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  1. 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!
  2. The slow-cured ham of Xuanwei 宣威火腿 and the lightly-processed cheese from the high-pasture cattle north of Shilin 石林乳饼 are both big Yunnan favorites. It shouldn't be in the least surprising to learn that they are often combined, more often than not by simply steaming them together. It was a marriage of flavors made in food heaven and I would wager that nearly every family in this part of China makes it at home on a regular basis, using just ham and cheese without anything else. I make it with some regularity too, but tonight I fancied it up in a way that compliments the primary textures and flavors. Came out real good and the process was straight forward. Let me show you the method. The only trick if you live overseas might be finding authentic ingredients. I believe you could substitute another cured (not smoked) ham such as those from Smithfield in the southeasten US, and you could use a good quality Italian bufala mozzarella for the cheese. Wouldn't be exactly the same, of course, but it should still be good. Wash some red and green peppers and peel the outer tough skin off a mild Bermuda onion 洋葱。I used red bell peppers 红甜辣椒 and the long green half-hot chilies 青辣椒, but you could substitute locally available varieties, as long as they are fresh and full of flavor. Cut these vegetables up as shown; no need to be too fussy about it. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The cheese vendor offers to slice it at the time of purchase and I usually say yes because it saves some labor at home. He does it freehand, using a piece of stout monafilament string. He cuts it just right, but if you are doing it at home, don't slice it too thin, or else it will fall apart when steamed. China is not known for its cheeses, but this Yunnan product is an exception to the rule. Different versions of it exist around Dali, where it can be made from goats milk, and around Lijiang, where it can be made with milk of the great hairy alpine yak. I buy my ham in a block and then slice it myself, making the cuts thin but as thin as I might with prosciutto . I include a little fat, but not as much as most Chinese cooks. They often prefer the slices to be nearly a third fat. You could adjust that element to taste. My ham lady has a brother in Xuanwei Town 宣威县城 who hangs and cures these hams for about half a year. The prep work is simple and fast, and now you are almost ready to apply the heat. Select a shallow bowl that will fit in your steamer. If you don't have a steamer, you can use your wok with a wire rack and a lid. Spread a layer of onions in the bottom of the bowl, follow that with a layer of cheese topped with ham. Sprinkle on plenty of sliced red and green peppers, then do it all again. Two layers is usually enough, but there is no law against more if your dish is deeper than mine. This dish doesn't need any added salt because the ham supplies just enough. Place it in your steamer and set a timer for 25 minutes. At that point I usually wash up my knife, cutting board and any other prep dishes that might have accumulated. So much easier than waiting till later and it gives you clean work surfaces. Near the end of the cooking time, I usually make a tablespoon or two of thin corn starch slurry 水淀粉 to use to thicken the pan juices before serving. This makes a fine gravy to use in topping your rice. One nice thing about steaming a dish like this is it doesn't dry out. Nothing more to do until the timer dings, then lift it out. Pour some of the juices into the bowl with your corn starch slurry and combine well. Drizzle it over the cooked ham and cheese. The flavor of the vegetables melts into the primary notes of the mild cheese and the ham and does it without getting in the way or becoming confusing. I've made this dish for several Yunnan natives, and as conservative as they sometimes are, none have yet turned up their noses and walked away. Changing a classic comes with some risks and is not always successful. The "less is more" mantra often applies. But this time the modifications yielded a real winner. Try it yourself for your family or your friends and see what you think. Pretty sure you won't be disappointed.
  3. Here's the backstory to yesterday's recipe. (Link, in case you missed it: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56622-spicy-green-peppers-and-mushrooms-香菇炒青椒/?tab=comments#comment-438182 ) Let me give you a look at my trip to the outdoor market for the ingredients. It's a look at my neighborhood wet market in early summer. It's also a daily-life taste of the non-tourist China. (As usual, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It was clear that lots of people had the same idea at the same time because it was hard to find a place to park my bike outside the gate. As previously mentioned, rainy season has arrived, and we all rush out to do errands when we get a blue-sky sunny day. We have begun to see some wild mushrooms for sale, though not the abundance that will be here in a month. As business is slow, the vendor even has time to puff his Yunnan water pipe, lower right. Instead of buying wild ones today, I headed for the large table where they sell an assortment of cultivated mushrooms. The boss was having a reflective moment, contemplating the meaning of life. Next door, I bought a pile of dragon fruit 火龙果. They were being sold by the pile 一堆 instead of by weight. You couldn't sort through them, but my pile had 4 fruits for 10 Yuan, so I wasn't about to complain. These had been brought up from Vietnam. One of the glories of this market is the large assortment of fermented condiments, pickled vegetables and vibrant Yunnan spices. Look at the lovely long red pickled peppers in the photo lower right. They are not as hot as they look and make a great accompaniment to a roast chicken. Today I bought a chunk of lufu 油卤腐, a specialty of nearby Yuxi 玉溪。It's a rather strange salty and spicy fermented product, made from hairy tofu 毛豆腐 pickled in chilies and oil for several months. It's pungent and sort of stinky; reminiscent of Limburger cheese, great spread onto a fresh steamed bun baozi 包子。 Even better when spread on one of these steamed braided buns hua juan 花卷。Doubt it will ever be a hit with Joe Sixpack back in Texas. Here's the source of the peppers in yesterday's meal. They are abundant just now. I bought the green ones 青椒 or 青辣尖椒, but red ones are available too. They are moderately piquant, and sometimes I prefer small red bell peppers instead. Yunnan people love their peppers and one can find a couple dozen different kinds. I stopped to say hello to Mr. Gao, purveyor of edible flowers. I sometimes cook the large yellow ones, but never got around to making the photos to show you. They are very tasty, but require some extra work. Today he had a basket of perfect jumbo figs, bottom left corner of his display. I bought a few one day early last week; an experience to be long treasured; goodness they were sweet. One fills you up and makes the sun shine even at night. A few meters away, a cluster of people looked over the lettuce and cabbage. It was a popular spot: prices were low and quality was high. It was early in the day, and the place I usually buy roast duck was just gearing up for round two. They hang the birds to air dry for a while before rubbing them inside and out with spices. Then they put them into sealed clay ovens to roast slow. This produces the famous Yilaing roast duck 宜良烤鸭 for which this region is famous. It rivals those from Beijing. They are prized for their tender meat and their crispy skin 脆皮。 Next door someone was selling roast duck by the kilo. They were cheaper because they were prepared somewhere off premises. Competition was stiff and they had a bowl of free samples that you could spear with a toothpick. This middle-aged couple lingered there a long time, sampling steadily as if trying to make up their minds. They didn't fool me and they probably didn't fool the duck seller; eventually they moved on without making a purchase. At the bottom of the frame, lower right, notice the big metal pan of spicy Yunnan chicken feet. They are not for the faint of heart. By now it was time for a bowl of one of my favorite local specialties, silky tofu "flowers" on rice noodles with a pungent pickled vegetable sauce 豆花米线。Mine had a sprinkling of ground meat, although they make a meatless version as well. 7 Yuan for a medium serving. The boss was bouncing a baby on his knee. I asked if it was his grandson. "No, he is my neighbor's.” 他是隔壁的。In a couple minutes the mother came over from the stall next door to reclaim her happy little boy. On the way out with my trophies, I passed some zongzi 粽子 booths just getting cranked up. Dragon Boat festival 端午节 is on the horizon and will be here in less than two weeks. Zongzi made with Yunnan ham 云南宣威火腿 are very popular here. Made my way back to the street, passing some free lancers selling small items they had carried in by hand. Outside the market proper there are always several small mobile vendors selling just a few items. Doubt they are really making a living; more likely just supplementing their slim pensions. The old man had brought in some small dried fishes, carried in two baskets on either end of a bamboo shoulder pole 扛。 When people back home ask me about the "Real China," I never know quite what to say, then I think about places like this. Ten minutes by bicycle from my apartment.
  4. It has rained a lot over the last week; our rainy season 雨季 has started with a bang. Clueless tourists will be stranded in mud slides before even making it to the entrance of Tiger Leaping Gorge. In Kunming we know about weather and adapt to it, and when the rain clears, like it did this morning, we jump fast to take full advantage. The sun was out by 9 a.m. and I was in the wet market 菜市场 with my shopping list by ten. It was bustling and busy like a Sunday. The aunties 阿姨 and grannies 奶奶 had large baskets and cloth bags to take home a portion of the bounty. I made a beeline to where the most people were grabbing stuff; this produce was bound to be the freshest, cheapest and best. Most locals are savvy shoppers and I imitate them. I loaded up with crispy green long peppers, the pointy kind, not sweet bell peppers. Thought I would make an old standard, green peppers and lean pork stir fry 青椒肉丝。But then I noticed the abundance of mushrooms. It's too early to eat the wild ones 野生菌 just yet, there is too much chance of unpleasant toxins 毒 Later in the season the wild ones are safer, so I usually wait another month or so. With that in mind, today I bought cultivated ones instead 人工香菇。 Swung by the stall that features "black pork." That designation puzzled me for a long time, until I finally figured out that 黑猪肉 doesn't mean black meat, it means the meat from pigs that have black hide. Supposed to be a little more tasty. They are raised in the hills in large pastures, sort of "free range," instead of being confined to cages or pens. Purchase a nice piece of lean loin meat 猪里脊。This cut is not marbled and it can be tough; but proper technique can make it delicious. Came out real good, so I thought I would share. Here's how I put it together. (Remember, you can click the pictures to enlarge them.) Clean the mushrooms and cut off the stems. Slice the caps thin. Wash the long green peppers and cut off the stems. These are spicy, have a nice bite, but are not fiery hot. I leave most of the seeds but remove the pith near the base. Cut some of them into circles instead of slivers. Why? Because it looks good. Locally these go by the name of 青辣尖叫 some of the time. You can find red ones as well, same shape and basic flavor profile. Peel down the outer leaves of a few spring onions and snap off the root end. Slice them into small rounds, using all of the whites and some of the greens as well. Wash and finely chop some cilantro. Stems as well as leaves. Assemble the vegetables. Turn your attention to the meat. I had put it in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes while prepping the vegetables to let it get firm and be easier to handle. The goal was to slice it thin across the grain, into slivers 肉丝 or very small pieces 肉片 so it would cook fast. This piece weighed only 150 grams; less than a fourth of a pound. It doesn't take much: a dish like this is mainly about the vegetables. The meat is just in it to enhance the flavor, to give it a little more punch. Marinate the cut meat in corn starch and cooking wine for 30 minutes or so. Makes it more tender. Fire up the wok. Use high heat. You want these ingredients to sear, cook fast and get a little color without actually scorching. If the flame is too low they will stew and be soggy. This is the part of the process that requires your full attention; don't play with your phone or look out of the window. If you don't stir fast enough, something will burn. Start with the meat; cook it about three-quarters through and scoop it out while it is still faintly pink. Then cook the mushrooms, stirring and flipping 翻炒 them constantly. The idea behind a process like this is to start with the ingredients that take more time to be done. Mushrooms take longer than peppers. When the mushrooms have released their moisture and wilted, add the peppers to the center of the wok. That is the hottest part. Let the peppers get soft and even begin to get slightly brown before adding the spring onions. Last of all, add the cilantro leaves and stems. At each step along the way I add a sprinkle of salt, instead of waiting until the very end. It's easier for me to judge the right amount that way, though it isn't essential to follow that strategy. Return the cooked meat to the pan and cook it all together for a minute or so to blend the flavors. At this stage I added a splash of soy sauce 生抽 and a few spoons of a corn starch slurry 水淀粉 to thicken the juices. If you like a pinch of MSG 味精, this is the time to put it in. (I use it, but realize not everyone can.) When the juices have been absorbed into the dish and all these harmonious flavors marry, in only a minute or so, it's ready to serve. Don't want to overcook things like this; the vegetables still need to have some crunch. That's part of what distinguishes real Chinese food from what you get for $5.98 at Golden China Buffet in the strip mall on the loop in small-town Texas where I spend part of every year. Plate it up. Goes well with plain steamed rice. Goes well with sunshine after a week of rainy days.
  5. With the arrival of warmer summer days, I've been looking for ways to have less fried food while still enjoying premium local fresh produce and bold Chinese flavors. Eggplant 茄子 (qiezi) is one of my favorite vegetables, and tonight I made it steamed for supper. Let me show you how. Bought three of these tender long Asian eggplants 长茄子 at the outdoor market, along with some mildly-spicy crinkly red peppers 红椒 and a handful fresh spring onions 大葱. Took three heads of single-clove garlics 独蒜 from my existing kitchen stash. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) When making an eggplant dish it's best to prepare the other ingredients first, saving the eggplant until last. If it stands too long in room air, the cut edges turns an unattractive brown color. So that's the sequence I followed today. If you're not used to cooking with these Chinese spring onions, I can save you some time. Don't try washing them to remove the sand and soil. Just grasp a few leaves and peel them all the way to the root end, then snap that part off. I cut them on a bias with my sharp Hong Kong knife 菜刀 so they would fall apart and blend better with the eggplant in the steamer. Next I sliced the peppers in half and removed the fibrous core as well as most of the seeds. Sliced them into julienne slivers 切丝。 Smashed the garlic, removed the skin, and then minced it fine 蒜蓉。 After washing the eggplants, removed the stems and cut them into long pieces 切条 without worrying too much about making them completely uniform in size like you would if using them in a stirfry. These eggplants are young and tender; no need to remove the skin. Put all the ingredients together in a shallow bowl and set it in a steamer. Had I not had a steamer, would have used a wok with a lid. Let it steam for a scant 7 or 8 minutes, until the eggplant pieces can be easily pierced with a chopstick. While that was going on, I made a simple sauce. Whisked together one part aged vinegar 老陈醋, one part light soy sauce 生抽, one part sesame oil 香油。Stir in a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精, and a big pinch of sugar. When it's done, lift it out. Remember that the dish is real hot, so best to use a tool such as the one shown here. Drizzle on the sauce, stir it gently and serve while nice and warm. Inexpensive, healthy, easy summer food. Give it a try and see what you think.
  6. abcdefg

    Roast duck mango salad

    Summer is approaching fast and, as the days get warmer, a hearty salad sometimes hits the spot for supper. Here's one of my favorites. Cannot really call it Old School Yunnan cooking, but it nonetheless is a fine fusion of some classic local flavors. The duck was one of our prized Yiliang birds, purchased from the market for 25 Yuan. The type of bird and the method of cooking it are different from the more famous Beijing roast duck. The bird is very succulent, with crisp skin, partly attributed to being roasted in large, free-standing clay ovens. They originated east of Kunming, not far from Stone Forest in the small town of Yiliang 宜良县城 but now are widely found in Kunming as well. We old timey locals brag that they put Beijing ducks to shame. The vendor usually chops them into pieces for you, but today I asked him not to. Was a little surprised that it was a trick to find the right verb. They don't call it qie 切 or duo 剁,instead using kan 砍。"老板请不要砍" got the job done. (Remember you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The mangoes were from Thailand, and cost 12 Yuan a kilo. Price will come down a little next month. These are "sheng de long" mangoes 圣德龙, a sweet, sought-after variety. The seller will help you select a couple that are ready now, today and tomorrow, and a couple others that will be ripe towards the end of the week. Took me most of my first mango season to master this simple trick of "strategic spaced purchasing." Transported my bounty home in the basket on the handlebars of my bike. Wasn't feeling terribly ambitious, but fortunately this dish is really easy to make and doesn't even require turning on the stove. Bought a sweet Bermuda onion 洋葱 and a small bunch of fresh cilantro with the stems 香菜。A crisp Asian cucumber 黄瓜 and a couple limes 青柠檬。These cucumbers are long with tender skin that isn't bitter. I only partly peel them. The limes have less bite than Chinese lemons. Rough cut half of the onion. This ginger is different from what is usually exported: it's fresh 生姜 instead of dried 老姜。It has a milder flavor; you can use more of it with impunity. Coarsely sliced a big piece of it, the size of two thumbs. Doesn't need to be peeled. I usually buy cucumbers from the same lady. For whatever reason, hers are always fresh and sweet. She also has the bigger English-style cucumbers for sale; you can see them in the right front of her display. I partly skinned one Asian cucumber and cut it in half the long way. Scooped out the seeds with a spoon and sliced it into pencil-sized slivers. Put the cucumber and onion in a bowl, added salt and a pinch of sugar. Squeezed two limes and added the juice along with two tablespoons of olive oil. Cut a few stalks of fresh coriander, stems plus leaves. Tossed it all together. Skinned and sliced one ripe mango 芒果。It was so sweet and juicy that it required considerable self control not to just wolf it down immediately and forget the rest of the meal. Tossed it together with the vegetables, making sure the mango slices got well coated with lime juice. Let the flavors marry while cutting up the duck. I cut and tore the tender breast meat off the bone. One of the hallmarks of well-made duck is that the juices stay in the meat, trapped by the golden crispy skin. I added a sprinkle of salt. If you didn't have roast duck readily available, you could use roast chicken, although it wouldn't have quite as full a flavor. Home stretch now. Just toss it all together. This is enough for two hungry people as a main course. Great for a summer evening when you don't feel like firing up the wok. Hope you will give it a try before too long. You won't regret it.
  7. Here's another good way to turn Chinese chives (jiucai 韭菜) into something tasty without too much trouble. Admittedly, it requires a little more effort than the simple stir fry scramble that we made with them a couple days ago, but not a whole lot. That recipe is here in case you missed it: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56328-chinese-chives-韭菜-two-or-three-ways/?tab=comments#comment-435504 Today we'll make griddle cakes 煎饼 which can easily serve as a breakfast or as the backbone of a light supper or lunch. Adding a bowl of rice, a salad or a soup turns it into a decent, well-balanced meal. Start with the same primary ingredient 主料, namely a bundle of fresh jiucai 韭菜, aka Chinese chives. The first time or two that you make this, you might want to be more careful with the weights and the measures, though after that it's fine to just work by eye. This handful of jiucai weighed about 250 grams when I started, and about 200 grams after pulling off brown or dead leaves and trimming away the tough sandy/muddy ends of the white stems. Washed them well three times, until the wash water remained completely clean to the eye. Drain in a colander and blot dry. This time, instead of cutting them into short pieces like we did before, I chopped them up fine. This makes them easier to incorporate into a batter a few minutes later on. Also cut up a few slices of lean ham/huotui 火腿, this time using some I bought in the store instead of my favorite which comes from the wet market a little farther away. Canadian bacon would work well in place of this if you live in the west. Finely diced half a large carrot and lightly beat two fresh eggs in a small bowl with my chopsticks. Made a thin batter from 50 grams of all purpose flour and about half a cup of potable water. Stirred it well with a fork. You could also use a small balloon whisk for this, but an electric mixer would be overkill. Mix in the two eggs, followed by the ham, carrots, and jiucai. Stir it well to evenly distribute all ingredients, adding about a half teaspoon of salt 食盐 as you work. 搅拌均匀。It should be a somewhat soupy, wet batter for this particular use; not a thick, stiff batter like you might prefer in some other applications. Use a non-stick flat-bottom saute pan 不粘平底锅 for this instead of your trusty wok. If you don't have one of those, don't despair. A well seasoned wok will also get the job done, though it requires a little more oil. Heat your pan over medium heat and add the batter using a large spoon. The individual cakes won't be perfectly round, but don't fret about that. It's not your year for that second Michelin star anyhow. After a couple of minutes, turn them with a silicone spatula and a pair of chopsticks. Let the second side brown as well. By now the centers are well cooked, but still moist. Take them out of the pan and reserve 备用 on a preheated plate or platter. You will probably have to make them in two batches. What I do is pour boiling water over a large plate and then dry it. Cover the finished griddle cakes 煎饼 loosely with a clean kitchen towel. This way your fresh-cooked goodies are still hot when they reach the table. Dig in. You and your friends or family are ready to enjoy a home-made jiucai treat.
  8. Chinese chives, known over here as jiucai 韭菜, is an ingredient that's easy to find all over China and it isn't too challenging to track down even in the west. It's an ingredient that's fun to use because it is versatile, lending itself to many applications. It's also forgiving, not easily ruined when you are using it. I unexpectedly lucked in to a big batch this weekend and wound up cooking jiucai three days in a row. I had three days of jiucai feasts. The back story might be of interest. A hot springs sauna where I sometimes relax grows all its own vegetables organically out on the northeast edge of the city. It's one of their boasting points and is a claim to local fame. Whatever they bring in fresh in the morning, gets used up by the end of that same day; they are scrupulous about not holding anything over. "Completely organic and completely fresh" is what you can expect to eat on their premises, according to their promotional literature. They set a lavish buffet for lunch and another for supper. Breakfast is also provided, but it's a simple affair. If you are leaving anytime after supper, as you check out and settle your tab, they will ask if you want a bag of that day's leftover veggies. The receptionist won't let you pick through them or select what you want. One person, one bag; take it or leave it. I find it hard to say no to this kind of pot luck bounty, and usually smile and nod yes. This means that sometimes I walk out with a heavy bag of cabbage or half a dozen eggplants plus two carrots. This time my treasure was more jiucai than anyone could possibly eat at one go. Luckily, it keeps pretty well for a day or two in the crisper drawer of my fridge. Looses a tiny bit of it's fresh-picked bite, but not much. It's a pretty durable item. So now after three straight days of jiucai practice, I'm a self-declared expert. My best friend agrees, but we all know she's biased. In any case, I'll take great pleasure in showing you some jiucai tricks so that you can also perform jiucai magic at home, wherever you might live. This splendid green vegetable has a taste somewhere between that of onion and garlic, and is related to both. The flavor is more concentrated than either and it makes a very distinctive ingredient in many quintessentially Chinese specialty dishes, top among them probably being jiucai dumplings 韭菜猪 肉饺子。These rule the roost if you live up north, above the Chiang Jiang 长江, aka the Mighty Yangtze. Someone else will have to show you how to make those, since my dumpling skills are rudimentary at best. But today I'll gladly show you how to use jiucai in a stir fried scrambled egg dish 韭菜炒鸡蛋。Next we will make it up into crispy thin griddle cakes 韭菜煎饼。A day or two later, if there's sufficient interest, I'll take you through turning them into a tasty and simple fried rice 韭菜鸡蛋炒饭。All three were a hit with my Kunming friends. Never broke the bank or required excessive amounts of kitchen time. Trim off a little bit of the fibrous white root ends and discard any brown or wilted leaves. Wash them well, dry them, then chop into pieces 3 or 4 centimeters long. Break two or three eggs into a dish and mix them with chopsticks. I usually figure one egg per person when preparing this as a side dish to go with other parts of a meal. Scramble the eggs in a non-stick flat bottom skillet 不粘平底锅 with a little oil over low to medium heat. Turn the eggs out into a dish when they are barely done, don't overcook them. Sprinkle lightly with salt and set them aside. 备用 Wipe out the skillet, heat to medium, add a little more oil. Stir fry the jiucai until they wilt, but don't let them get real dark or burned. This usually only takes a minute or two. Add a light sprinkle of salt. Add back the scrambled eggs and cook them together for another half minute or so. Scoop them out into a serving dish. Set it on the table and dig in. This is a dish best enjoyed while it's still nice and hot, fresh from the flame. This goes well with nearly anything you can name in the wide realm of Chinese cooking. Its taste is distinctive but not overpowering. I've had it accompany a fish main course, or chicken or duck. One can simply enjoy it with a bowl of steamed rice as a brunch, or even with a bowl of Yunnan noodle soup 米线。 Hope you will give it a try. Eager to see what you think. On a spectrum of one to ten, this falls somewhere around zero on the difficulty scale. Highly suitable for fledgling Chinese chefs.
  9. Kimchi is more than a staple in Korea: it's a national passion. It's nearly a religion. Not sure I've ever had a meal anywhere on the peninsula which didn't include it, regardless of the time of day. But any Chinese north-easterner 东北人 will be quick to remind you that it was invented in China and only later exported or stolen. A debate of that subject draws more heat and patriotic emotion than a discussion of nuclear weapons. Let me just say that pickled, fermented and salted vegetables are extremely popular here in Kunming, regardless of their origins. These are typically made from Napa-type cabbage and slivers of large white daikon radish, but hundreds of variations exist. Even a trip to the grocery store (below left) shows an ample selection, and my local wet market has even more (below right.) Note that all of these are spicy, to some degree or other. If you have a strong preference for bland 清淡 food, this glorious stuff is not for you. You can click the photos to enlarge them. And the Chinese equivalent of kimchi, usually called 泡菜 or 腌菜 or 酸菜, makes up into a killer fried rice. You can find it on the menu of even the most humble small eateries, and it's a snap to make at home. Let me show you how it worked out tonight as a tasty one-dish meal. I bought some robust cured beef 牛肉干吧 at the stand where they use lean mountain cattle from Yunnan's northeast Zhaotong Prefecture 着通州。It comes in large pieces of hind leg that are hanging in the shade. The helpful young guy cuts it into thin slices for you 切片。I bought 20 Yuan worth, pictured here below right, which was enough for two meals. It's more expensive than pork. When I got ready to use it, I cut it up into very thin slivers and marinated them in corn starch 淀粉 and yellow cooking wine 黄酒 for 20 or 30 minutes. I prep the meat first and let it stand while I'm washing and cutting up the vegetables. This "velveting" process makes the meat more tender; allows you to use a shorter cooking time. Today I used some small cherry tomatoes, ripe on the vine, and some freshly-cut spring corn. Both have a subtle sweet flavor that makes a nice contrast with the other, more forward ingredients. The pickled, salted vegetables are the star of this show. The ones I bought today were made from mustard greens. Yesterday I made the mistake of using an extremely hot type made with lots of pickled peppers. That didn't work out, set fire to my mouth, and today I knew better. Here below is the more temperate kind that I bought from the same seller's wife. She is usually more helpful, giving me recommendations and tastes of this or that, but she was off on my first shopping trip. The devil is often in the details of these things and many recipes I found on the Chinese internet said things like "Use enough, but be careful to not use too much." Well thanks many times over for that sagacious tip. The result of my own experimentation over the years and deep discussions with knowledgeable friends has resulted in this secret formula: One heaping tablespoon of cut up 腌菜 pickled vegetables for each small bowl of rice used. (The small, individual rice bowl 饭碗 is an accepted unit of measure.) Today I was using three bowls of left-over rice, hence three generous tablespoons of finely chopped greens. Obviously this is not ironclad, and will need to be adjusted to suit your taste buds. But at least it gives you a starting point. Fried rice works best with left-over rice, some that has spent a night or two in your fridge (not a week or two.) It dries out a little and is less likely to stick together. It still needs to be fluffed up with chopsticks or even with your dampened fingers before using. Everything is assembled now, as seen below, ready to rock and roll. Fire up the wok. Add a small amount of oil after it's hot. Use high heat: after all the name of this game is "fried rice," not "stewed rice." A timid, low flame results in an unpleasant mush. Start with the meat. Quickly stir fry, until it just begins to brown. This only takes 30 or 45 seconds. Scoop it out and set it aside. One can make a a vegetarian version of this dish by substituting firm tofu. Smoked tofu strips work especially well. Start with the corn and tomatoes. Stir them fast until they begin to release some aroma and then add the preserved vegetables. Work quickly; this is not the time to walk away and check your phone for messages. When these ingredients have mixed well and the corn has begun to develop a slight surface caramel color, add back the meat, continuing to flip everything with flourish and vigor 翻炒。Try your best to not let things stick to the bottom of the wok. You would like to avoid a burned flavor. Now it's time for the rice. Notice that it's not just one large chunk. Break it up even more with your spatula 锅铲 using the edge and the flat part alternately. Work quickly, as mentioned before. Notice that there is lots of rice, relative to the added ingredients. If you put in chicken and ham and left-over shrimp and peas and mushrooms and carrots and celery and so on, you will wind up with a mess. Please exercise some restraint, hold those creative urges in check, and make a different stir fry with a selection from those other goodies tomorrow. You may have noticed no mention of adding salt, pepper, or any other seasonings. That wasn't an oversight: this dish doesn't need them. The meat 干吧 and the pickled greens 腌菜 supply all that is needed. No soy sauce, etc. Serve it up and eat it while warm. A fried rice dish like this can serve as a one-dish meal or you can supplement it with a soup or a salad. I followed mine tonight with some sweet freshly-cut pineapple, brought up from Xishuangbanna 西双版纳傣族自治州 in the very south of the province. Pro tip: It's OK to eat fried rice 炒饭 with a spoon. Look around next time you are in a small lunch room off on a side street in whatever province, all across China. A few people are doing it with chopsticks, but most efficiency-minded Chinese have picked up a spoon. Even though this tasted real good, I might have to relinquish my Michelin star because the rice isn't all individual grains. Perfect fried rice has no clumps at all, not even small ones. Never mind that. Give it a try. It's easy to find Korean kimchi in refrigerated packages all over the world, and it works very well, even without being Chinese.
  10. This simple dish is reason enough to visit Yunnan. The province is famed for doing magic with half a dozen kinds of rice noodles, and this is one of the specialty dishes that contributes in a major way to that reputation. The best ersi arguably come from Tengchong 腾冲, in the west, not far from Burma. But they have definitely spread to Kunming. Instead of being extruded like most fresh noodles, whether wheat or rice, these er si 饵丝 are first kneaded and pounded into a firm cake and then carefully sliced. They are thicker and more chewy than ordinary rice noodles, which makes them delicious when fried then quickly simmered with a bold gravy/sauce (lu 卤)。During the process, the sauce penetrates the noodles as well as coating them with flavor. Here's what they look like: I've put some chopsticks on top to give you a better idea of scale. If you cannot get ersi where you live, you could use ordinary rice noodles by shortening the cooking time. One could also substitute wheat noodles, though the dish would not have quite the same mouth feel 口感 or taste 味道。 I bought them this morning in a street stall instead of my usual market. The vendor looked surprised and asked, "Do you know what to do with them?" I assured her that I did, but it reminded me that these aren't easily available all across China. They are one of the regional glories of Yunnan cuisine. This bag cost 2 Yuan and I used most of it today. Today I made lu ersi 卤饵丝 with some smoked pork just because I had it on hand. Usually I use roast pork belly 烤五花肉 bought from the market from a vendor who makes it fresh daily over slow coals in a clay oven. I've seen it in supermarkets for sale pre-wrapped. The recipe can also be made with plain ground meat, pork or beef 磨肉。 I paired this strong-flavored meat with a vegetable that could stand up to it as an equal: long green chili peppers 青椒/尖椒。 These are only medium hot and I take out about half of the seeds. Cut some in rounds, some in strips. One could tone it down by using bell peppers. Added a large spring onion 大葱 and some garlic, crushed with the side of my knife and chopped fine. Heat the wok, add some oil and give the meat a head start. Since my meat was already cooked by the curing process, I only gave it 30 or 40 seconds. Didn't want to dry it out. Added the vegetables and aromatics one by one, stirring and turning things over quickly 翻炒, with my spatula 国产 using high heat. Season with half a teaspoon of salt 食用盐, a tablespoon of oyster sauce 耗油, a tablespoon of soy sauce 生抽, and a teaspoon of prickly ash oil 花椒油。 I add about a quarter teaspoon of MSG 味精, but leave it out if it disagrees with you. A pinch of sugar is also optional (but suggested.) When these flavors have had a chance to blend and the vegetables have just barely begun to cook (don't want them to loose their crunch) add slightly less than a rice bowl of water (about a cup.) Stir it up, reduce the flame to medium, and add the ersi 饵丝。 Stir fry about a minute longer, until the ersi become slightly soft, just al dente, not too soft. If making it for the first time, it's best to err on the side of too short a cooking time. Maintaining the texture is important for an authentic result. Serve it up. In an unpretentious Kunming open-front café, they will give you a small bowl of clear broth 清汤 to sip as you eat, but between you and me, this fine dish goes very well with a cold beer. Give it a try and see what you think. Pretend you have been transported to Yunnan.
  11. abcdefg

    Middle Kingdom Limoncello

    Limoncello is native to the citrus growing region along southern Italy's Amalfi Coast, but it can be home made in Kunming as well. We have an abundance of fresh, full-flavored citrus, especially in the cooler months of the year. If silk and porcelain and tea could make their way west centuries ago, no reason why the caravan cannot now head back to the east. Home made limoncello has always been the best kind, with a taste more fruity and fresh than commercial brands. It is traditionally enjoyed as a post-prandial digestif, served cold in a small glass right after eating. It is also loved as an aperitif, before the meal. Or it can be turned into a tall drink with club soda or tonic water. It is sunny and bursting with fresh lemon/citrus flavor. Let me show you how I make it. Buy a couple of bottles of trusty and potent Red Star Er Guo Tou 红星二锅头, which is known and maybe loved/maybe hated by every Old China Hand worth his salt. This notorious 白酒 is 52% alcohol, making it over 100 proof. One of the beauties of this recipe is that it is a way of "taming the dragon" -- transforming this fiery "rocket fuel" Er Guo Tou even beyond the palatable, actually turning it into a beverage which is smooth and enjoyable. This is the famous grain neutral spirit that is sold in every hole in the wall lunch stand in "unit dose" sized bottles. You regularly see hard hat guys knocking it back with their noodles. A 500 ml bottle of this powerful concoction costs the princely sum of 13 Yuan and 50 Mao. I used a bottle and a half, about 750 ml, just because of the size of my containers. The Er Guo Tou distillery produces some other whiskey that is more refined and lower proof. Don't need it; this original wild potion does just fine at a price which cannot be beat, only pennies more pricey than Coca Cola. Buy four to six nice firm lemons, preferably from the market where they haven't been sprayed with wax to extend their shelf life (as is common in the US.) Oranges are prime just now and I bought five of those along with my five lemons. Limoncello can easily be modified by using part tangerines or grapefruit. I've experimented with youzi 柚子 (pomelo) and the small green limes 青柠蒙 that are so popular here. Both have very thin skin, making them difficult to use. But mixing lemon with another citrus fruit makes the resulting liqueur have a less aggressive character; sort of rounds it out. Scrub them well with a vegetable brush and sharpen your best paring knife. The goal is to deftly remove the yellow zest with very, very little of the bitter white pith underneath. I used a ceramic-blade peeler and the paring knife. It takes some time to do this right. One can alternatively use a micro-plane grater, but it will make the finished product slightly cloudy. Do the same with the oranges. Just like the lemons in the picture above, you can see the full thickness peel on the left, the white pith sliced away with careful scalpel strokes, leaving the finished peel on the right. I pull a chair up to the table, set it all out on a cutting board, put in earphones with some Bach or Beethoven, and take my time. Let my mind go blank into that semi-meditative 刀法 zone. (daofa = knife skills) As you work, drop the finished peels into a big wide-mouth jar that contains your alcohol. Screw the lid on tight. If the fit is not snug, put a piece of Saran wrap 保鲜膜 over the top before sealing. To backtrack a moment, Er Guo Tou is really not the only way to go. Everclear plain grain alcohol would do, but I've never seen it for sale in China. Similarly, vodka is ok, but you need the 100 proof kind, which is nearly impossible to find. You want a high alcohol content because it acts as a solvent and puts the aromatic elements of the fruit into solution. Set this jar up on a shelf for at least a week. Every day or two agitate it gently. Some schools of though call for leaving it like that for a month or more. A week is as long as I've personally been able to delay. Maybe resting it longer would make it a hundred times better, but I will probably never know. After a week, it is time to make it sweet. This is done with a Chinese version of simple syrup. Bing tang, Chinese rock sugar, 冰糖 adds an element of smoothness that works with the Er Guo Tou like the two were made for each other. I used a cup of rock sugar and three cups of water. This will make the finished product about 50 proof, which is about right for my palate. You could use less water or more depending on your personal preference. Bring the sugar to a gentle boil in a saucepan, stirring off and on until it's all dissolved. After that, be sure to let it cool completely to room temperature. If you rush that step the resulting brew will be muddy in appearance. Now pour the cooled simple syrup into the alcohol and citrus peels. Seal the jar again and let it stand overnight. My jar wasn't big enough to hold it all, so I improvised with a clean ceramic casserole. Next morning strain it into a bottle. I used a fine mesh strainer first, set in a large funnel, then did it twice more with cheese cloth. One can also use a coffee filter, but I didn't have one. When you do this, don't be greedy. Don't try and press all the liquid through with a wooden spoon or such, determined to get the very last drop. The reason is that this would push through the unwanted crud attached to the peels; stuff that you would like to discard. Here's my finished product. You can smell the citrus across the room. And the taste is smooth, without that ferocious 白酒 bite. I poured mine into a saved vodka bottle because it's the right size to fit in my fridge. This finished limoncello doesn't absolutely have to be refrigerated, but it keeps longer like this so I don't feel compelled to guzzle it too fast. Safe for a month or more. It still seems to disappear pretty smartly on its own; I sometimes think there must be some refrigerator mice with straws at work after lights out. Why have I included a picture of ginger? Because I thought I would tell you a Chinese herbal secret. This limoncello is fantastic served hot with an additional squeeze of lemon or lime and several slices of fresh ginger. Put the juice, ginger, and a generous shot of limoncello into a mug and fill it with nearly-boiling water. In the technical parlance of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it will "cure what ails you." So you have wound up with a bottle of first rate home-made joy that can be served strait as an aperitif, mixed tall with club soda or tonic water, taken after the meal to settle things, or utilized as medicine to chase away the winter vapors. Can't go wrong with that. Give it a try and see what you think.
  12. Another thread recently touched on the issue of foods that were best ordered out instead of making them at home. The observation was by @somethingfunny. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/55464-sweet-and-sour-what-do-you-call-it/?page=2&tab=comments#comment-427490 This got me to thinking about what dishes would fit in the "other" list; namely those things that are best made at home. Wondered what people thought might belong in this group. The dishes that most often call out to me here in Kunming are ones that utilize fresh seasonal ingredients, items that are tasty, plentiful and cheap for a few weeks out of the year. Dishes that feature special hand-made local condiments and seasonings would also fit on my list. And I gravitate to making dishes that might not readily be found elsewhere; things that might qualify as "regional cuisine." Are there certain Chinese dishes that you find relatively easy to make where you live? Things that taste better or are more healthy when done in your own kitchen? Would be interested in your thoughts.
  13. Freezing drizzle mixed with light snow flurries outside my window today here in the City of Eternal Spring sent me on a quest for some simple comfort food. Kunming has real good weather overall, but that doesn't mean we totally escape winter. Managed to make a quick run to the fresh market on one of the trusty Ofo shared bikes before getting really socked in. Invested 3 Yuan in a nice slice of long, skinny Yunnan pumpkin 南瓜, not the Jack-O-Lantern kind. The seller had donggua/wintermelon 冬瓜 on offer as well. She lets you buy as much of one as you want, since both these vegetables are usually too large for only one family. Deftly scoops out the seeds and shaves off the thick rind, then chops it into two pieces so it will easily fit inside my shopping bag. Wound up with 600 grams, a little over a 斤 or a pound of usable flesh 肉。 Before anything else, I started washing and soaking the rice. I used one cup total, about half of which was medium-grain white rice 大米, with the remainder being millet 小米 and short-grain sticky rice 糯米。That combination is completely optional; the recipe works just fine with all plain rice instead. The thing I most often got wrong when starting out making zhou 粥 several years ago was that I always seemed to use too much rice. It's easy to forget how much it will expand during the process of cooking, and you want the result to be soupy, not thick. I would suggest thinking long and hard before exceeding one cup of grain, since it eventually needs to be diluted 10 to 1 or 12 to 1 with water or stock. Next order of business, and another of those simple things that is easy to slight, is to wash the rice very well. The idea is not just to get it clean, but to remove surface rice powder and begin softening or even breaking some of the grains. This is different from making steamed rice where you would like to maintain grain integrity. Rinse it four or five times, each time scrubbing it around with your hands, rolling it between your palms. Consider this some kind of mild primal therapy. Put on loud music if necessary. Then let it soak. Ideally for about an hour. And this soaking water will be discarded before you actually start cooking. Now turn your attention to the pumpkin. Wash it quickly under running water and then slice it into thin pieces. These don't need to be tiny slivers, but it works best if they aren't large chunks. Steam these for 15 or 20 minutes, until they are soft and pierce easily with ordinary blunt chopsticks. Some recipes call for mashing them at this point, but I think that's unneeded labor. While the pumpkin was steaming, I defrosted a large cup of frozen chicken stock that I had made a week or two before. Water can be used instead if you want to go vegetarian. Poured off the rice soaking water, which by this time was pretty clear, added the stock and enough extra water to be twelve times the volume of the dry rice. Add the soft steamed pumpkin and turn on the heat. I'm using my trusty rice cooker, which has a setting for zhou, labeled 稀饭 because that's the preferred term in Yunnan. Make sure your rice cooker is not more than about three quarters full; don't want it to boil over. If you don't have a rice cooker you could make it stovetop, but it requires lots of stirring to be sure it doesn't stick. You can also use a slow cooker 电子砂锅。The "zhou" program on my rice cooker takes a little over 30 minutes. But I open the lid every five minutes or so and stir it well with chopsticks. Want to break up any clumps and make sure it doesn't burn in the bottom of the pot. Towards the end of cooking time, I add a teaspoon of salt 食盐 and four or five pieces of rock sugar 冰糖。Taste to be sure the rice is cooked through and completely tender. If not, give it a few more minutes. The results are smooth, steamy, aromatic, and nourishing. I garnished the bowl with a few wolfberries/gouqi 枸杞。 You can use your imagination in adding other ingredients, or you can keep it classically simple. Regardless, it will chase away the cold weather blahs admirably and not saddle you with much in the way of cleanup. Give it a try.
  14. I confess to not caring much about tofu prior to arriving in China about a decade ago. It wasn't that I actually disliked it, just found it insipid and boring. But over time, I've gradually discovered more and more of its uses and charms. One of the things which won me over was how varied it is: tofu comes in dozens of flavors and forms. Today I'd like to show you one kind of tofu that now has taken a front seat in my van. It's not puny and weak; it's not shy and retiring; it's actually rather forward and bold. I'm speaking of xiang gan 香干,which is tofu that has been cured, pressed, smoked and partially dried. In some parts of China you might find this called 熏豆腐干。 My neighborhood outdoor market has a couple dozen tofu shops, each selling eight or ten kinds of tofu. One might specialize in stinky tofu 臭豆腐, whereas another might specialize in hairy tofu 毛豆腐,and another's pride is their smoked tofu 熏豆腐。I haunt them all because I love diversity and appreciate the chance to continually challenge my taste buds. Sometimes I just stop at one of these stalls where the vendor is friendly (not all are) and ask him or her to introduce me to a kind that I haven't used before. I tell them I would like to explore tofu, that it's something we don't have much of back in the US. I explain that I see tofu as something very Chinese and I would like to get better acquainted with its various forms. That's how I found smoked tofu, which usually goes by the name 香干, a couple of years ago here in Kunming. Today we will stir-fry it with green and red peppers to make a balanced, flavorful, and nutritious main dish that pleases the eye as well as the palate. It's a dish that doesn't require any advanced techniques or special equipment; suitable for a beginner cook in a basic Chinese kitchen. Start with some fresh crisp peppers. I usually buy long ones that have a little heat 尖椒, but you can just as well use sweet bell peppers 甜椒 if you prefer. Today I was feeling playful, so I sliced them on a diagonal to turn them into rings instead of strips. Remove all the white pith and some of the seeds. I found two young brothers at the market early this summer who sell the best sweet Bermuda-type onions I've ever tasted. They are sweet, juicy, and have absolutely no bite. They promote them for use as a raw ingredient in salads. I will occasionally sacrifice one to a stir-fry or use one to dress up scrambled eggs. When you cut them, they drip juice, but the fumes do not sting your eyes. If you are not fortunate enough to have such premium onions, you could cut your onions smaller than I did and soak them for a few minutes in cool salty water. That would "tame" them a bit and prevent them from overpowering the other vegetables. This smoked tofu is made by first brining fresh tofu in a solution of salt and several spices, the list usually including Sichuan peppercorns 花椒,star anise 八角,fennel seeds 小茴香,ginger and garlic 姜蒜。Then it is pressed to gradually flatten it and remove a third to a half of the water. Afterwards, it is smoked in an oven, using coals made from various local woods. Often an abandoned or second-hand refrigerator is used to provide the closed smoking chamber. The makers never tell you all of their secrets. Here's what it looks like. Slice it thin. (Footnote: These six slices, enough for a meal for three or four people, cost me 4 Yuan, less than a US Dollar.) The rice cooker just beeped to tell me the rice was done, so I'm ready now to fire up the wok. I've developed the habit of mentally rehearsing the cooking process before actually starting, so as to be sure I've assembled all needed ingredients and seasonings. Once the bullet train gets rolling at speed, it won't stop until it arrives at the station. I've peeled, smashed, and minced some ginger and garlic. They are separate because the ginger needs a head start. If you put it and the garlic into the wok together, the garlic burns before the ginger is sufficiently cooked. Fry the aromatics (onion, ginger, and garlic) over medium heat, stirring briskly until you can smell them. They don't need to brown, they just need to develop aroma 炮香。Add the tofu and flip everything over again and again 翻炒 for about a minute until the flavors have blended and the tofu is heated through. Then turn it out into a pan where it can wait off to the side 备用。 Add another spoon or two of oil to the hot wok and stir-fry the peppers over high heat. Notice the smoky fumes in my photo; this is a home-cook's version of that famous "wok hei" you have read about; the "breath of the wok ." It's fine if the peppers even develop a tiny bit of char in places to give them a full flavor. With proper technique, they do this without losing their original crunchy texture. The way to achieve this, if you can manage it, is to shake the wok with your left hand and toss the contents with the spatula/wok tool 锅铲 in your right. Pretend you are a sweating line chef in a gray undershirt, an unlit cigarette tucked behind one ear, toiling deep in the bowels of some busy Chinatown dive, putting in 16 hours a day to pay back the Snakehead gang that smuggled you over from Fuzhou two and a half years ago in a freighter. Take a deep pull of beer from your recycled Starbuck's coffee cup and smell the aromatic smoke coming off that wok as you do your thing for the 50th time since you rolled out of bed early this morning. Add the tofu back to the wok. Hit it with a tablespoon or two of light soy sauce 生抽 and a teaspoon or two of sesame oil 香油 poured over the back of your wok tool 锅铲 and stirred in. A sprinkle of salt, but not too much because the tofu is pre-seasoned to some extent as it is cured. Stir in a small amount of 水淀粉, corn starch slurry. Mine had a half teaspoon of corn starch mixed with a tablespoon of water. And finally a pinch of MSG 味精 sprinkled in at the last minute. Toss it and sir it for all you are worth now. Smile as you see how nicely it has all come together. Serve it up 装盘, steamed rice on the side. This can easily be a main dish or it can accompany a separate meat and a vegetable if you are serving more people. I usually make it for only one or two. If you have leftovers, they will reheat well. Give it a try next time you crave something quick and delicious! It will put a smile on your face without breaking the bank.
  15. A dear friend went home for Hani New Year 哈尼族过年 recently and returned with a gift of some specialty meat from her village. It's a prime cut of pork belly 五花肉 that is first marinated or brined 腌制, then slow smoked over low coals, followed by a quick whiff of evergreen cypress 柏树。Finally, it's hung outside in the shade for a week or two and rubbed daily with various spices, sort of kneading them into the meat. Each part of the process must be adjusted for weather and other natural factors. So much flavor is packed in by this intricate process, that it's best when cooked simply. Goes by the name of 烟熏肉 or 烟熏腊肉, with 烟 and 熏 both meaning smoked. It was made from my friend's family "New Year's pig," the animal which had been carefully raised for most of the year with this special occasion in mind. Here's how I prepared for supper it today, at home in Kunming. After first washing under running water, it should be briefly blanched 焯。I put into boiling water, then turned off the flame after it returned to a boil, and left it 5 or 6 minutes. Lifted it out 捞出来 and set it aside to cool and dry 一旁待用。 Meanwhile I prepped the vegetables, a simple but flavorful combination of garlic greens 蒜苗, spring onions 大葱,and peppers 请教/红椒。These long green peppers have a little bit of heat, but nothing really challenging. I remove the white pith and some of the seeds. Sliced the meat thin after it was cool enough to handle. Got everything ready. When my rice cooker signaled that it was done, I fried the meat fast 翻炒 in very little oil. The meat itself releases some fat as it cooks. When it has turned a deep golden color, scoop it out and save it off to the side 备用。 Even though we often wipe out the wok after precooking 煸炒 the meat, this time that would be a felony crime. The oil that is left has way too much flavor to discard. We use it to stir-fry the vegetables, adding them in an appropriate cooking order. Ones that take longest to cook, such as the peppers, go in first, followed by the garlic greens and finally the spring onion. Last of all, add back the meat. I added a dash (about a quarter teaspoon) of MSG 少许味精, but you can omit it if you prefer. No salt needed most of the time. Stir in a small amount of corn starch slurry 水淀粉 as a binder and agitate the wok slowly another half minute or so. (I used 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch and a tablespoon of water.) Serve it up 装盘 beside bowls of steamed rice 米饭。Go right ahead and 动筷子,no need to stand on ceremony. It's a robust and hearty dish which goes well with 白酒。(And no, Dorothy, that does not translate as "white wine.")
  16. This popular Yunnan lunch item is easy to cook but difficult to translate. It has no catchy English name. For several years I was sure 红三剁 meant "three red things that were chopped." This was always puzzling because it uses red tomatoes and pink lean pork, but combines those with very green peppers for color contrast. What happened to that third red ingredient? Regardless of the linguistic issues, I can show you how to whip it up at home. This is a quick and easy dish to make, doesn't require any fancy ingredients or techniques. Furthermore, it's difficult to mess it up; a good beginner 初级 project. A couple of nice ripe tomatoes 番茄,two or three long green peppers 尖椒, the white part of one large spring onion 大葱, a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜 and a small piece of fresh ginger 老姜。 Lean pork works best for this dish and I usually buy a piece of tenderloin 里脊。Marinate it 腌制 for 20 or 30 minutes with a couple teaspoons of cooking wine 料酒 and a teaspoon of corn starch 淀粉。Sometimes I also add a half teaspoon of sesame oil. Drop the tomatoes into boiling water briefly, score the skin with the tip of a knife and slip it off. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the seeds and pulp in the center. Chop them fine. Mince the ginger and garlic. 剁碎 Slice the spring onion fine. Do the same with the long peppers, removing the white fibrous sections and some of the seeds. These long slender green peppers are not very hot; the lady from whom I bought them at the market described them as "mild and fruity." Still, if you don't like spicy things at all, you could substitute sweet bell peppers 甜辣椒 (also called 柿子椒)。 Gentle reminder: You already started the rice, didn't you? Don't even think about heating the wok until the rice is ready. My rice cooker just dinged, took about 30 minutes plus a 15 minute soak. I checked the rice visually to make sure the surface had those important small steam holes. (Those tell you it's done.) Fluffed it up with a couple of chopsticks. Unplugged the cooker (don't leave it on "keep warm" 保温 or you will wind up with overcooked rice.) Closed the rice cooker lid, and now we are ready to proceed with the stir fry. Double check to be sure everything is ready; once you start the process, it goes fast. Today I used 150 grams of finely chopped meat 碎末肉 with two tomatoes and two long green peppers. These ratios are not critical, and you can make this dish by eye if you just use roughly equal amounts of meat, tomatoes, and peppers. First quick-fry 翻炒 the lean ground pork 猪肉末 with the minced ginger 碎末姜。Take it out and set it aside when about three quarters done 七成熟。The meat does not need to be browned, but it does need to lose its pink color. Wipe out the wok and add a little more oil. (Most Chinese families use a stiff bamboo whisk for this.) Stir fry the green peppers and the minced garlic for half a minute or so over high heat, being careful to not burn the garlic. When you can smell the aroma, add the tomatoes and the spring onion. Cook a minutes or so, adding stock 高汤 or water as needed to keep it from becoming dry and taking on a scorched note 糊。 Add the cooked meat and stir well, adding more liquid as needed. The result needs to be slightly soupy, not dry. Add salt 食盐 to taste and MSG 味精 if you like it. I usually add about a fourth of a teaspoon unless my guests ask me not to. Stir fry for a minute or two on medium heat. (Don't walk away.) And voila, the finished product. Serve it in a bowl beside steamed rice. My friends and I usually spoon some out and combine it with fluffy white rice in our individual bowls. Sometimes I present it as a plated "covered rice" dish 盖饭 because that looks extra nice. Either way, it tastes top notch. Hope you will give it a try someday soon, especially if you are in the mood for something with no good English translation.
  17. This cornerstone condiment is somewhat unusual in that it's not only found in every Southwest China kitchen for daily use in cooking, but it is found on nearly every restaurant table as well, in an open-top jar or small ceramic pot. You won't find a salt shaker on cafe tables in Kunming, but even the simplest 小吃店 snack shop has some of this 红油 readily available so you can easily add it to your noodles 米线, fried rice 炒饭 or wonton 红油馄钝。 Let me show you how to make it at home. Sure you can buy it ready-made, and that's better than going without. But when you make it by hand in your own kitchen you will know what goes in it. No artificial coloring or flavoring, no MSG, no unpronounceable stabilizers and preservatives. First and foremost you need some dried chilies 干辣椒。I made a small batch yesterday afternoon and it required two large handfuls, on my small kitchen scale this was 50 grams. Rinse them quickly to remove any dust, and spread them out to dry thoroughly in the sun. Smash a thumb-sized piece of ginger 老姜, two large cloves of garlic 大蒜。Coarsely cut the white part of one large spring onion 大葱。Set these aside and turn your attention to the dry spices. Cinnamon bark 桂皮 at 12 o'clock, followed by a smashed cardamom pod 草果,a piece of dried orange peel 橙皮,two or three star anise 八角,two bay leaves 香叶,four or five cloves 丁香,a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns 花椒,most of a tablespoon of white sesame seeds 白芝麻,and finishing up at 11o'clock with a teaspoon of fennel seeds 小茴香。Toast these quickly over medium-low heat in a dry skillet, shaking it constantly so they don't burn. Take them out and then toast the dry red peppers the same way, again being careful not to let them get too hot. This slight caramelization of the peppers really boosts the flavor of the finished sauce. (But I must caution you that this step is where it's easy to go wrong; it's easy to scorch them if your attention wanders.) Now grind the peppers fine either using a mortar and pestle or a blender 搅拌机。You want a coarse powder, not chunks and flakes. Might mention that if you want to tone down the Scoville heat a little, you can remove some of the seeds now, before you do the grinding. On the other hand, if you want to soup it up and give it more kick, this is the place to add a small amount of some other smaller, more pungent dry chilies, chopped fine. Plenty of options exist. Your 50 grams of dry peppers should yield about half a cup when ground. Pour this into a heat-proof bowl (I use metal) and scoop out a hole in the middle like the crater of a volcano. Now pour a little more than one cup of rape seed oil 菜籽油 into the skillet 平底锅 with the toasted dry spices and the ginger, scallion and garlic. Use medium heat to gently fry these flavor ingredients for three to five minutes. Don't let the oil get hot enough to smoke. When you can smell the aroma of the spices and can see the white scallions and garlic beginning to get golden brown 金黄,take it off the flame and strain the oil. Discard the solids and return the oil to the heat. When the oil reaches the point of just barely beginning to smoke, turn off the flame. Pour about a third of it into the dry peppers and stir quickly with chopsticks as it boils, fizzes and bubbles. Let the oil stand for another few seconds, most of a minute, and then pour another third into the peppers and stir, just like before. After a few more seconds, half a minute or so, add the sesame seeds and pour in the remaining hot oil, stirring it some more. It is said that pouring the oil in stages like this lets the hottest oil develops the fragrance (增香) of the ground chilies, while the second develops the red color (颜色变红) and the third balances their heat (会辣)。 The old Chinese kitchen saying that deals with this is 一香二红三辣。 Let it cool overnight to let the flavors blend before using. It also gets more red as it stands. Some of it can be stored in a small ceramic pot on the table and the rest can be put away in a screw-top jar in the fridge, where it will last 3 or 4 months. Of course if you live in Sichuan or Yunnan, you will use it all up long before then. In the photos below, I've poured some in a plate so you can see it better. This red chili oil 红油 is good stuff! Versatile and tasty. It's fragrant, rounded and balanced; pungent, yet without any sharp bite. Much more to it than simple liquid fire. Makes a great dipping sauce for 饺子 jiaozi, combined with equal parts soy sauce 酱油 and black vinegar 黑醋。
  18. Grandmother's spicy tofu is an essential Sichuan dish, and graces the menu of every Sichuan restaurant I've ever seen, anywhere in the world. It is quintessential Sichuan food, bursting with flavor and chock full of bold spices. The Chinese name refers to its historical inventor, a grandma with a pockmarked 麻子 face. Yunnan, where I live, has fondly adopted this dish and has made it our own. Not surprising, since we appreciate spicy food here just about as much as they do in Sichuan. After enjoying it for years in restaurants, I've been making it at home these last several months. A major advantage of doing it yourself is that you can adjust the heat of the dish, adapting it somewhat to your likes and dislikes, while still retaining its essential character. But I don't want to mislead you: no matter how you tweak it, this is food for an adventurous palate. It's not white toast or mashed potatoes. Let me show you how I made it yesterday. Like many good things here, it begins with a trip to the market to pick up the best fresh ingredients. I almost always approach these projects by telling the vendor what I intend to make and asking for specific ingredient recommendations. My usual tofu seller reluctantly turned me away. He specializes in tofu from Shiping Town and he told me what I needed for this recipe could be had for half as much money just across the alley. (As always, click the photos to enlarge them.) What I needed was "soft" 嫩 tofu, and that's what I got. Neither the silky "flower" tofu 豆花 that falls apart immediately or the "firm" tofu 老豆腐 that is best for sautéing. Will show it to you closer in a minute. I also bought long, tender green garlic greens, plucked before they start to form the characteristic root bulb. These go by the name 蒜苗 or 青蒜 and Sichuan cooks love them. They impart a mild garlic flavor, with some crunch and a fresh note missing from dried cloves of garlic. They are "brighter" as well as more subtle. To the right of the garlic greens in the photo above you see fresh cilantro, complete with roots, stems, and leaves. I bought a handful of these. They have so much more flavor than dried coriander seeds. On to the spice lady now, master of pickled foods and slow-preserved sauces, some of which you see just above. I always get a thrill out of entering her kingdom, and linger as long as I possibly can. She shows me new arrivals and tells me of alternatives to my tried and true selections, tempting me to expand my horizons. My shopping list from her only called for two items, but both were crucial to the success of the venture and neither would admit of any compromise. First was 豆豉, salty fermented black soybeans. These are in the left foreground of the picture above left. The beans are discrete, not mashed into a paste; but note that they aren't black "turtle beans" such as are used in Mexican cooking; they are a special soybean variety. And the star of the seasoning lineup, and one of her specialties, was the rightly famous Pixian douban jiang 郫县豆瓣酱。It is shown in the photo above right, in the big bowl on the left-hand side. This magnificent seasoning has often been described as "the soul of Sichuan cuisine." It is made from fermented broad beans and chilies, plus an assortment of auxiliary spices. The best of it takes months or even years to ferment and has so much punch you can smell it across the room. Let me show you now how all this came together in my Kunming kitchen yesterday afternoon. Important side-note: Before anything else, as in most Chinese home cooking, start soaking the rice. It needs a 15 minute pre-soak, and then requires about 30 minutes to boil and steam in my electric rice cooker. I do ingredient prep while the rice gets a head start, but never actually fire up the wok until the rice is completely ready. One prep item was a little out of the ordinary, and that was the essential Sichuan peppercorns 花椒。For this dish they need to be toasted and ground. I used a non-stick skillet with no oil and a marble mortar and pestle. You toast them until they begin releasing their aroma. When you smell them at that moment, it's a reminder that they aren't really peppers at all, they are unusual members of the citrus family. They have a distinct citrus aroma. I used two teaspoons of them. The tofu needs to be cut into cubes and soaked for 20 minutes or so in lightly-salted warm water. This does two things: first it removes any "off" flavors and second, it firms it up a bit so that is easier to handle during cooking. Less likely to fall apart or crumble. Finely sliver or mince some fresh ginger 生姜,enough to make two or three teaspoons. Do the same with two cloves of dry garlic 大蒜 and roughly tear apart three or four dried red chilies 干红辣椒。This is an important juncture because it's where you can easily alter how fiery you want the dish to be. To crank up the heat, use fresh chilies instead of dry ones. Selecting more potent chilies will allow you to earn admission to the "forehead drenched in sweat club" when you eat the finished product. 出汗 Finely cut the garlic greens 蒜苗, fresh cilantro 香菜, and the white of a large spring onion 大葱。I hold back a few of the chopped garlic greens and coriander so I can sprinkle them on the top of the finished dish as a garnish. I do the same with some of the crushed 花椒 toasted and ground Sichuan peppers. The rice just now announced that it was ready. I checked it, gave it a quick stir with a pair of chopsticks, unplugged the cooker and cracked the lid. Gently drain the tofu and set it aside. Everything is now ready to go, including the ground pork. One could use beef instead. I bought about 400 grams of tofu and abut 50 grams of meat. (I buy them by eye and then weigh them afterwards at home.) A ratio of six or eight to one is about right. This is mainly a tofu dish, not a meat dish. Mushrooms can be substituted for the meat if you are vegetarian. I've laid out two heaping tablespoons of douban jiang 郫县豆瓣酱 (on the left) and one heaping tablespoon of fermented black beans 豆豉 (on the right.) Used my big knife 菜刀 to finely chop the black beans so they will cook a bit quicker. Add some oil to a hot wok, quickly stir-fry the minced ginger, and add the garlic and dry red peppers when it begins to change color. Taking care not to burn the garlic, next add the ground meat and fry it until it looses it's pink color. Add the chopped garlic greens, cilantro, and spring onion, stirring quickly 翻炒 over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽, two tablespoons of Shaoxing cooking wine 料酒, and about a cup of chicken stock or water. This is the point at which to add a teaspoon or so of sugar if you think it is getting too spicy. Sugar seems to slightly moderate the heat. Mix everything well and then gently add the tofu, turning the fire to low. Let the tofu cook 2 or 3 minutes with minimal stirring. When you do stir it, do so with the back of your wok tool 锅铲 or ladle 大汤勺, only pushing slowly away from yourself, moving it in one direction only. No vigorous swirling, flipping or back and forth movements that might cause the tofu to fall apart and sort of just disappear. When the tofu has taken on the colors of the sauce in which it is cooking, you can thicken the juices with a mixture of cornstarch 淀粉 and water 水淀粉, prepared ahead of time by mixing one teaspoon of corn starch with two or three teaspoons of water. Don't add too much. The pan juices should just barely coat the back of your spatula or ladle. Don't turn it into a paste. I usually don't put in any extra salt because the beans, bean paste and soy sauce all are salty. Sprinkle on the remainder of the freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns, scoop it all out into a bowl and garnish with some of the reserved greens. This is a dish that is best served right away, while it is hot, straight from the stove. Diners, myself included, often heap some of it directly on top of a bowl of steamed rice and eat it that way. Might mention that some recipes call for adding additional vegetables to turn it into a one-dish meal. Though that's an approach I sometimes take with other Chinese food, I prefer not to risk messing up this classic. After all, it's one of China's "top ten" signature dishes, famous throughout the Middle Kingdom as well as all corners of the "outside world." Give it a try if you are in the mood for something spicy and memorable. It will make your day and it will do it the Sichuan way!
  19. Youzi 柚子,sometimes translated as pomelo or shaddock, is one of the foods typically associated with Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节, which arrives tomorrow. The formal name for this luxurious fruit is "citrus maximus" and that's a good fit because it's much larger than a grapefruit, nearly the size of a bowling ball or cantaloupe. In fact, it's the biggest member of the citrus family. When I went to the market yesterday, they were everywhere I looked, fresh and cheap. Now is the start of their season (they aren't available in summer.) I bought one and wanted to show you how it worked out. The youzi lady helped me pick out a good one: heavy for its size and firm all over with no soft spots. Hers were from Fujian 福建, though we also get them brought up from Hainan 海南。This fruit is actually popular all over SE Asia, but is not found much in the West. She asked if I wanted it peeled or not, and I asked her to do the honors and save me some work. She scored it with a large knife, cutting through the tough rind barely into the white pith. Then she separated the center with a large flat plastic spoon and lifted it out. Often a "cooked rice scoop" is used for this, the kind that came free in the same box as your rice steamer. If I had been a bit more ambitious, I would have asked her to give me the rind. It can be turned into fantastic marmalade, or dried and candied as a sweet snack. I usually have a large jar of the marmalade in the fridge year round. The best of it comes from Korea and is made with honey instead of white sugar. It goes by the name of "youzi cha" 柚子茶 here, and stirring a spoon or two of it into hot water makes a refreshing warm drink. Here's the center of the youzi as it looked when I got it home. I tore it in half and removed the bitter white pith from several sections. The chopsticks are just for size, they aren't necessarily needed when eating it. Fingers or a fork are just fine. I had also purchased a bag of fresh Mandarin oranges, since they are at their best now also. Even though I usually just eat yozi plain, today I decided to make a pretty salad because my ladyfriend was coming over to bring me a gift of some Mooncake 月饼。Peeled a couple oranges and pulled them apart into sections. Dug out some youzi in a similar manner, freeing it up from the tough segmental membranes. Tossed it together with some fresh mint 薄荷 and a sprinkle of gouqi berries 枸杞 (aka "wolfberry.") Set it out with some toothpicks 牙签 to use as utensils. Youzi has a mild taste, with less tang and bite than grapefruit. It's a mellow companion for orange slices with enough taste contrast between the two to make the combination interesting. I've also seen it served with cucumber slices and a vinaigrette dressing. That was fine enough for us just as shown above, and we enjoyed nibbling it together at the living room table. Hard to go wrong with something that is this pretty as well as tasty. But I'll go ahead and show you how to "gild the lily" if you want to take it a step or two further sometime just for fun. Mix two tablespoons of citrus jam, here I'm using one made from lemon, with one tablespoon of Cointreau. This makes an unparalleled tangy-sweet dipping sauce. Shake some ground red pepper and salt into another shallow dish beside it. First dip a piece of fruit into the sauce, then barely touch it to the salt and hot pepper. The contrasting flavors make your mouth oddly happy, although admittedly this treatment is not going to please everyone. Regardless of how you use it, youzi is a very worthwhile addition to your citrus fruit repertory. And now is the perfect time to enjoy it. Not only is it part of this holiday season, it's something that can stand on its own admirably all through the cooler part of the year.
  20. Since I am fortunate enough to be able to easily put my hands on some of China's best tofu and some of China's best ham, it would be a pity not to combine them into a simple main dish from time to time. The premium Yunnan tofu I'm bragging about is from Shiping Town 石屏县城 in Honghe Prefecture 红河州 to the south of Kunming, and this fine Yunnan ham is from Xuanwei 宣威 in Qujing Prefecture 曲靖 to the northeast. I buy them both fresh by weight at my local wet market. Bear in mind that wherever you are, it's easy enough to substitute a local tofu and a local ham for these particular specialty items. The results can still be tasty and the cooking technique is the same. Here's how I did it today. Assemble the ingredients. Only used about half of this small block of dark-cured ham. Three or four dried chili peppers 干辣椒 for a little heat. This isn't a fussy recipe with critical weights or measures; a little more or less of any single item won't much matter. You can adjust it to taste. I've made it many times and never had it fail. Smash the big spring onion 大葱 with the edge of your knife 菜刀 to partially flatten it out and release more of the aroma and flavor. Then slice it thin on a bias, with the knife blade almost parallel with the cutting board. Slice a little bit of ham into very thin slivers. Use a just-sharpened knife and try to make them nearly transparent. Roughly dice one fresh tomato. The one I used here is from a batch that I knew to have slightly tough skin, so I quickly dunked it in boiling water and slipped the skin off before cutting it up. Put one large tablespoon of oyster sauce 耗油 together with one large tablespoon of catsup 番茄酱 in a small bowl and mix in two or three tablespoons of water, making a slurry. Cut the tofu sheets into rectangles of a size that will later be easy to grasp with chopsticks at the table. Brown them slightly over low to medium heat in a non-stick pan with a little bit of oil. When they are golden on both sides, take them out and reserve them nearby. Now add the ham, roughly-torn chili pods, and spring onions into the pan and lightly saute them. Add the tomatoes and the sauce, stir it up, and then add back the tofu. Heat through to combine flavors and serve. Since the ham, the oyster sauce and the catsup all have some salt, you won't need to add any extra. This tasty dish only takes 10 or 15 minutes from start to finish and doesn't require much in the way of special equipment or cleanup. Give it a try one day when you aren't sure what to cook for supper. Your expedition into the flavors of Yunnan will be amply rewarded.
  21. I bought too many potatoes last week and now I'm struggling to use them up in creative ways. For the last couple days I've been fiddling around with mashed potato pancakes as one option. These aren't particularly Chinese, but they do exist here as 土豆泥煎饼。I guess you could call it a "Made in China" recipe. Let me show you how they came out tonight. When I got these potatoes home from the wet market, my 阿姨 was in the middle of her weekly cleaning 打扫卫生。She loves to critique my purchases, and pointed out that some of the potatoes had flaws. Also asked that most Chinese of all questions, "多少钱?" (How much did it cost?") I told her 2 Yuan per kilogram and small change. She was aghast. "I never pay more than 1.9 at this time of year. 他们骗你了。“ (Translation: "You were robbed.") Un-deterred, I've been using them up. And they have proven to be a versatile meal component. Scrub, peel them and cut as shown. Boil for 20 to 30 minutes. Mash them coarsely while warm with the back of a spoon. You want to wind up with about a cup and a half, or one heaping "rice-bowl" 饭碗 unit of measure, for those in the know. (By the way, you can left click the photos to make them enlarge.) I had some leftover beef steak from yesterday which I sliced very thin and then cut fine. Wanted about a third as much by volume as the potatoes. Minced a section of mild and sweet Bermuda onion 洋葱。 Wanted a quarter to a third the volume of the mashed potatoes. These ratios are not ironclad, but you are better off not using too many "extras" or else the cakes will fall apart. Minced a large clove of garlic 大蒜 and collected the seeds of three large dried chili peppers 干辣椒。 On other days I've made this with spring onion 葱 instead of the Bermuda onion, and that works well too. Similarly, I don't always have left over steak in the fridge, and have used crumbled bacon 腊肉 or slivers of Yunnan cured ham 云南火腿丝 instead. I've also sometimes sauteed the onions and garlic before mixing them in. Mix these finely-cut items into the mashed potatoes. Add a large tablespoon of all purpose flour and one beaten egg. Dash of salt. This makes a stiff batter, not a thin runny one. My pan is a non-stick ceramic coated wonder with a flat bottom. Heavy and a pleasure to use. Recent addition to my kitchen arsenal. Heat it to medium and add some olive oil. (This isn't like a stir-fry where high heat breaks down olive oil and makes it just burn and smoke.) Drop three or four large spoonfuls of batter into the skillet and flatten them out. Don't make them too thin, or they will dry out. Mine are between 2 and 3 centimeters thick. Use a lid on the pan for most of side one. After 2 or 3 minutes, flip them and add butter to the pan. Turn the fire to low. Shake the potato cakes around so they soak it up. Top each cake with a thin slice of cheddar cheese. Give it another minute or two, then peek at the underside, and if browned, take them out. Being blessed with a surfeit of ripe late-season tomatoes, I made some as an accompaniment to the steak and potato pancakes. Sliced them thick and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Cooked them quickly in the already-hot pan. Wound up with a pretty nice meal. I'm a little embarrassed to present it to you because, even though it was tasty, it totally lacks elegance. It is, however, true to the essence of "family style" cooking 家常菜: Great for you and me although not terribly suitable for guests. The potatoes were crispy on the outside, but tender and moist inside. The melted cheese gave them an added (decadent) dimension. If you have surplus potatoes and a little spare time, you might want to give it a try. It's honest and unpretentious food that sticks to your ribs. Puts a smile on your face and goes well with red wine.
  22. This is another of those brilliant local vegetables that I'd never even heard of before moving to China. A search today turned up that it has become sort of a "darling" of a couple of adventurous five-star chefs in New York and a couple more in California. One or two cutting-edge French chefs have been reported to love it and be trying to promote it. But it's still a long way from being a staple at Mr. Wang's China Palace Buffet in that strip mall on the loop near where I spend part of each year in small town North Texas. Be that as it may, it is truly fine stuff, and I will do my best to tell you something about it today. Here's what it looks like, raw in the market. I can find it here nearly year round, and even though it gets a little more expensive in the winter, it never comes close to breaking the bank. It is in fact a variety of lettuce, and here in the south of China it goes by several names, the most common one being wo sun 莴笋。It's very popular in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou, with Hunan and Guangxi being fond of it too. Sometimes it's called 莴苣 wo ju. As you know, Chinese vegetables usually have numerous monikers, so it has several other labels as well. In English it gets dubbed "Celtus" by the scientists, and "asparagus lettuce" by some of the chefs. My own favorite is "stem lettuce" because it describes how it is mainly raised for its stem, instead of for its leaves. Occasionally, however, it is picked young in order to get the leaves when they are prime. Then it is referred to as 油麦菜, and that's what is shown here, just below. One can eat the leaves of the more mature forms, but they tend to be somewhat tough and bitter. I usually throw them away. Wo sun is exceedingly versatile, and can even be eaten raw as a salad. Today I have used it in a stir fry, paired with a very distinguished partner, namely Shiping Tofu 石屏豆腐。It comes from a town of that name in Honghe Prefecture 红河州 where all the conditions are just right for the production of world-class tofu. It's sold throughout Yunnan, and I've mentioned it in these pages before. Wo sun, like so many other unique vegetables, is a challenge to describe. It has a mild flavor, slightly nutty, with a pleasantly crunchy texture. Some writers have called its taste a cross between lettuce, celery, and asparagus. It combines well with things that are a little more forward, such as today's tofu. One can buy Shiping Tofu in several editions ranging from silky and bland, all the way through aromatic to stinky. The one I bought for this dish is called 老豆腐, and you can smell it halfway across the room even though it is not overpowering or aggressive. It doesn't make you flinch or cry. I peeled the fibrous outer skin, then cut off and discarded the leaves. Sliced the two stems into thin rounds. Sometimes I cut them into coarse matchsticks, depending on the intended use. Thinly sliced half of a red bell pepper 红甜椒, minced a little garlic and ginger. By the way, I'm sure you recognize my trusty Hong Kong knife, sharp and well balanced, eagerly doing its duty. It continues to be the star of my Kunming kitchen and has been easy to maintain as well as a joy to use. I'm also pleased to report that it has not caused any severed digits and has only produced minimal arterial bleeding on a couple of unfortunate careless occasions. Rinse the tofu and blot dry. Slice it into bite-sized pieces. The rice cooker beeps, indicating that it is finished, wok is nice and hot on the gas burner, and we are ready now to rock and roll. You will notice some dry red chili peppers 干红辣椒 in with the garlic and ginger. Add a couple tablespoons of oil, and slide in the tofu. Cooking it first like this keeps it from getting all torn up like it would if we introduced it at the same time as the vegetables. When it's brown on both sides, take it out 备用。 Wipe out the wok and add a little more oil. Stir-fry the aromatics (garlic, ginger, red chili pepper) until you can smell them 炮香。Then add the wo sun in the middle. When the wo sun is heated through, flip it all around vigorously 翻炒 and mix everything well with your spatula 锅铲。 Now make a hole in the center and add back the reserved golden brown tofu. When it comes up to temperature, mix it all up with a gentle flipping motion 翻炒。It's always good to follow the "dao of the wok" by adding new ingredients to the middle, which is the hottest part. Then gradually incorporate them into the other items that are already frying. Sprinkle in about half a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of 味精 (wei jing MSG.) Next step, you guessed it, serve it up 装盘。Enjoy it with a fresh bowl of steamed rice. This is enough for a simple vegetarian meal, or you could have it alongside a small roast chicken.
  23. Lotus root 莲藕 and corn 玉米 are a winning team, often paired in hearty winter soups. The flavors go so well together that last night I combined them in a 凉拌 or big hearty salad, just right for a hot weather meal. Here's how I made it in case you'd like to try it at home. Lotus root is one of those things that isn't quite accurately named. Instead of truly being a root, it's actually part of the segmented stalk of an unusual underwater rhizome. Grown mostly in the south part of China, as well as in Vietnam, India, Korea and Japan, it's a plant which loves sunshine. The paddies where it flourishes are initially filled with large, vivid flowers, parts of which are also edible. The flowers have acquired a good deal of significance in several religious and philosophical traditions. Here's how lotus roots are grown and what they look like when freshly harvested. Being a lotus farmer is challenging work. The ones I buy in my neighborhood wet market are grown near Yiliang 宜良,to the east of Kunming, not far from Stone Forest 石林。The young man and his wife who operate the stand sell them alongside bamboo shoots, from hills in that same area. They are a friendly and helpful couple, enthusiastic about their wares, and the wife always quizzes me carefully as to the intended use of my purchase. First time this happened I wasn't sure what to think and kind of drew a blank. So she prompted me by asking, "For salad, for soup, or for a stir fry?" Then the light bulb went on and I could answer. She selects the appropriate specimens with your culinary goal in mind; pretty darned helpful when you come to think of it. When I got them home, I scrubbed them clean under cool running water. Then sliced off the hard surface with a sharp vegetable peeler. She has picked me nice pieces, the ends of which are still closed. Pieces that are broken or already cut in half sometimes have traces of sand and mud inside that is very difficult to remove and makes them slightly gritty. Mine were pristine. Note that these two segments are not terribly big around, they are young sections and thus have a milder flavor than some of the bigger, more mature ones. The latter are great for soups and stews, but these are perfect for salads. They are crunchy and mildly sweet, while being slightly starchy. This is an item that plays well with others; doesn't insist on always dominating or being the center of attention. Slice it thin and put the slices directly into acidified water. I used a splash of white vinegar, but lemon juice is also fine. If you don't do this and just leave it exposed to air after cutting, it turns brown and ugly; never gets white again regardless of how hard you might scrub it. Let these slices soak while you get the other ingredients ready. I cut a cob of fresh corn into thin rounds. This makes them easier to pick up later with chopsticks at the table. Boil them for about two minutes in lightly salted water. I planed down a carrot 胡萝卜 with a vegetable peeler, though you could just as well do it with a knife. Sliced a large scallion 大葱, and a single hot pepper 辣椒, removing most of the seeds. If you like more fire, leave them in. Washed and chopped some cilantro 香草。 At this point I like to make the dressing. I used one with dark vinegar 老陈醋 for the mixed vegetables and another one for the lotus root slices with white vinegar 白醋 so as not to discolor them. In each case it was just a tablespoon of vinegar, a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of sesame oil 香油。Salt and a pinch of sugar; add MSG 味精 if you like. (Most Chinese do.) Drop the lotus into boiling water (I used the same salted water in which I boiled the corn) and let it blanch for about a minute. If you cook it too long it becomes mushy and uninteresting. Plunge it immediately into ice water to cool it fast; this keeps it nice and crisp. Sauce the lotus and the other vegetables separately in two containers and put them into the fridge for about 30 minutes. Keeping them apart like this isn't essential, but it makes the finished product have more eye appeal. Very white lotus and colorful vegetables contrast nicely with each other when plated side by side. When you are ready to eat, build your big dinner salad and put it on the table. It's a tasty and healthy one-dish summer meal, easily supplemented as desired. I ate mine with French bread and Emmental cheese plus a glass of chilled Spanish white wine.
  24. abcdefg

    Spicy Chinese Edamame 毛豆

    These lovely beans are found all over China, but this particular variety is mostly found in Yunnan and neighboring Guizhou. Their local nickname is 猫眼豆, and they are actually the immature version of a type of soybeans 大豆。When boiled with seasonings they become a terrific summer appetizer or snack. Hadn't really planned to make them, but when I went to the wet market for other things yesterday, these were unavoidable, plentiful, and cheap. This is another of those vegetables that's very seasonal, with short availability: the young pods are ready to be picked 5 or 6 weeks after the plants flower. After that, it's too late. These were so fresh that some vendors even offered them with leaves and roots still attached. A far cry from what's available in the frozen food aisle of the supermarkets in my home town back in Texas. Let me show you one good way to cook them up at home. Not much trouble and tons of flavor. This was a little over two big handfuls of beans; the cost was 4 Yuan. Wash them well and even scrub the bean pods a bit with your fingers, a vegetable brush or a clean dishcloth. Let them soak a while in salted water while you get your spices ready. 洗干净,浸泡盐水。 Fennel seeds are at 6 o'clock on this spice palette, with dry red chilies at 7. Star anise at 10 o'clock and cassia bark at noon. Bay leaves at 2 and Sichuan peppercorns at 5. You can use a little more or less of any of them as desired. Put the spices into a pot of water and let them boil to release the flavors while you cut off both ends of the beans with a pair of scissors. This will let the seasonings enter the pod as they cook. Add a couple teaspoons of salt, a tablespoon of light soy sauce, and several drops of salad oil into the pot. (I used olive oil.) Put the beans in and turn the flame down to medium-low. Let them cook, uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes. Towards the end of that time, you will notice that some of the pods begin opening. Turn them off and let them cool down in the pot for another 10 to 15 minutes. Cooking time can be shorter if you like yours crunchy. Dredge them out and put them in a serving bowl. In restaurants they let them cool to room temperature or they even chill them. I never manage to wait that long, and actually prefer them warm. When you eat these 毛豆, don't eat the husk, just work the beans out with your fingers and teeth. It's not difficult. They go great with beer, especially if shared with friends at a wooden table outdoors in the evening.
  25. abcdefg

    My new Hong Kong knife 菜刀

    Inspired by some other recent threads, I made time during my most recent visa stamp run (must exit China every 60 days) to buy a new cooking knife at the famous Hong Kong Chan Chi Kee knife store 陳枝記刀莊。 Was staying in Wanchai 湾仔 after returning from a visit to Macau to see the Dragon Boat Races 赛龙舟。Took the Star Ferry across to Tsim Sha Tsui 尖沙嘴 in Kowloon 九龙。The ferry is efficient and inexpensive. Taxi from the ferry terminal 码头 to the knife store, on Shanghai Street, took about 10 minutes and cost 45 HKD. Address: 香港九龍上海街 316-318. Bought their Number 2 knife, a thin-edged slicer with wooden handle, for 320 HKD. It's suitable for cutting up vegetables and meat, but not for chopping through bones. Got back to my hotel room and unwrapped it for photo purposes, only to find that I had somehow dinged the leading corner of the blade. It's not clear from the photo, but the damage was on the sharp edge, not the spine. Have no idea how it happened. I wasn't juggling lots of parcels or slinging it around carelessly. Had not dropped it or bumped it perceptibly. After lunch, I turned around and went right back. Rode the ferry across again; this time being easier because I knew the way. The man at the store swapped it for a new one, no questions asked. They were busy with other customers, and there was no chance to discuss it further or try to guess what had happened. He had earlier given me a short curb-side tutorial on how to sharpen it. Only 5 to 10 degrees of angle on a medium to fine whet-stone; making lots circles instead of changing sides too much. Sharpening the second side, he said, would only require a few strokes. The process didn't need to be symmetrical. I hope this blade does not prove too fragile. I definitely won't abuse it back in my Kunming kitchen, but I'm also unwilling to baby it. I like the fact that it is very, very sharp; should not take much effort to slice cleanly through tender things without tearing them up. The store was on a street with many other kitchen supply stores. I bought an instant-read thermometer which I will install ceremonially in a sleeve pocket on my white chef's smock along with a long tasting spoon (Only kidding; My kitchen has zero Michelin stars.) I've wrapped the knife very well, padding the entire edge with some styrofoam-type plastic that I found beside a trash bin on the street outside. It will travel back to Kunming in my checked suitcase, not in my carry-on, thank you very much. Will let you know how it works out. Related threads: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53912-chinese-cleaver-cai-dao-桑刀-or-菜刀-–-carbon-or-stainless-steel/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53947-hong-kong-residents-help-to-clarify-if-the-store-chan-chi-kee-陳枝記-still-exist/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/54134-show-your-cai-dao-wok-and-other-kitchen-equipment/
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