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  1. 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。
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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。
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. This is one of those dishes for which there are a hundred casual recipes on the internet, most of them sorely lacking. It has been oversimplified to death; but good results can be achieved with a modicum of effort. The bonus is that if you master the technique you will find it is transferable to a dozen other tasty dishes, all of which use this Chinese braising process. I'll show you how to do it. Buy 16 chicken wings, the medium joint. These should weigh about half a kilo or one pound. I've included a quick review of chicken wing anatomy below. The part to buy for this dish is the 鸡翅中。They cost more than the first joint, the 鸡翅根, but they are easier to work with because their size is more uniform, they don't have one large end and one small end. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) You will need 3 or 4 large spring onions 大葱, a thumb of ginger, 4 to 6 dried chilies 干辣椒, and a teaspoon of Sichuan prickly ash peppercorns huajiao/花椒。 Toast the huajiao 花椒 and the dried red chilies 干辣椒 over low heat until they begin to release their aroma. Scoop them out and pound the 花椒 with a mortar and pestle or simply crush them in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Tear the dry chilies into sections. Cut the white part of the spring onions into long pieces 切段 and slice the ginger into coin-sized segments. (The ginger does not need to be peeled.) Rinse the chicken, shake it dry, 洗净流干水分, poke a couple holes in each side with the point of a paring knife. You don't need to marinate the chicken for this recipe; it will acquire plenty of flavor as it cooks. Chinese poultry recipes usually have a step designed to remove any "off" flavors 去腥味 and cleanse the meat of blood 去血。This one is no exception. Put some of the spring onion and ginger into a deep skillet or wok along with the toasted and crushed Sichuan peppers and the chilies. Add a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒。Boil this stock for a minute or two and then add the chicken. When the water comes to a full boil again, scoop the chicken out and set it aside to drain. This quick blanching step 焯 also serves the important function of thawing any frozen places so that all the wings will be the same temperature and can cook uniformly. Blot the wings dry with paper kitchen towels. Wipe out your wok or skillet 平地锅 and add two tablespoons of cooking oil. I generally prefer corn oil, 玉米油 though for this dish rapeseed oil 菜籽油 or peanut oil 花生油 are also fine. Add the wings and brown them about 3 minutes per side. If you have too many to do them in one batch without crowding, divide them in half. If you squeeze them all in too tight, they won't brown and will stew instead. The skin will never become crisp; it will be mushy and unappealing. By the way, even though I'm a firm believer in a standard, well-seasoned iron wok for most Chinese cooking, this browning step works best if you have a non-stick utensil 不粘锅。 Remove the chicken when it is golden 金黄 and add your liquid ingredients to the wok or fry pan. The cola needs to be standard old-fashioned Coke. Coke Lite or Coke Zero 零度 won't work. The artificial sweetener breaks down and turns bitter when cooked. Furthermore, the sugar is necessary for the meat to develop a pleasant caramelized surface. Pour in 250 or 300 ml; don't dump in the whole bottle. Two or three tablespoons of light soy sauce 生抽, two or three tablespoons of Chinese cooking wine 料酒 or dry sherry, and only one scant teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。If you use too much dark soy sauce, everything will just acquire a nasty axle-grease color. To these add the remainder of your spring onion and ginger plus a teaspoon of salt. When it reaches a gentle boil, add the pre-browned chicken wings. Let it simmer uncovered about 10 minutes over low to medium heat. Then pick out and discard the spring onions and ginger slices. Now you are ready to thicken the sauce by reducing it carefully over low heat 小火慢炖。Be attentive and don't let it scorch since that will ruin the flavor profile. This stage usually takes about 10 minutes, but depends somewhat on your pan and flame. Might take a little longer. Stir it gently and slowly, but stir it a lot. When the sauce develops a rich color and is almost gone, you're ready to plate it up. Sprinkle on some minced cilantro 香菜 and white sesame seeds 白芝麻。These wings can be eaten right away while nice and hot, or served later at room temperature. The chicken is tender and moist, not dried out, and has a rich flavor. The glistening skin is intact and not soggy or falling off. No surprise that this recipe was a favorite of the Qianlong Emperor. (Smile) To be truthful, there are many ways this dish can go wrong; it isn't foolproof; it does require some care. But if you can master the process, you will find that it provides a key to a host of other tasty traditional braising recipes such as red-cooked ribs 红烧排骨。
  17. Bitter melon is still everywhere you look in the market even though autumn will be here soon. Still fresh, cheap and plentiful. Realizing that kugua/bitter melon 苦瓜 won't be around too much longer, I couldn't resist using some again today. Made a recipe that arrived in Yunnan via Hakka immigrants 客家人 from Fujian Province on the east coast. The melon retains a mildly bitter flavor 微苦 which I find pleasant though I realize not everyone will. Here's how to make it at home if you would like a change of pace from your usual fare. Buy one kugua melon 苦瓜。If you don't like kugua, you can make this with zucchini 小瓜 or large cucumber 黄瓜。Look for a kugua with medium sized "bumps" 牙齿 ("teeth") and a pale green color. It should be firm without soft spots or large blemishes. Mine cost 1 Yuan this morning. What a fine bargain! (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Pick up a few medium-sized spring onion 大葱,a couple of carrots 胡萝卜, and a handful of either wood-ear mushrooms 黑木耳 or xianggu (shitake) mushrooms 香菇。 Next head for "pork row." My favorite pork is from a butcher who promotes semi-wild mountain pigs with black skin, known as 黑猪。The are "free-range" pigs 野跑猪, not raised in pens and the meat has more flavor with less intramuscular marbling. I asked them to grind me a piece of lean shoulder along with about 25 percent fat, just measured by eye. Sometimes I buy a large chunk and mince it myself at home, but today I didn't want that additional step. So I just bought 肉末, custom ground. Here's a look at the main ingredients and another picture after being chopped fine 切碎。Garlic and ginger are on the bottom, 蒜姜末 along with the spring onion 葱花。Carrot and wood ear mushrooms 木耳 on top. I used about 200 grams of meat, froze the rest for another day. Put it on my heavy tree-trunk chopping block and cut it one way and then another with a heavy cleaver 菜刀。Folded it in on top of itself and repeated the process several times. The goal was for the meat to be cut more finely than when it came from the butcher's machine. Next in chopped in the minced ginger and garlic, using the same type of process. Wash the kugua and slice it into rounds, each piece about an inch and a half tall. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the seeds and white pith 去籽、去瓤。 That's where most of the "bitter" resides. Put the meat in a mixing bowl and add a tablespoon of corn starch, a half teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon of sugar, and one small to medium egg 液蛋。(If your egg is a large or jumbo one, just use its white 蛋白 and save the yellow for something else.) add a couple tablespoons of finely chopped carrot and finely cut mushroom. Mix this all together with a wooden spoon or chopsticks, moving in only one direction, clockwise or counterclockwise doesn't matter. 搅拌均匀。This motion makes the mixture get stiff and sticky, the better to use as a stuffing. Blanch 焯 the cut kugua in your wok for about one minute using lightly salted water. Scoop it out, cool it quickly by dunking it in cold water and set aside. Stuff the meat filling into the kugua sections 将肉馅塞入苦瓜段中。 Dry the wok and add a tablespoon or so of cooking oil after it gets hot again. Put in the stuffed kugua sections and turn the heat down to medium. Let them brown on one side 煎 then flip them over so the other side can brown too. Now add enough water to reach about half-way up the kugua sections, but not enough that you cover them. Put in a dash of soy sauce and another of oyster sauce. Stir these around. Reduce the heat to a simmer. After about 10 minutes (uncovered) most of the liquid will be gone and they will be done. Add a couple tablespoons of corn starch slurry 水淀粉 to produce a simple gravy. Plate it up. Spoon on the luscious pan gravy. Serve warm. Goes well with steamed rice and a bowl of plain leafy green vegetable soup 青菜汤。 This is not General Tso's Chicken or Sweet and Sour Pork. It will never be a big hit on Main Street, Small Town, USA. But if you would like to venture a bit beyond the safe confines of Panda Express, this is one good way to do it.
  18. If you thought of loofah 丝瓜 as only being a luxurious exfoliating bath scrubber, well…stick around and prepare to have your horizons broadened. The young ones cook up into a very tasty vegetable that is popular in China, especially in the summer. Traditional Chinese Medicine ascribes it cooling properties 清凉, which is why your favorite Chinese grandmother 外婆 made it for you when growing up. She saw it as her sacred duty to keep your humors in balance. This is the kind of loofah you might be used to seeing. These are great for scrubbing away dead skin and are also good for scouring pots and pans in the kitchen. Loofah is a gourd that grows on a climbing vine, gaining maturity really fast. If picked young, it makes good food, and I'll show you how I cooked it up tonight. (Click the pictures to enlarge them.) Here they are at the market, each one adorned with a bright yellow flower. The flowers are edible and I'll show you how to cook those another time. Smaller loofah gourds are available as well, some only 6 or 8 inches long. This plant is related to cucumbers 黄瓜 and zucchini 小瓜。 Here, as all throughout the market, they are vying for table space with kugua 苦瓜 bitter melon, which are at their peak right now and selling like hotcakes. In selecting sigua 丝瓜, look for ones that are of uniform diameter, from stem to flower, end instead of ones that have a thick part and a thin part like a baseball bat or bowling pin. I bought two nice ones, firm and evenly colored, each about the length of my forearm. Together they cost 2.5 Yuan, equivalent to 30 odd cents US. Most of the ones on sale here are the "ribbed" variety, (shown below) because they have a better flavor. The smooth ones are slightly cheaper, but the better-tasting ribbed ones ones are really not going to bust your budget. Mine are laid out here with a couple fresh, sweet carrots 胡萝卜 and some garlic 大蒜 plus a small piece of ginger 老姜。 I bought a few mushrooms 香菇 and a couple large spring onions 大葱。Had some premium Yunnan slow-cured ham/huotui 云南宣威火腿 in the fridge and I pressed it into service. Had I not had any ham, could have used a couple pieces of bacon. One can also make this dish meatless or with tofu. Sliced thin pieces of ham then cut them into slivers. Washed the mushrooms and cut away the stems. Instead of slicing them, cut them into thick sections so they would cook a bit slower and retain more texture. Cut the carrot and the spring onion. Finely chopped the garlic and the ginger. Kept them separate from eachother so I could give the ginger a few seconds head start. (It cooks a little slower than garlic.) Got out several dried red peppers 干辣椒。After all, this is Yunnan. Once everything else was ready, it was time to prep the sigua 丝瓜。Do it last since if it stands too long after being cut, it turns brown. Peel it about half way, strips of skin removed but also leaving some. If you buy smaller sigua, no need to peel it at all. Cut it in rolling wedges, rotating the gourd about 90 degrees between cuts. This looks nice plus it exposes more cut surface area to the spices and lets it absorb more flavor while still cooking fast. The flesh should look white and homogeneous, without prominent cavities or seeds. All set. Ready to fire up the wok. At this point I like to pause and mentally go through the order in which I'll put ingredients on the flame. Items that require more cooking time go in first. I also set out all the spices I'll need right beside the stove top so as to avoid last minute fumbling. In this case, I set out some salt 食用盐, sugar 白砂糖, MSG 味精。A bottle of soy sauce 生抽 and another of aged vinegar 老陈醋。Put a teaspoon of corn starch 淀粉 into a small bowl with enough water to dissolve it into a slurry 水淀粉。 Wok goes onto high flame, when it's plenty hot but not smoking, add the oil. Add the main aromatics (蒜姜.) When they become fragrant 爆香, add the carrots. Once they begin to soften, add the ham, then the mushrooms. All this takes maybe 90 seconds. Stir constantly. Mushrooms release some of their moisture as they cook and following that, they reduce in volume. That's your cue to add the spring onions; don't wait for the mushrooms to brown. You've set the stage for the entry of the star, the tender and juicy loofah gourd/sigua 丝瓜。Put them in the middle, just like you've done with each new ingredient. That's the beauty of a wok for making quick-fried Chinese dishes like this: add new things to the hottest part in the center as you push other ingredients up the sides. Don't walk away. Keep stirring and flipping things 翻炒 as they cook. Turn the heat down to medium. If it looks dry, add a splash of water; don't let it burn. This is the point at which I add dry and wet spices, blending well. 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of MSG (optional), 1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. Nothing overwhelming. The sigua gourd 丝瓜 itself has a gentle taste; don't want to hide it or cover it up. Poke a piece of gourd with your chopsticks to gauge resistance; indents easily when the vegetable is done; you can also stick it with a fork. The goal is to have it cooked through without becoming soft. Doesn't take long. Total cooking time is only 4 or 5 minutes. Just as everything is done, add the corn starch slurry. This thickens the sauce and binds the flavors. Serve it up. Goes well with steamed rice. And there you have it: a fresh, tasty supper from the lowly loofah gourd.
  19. If you are recently arrived in China, you may have discovered that the vegetable section of many restaurant menus features hearty combinations with stick-to-your-ribs portions of meat and potatoes that overshadow the lighter veggies in the dish. Furthermore, these often arrive at your table swimming in oil. If you are puzzled regarding how to get some simple fresh vegetables in a restaurant, three approaches can help you out. The first is to just order a vegetable stir-fried alone, such as 清炒菠菜。This would get you a plate of plain sautéed spinach. The waitress might ask if you wanted them to add garlic, 加蒜泥。 Another method is to order a clear soup made with a green leafy vegetable. Example of that would be 苦菜汤, the unfortunate translation of which is “bitter sow thistle.” It’s usually just the named vegetable and water, boiled till tender, with perhaps a dash of oil and a pinch of salt. The third approach is to order a 凉拌 or cold dish, made with a vegetable and an oil-vinegar dressing or sauce. Even though the name says “cold,” these are usually served at room temperature and take the place of salad in a western meal more or less. Today I’ll show you how to make one of my summer favorites: long green beans and king oyster mushrooms 四季豆杏鲍菇凉拌。Simple flavors with a pleasant crunch. I sometimes eat it by itself as a light lunch topped with a hard-boiled egg, but it can also be a side dish for your dumplings/jiaozi 饺子 and your lamb kebabs 羊肉串。 These 四季豆 beans go by several names, much as they do in English, and are easy to find in supermarkets here as well as closer to the source. They should be fairly stiff and not limp; color should be a vibrant deep green. I buy mine at the wet market, where a large bunch, enough for two generous meals, sells for 2 or 3 Yuan. They are traditionally paired with king oyster mushrooms 杏鲍菇,but if you can't find these, the dish will work with other mild-flavored mushrooms just about as well. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) King oyster mushrooms 杏鲍菇 are on the left. They often grow on the stumps of dead hardwood trees. They have an umami note as expected and a tender texture, often compared to abalone or ... well, better yet, about like oysters. Flavor is mild, sometimes with a slightly sweet aftertaste. Cut away and discard the base of any thick, woody stems. Brush off soil with a wet paper towel. It's not necessary to scrub or soak them. Chinese chefs find their texture is best if you tear them into strips or coarse shreds with your fingers instead of chopping them with a knife. This gives a more pleasant mouth feel 口感。 Wash the beans and cut off the stem end. These are about as long as my forearm, but they aren't tough or knobby. They don't have tough "strings" or "threads" on the margin like some other varieties.The peas inside the long pods are tender and immature. I slice them into 6 or 8 inch sections, cutting on a diagonal, but you could chop them straight across to save a few seconds if necessary. I've also finely chopped three or four cloves of garlic 大蒜 and a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger 生姜。Removed some of the seeds from three hot chilies and cut them into thin strips 切丝。 Blanch 焯 the mushrooms in a pot of lightly-salted boiling water for a minute or so. Lift them out with a strainer and drain their water 捞出、流干水粉。You will use the same pot of water in a minute to boil the beans, so don't discard it. Saute the chilies, garlic and ginger in a little oil. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry quickly, adding a conservative pinch of salt. They don't need to brown; you just want the flavor of the aromatics to develop and blend with that of the mushrooms. Scoop them out into a temporary holding pan 备用。 Boil the beans for 4 or 5 minutes, testing them frequently so as to stop the process when they just barely begin to get tender. Don't overcook them; better if they are al dente. Drain them and "shock" them quickly with ice water. This stops the cooking and also improves their color. Drain them well and toss them with the cooked mushrooms 拌匀。 Sauce the combined beans and mushrooms with 2 tablespoons of olive oil 橄榄油, 1 tablespoon of aged vinegar 老陈醋, 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽, half a teaspoon each of salt 食用盐 and sugar 白沙糖。 MSG 味精 1/4 teaspoon if you use it. (I do.) Toss everything together and allow the flavors to blend by putting it in the fridge for 20 or 30 minutes. It doesn't need to actually get cold. Best served at cool room temperature. It's easy to find this dish or some variation of it in simple neighborhood restaurants all over China. It's also pretty straight forward to make at home. Give it a try and see what you think. This kind of food works real well when the days are warm, such as now.
  20. Last week I had something real good in a local restaurant and today I tried to reproduce it at home. That is always a risky proposition, but what I wound up with was a pretty good adaptation even though it required more labor than initially expected. As you know, Kunming is famous for its cross-bridge rice noodles 过桥米线, as is most of southern Yunnan. One local eatery which I frequently visit is known for its variations on the old, time tested theme. They offer a variety of vegetables and meats to put in the boiling hot broth: sometimes they offer seafood, sometimes pigeon or quail, other times it's wild mushrooms that takes center stage. Last week they were trying out beef combinations with mint. One dish was called 滇味牛肉过桥米线 which had thin-sliced cooked beef 白切牛肉, green peppers 青椒, and mint 薄荷。It was available at an introductory price of 15 Yuan, down from 17 list. The other new menu item was those ingredients plus sliced beef stomach tripe 牛肚, called 金牌牛肉过桥米线 at the special price of 23 Yuan instead of the usual 25. If you aren't familiar with Yunnan cross-bridge rice noodles, please take a look at this previous discussion. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/52493-yunnan-cross-bridge-rice-noodles-过桥米线/?tab=comments#comment-404109. Here's what it looks like in the restaurant, complete with raw quail eggs and chrysanthemum flower petals. (Click the photos to enlarge them.) Small plates 碟子 of cool or room temperature items are brought to your table along with a bowl of uncooked rice noodles. The waiter next delivers a bowl of extremely hot broth 高汤, and you put it together yourself, adding ingredients one at a time so they cook quickly on the spot. The noodles go in last of all, so as not to prematurely cool off the broth. My home adaptation of this dish saw me making it on the stove. If I had owned a free-standing hot plate or induction burner, could have done it right on the dining table instead. The flavors of beef and mint seem like they were meant for each other and the combo is a staple of Yunnan cuisine, much as lamb and mint are wedded in some western traditions. This dish showcases the marriage of beef and mint. Here's how I did it; here's how you can make it yourself at home. First, let's look at the beef. Bought a piece of rump roast, about 800 grams. Didn't actually need that much; a third or even a fourth of it would have been enough for today. But the trouble involved in slow cooking it means that it makes sense to cook a big piece and have some left over for other projects. Buying beef in the market tends to be an adventure. Works best if you are armed with some knowledge of the various cuts. They aren't identical to those used in the U.S. This cut sells for about 50 Yuan per kilo and doesn't have much waste. Slice it in half and tie the two pieces with twine so it will cook more evenly than if it had a thick "head" and a thin "tail." Bring it to the boil quickly in lightly salted water to clean it of blood and surface impurities, throwing away that water. Beef here in China tends to be tough, at least the most economical cuts do. So it's best to keep that in mind and cook it in a pressure cooker 高压锅 on high for 25 or 30 minutes. Let it come down to a safe temperature naturally over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, don't need to use a "quick-release" method. If you don't have a pressure cooker, you can slow simmer it for 60 to 90 minutes until it's tender when pierced with a fork. Include some ginger 老姜, garlic 大蒜, a cardamom pod 草果, one star anise 八角 , a piece of cinnamon or cassia bark 桂皮, and a bay leaf 香叶。A few "numbing" Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 and several dried Yunnan red peppers 干辣椒 are optional. (I admit liking to add them.) After it cools completely, slice it thin. This process gets you what is known as 白切牛肉, plain sliced boiled beef. It's one of the old standards of Chinese cooking. Often served just like that with a fragrant and spicy dipping sauce 沾水 at the start of a special meal. I saved the stock this produced and combined it with some chicken stock I already had on hand. Turned my attention to the vegetables. Most of China, and most of the world, views mint differently from Yunnan. Here it's a bonafide green leafy vegetable, not just a garnish or a condiment. We eat it by the handful, especially in summer since it's a "cooling" food 清凉。Here's a link to mint soup, which shows it in its "vegetable" role: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51575-early-kunming-summer-mint-soup-and-mangoes/ Used the crinkly-skinned spicy green peppers 虎皮椒 that are so popular here along with a red bell pepper mainly for color. Had a bunch of garlic chives 韭菜 and a bunch of very small spring onions 小葱。Washed and sliced thin as shown. I went through the mint as I washed it and tossed out any tough woody stems and damaged bits, being careful to not just wind up with leaves since small and medium mint stems have lots of flavor. Assembled the meat, shown here beside some home-made chili sauce 辣酱 and spicy pickled turnip greens 酸菜 cut fine. Got out a handful of rice noodles; this is about 1 Yuan worth. Put the stock 高汤 on low flame in a clay casserole pot, uncovered. When the stock barely began to simmer, I added the peppers. Let them cook a minute or so, until just starting to soften a little, then added the small spring onions and the garlic chives. Stirred it frequently so it didn't boil over. Now it's time for the thin-sliced cooked beef and a pinch of salt. (Don't need much because the 酸菜 diced pickled vegetables are salty.) As soon as the meat heats through, add the mint. Let these flavors combine for a half a minute or so, minimal cooking time. Add the rice noodles, preferably a few at a time instead of in one big clump. These are fresh noodles, straight from the maker. They have never been dried. If you're using dried noodles, probably best to start them off to the side in a separate pot of lightly salted water. We're done. It's ready. Eat up 动筷子!The mint combines great with the beef and the other flavors are completely harmonious. Every spoonful of broth makes you want to close your eyes and smack your lips. Try it, you'll see what I mean.
  21. It is with some trepidation that I will try to give you a little background on how tofu is made and consumed here in my part of China (Yunnan, Kunming.) Since it is such a vast topic and I lack expertise, what I did was just walk around my neighborhood wet market and take snapshots of the tofu that was readily available. I'll simply show you the photos and tell you what I can about what they show. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It goes without saying that other types can be found in supermarkets, the result of rigidly standardized large-scale industrial processes. These are nicely wrapped and have ingredients and expiration dates listed on the package. But they often come with flavor enhancers, preservatives, stabilizers, and coloring agents to make them sell better. My 老百姓 neighbors eschew them as "factory food," and find their way to the wet market to buy the "real stuff" instead. It also goes without saying that tofu differs from place to place within China, and even more so when talking about those from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and so on. These often represent the taste preferences of members of the Chinese diaspora who landed and settled there many years ago. These "foreign tofu's" also often reflect changes made to incorporate local ingredients: coconut milk on such and such island, fish sauce in such and such port, and so on. All tofu starts out as soy milk, extracted with heat from soybeans, that has been acidulated to produce curdling or coagulation into a solid form. That basic raw tofu is then strained and pressed into blocks. It can be pressed a little or a lot, making it thin enough to need to be kept in a pot, or a little thicker, sort of like jello, or a lot thicker and firmer like cheese. (I have oversimplified grievously.) Here's a look at some of that basic raw tofu. In the two photos above, you can see a color difference between the tofu in the foreground and that in the background. The "whiter" tofu in back is softer; it is called 嫩豆腐 (nen doufu) or "tender" tofu. That in the front is slightly firmer and is called 老豆腐 (lao doufu) or "tough" tofu, though it isn't very tough at all. Some recipes work best with one, some with the other. Tofu vendors frequently sell other things as well, things that are often paired with tofu or things that can easily be made with the same raw materials. Photo on the left shows soy bean sprouts and mung bean sprouts next to the nice lady who sells them. Bottom left in this photo is a non-tofu item that is often eaten instead of tofu; it's made from bean sprouts that have been processed differently, often with addition of some natural gelatin. Goes by the name 凉粉 (liang fen) around here; in the west, when it can be found, it gets the odd name "grass jelly." In these parts it's usually cut in strips and served cold with a sauce of chilies and scallions. Sometimes the tofu is barely solidified at all, being described as "silken." This extremely soft style is known here as "tofu flowers" 豆花 and is used in making several delicious dishes such as 豆花米线 (tofu flower rice noodles) which is one of Kunming's signature snacks 小吃。Douhua mixian 豆花米线 is shown below right. The food stall offers a meatless version or a version with seasoned ground pork. I'm not vegetarian and I enjoy the kind that has meat, as you see here. It is sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and includes pickled chopped greens 泡菜 and several kinds of herbs to achieve a result that is just this side of Heaven. Often tofu is processed instead of being consumed in it's raw, unadulterated state. One of the most common things that is done to it is to press it, removing some moisture and allowing a concentration of flavors. This process is particularly prized when the water with which the tofu has been made tastes good on its own. This is true of the deep Artesian well water of Jianshui 建水 and Shiping 石屏, both ancient cities in SE Yunnan's Honghe Prefecture 红河州。 Here is some of that on display at the stall where I usually buy it: Not surprisingly, these rectangular sheets of pressed Shiping tofu come in different tastes and textures. You can buy firmer or softer; milder or more flavorful varieties, tailored to your preference or cooking application. Some of this tofu has been allowed to ferment slightly and is formed into small "packets" shown at the rear of both photos above. This tofu is "mildly stinky" 臭豆腐 -- a far cry from the hugely pungent product popular in Taiwan. In the far left of the photo just above, in a white basket, is the notorious "hairy tofu" 毛豆腐, that has a very distinctive look, aroma, and taste. The photo below left shows another vendor's hairy tofu. Some days it's more photogenic than others. Below right you see a snack stall on the edge of the market where the guy is grilling the small briquettes of stinky tofu to serve hot with a spicy dipping sauce. You belly up to the bar facing him, sit on a low stool, and eat your fill. He keeps track of your consumption with small colored beans and and the sharp eye of an experienced casino croupier; you settle your account after eating your fill. Once tofu has been pressed it can be brined and then smoked, as discussed in the recipe posted here yesterday. As you can well imagine, the finished product is affected by the kind of tofu one pressed to start with and then how it was soaked, in what and for how long. Finally, the flavor and texture are further dictated by how it is smoked, over what wood or twigs and for how long. It comes in several shapes, analogous to the way smoked cheese varies: a smoked Edam is not the same as a smoked Provolone. One from this maker may not be exactly like that from his neighbor. Sometimes tofu is deep fried, puffing it up and giving it a golden color. It can then be eaten with a sauce, or served together with dishes that contain lots of gravy, such as red cooked pork 红烧肉。Here below left is some of it coming out fresh from the wok. That's a good time to buy it, instead of later the same day after it has sat around in a plastic bag getting stale. Sometimes tofu-making byproducts are for sale, such as tofu skin that has risen to the top of the pot during processing. It can be air dried or fried, and is usually sold as tofu skin 豆腐皮。(Below right.) Numerous special local wrinkles exist, such as this vendor who only sells tofu made with the water of a prized mountain spring in NE Yunnan's Xuanwei County 宣威县。It sells for a small premium but there is always a line outside his stall, telling me that it's in high demand. I've tried it, but honestly can't tell the difference. One part of my neighborhood wet market is "tofu row" with about 25 vendors near each other. Some have the usual fare, and others have exotica. Some make it completely on the premises and others have workrooms nearby where the rent is cheaper. They resupply throughout the day by motorbike or electric scooter 电动车。 This vendor makes his on the premises and has a workshop behind the sales area. You can see a tall pot on the stove, in the left corner. Probably has more kinds than anyone else. Unfortunately he is not very forthcoming and doesn't like to chat about his wares. You point and he bags it up; you hand over your money and leave. Not even a thank you. What I do from a practical standpoint is buy certain tofu staples over and over from the same one or two vendors. Then from time to time I branch out and try new types or new variations on the old types. I often ask the sellers for their recommendations as to cooking methods. Sometimes I try something in a restaurant that I would like to try to reproduce, or watch something being made on TV. Before moving here a decade ago I seldom ate tofu at all; in fact practically never. Now it's something I have about once a week. Good source of protein without many calories and it is definitely economical. For better or worse, tofu has become part of my China life. Here's a link to the last two tofu recipes: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56990-addictive-smoked-tofu-青椒豆腐干/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56975-sunday-brunch-tofu-and-eggs-豆腐炒鸡蛋/
  22. Smoked tofu 豆腐干 or 香干 is one of those things that I would have given you a funny look about only a few short years ago. Today I can't get enough. It has its own distinctive flavor but also plays well with others. One traditional popular taste combination results from pairing it with slightly spicy tapered green peppers 青椒 or 青尖椒。This is one of those dishes that you can confidently order in any real Chinese kitchen from a simple hole in the wall to a prestigious place sporting a Michelin star. Let me show you how it worked out today, partly as a way to introduce you to yet another kind of tofu. It most often comes in rectangles about 4 by 6 inches and a bit less than half an inch thick. As you can see from these pics however, that is not a hard and fast rule. The ones I bought yesterday cost less than one Yuan each. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) At home I cut mine into thin strips 条。Sometimes I cut them into postage-stamp squares or cubes 丁 instead. Here's the green pepper 青椒, a large spring onion 大葱, and a few mushrooms 香菇。Later I added a red bell pepper 红椒 for enhanced eye appeal. Chopped a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜 and ginger 老姜。These green peppers have very little bite, but if you must have really bland food, substitute a green bell pepper. Got out a jar of Grandma's douchi 老干妈豆豉, a type of spicy fermented soybeans popular here, originally from Sichuan. Sometimes I supplement this with 豆瓣酱, but today I didn't have any on hand. Scooped out one heaping tablespoon of it into a small dish. That's how much I will use, and I wanted to show you what it looks like. Add a tablespoon or two of corn oil 食用油 to a flat-bottom skillet or a wok (both work well for this) and fry the aromatics over medium heat until they begin releasing their aroma 炒出香味。The aromatics here mean the onion, ginger and garlic. These are such a classic combination that in "recipe shorthand" they are written as one word without punctuation: 葱姜蒜。Then add the spicy fermented bean sauce 豆豉 and crush most of the whole beans with the back of a spoon. Add the smoked tofu strips 香干丝 and stir fry using flipping motions 翻炒 with your spatula tool 锅铲 for a minute or two, until everything begins to soften a little. The red pepper goes in last because it takes the least time to cook. It's OK to add a little water if needed to prevent things from burning. Some dishes need to be made dry 干煸, but this isn't one of them. Now sprinkle in a half teaspoon of salt 食用盐 and a quarter teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精。Add about a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and thicken the dish 收紧 with a small splash of corn starch slurry 水淀粉。Presto, you're done. Total time on the flame well under 5 minutes. Plate it up 装盘。Good eats! I've read that it's not difficult to smoke tofu in your back yard over coals, but haven't tried it. Obviously this dish goes well with steamed rice; after all, what doesn't? Easy to make, inexpensive, and tasty. If you live in China I would respectfully suggest that this needs to be part of your week-night arsenal to keep from relying too much on delivered take-out. If you live in the West, it will add some variety to your usual fare without taking much time or busting the budget.
  23. Today is Sunday in Kunming. I don't have to go anywhere soon or do much of anything. Woke up late and wanted a breakfast that would be substantial enough for me to painlessly skip lunch. Already had the ingredients for this on hand, all that was needed was to whip it together. Thought I would show you the method since it's a versatile dish that one could reasonably have for a light supper along with a soup or salad. Cheap, nourishing, easy to make. Tofu here comes in many kinds. This recipe can be made with most of them. What I had in my fridge was soft tofu 嫩豆腐 in a small block that I had bought earlier in the week. Rinsed it off 洗净, cut it into small pieces 切小块 and simmered 焯 them gently for about 10 minutes in lightly salted water 盐水。Scooped them out 捞起来 into a bowl. Drained away the water 干水。This removes any off taste 腥味 and makes the tofu less likely to fall apart later when handled. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) Cut up 切段 one medium spring onion 大葱, a ripe tomato 番茄, and a clove of garlic 打算。Shown together here with three free-range eggs 土鸡蛋。 Using medium heat, saute 煸炒 the aromatics (onion and garlic) until you can smell them 爆香; they don't need to become brown. Add the tomatoes followed by the drained tofu cubes and turn them 翻炒 gently until they begin to change color and become a little bit golden 变金色。 Stir the eggs 搅拌 and add them, reducing the flame to between low and medium. Be restrained with your spatula 锅铲 so as not to break things into small fragments. I used a flat-bottom non-stick pan 平底不粘锅 which made it easy. Add a sprinkle of salt 食盐 and another of MSG 味精 if you use it. A tablespoon or so of light soy sauce 生抽 also improves the flavor. When the eggs are no longer runny, the dish is done. Don't overdo and turn them to leather. Plate it up 装盘。Goes well with a pot of green tea 绿茶。 Try it out; see what you think. This is a good straight-ahead project that will give you an intro to working with tofu.
  24. If you’re Chinese, this is a familiar classic. Your mom made it for you once a week every summer from the time you were a tadpole until you finally went off to college. It was mandatory hot weather food. Bitter melon 苦瓜/kugua has myriad health virtues, chief among them is that it dispels excess internal heat. It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals, delivering them with relatively few calories. People striving to lose weight and adult-onset diabetics are always advised to eat plenty of it. For the rest of us it’s somewhat problematic; it seems foreigners either love it or hate it. Furthermore, you're not likely to find it at Panda Express. If you aren’t sure which camp you belong in, I would urge you to give it a try. Paired with beef like this and with the bite reduced through smart handling it has a lot going for it in the flavor department. You could try it first in a restaurant and if you think it’s a winner, then come back here for the “how to.” Ask for 苦瓜炒牛肉 (kugua chao niu rou) and you won't get any strange looks; the waiter might even think you're a local. Here's what this bad boy looks like in the wild, namely in the wilds of my neighborhood wet market. It will be less bitter if it's not too large and the bumps (called "teeth") are not too prominent. Light green is milder than dark green. After selecting a couple, head over to the beef lady with her sharp cleaver. Ask for a cut that's suitable to stir fry so you don't wind up with stew meat. Butchers in the local market are specialized: this one only purveys pork, that one only beef, and another one, flanked by woven bamboo coops, handles chicken, killing them to order right on the spot. (Remember, you can click these photos to enlarge them.) At home, you should start on the meat first, since it requires some time to marinate. Chinese beef can be tough, and restaurants all give it special handling. The Muslim restaurants 回族餐厅 are especially skilled at making it tender and delicious. But you can use some of their tricks in your own kitchen. First and foremost it needs to be properly cut. Sharpen your knife and work across the grain of the muscle 横着。When I remember in time, I put the meat in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes to firm it up and make it easier to handle. What I had today was a 320 gram piece of eye of round, a relatively tough and lean cut from the rump of the cow ("黄瓜条“). The grain of the muscle fibers is not well seen when viewed from above (left photo) but you can see how they slant in the right photo. This meant my cuts needed to be on an angle, as shown, instead of straight down. I was slicing as thin as I could, being deliberate about it. If you are pressed for time, shortcuts are possible, but tday I wanted to be sure to get it right, so I took the long, careful road. Put the meat in a bowl and sprinkled in a half teaspoon of baking soda 苏打粉。Added enough water to barely moisten it and massaged it with a gloved hand for half a minute or so. Let it stand 10 to 15 minutes, then washed it clean with potable water. This gets it ready for the main marinade, composed of 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce 耗油, one tablespoon each of Shaoxing cooking wine 黄酒 and sesame oil 香油, a half tablespoon each of light soy sauce 生抽 and dark soy sauce 老抽。Resist the urge to go nuts with the soy sauce or you won't be able to taste the beef itself. Put on another disposable glove and give it the second massage of the day. Let it stand 20 minutes or so on the kitchen counter, or up to an hour in the fridge. (The two marinade steps can be combined, but use less baking soda if you do it that way.) Move on to the beautiful melon. Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Use your spoon to scrape away at least some of the white pith, since it has a very strong flavor. Cut it into uniform pieces that suit your fancy. If it's a small melon, I just cut straight across, but this one was larger so I cut on a rolling bias 切棍。 To reduce the bitterness, salt these cut melon pieces and let them stand about 10 minutes. Then blanch 焯 it all for a minute or so, straining it into an ice bath. If you prefer your dish to have more of a bite, like I do when I'm making it just for myself, omit either or both of these two steps. Strain the cooled melon and set it aside. Now it's time to quickly stir fry your marinated beef. But first add a teaspoon of the last-minute secret ingredient, 木薯粉/mushu fen/cassava powder. Mix well. Using high heat, preheat the wok and add two or three tablespoons of oil (beef tends to stick.) The meat needs to just barely cook, to still be slightly pink in the center in order to avoid becoming tough. This only takes a minute or so. Scoop it into a pan on the counter 备用 and rinse out your wok. Most people use a stiff bamboo brush for this step. A little more oil in the hot wok and quick fry part of an onion, some minced ginger and garlic. They don't need to brown; only need to begin releasing their aroma 爆香。 Add the bitter melon and fry quickly for a minute or two. You want the vegetable to become slightly soft but to still retain some of its crunch. Then add back the cooked meat. Cook it all together for a quick minute so the flavors can blend, adjust the seasoning. Shouldn't need much, if anything. Plate it up 装盘。 Serve with steamed rice. Some Chinese food can be made a few minutes ahead and served at close to room temperature without significant loss of its charm. This dish, however, really needs to be eaten hot from the wok. If I'm making several dishes for guests, this is the one I do last for that reason. Any discussion of bitter melon seems to include comments about how learning to "eat bitter" or 吃苦/chi ku early in life builds character and is essential to wisdom and virtue. I would certainly not want to argue with the sages, and simply present that as one more reason to try this fine dish without too much delay.
  25. abcdefg

    Crazy for pickles 泡黄瓜

    Before moving here a decade ago I hugely underestimated Chinese love of pickles 泡菜。Fortunately, it was not a fatal mistake. Pickled vegetables of some sort are served with nearly every meal, including a nice salty-spicy dish of them with your porridge 粥 for breakfast. It's always risky to generalize, but this holds pretty much true from the frosty northeast 东北 to the humid sub-tropics of Canton 广州。 It's definitely true in Yunnan, where the predominant style of pickling is the one developed in neighboring Sichuan: namely long, slow fermentation in special crockery and glass jars with a water-seal lip that allows gas to escape while denying entry to stray unwanted bacteria. Not only are a wide assortment of vegetables transformed in this way, but the process is applied to such diverse ingredients as lake crabs and chicken feet. Some Chinese pickles are closer to being a relish or a chutney than they are to my usual mental image of a pickle: a big Kosher Dill carefully fished out of a wooden barrel at the old corner Deli, one block over from P.S. 106, Bronx, New York, circa 1950. Yunnan also has a truly perverse love affair with pickled fruit. One frequently sees street vendors selling small pickled pears and plums. They taste of anise, cinnamon and clove; right beside strong notes of chili, garlic and ginger. Some pickles are eaten raw, others are used as ingredients in cooking. Pickled greens 泡菜/酸菜 are often combined with fish and meat. (Recipe for pickled greens with fish slices here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51433-yunnan-spicy-fish-酸菜鱼片/) (And here's one for pickled greens with pork loin: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/47975-suancai-chao-rou-酸菜炒肉/) In the warmer months of the year, we are fortunate to have several varieties of cucumber here in Kunming, all of which invite pickling. I've been turning out at least one batch a week for the last few months. Thought I would show you how to make them yourself in case you have a "pickle tooth" too. Sometimes I use carrots, radish, bell peppers and even cauliflower, but today we will be sticking to cucumbers. (The method adapts easily to other vegetables if you prefer them.) This morning at the local wet market I found two of the three main kinds of local cucumbers: the long thin ones with bumpy skin (sometimes called "Japanese cucumbers," and the shorter stout ones with smoother light skin (sometimes called "English cucumbers.") A third kind that is smaller than either of these, with dark smooth skin, might have been present somewhere, but I didn't run across them and had no particular reason to seek them out. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The kind on the right in this photo are the ones that work best for "smashed cucumber salad" 拍黄瓜。(Recipe for that here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53783-another-simple-classic-smashed-cucumber-拍黄瓜/?tab=comments#comment-412400) The big ones on the left are the kind I bought this morning to turn into pickles. These two varieties cost approximately the same. The smaller, "gherkin-sized" ones, cost a little more. In selecting a fresh cucumber, regardless of size, nothing works as well as a gentle squeeze test. It should feel firm, without much give. If it's soft, that means it's old. These local cucumbers don't need to be peeled. The surface isn't bitter and they haven't been sprayed with wax or oils like they are in some US supermarkets. The recipe I'm using for these today is one that originated in Fujian and is popular in Taiwan as well. It made its way to Guangdong and Hong Kong, but isn't terribly popular here in Kunming. It's a "Quick Pickle" that doesn't require much time. It's also not terribly salty or sour: very well balanced, at least for my palate. Scrub the cucumbers and slice them into rounds about a half an inch thick (2 cm or so.) Don't peel them and don't remove the seeds. Notice that these have nice looking centers; if they were past their prime, the centers would have larger seeds and a network of large empty spaces. Peel the garlic 独蒜 and smash it into chunks, scrub the ginger 老姜 and slice it thickly, unpeeled. Cut the hot pepper 小米辣 into thirds and remove some of the seeds if you want to decrease the heat. The dry orange peel 橙皮 is optional, but the dried licorice root 甘草 is very strongly suggested. It adds a distinctive note and the resulting taste would definitely be less interesting without it. You can buy it in Chinese herbal pharmacies if your grocery store doesn't stock it. For each large pickle combine 2 tablespoons of soy sauce 生抽, two tablespoons of aged vinegar 老陈醋, and two tablespoons of white rice vinegar白醋. Add one tablespoon of sugar 白砂糖 and one teaspoon of salt 食盐。Do not add water. As the pickles marinate, they will release some of their own flavor-laden moisture. Put everything in a saucepan and boil it for one only one minute over low to medium heat. Remove it from the flame and let the pickles cool in this liquid. You can cool it in bowls if you want it to go a bit faster. When it is cool enough to handle easily, put everything into the jar and screw on the lid. Let it stand out on a shelf or counter top overnight, then refrigerate it in the morning. The pickles are ready to eat in 24 hours and will keep ten days or two weeks, though I confess I've never made a batch yet that possessed that degree of longevity. Let me be clear: the pickles didn't go bad; I just ate them all up. They improve with every passing day. On occasion I've made a half batch to replenish the jar, adding the new ones to the bottom. These pickles really do have a way of disappearing. I like that they have plenty of crunch, aren't too sweet, aren't too sour, aren't too hot, but still definitely are not too bland. They make a great mid-afternoon snack, along with a hard-boiled egg. You won't be struck by lightning, however, if you want to vary your own batch of pickles to taste. What I've hoped to provide for you here is a safe and sensible starting place so you can avert disaster while carrying out your own personal fine-tuning. I often eat them along with a sandwich, or better yet, alongside a fresh steamed bun spread with spicy fermented tofu. I was introduced to this sterling combination several years ago when climbing Mt. Emei 峨眉山 (in Sichuan, south of Chengdu) very early one morning trying to get to the top by sunrise. I stopped for a break beside the steep trail and two middle-aged ladies sat down beside me. They were friendly and shared their snacks, which were, you guessed it, mantou, lufu, and pickles. Plus a big thermos of green tea. As an impressionable youth, I was hooked for life. Three rounds of rehab have not put a dent in my shameful cravings or my ruinous pickle addiction. This morning I bought a folded steamed bun with sesame seeds (huajuan 花卷) instead of plain mantou 馒头。Ate the last few remaining pickles from my jar before starting a new batch. These had been marinating about one week and were bursting with flavor. A fine compliment to the spicy fermented tofu (lufu 卤腐) which is one of the odd-ball darlings of Yunnan cuisine. Life is too short not to eat plenty of pickles; especially home-made Chinese pickles. Give these a try and see what you think!
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