a small pot of water and drop the garlic stems into it. When the water returns to a boil, scoop them out and drain them well 沥干水。You only want to blanch 焯 them; be careful not to overdo it. These were so tender I actually could have omitted that step. Readied my soy sauce 生抽 and some cooking wine 料酒。Put a teaspoon of corn starch into a rice bowl along with a tablespoon or two of tap water, mixing them together to make 水淀粉。Will use this in the last step to thicken the sauce and bind the various flavors. A little oil swirled around in the bottom of my hot wok to coat. Full flame, almost making it smoke. Add the ham, stir it around to render some of its fat. Quickly add the red peppers and spring onion, stirring constantly. Then in go the blanched garlic stems. Continue to stir fry 翻炒 briskly and shake the wok at the same time to keep things from sticking and burning. I've turned the heat to medium, but the steel of the wok is still plenty hot. It smells real good by now. Add about a tablespoon of soy sauce and the same amount of cooking wine. No salt or MSG needed. When the vegetables are just beginning to take on a golden color, add the corn starch solution and stir a few seconds more. The entire cooking time was only a minute or two: fast and hot is the ticket for this. You are done. Serve it up. Sip a glass of white wine. The vegetables are tender, but have retained their crunch. Eat it with steamed rice and a simple clear vegetable soup to make a light warm-weather meal. If you can locate the ingredients, give it a whirl. A farmers market would be the place to look for these garlic stems. I've seen recipes which use processed ham links 火腿肠 and young asparagus 芦笋。Not quite the same, but probably still good.
  15. I've had a lingering cough from a winter cold and have been exploring traditional Grandmother-type home remedies, as suggested by several Chinese friends. Pears 雪梨 kept topping everybody's list. Can't swear that they are the best thing since the invention of penicillin, but it seems they might actually be helping some. Furthermore they taste real good. Snow pears 雪梨 (xueli) are the variety most highly recommended, but if they aren't available where you live, other pears can be used instead. The best xueli come from Xinjiang 新疆。 They cost more than locally-grown varieties, but they have more flavor when cooked. Turns out these pears are often prepared as a thin rice porridge, usually served warm. This combination is a staple in many households not only for its medicinal value, but simply because it is tasty, refreshing and easy to digest. Often recommended for the very young, the very old and the ailing or infirm. Not something I ever encountered in the west. Thought I'd show you one way to fix them at home in case you'd care to try them for yourself. The rice can be ordinary white rice 大米, but glutinous rice 糯米 is generally preferred. The recipe I'm using today mixes it 2 to 1 with millet 小米。It's a good idea to soak the grains for several hours or even overnight. If you forget, it's not a deal breaker, but texture is affected. Here's what these ingredients look like. Millet 小米 is at the top, with glutinous rice 糯米and ordinary white rice 大米 below. The grains of glutinous rice are nearly round, bottom left, and it is said to have more nutritional value than the white Dongbei rice 东北大米, pictured bottom right. Please click the photos to enlarge them. One can use just the grains and the pear alone, very plain, but to enhance efficacy one can add some lotus seeds 莲子 and a few chuanbei seeds 川贝. Grocery stores have lotus seeds; a pharmacy 药店 will have 川贝。The latter is a powerful Chinese herbal medicine, tiny root bulbs of the Fritillaria cirrhosa plant, which grows on alpine slopes and meadows. These two items also benefit from soaking, right along with the grains. Recipes often call for hongzao 红枣 Chinese jujube dates, and gouqi/Chinese wolfberries 枸杞 as well. I like both, so included them. Cut the pear into small pieces, removing stem and seeds. It's not necessary to peel it, though it does improve appearance. The traditional way to make rice porridge/zhou 粥 is in a covered clay pot on the stove. Doing it that way takes an hour or more of frequent stirring and requires that your stove burners have a "simmer" setting which supplies very low heat. Lots of Chinese home cooktops tend to put out too much flame. Consequently, one turns instead to the trusty rice cooker 电饭煲 which is found in even the leanest of small home kitchens. Put the grains together into one small bowl so you can get an idea of combined volume, add them to the rice cooker, then supplement the grains with roughly 10 times that amount of water. Less or more to taste, depending on whether you prefer your zhou thin or thick. (Regional preferences exist.) Put in a small handful of dried Chinese jujubes 红枣 and a "palm" of dried Chinese wolfberries 枸杞. A tablespoon or so of rock sugar 冰糖, more if you like it sweeter. Also add a tiny pinch of salt. I cut up one large pear and put it into the rice cooker bowl to become part of the zhou/porridge, and cut up the other one to place into the steamer basket. This way I'll have some extra pear to enjoy with nearly zero extra time and effort. Plug it in; crank it up. Most rice cookers have a button marked 粥, but in Yunnan we call it xifan 稀饭 instead (bottom right.) Let the cooker run through its cycle and shift to "keep warm" 保温 (top left.) This usually requires 30 to 40 minutes. Open it and take a look, stirring with your chopsticks. If the porridge still shows rice that isn't falling-apart tender, give it an extra 15 minutes or so. On my machine I do that by pressing the 蒸/煮 button, all the way to the left, bottom row. Sometimes I use my electric pressure cooker 高压锅 instead of the rice cooker 电饭煲。It also has a 粥 setting, which is what I use. It does a good job in about half the time. It's finished now. Serve it up. Tasty, healthy stuff. Restorative for the lungs. 止咳、 润肺、化痰。
  16. It's cold outside: Time for a big bowl of winter melon soup 冬瓜汤。In all fairness, this is one of those family favorites that can be enjoyed any time of year. It's mild and warming; not difficult to make. Sometimes I cook it without meat, but today I used ground pork meatballs. Let me show you a reliable and straightforward way to go about it. At the market you will usually see two kinds of winter melon. Admirably, the nomenclature couldn't be easier: namely big 大 and small 小。Wish all ingredient names were always that obvious. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) The big ones, pictured on the right, are so large that you would have to use both arms and grunt to heft a whole one off the ground. They are always sold in small sections, such as those just in front of the friendly shopkeeper. Notice the white "frost" on the surface. This is where these gourds got their name. They actually grow better in the summer months, but way back when, a long time ago, their appearance reminded someone of a snowy winter. Smaller winter melons are also for sale, left part of the picture. They are more fibrous and work better in stir-fry dishes. This seller also has lush, deep orange butternut squash 南瓜, near the back of the picture. These all grow on vines, often trellised to improve yield. Her husband and her brother tend the farm, south of the city. She comes to town to sell the bounty. Both kinds are really cheap. For under 5 Yuan you can buy enough for two or three meals. The big ones have a texture somewhere between that of a watermelon and a cucumber. Donggua has a bland flavor, ever so slightly sweet. They aren't eaten raw; and they shine as an ingredient in soup because they don't eclipse other flavors. Often they are paired with pork spare ribs in a hearty soup 冬瓜排骨汤。I'll show you that one another day. One of the reasons this vegetable is such an integral part of Chinese family-style cooking is that it can keep a long time after being picked: 3 or 4 months if it hasn't been cut. For many of China's lean years it was a "go to" peasant food, along with cabbage 白菜。It could be grown without a lot of pampering; didn't require the sort of modern plastic tents 塑料大棚 that today make summer vegetables available nearly year round. The seller will peel and seed it if you ask her, but I usually do that at home since I might not use it all at one go, and it keeps better with the peel on. Today I rinsed it and peeled it with my knife, then cut away the soft central pith. Sliced it into pieces a couple centimeters thick as shown. I bought a few flavorful organic carrots 有机胡萝卜, some spring onions 葱,single-head garlic 独蒜, and a piece of ginger 老姜。Cut these up as pictured, taking pains to mince the garlic and ginger really fine 切米. The Chinese term for this kind of cutting means that they should be minced into pieces no larger than grains of rice. I bought some pork, ground to order with about 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat (by eye.) Pork prices have gone up recently because some pigs have had to be killed to prevent spread of a nasty virus. This has impacted stockpiles and supply lines. Put the ground pork on a chopping block 菜板 and minced it even finer with my cleaver 菜刀, turning it this way and that plus folding it over on itself half a dozen times. Then mixed it in a bowl with half a teaspoon of salt, a fourth teaspoon of ground white pepper, a tablespoon of soy sauce, one egg white 蛋清, and of course the minced garlic and ginger. Stirred it all together really well 搅拌均匀。 Put about 750 ml of water on the stove to come to a simmer and then spooned in the seasoned meat, forming it into approximate spheres using two teaspoons to make them round. Sometimes I put on a disposable glove and shape it with one hand, using a squeezing motion. Drop these one at a time into the simmering water and let them partially cook. When they all float, after about 2 minutes, lift them out gently with a strainer and put them in a bowl. We will finish cooking them a little later. Since the carrots take longer to cook than the winter melon, start them first. Sometimes I use sections of corn on the cob instead of carrots. They can be put in right along with the winter melon. When the carrots become nearly tender (can be pierced with a fork) add the winter melon. It cooks fast, usually only requires about 3 or 4 minutes. When it's partially translucent 半透明 and tender (can be pierced with a chopstick) then return the meat balls to the soup. Give it all another 4 or 5 minutes for the meat to finish cooking and allow the flavors to blend. Keep the pot at a low simmer; a rolling boil would overcook the vegetables and meat, plus make everything kind of fall apart. The best Chinese clear soups are made by cooking the ingredients just barely long enough. I've chopped some fresh cilantro 香菜 as well as the spring onion 葱花。Just before the soup is finished, I taste to see if it needs more salt and sprinkle these aromatic leaves on top as a garnish. Dish it up. This mild-flavored soup can be served as a side dish or it can be served with steamed rice 米饭 as a light meal. Adjust the amount of liquid to suit your taste. I prefer it kind of concentrated, and that's the version that is shown here today. In a restaurant, it's more likely to be somewhat thinner. This is one of the advantages to cooking things at home. This glorious but humble soup started as the food of farmers and factory workers, eventually becoming so well accepted that it's now found in five-star banquets. It's another of those authentic regional dishes that I'd never heard of, let alone tasted, until coming here a decade ago. It probably would not sell well at the all-you-can-eat China Star Buffet on the strip mall in Smalltown, Texas, USA. Try it and see what you think. Nothing flashy. Just honest family-style Chinese food. The real deal.
  17. Curries don't have a venerable ancient dynastic history; nobody claims they were invented on the banks of the Yellow River in the Ming. But it's an indisputable fact that curry has caught on and is now very popular Mainland fare. It's not considered "exotic" here; it has been adopted and assimilated. Curry is also big in Japan and Korea; same is true in much of SE Asia, notably Thailand, and even down into Malaysia and Indonesia. All over China you can find it listed on the short tabletop or wall menus of small family-style restaurants right beside traditional favorites like hongshao rou 红烧肉 (red-cooked pork.) Simple grocery stores patronized by local people here in Kunming often have six or eight kinds of curry spice blends available for sale, attesting to demand. Chicken curry and beef curry have both become favorites in my own simple kitchen; today I'll show you how to make a killer Middle-Kingdom version with the humble chicken leg 咖喱鸡腿。Frozen chicken drumsticks 冻琵琶腿 (pipatui) are cheap and plentiful; they are what I used today. Six of these cost about 20 Yuan (weight 900-odd grams, nearly a kilo.) I picked up a couple potatoes and a couple carrots plus one medium sized onion. Sprung for an optional apple and one ripe tomato. As an afterthought, I bought a few spicy long green chilies to increase the heat. Figured that would give the dish a nice Yunnan touch. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) When I headed to the spice aisle, I found lots of different curry seasonings. The most popular kind here is sold in solid blocks. Chinese cooks claim the flavor is more robust, but one can also buy several brands of curry powder. Most of these spice blends are graded as to their "fire quotient." The kind I bought today was marked 微辣, or barely hot; category 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. I'd rather add spiciness by means of actual peppers, fresh or dried. Seems to me the results that way are better balanced and less likely to yield an unwelcome last minute surprise. Here's a closer look at my curry cubes and a shot of the coconut liquid I bought. Curry comes in all sorts of flavor profiles, the one I made today had apples and coconut to offset the heat. Chinese "take-out" curry in the US often is mainly meat and onions. Today's edition is a little more complex and interesting. This brand of curry cubes, House or 好特,is what I usually buy and has been dependable. Note the circular "heat meter" in the upper right corner. The store only had this coconut drink 椰汁, and not the more concentrated 椰奶 that I would have preferred, but it still served the need. One can rudely hack the chicken legs into pieces with a heavy cleaver, leaving the bones in place. That is the "family style" approach 家常菜 used in lots of small mom and pop, open-front eateries. Today I decided to cut the meat off the bone; it's a more elegant approach and doesn't really take much time. Wound up with about 650 grams of usable meat and some bones that I will freeze for stock. What you do is first make a circular cut all the way around the smaller end of the drumstick. Then slice along the bone, working in the direction of the larger joint, producing a "lollypop" effect. Then sever this leg meat that you have sort of "turned inside out." Cut it into smallish pieces so that it cooks more evenly and is suitable to eating with chopsticks. If you want to remove some of the shiny white tendons with the tip of your knife, your guests will thank you and Gordon Ramsay won't shout loud obscenities in your direction. Marinate these chicken pieces in a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒, a tablespoon of soy sauce 生抽, a dash or two of white pepper 白胡椒粉 and a half teaspoon of salt 食盐。I often add a teaspoon or so of vegetable oil 食用油, because that makes the chicken less likely to stick to the pan later when it's on the heat. If your kitchen is warm, set it in the fridge 放在冰箱。If it marinates longer, it doesn't matter. (I've sometimes been interrupted and it has waited an hour or two; the prolonged time might even give it more flavor.) If you are pressed for time, it's OK to use chicken breasts 鸡胸脯肉 in this recipe. They dry out (overcook) easier and usually have a bit less flavor than the dark meat of the chicken's leg. If your market offers boneless chicken thighs, that would be ideal. (Not available in China.) Wash and cut the vegetables. In addition to the onion, potato, carrot, apple, tomato and peppers already mentioned, I used a large clove of garlic 独立蒜 and about an inch of ginger 老姜, both of the latter minced. I took the skin off the tomato by dunking it in boiling water for half a minute. The apple proved too big, and I only used half of it. Nibbled the remainder -- cook's prerogative; the spoils of war. Should mention that before prepping the vegetables, I put some rice on to soak. Wanted to have the finished curry with fresh steamed rice. I would start the rice cooking after it soaked 15 minutes. Turned out that this particular onion was over the hill and it's flavor was too strong. Didn't have another one on hand. So I soaked it in cool salted water after chopping it. Changed the water several times. This tamed it. (A good trick to know.) First order of business is to make the curry base. Did that by stir-frying 煸炒 the ginger and garlic for a few seconds, added the onion and continued to stir for a minute more. Next, put in the the green peppers. When all these have begun releasing their aroma and have wilted down (without really becoming brown,) then add the tomato. Poured in one rice bowl of hot water (about 250 ml.) and put in the curry blocks. Stirred them well to dissolve. Put on the lid 盖上盖, turned the fire to it's lowest setting 小伙, and cooked this sauce 15 minutes, peeking and stirring several times. It all pulled together nicely and the flavors blended. I let it thicken somewhat, until it would coat the back of a spoon, but was careful not to let it scorch. Poured it out into a dish 备用。Rinsed and dried my wok. By now this rich sauce looks attractive and smells delicious. 熬好的酱特别香! Saute the potatoes and carrots until you see a little bit of color developing. No need to actually make them golden brown. Add the apples last, the idea being just to heat them through. Stir fry some more, medium heat, scoop it all out into a bowl and set aside for later 去锅,备用。 Ready now to cook the chicken, which has been marinating in the fridge. Hot wok, cold oil 热锅冷油 (old Chinese kitchen saying.) Stir fry 翻炒 it over high heat until you no longer see surface pink. The illustration below left shows that it still needs more time. Be careful, however, not to dry it out. Add the coconut milk. Curry recipes often call for adding sugar or even honey, but since this coconut milk is sweet, as are the apples, I didn't use any. Next add the curry base that you already prepared. Stir it well. Add some additional hot water if it looks too dry. Cover and cook on low for 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes 焖煮。This lets you check the progress and prevents it from sticking to the bottom of the wok. By now the chicken is cooked through 熟透 and the flavors are well developed. Time to return the vegetables to the wok and allow it all to marry. Cover and give it 15 minutes on low. Near the end of that time, check the potatoes and carrots to see if they pierce easily with a fork. This will let you know that they are done. Taste and adjust the salt (mine needed a little extra.) If there is still lots of liquid, turn up the flame and leave the lid off for a minute or so, stirring as it reduces. 至汤汁浓稠。Don't make it too dry, however, because that flavorful juice is delicious over rice. By now your rice is done, tender and piping hot. Notice the little steam holes telling you it's ready. Fluff it up with a pair of chopsticks and leave it in the rice cooker. Close the cover to keep it warm, but unplug it so that it does not continue to cook. The "keep warm" 保温 setting supplies too much heat. Time to eat. What I usually do is serve the first round as individual plates 盖饭 gaifan style to get everyone started. Then set the remainder of the curry on the table so my friends can help themselves to seconds (and thirds, and fourths.) The rice stays in the rice cooker, off to the side but within arm's reach. Hope you try it soon. One point three billion Chinese are unlikely to be wrong.
  18. Fennel 茴香 (huixiang) here means the fragrant lacy fronds of the fennel plant; not the solid bulb that you are used to seeing in the west. If you've traveled much in China, you have probably met it paired with ground pork in dumplings 茴香猪肉饺子, but in Yunnan it's the prime ingredient of a very tasty soup. Yunnan takes pride in making main dishes out of several items that you are used to thinking of as seasoning or garnish. Mint is one such that we have looked at before. Link to that: Mint soup Today I'll show you how to make an honest, straight-forward soup from fennel and silky tofu. The process couldn't be more simple. My concern, however, is that you might not be able to get fresh fennel fronds overseas. Even though the plant has a long growing season, the fronds are delicate and surely don't travel well. Pretty sure they are usually just discarded, like carrot tops. Here's the kind of fennel we are talking about. Bought some this morning in the market. Three big handfuls at 1 Yuan each. (Fennel in the middle of the image.) Stopped a few minutes later on "tofu row" for 2.5 Yuan worth of Mrs. Zhang's best small-batch soft tofu (嫩豆腐)。Note how the firm tofu (老豆腐) in the foreground stands up straighter. The soft tofu towards the rear is bulging and leaning over. Please click the photos to enlarge them. At home I washed the fennel and chopped it into pieces a couple inches long. Three slices of fresh ginger 生姜 and a piece of aged dry tangerine peel 橙皮, just to kick it up a notch. Don't fret if you don't have aged tangerine peel; it's not essential; just leave it out. In fact it's worth pointing out that this is an extremely flexible recipe: if you want more fennel or less fennel, that's OK; if you want more tofu or less tofu, that's OK too. Make it the way you like it. Give the ginger a sharp whack with the side of your caidao 菜刀 cleaver knife to partly crush it and then put it plus the tangerine peel into about 750 ml of chicken stock. One can make this soup more dilute or more concentrated according to taste. If you're vegetarian, it's fine to use plain water instead of stock. Let these seasoning ingredients simmer about 10 minutes to extract more flavor. (Maybe next time I'll simmer them even longer.) Rinse the block of tofu and cut it into irregular pieces, suitable in size to be picked up easily with chopsticks. Gently add the tofu to the stock and simmer it a couple minutes with minimal stirring. This makes the tofu more likely to stay intact instead of falling apart. Then lift the tofu out with a strainer so it won't get too fractured and beat up while you cook the fennel. The fennel only takes two minutes or so. You want it to retain some crunch and not be completely soft. When it has reached that point, add back the tofu. Season with a scant teaspoon of salt 食盐, a dash of white pepper 白胡椒粉, and a half teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精 ji jing. This latter seasoning, popular in China, is like granulated chicken bouillon plus a small amount of MSG. Let it come back to a simmer, and you're almost done. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed (might need a little more salt, depending on your chicken stock.) Serve it up. As an afterthought, I garnished the dish with a couple of thinly-sliced cherry tomatoes. I'm sure they caught your eye in the market picture up top. Obviously, I had to buy a few. Big tomatoes are not great right now, but these little ones have lots of flavor with a pleasantly tart finish. Served it with a bowl of left-over chicken rice. It probably would make a nice lunch alongside a grilled pannini sandwich.
  19. If you are vegetarian in China, you have doubtless become acquainted with this popular dish. I'm not of that persuasion, but several vegetarian friends have told me it was sufficient to sustain life for their first few weeks here on the Mainland before they had enough vocabulary to explore and branch out. You could do much worse than a steady diet of this, alternating perhaps with tomatoes and scrambled eggs 番茄炒鸡蛋。Plus of course steamed rice 米饭。 地三鲜 di san xian is a simple but glorious combination of eggplant (aubergine), green peppers, and potatoes 茄子,青椒,土豆。It supposedly originated in Shandong and is part of the "Lu Cai" 鲁菜 tradition (one of the "big eight" categories of Chinese cuisine 八大菜系。) It quickly spread throughout China's northeast, however, and is today more commonly thought of as being representative of the food of Dongbei. I've eaten it in Qingdao, Dalian, Beijing, and Harbin, and surely other places that have escaped my memory. This dish is easy to make at home, and today I'll show you how. Potatoes are abundant now that winter has arrived. In the market yesterday I saw four kinds of white potatoes and three kinds of sweet potatoes. It's difficult to sort them out and choose. What I usually do is tell the seller what I plan to make, and let him recommend the best type. (Reminder: You can click the photos to enlarge them.) Most recipes call for using roughly equal parts of potatoes and eggplant by weight, or maybe going slightly heavier on the potatoes. Today I used two of each, opting for the long, slender eggplants that grow year round here. Picked up some spring onions 大葱 and a couple green peppers 请教。The pepper lady had red ones for the same price in the adjacent bag, so I bought some of each. Scrub and peel two potatoes, and cut them up. I used a "rolling cut," but thick slices would also get the job done. Washed and cut the eggplant the same way. No need to remove the skin. Seeded and coarsely chopped the peppers (these are not at all spicy.) Thawed a cup of bone stock 高汤 that I had frozen in a big batch one rainy weekend in late summer. (If you don't have stock on hand, you can use bouillon or chicken extract -- 鲜鸡汁。) Minced a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜, a piece of ginger 老姜,and slivered one large spring onion 大葱。Ready now to rock and roll. I used a deep non-stick skillet 不粘平底锅, but could just as well have used my wok. Poured three or four tablespoons of oil into the cold pan and heated it up about three quarters hot 七八热。Fried the potatoes until they developed some golden color 变金黄色 and got soft enough to easily pierce with a chopstick. That took between 8 and 10 minutes. Lifted the potatoes out into a pan on the counter top. Save for later 备用。 Started frying the eggplant, using the same oil. Kept the temperature medium to medium high, tossing them more or less nonstop 翻炒。When they developed a rich golden color and were soft enough to easily pierce with a chopstick, I knew they were ready and scooped them out into a bowl. It took 6 or 8 minutes. Don't overcook them, since they will get some more heat later when all the ingredients are put together. Potatoes and eggplant are both cooked now, but not overdone. Ready to meet other flavors. Put the minced ginger in the hot skillet and give it a 15 or 20 second head start before adding the minced garlic. (Garlic cooks quicker.) Add the red and green peppers and stir fry them with the aromatic spices. Saute them until they begin to soften. Add back the potatoes and eggplant. Cook everything together a few minutes while adding dry seasonings: a scant teaspoon of salt, a dash of white pepper, a sprinkle of sugar, MSG if you use it (I use 1/4 teaspoon of it.) Then put in the (thawed) liquid stock 高汤, a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒。Add the spring onions; stir it well a minute or two and allow the flavors time to blend and let most of the liquid be absorbed. At this point add a small amount of corn starch thickener 水淀粉。I always make this in advance with a teaspoon of corn starch 生粉 and two tablespoons of water, mixed well together into a suspension. This holds all the flavors together 勾芡 and produces a tasty gravy. Boil for half a minute more, and you're done. Serve it up 装盘。Dig in 动筷子。Can be served as a vegetable side dish to complement a simple meat such as roast chicken or it can be a vegetarian main dish (hold the stock.) Goes well with steamed rice.
  20. Now is the time for cauliflower: it's at its best in local markets. We find two kinds at the wet market near my house, one being the traditional tight head of cauliflower such as is popular in the west, and an organic 有机 variety which has longer-stalked, gangly, looser florets. This latter kind has more flavor, and it's the one I usually buy. It's the one I bought today. Here's what they look like. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) Dry frying or 干煸 (gan bian) is a cooking process popular in the southwest of China: Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. The idea is to cook a mild vegetable with a minimum of extra moisture so as to concentrate the vegetable's flavor. 干煸花菜 (gan bian huacai) is popular here and you can find it in most restaurants, large and small, at this time of year. If you like Sichuan food 川菜, you are probably familiar with dry-fried green beans 干煸四季豆 (gan bian siji dou); they are a staple menu item, both here in China and overseas in the western world. It's a dish that has been successfully exported. I'll show you a straight-forward way to make this nice cauliflower dish at home. Doesn't take much time; requires no fancy tools. Today I was making it for one, and I used about a third of a head of organic cauliflower, the kind with the longer, somewhat spindly florets. Use your fingers to tear it into shreds. Large pieces of stalk should be cut into thin pieces. If you are using western cauliflower, with the bigger florets, cut it up into thin slivers. The idea behind this is to allow it to cook fast with dry stove-top heat. Thick pieces would require a different cooking method to become tender. Soak these cauliflower pieces in dilute salt water for about 20 minutes. (I used a scant teaspoon of salt in nearly a quart of water.) While it is soaking, prep the other ingredients. Many Chinese recipes call for using fat pork belly meat 五花肉 (wuhua rou) sliced thin. Others call for sausage. Today I used Yunnan slow-cured ham from Xuanwei county, in the NE mountains of the province. 宣威火腿。Sliced it thin, alongside some minced ginger 老姜 and garlic 大蒜。Tore up two or three dry red chili peppers 干辣椒 and sprinkled out a half teaspoon of cumin seeds 孜然。I had some tasty cherry tomatoes 小番茄 in the fridge, and I sliced a few of those. Since the quantities were small, I used a non-stick saute pan today 不粘平底锅, but I could just as well have used a wok 炒锅。Quick fried the garlic, ginger, peppers and ham slivers over medium heat until they began releasing their aroma 去香味。Careful not to burn the garlic; only takes 20 or 30 seconds. Drain the cauliflower and blot it dry, then add it to the spices in your skillet. Stir it with a flipping motion 翻炒 of your spatula or wok tool 锅铲 keeping the heat between medium and high. When the cauliflower begins to take on a bit of golden color 变金黄, add the small tomatoes. At this point you could also add some fresh hot green peppers 青辣椒 for more heat, or sliced spring onions 大葱 for greater complexity. Reduce the heat to medium now and continue stirring until the cauliflower is tender-crunchy and the tomatoes have lost most of their moisture (about 5 minutes.) Add a sprinkle of salt and another of sugar. (Remember that the ham has some salt, best not use too much.) Add a teaspoon or so of light soy sauce 生抽 and another of dark aged vinegar 老陈醋。Don't be tempted to add water to make a gravy, as you might if this were a standard stir-fry. You want all the flavors to be absorbed into the vegetable as it cooks. It's ready when the stalks yield easily to being pinched with chopsticks. Plate it up 装盘 and dig in 动筷子。This can be served with rice as a side dish in a larger meal. If you prefer a vegetarian version, just leave out the meat. The finished product!
  21. If you live in China, you've probably noticed the push-cart sweet potato sellers out in force recently, shouting “红薯, 红薯, 买红薯"。This morning I succumbed and bought a kilo from a local auntie 阿姨 with a hand-held balance scale 称子。Cost me ¥3.5 for six of them (1 公斤/ 1 kilogram,) about 50 cents US. This afternoon I'll show you a quick and simple way to fix them as a side dish for your evening meal. The lowly sweet potato is not a star in the West. It often shows up in the US at Thanksgiving, then disappears. But it's definitely a staple in the Far East, particularly China and Japan. It has lots of nutrition without many calories. Furthermore this fine root vegetable is just now coming into high season here. That means it's abundant and prime quality is cheap. In a month or so, the itinerant potato roasters will be out and about with their charcoal fires, standing on a street corner or moving slowly with a cart. Wash them well and peel them 洗净剥皮。The surface usually has some grit. Slice them into angled rounds 2 or 3 cm thick 切片。The three sweet potatoes shown here weighed just under 400 grams /400克。(Click the photos to enlarge them.) Add a quart or so of tap water to your steamer pot 蒸锅。If you don't have one, you can use your rice cooker 电饭煲 with its steamer basket. Failing that, use your wok 炒锅, with a wire rack and a lid 盖子。Place the sliced sweet potatoes in a shallow bowl 浅碗子, set it inside and cover the pot 盖上盖子。 Using high heat 高火, bring the water to a boil, 沸水, such that you can see escaping steam 看到上汽。Then turn it down to low 小火 and cook for 10 minutes. When your timer rings, turn off the flame, leaving the pot covered and undisturbed for another 10 minutes 关火焖十分钟。 While the sweet potatoes are cooking, mix 2 tablespoons 两汤勺 of honey 蜂蜜 with 1 tablespoon of hot water 热水 in a cup or rice bowl 饭碗。When the time is up, check to make sure they are done by being sure it's easy to pierce one or two with a chopstick. You want them to be soft 微烂, but not mushy and falling apart. Lift them out 去锅, sprinkle them lightly with coarse-ground salt 食用盐and drizzle with the honey mixture. Toss gently 轻轻的拌匀。Serve while hot. They really hit the spot as well as being cheap and easy. Give them a try when you have a chance.
  22. It's been a cold and rainy October; perfect weather for beef stew. Sometimes I make this dish with shortcuts, but today I had time for the "top shelf" version. It took several hours, but came out delicious. Let me show you how to do it. Buy a good looking piece of beef; I most often go for brisket 牛胸肉 or a rib cut 肋排肉。You can use shoulder or rump, but they are tougher and take a little longer to get done. I ask my butcher to include a couple of marrow bones 筒骨; sometimes she is in a good mood and tosses them in free because I am a regular customer 老顾客。Sometimes I have to pay, but even then it's usually only ¥5 extra. Don't need to trim it, just rinse well under tap water 洗净 and cut it into more or less equal sized pieces 切块。This piece of beef weighted 600 grams and cost 38 Yuan. (BTW, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) Put these in a pan with cold water and let them soak 30 minutes. Don't add anything. Some blood will come out and slightly color the water. Here are before and after shots. I use that 30 minutes to prepare dry seasonings for the next step. Boil some water in your wok (no need to get another pot dirty.) Add a splash of yellow cooking wine 黄酒 and a few slices of ginger (don't need to peel it.) Simmer it for two minutes and scoop off the foam 去掉浮沫。Lift out the meat and discard that water. Don't worry about losing flavor; a couple minutes of boiling here just cleans the meat; the long, slow stewing yet to come will develop plenty more good tastes. Let the meat drain and then blot it dry with paper towels so it won't splatter too much when you brown it in oil. Here are the dry spices: a few dry red chilies 干辣椒 at 12 noon, two pods of cardamom 草果 at 2 o'clock. Smash them open with the heavy blunt handle of your knife so they will release their flavor more readily. Cassia bark is next at 6 o'clock. (It's a relative of cinnamon.) At 9 o'clock are two pods of star anise 八角,and in the middle are two or three bay leaves 香叶。Not shown in this photo is a tablespoon of rock sugar 冰糖。 Crush some garlic, two or three cloves, and slice it coarsely. Several large slices of ginger; no need to peel it; cut them big so you can pick them out later before serving. Lay out a heaping tablespoon of rock sugar 冰糖。(This will help give the meat a pleasant golden color. I've included a closer look at the magic ingredient that some people call "The Soul of Sichuan Cuisine." It's Pixian Douban Jiang 郫县豆瓣酱, a fiery paste, concocted of fermented soybeans, broad beans, rice and crushed chilies. It's beloved in Yunnan too, and I buy it in bulk from the spice lady at my nearby wet market so I can always have some in the fridge when needed. It's a staple in my house. A thoroughly worthwhile condiment. It's available in jars from your Asian market or from Amazon. Now you want to brown the meat. Put a couple tablespoons of oil into your wok (which you have dried well after using it to boil the beef) and stir the meat cubes around until it develops some color. One at a time, add the rock sugar 冰糖, ginger, garlic, and the Pixian doubanjiang. You probably recognize this way of starting the meat as typical of recipes for making red cooked beef 红烧牛肉。 Now scoop this out into your pressure cooker 压力锅 with enough water or stock to cover generously .Remember, your vegetables will be added later and the liquid level should be enough to cover them as well. I prefer to use stock, and usually have some in the freezer which I thaw and use for things like this in place of plain water. Add any remaining dry condiments. Deglaze the wok with cooking wine 黄酒 and pour that flavorful juice into the the pressure cooker as well. Put the big marrow bone in with the meat. Add two tablespoons of soy sauce 生抽, a teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。 Close the top and cook it using the "beef/lamb" cycle 牛羊肉。On my pressure cooker that is 25 minutes. When it turns off, don't immediately open the lid with a "quick release" method; give it time to come down to zero pressure on its own. On mine, that means waiting another 25 minutes or so. I use that time to wash up any dishes that have accumulated during the meat prep. Clean and put away my wok. If you don't have a pressure cooker, this stew can be made in a big clay pot set over a burner of your stove, using a very low flame. That requires periodic stirring attention so that it doesn't run dry or scorch on the bottom. A better alternative is an electric clay pot slow cooker 紫砂电锅。These are common in China and usually cost about the same as a pressure cooker (¥350 to ¥450 or so.) Need to allow 4 or 5 hours of slow cooking time. Start it on high and reduce the heat to low after it reaches a boil. I used one of these for years and loved it; only this year did I buy a pressure cooker. When the cooking cycle completes, let the pressure come down on it's own as before. Open it and lift out any pieces of meat that offend you with too much fat or heavy gristle. It's better to trim it now than when it was raw; you lose less flavor. Here's what I discarded, shown below. The immensely-practical Chinese way is to leave it all intact, and let each person just spit out what they don't want later at the table. The remaining beef is now almost tender enough, but not quite. I washed the mint, lovely and fresh. It's an essential part of Yunnan cuisine and even the supermarkets stock it, a large bouquet of it for only a few Yuan. Furthermore, it goes extremely well with beef; the flavors are complimentary. Now add a generous handful of mint and give the meat another cycle, just like the one you did a few minutes ago. This is a good time to get the vegetables ready, except for the shanyao 山药 because it discolors if it stands exposed to air. (You can put it in cold water after cleaning it to retard that process.) I used half an onion. Slipped off the tomato skin by dunking it in boiling water for a minute or so, scoring it with a knife after cooling it enough to handle (using cold running water.) Next I got the shanyao ready. Wash it well with running water; scrub it a little 擦干净。 Since it grows in the earth, sand and soil remain when it is harvested. Shanyao 山药, the name literally means "mountain medicine," is a rhizome, it grows underground in sections up to about three feet long. The best of it is harvested in winter. Chinese Traditional Medicine calls it a "restorative" and "anti-aging" vegetable. Said to "nourish your Qi." It's a highly-recommended cold weather food: suitable for fall and winter. Then peel it and cut it into "rolling sections" 切棍块 -- rotate the stick of shanyao half a turn with each cut to wind up with wedge-shaped sections. It is mucilagenous and slippery; hard to handle. (That feature disappears when cooked.) I used 300 grams today (about half the amount of meat.) My carrot weighed 250 grams. When the second cooking cycle completes and the temperature comes down to a safe level, open the pressure cooker, remove the bone and lift out the mint. Also fish out big pieces of ginger, star anise, bay leaves, and cassia bark. Anything that you would not like as an alien surprise when you are wolfing down your stew. Add the vegetables and cook it on a short cycle of 8 or 10 minutes. On my cooker the fish program does a fine job of cooking the vegetables and blending the flavors. Be careful with adding salt; the doubanjiang is salty, as is the soy sauce. A pinch is OK, but don't overdo it. When it comes down to a safe temperature, open and serve. The beef is tender enough to tear it with your chopsticks. The meat has acquired a flavor profile similar to that of 红烧牛肉 (red cooked beef.) I garnish the serving bowl and each individual bowl with a few pieces of mint, not just for looks but so we can eat it as we enjoy the stew. That's common practice in Yunnan, land of mint and peppers. It's not quick and easy, but it's bold and balanced: worth the effort. Try it once and you will never look back.
  23. Chinese kitchens usually don't have an oven, but everybody has a rice cooker 电饭煲。Even bachelors and newly-weds have a rice cooker; it's as essential as a wok 炒锅。Here's a simple chicken dish inspired by a more complex Hakka 客家人 favorite. Not much to it and the taste is surprisingly delicious. You will need one small, relatively young chicken, about 2 kg cleaned weight. If you've shopped for chicken lately, you realize the process does have a few small wrinkles. Avoid the big, fat, tough stewing hens 老母鸡 that make such splendid soup. Also, steer clear of the prized free-range chickens 土鸡 that are so flavorful in stir-fry dishes. Both of those require too much heat to become well done. And there's no need to spring for an expensive ultra-tender 三黄鸡 even though they are great for poaching. What's called a "fryer" in the US is just fine; this is a younger, smaller bird. Sometimes I make this dish with a whole chicken, sometimes with a couple of thigh quarters. A whole chicken has the disadvantage of the white meat (breast) cooking faster than the dark meat (legs.) Today I made it with the rear half of a small chicken. Note that it didn't have much fat. Washed it well and cut it up, removing the backbone (saving it for soup.) I separated the drumstick 琵琶腿 from the thigh 大腿 by slicing through the joint. My chicken parts weighed 0.6 kg, about 1.3 pounds. Fresh chicken works best for this. Avoid the "weekly bargain special" frozen legs often found in the supermarket; they contain too much water. Rub the cut chicken pieces liberally with coarse salt and let them stand undisturbed for 30 minutes or an hour in the refrigerator. No need to cover them; just put them on a plate. This partially "dry-brines" the meat. It's OK to leave it two or three hours if you'd like, but not overnight. (Chinese table salt is very fine; best to use a coarse-grained salt such as sea salt or Kosher salt.) Cut two large spring onions 大葱 into segments 切段。Slice a thumb-sized piece of ginger生姜 into coin-shaped rounds. Two or three dried chilies 干辣椒 optional. Set these aside. Mix two tablespoons of light soy sauce 生抽 together with half a teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。Slip on a disposable plastic glove 一次性手头 and rub the soy sauce mix into the chicken well. Do it two or three times, massaging thoroughly 按摩。 Add a tablespoon of cooking oil to the rice cooker bowl; use your fingers to rub it all around. (Don't let it just pool in the middle.) Arrange most of the spring onions and sliced ginger (and dry hot pepper if you are using it) in the bottom of your 电饭煲 and set the chicken on top. Use the rest of the 葱姜 on top. Add two tablespoons of Shaoxing wine 绍兴酒 or yellow cooking wine 黄酒/料酒。 Turn on the heat. Select the program that is designed to cook ordinary rice. On mine, it's the orange button, top right ("灶烧饭。) That cycle usually takes between 20 and 30 minutes, but is controlled automatically. No need to fuss around with it. Go put your feet up and read a book. Enjoy some music and a glass of wine. When the rice cooking program ends and the machine beeps and switches to "keep warm/standby" mode 保温, open the lid and turn the chicken over. (That's the photo below left.) Then close it and press the same "cook rice" button a second time. This time it may finish a little quicker. When that cycle is done, don't open it up immediately. Let it stand closed and unplugged between 5 and 10 minutes. This lets the chicken re-absorb some of its cooking juices. If you have made a whole bird instead of just legs, stick a chopstick into a thigh joint to make sure it goes in easily and the juices run clear (not bloody) as a final check for done-ness. Take it out and serve it as you wish. The meat is tender and juicy. Balanced flavor, crispy skin. Can be picked up and eaten straight off the bone, can be sliced, or it can be torn into long shreds. Today I sliced it and served it on a platter with some just-cooked noodles and a raw cucumber. Not much labor; no fancy technique; easy clean up. Decent, tasty meal. This cooking method originated in Fujian, but spread to neighboring Guangdong. Today it's popular not only in China, but in every country where there is a significant Chinese diaspora. The original way of doing this uses a kilogram or two of salt, with the chicken double wrapped in parchment paper and cooked very slow in a covered wok for a long time. (The "kilogram or two" is not a misprint.) The rice cooker simplifies the process immensely. If you like chicken, might want to give this simple dish a try. If you have not yet bought a rice cooker, this is another good reason to take the plunge. Every Chinese household, no matter how small or large, no matter how rich or poor, has two small electric appliances: a rice cooker and an electric water kettle for boiling water to brew tea.
  24. Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节 has brought too much rich and spicy food my way, even though I dearly love it. And on top of that, I've been the recipient of a couple decorative boxes of million-calorie moon cake 月饼。Yesterday I attended two banquets, lunch and supper. Thank goodness the second one included a particularly welcome "recovery dish." It hit the spot and I vowed to learn how to make it. Wasn't hard at all: let me show you. It involves a sublimely simple stew of green beans 四季豆, zucchini squash 小瓜,and eggplant 茄子。 First, here's a quick look at some of the high points of yesterday's banquet number one. It was held in a private dining room on the third floor of a local restaurant. You can probably recognize most of these delicious Yunnan and Southwest China dishes. (I'll include a key at the end so as not to spoil your guessing game.) (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) This was washed down with beer 啤酒 and baijiu 白酒 (China's own "white lightning"), cola and orange soda being available in reserve. This busy, no-frills restaurant is popular with locals; I've been there several times. Their food is always spot on and service is snappy. According to their menu, they were founded in 1983. Late afternoon I visited the home of some friends for a home-made meal every bit as good. I actually prefer that setting since I can wander into the kitchen and watch how things are done. By about 6:30, we had another delicious but filling meal which included two pressure-cooked and deep fried pigs feet in a fiery sauce. Two kinds of sausage 香肠, red cooked beef 红烧牛肉, a chicken floating in lovely mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers 花椒鸡, on and on. Here's a look at the chock-full festive table, plus a close up of the very basic vegetable dish which was such a revelation. The lady of the house explained that the green beans and zucchini both had a slightly sweet taste and needed to be cooked together without the addition of any spices, not even salt. I thought that was strange and was afraid it might be boring, but by golly it did taste refreshing that way. She made it with enough water in the pot to provide a clear soup to have along with steamed white rice as the meal drew to a close. She said she often made it with eggplant as well. The zucchini were just torn into large chunks, "farmer crude." This morning I bought the ingredients at the wet market and explained to the bean seller what I had in mind. She cautioned me again to use no salt. "千万不要放盐。什么都调料不妨。" No if's, and's, or but's about it. I had my marching orders. These 四季豆 beans (left in the photo) are broader and "meatier" than their two-foot-long cousins (长豆)。You may have eaten them in their most popular incarnation: 四川干煸四季豆 (dry-fried Sichuan style.) Here's the starting line-up. Use long, skinny Asian eggplants. No need to remove the skin. These 小瓜 are not actually zucchini, but very close. Other members of the squash family will work as well. Wash the beans, trim the ends and cut them in half. Cut the zucchini and eggplant into large chunks, thirds or fourths. Put them together with the beans into a pot with enough water to barely cover and start on high, but quickly reduce the heat to a simmer. Remember, no salt. No cooking wine, no pepper, no vinegar; "no nothing." As the lady said, “什么都不妨。" Put on the lid, but leave it ajar. After 12 or 15 or minutes, when the vegetables are beginning to get tender, cut the core out of a fresh tomato and add it to the pot. The idea is just to use the boiling water to soften it; don't let it cook apart. Remove the tomato to a bowl and slide off the skin. Coarsely break it apart using a spoon plus a dull knife. Finely cut a couple of spring onions 小葱,some ginger 生姜 and garlic, 大蒜 plus a scant teaspoon of hot sauce 辣椒酱。(Not enough to make it fiery, just enough to wake it up.) Mix these with the crushed tomato. Add light soy sauce 生抽, a pinch of sugar 白砂糖, a pinch of salt 食用盐。This is to be your dipping sauce 蘸水。 Take out the cooked vegetables, serving them in a bowl with lots of juice. Keep the remainder of the juice to use as a subtle clear soup. Offer it at the end of the meal along with a bowl of rice. Kind of cleans the palate. Provides a gentle and refreshing change of pace from all the highly-seasoned and fried foods that were the stars of the meal. The vegetables are soft, but not mushy. This is a traditional accompaniment to a family feast. You may or may not find it in a restaurant because it doesn't have much glamour, doesn't do much to boost your 面子 ("face") when ordering it for guests.
  25. DavyJonesLocker

    Selecting a wok 炒锅

    thanks for the right up @abcdefg Incidentally I think I need a new wok. Even frying ginger is sticking to the pan. Moderator note: This thread has been split from abcdefg's write-up on cola chicken wings.
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