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  1. We both know that sweet and sour anything starts out in the “win” column by default, but sweet and sour lotus root is even better than it has to be thanks to the vegetable it is built on being so all-around appealing. Even served mostly plain, lotus root is thoroughly delicious. Crunchy texture, similar to celery or apple, flavor subtly sweet. Lotus root exemplifies the notion of food which is "light, clean and refreshing." I probably should stop right there and beg your indulgence to play “Mr. Science” for a minute so we can get one burning issue clarified and out of the way: Lotus root is not really a root; it’s a rhizome. A rhizome is actually part of the plant's stem, not part of the root system. This lotus plant grows best in shallow lakes and muddy bogs and most of the stem runs parallel to and beneath the surface of the ground. This submerged stem is pinched into fat segments, resembling links of sausage. These segments store nourishment to feed the growing plant. They are chocked full of nutritional goodies and they are what is harvested as a foodstuff. Rootlets emerge from the nodes and go down, deep into the mud, while vertical stalks also originate at these nodes to go upwards, giving rise to spectacular holy flowers. Photos Baidu Digging them up is demanding stoop labor, not for the weak or dainty. You wade into the muck up to your knees and pull hard after loosening them with a stick or spade-like tool. Put the harvested lotus pieces on a flat-bottom boat or mud sled. Photos Baidu When you buy them in the market, the seller weighs out as many of these segments as you need. Sometimes two or three small ones are sold joined together. More often the individual “links” are 8 or 10 inches long and can be bought separately. The lotus lady where I usually get mine always asks how I plan to use it, so she can select pieces with the appropriate level of tenderness for me to buy. Today she asked, “你会炒还是炖?” (Will you fry it or stew it?) For stews, a big old tough piece is best. I explained my culinary plan, at which she nodded sagely and suggested one that “had my name on it.” I agreed, she scraped away most of the dried mud and weighed it. My trophy cost 11 Yuan, weighing in at a little over 900 grams. I try to select a lotus piece that is heavy for its size; but this is supremely inexact since I just heft two or three and make a face intended to convey I know what I’m doing, mostly for show. What does count, however, is to buy a piece of lotus that has closed ends. If the segments have been separated improperly, sand and grit get into the interior of the lotus are extremely difficult to fully wash away. The photo below right is taken end-on to show what I mean. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Next stop was for a red bell pepper. Spoiled for choice, I easily found a beauty. Peppers are abundant and perfect now. A large, shiny unblemished one cost 4 Yuan. Green peppers were half of that. These peppers start out green, and to get red ones, the farmer must leave some on the bush longer to allow them to ripen in place before picking. Extra time, extra risk. Makes them cost a little more. At home I decided to cook it up for a lazy Sunday lunch. The plan was to have it alongside a grilled chicken leg with a glass of iced Dian Hong 滇红茶 Yunnan red tea. Listening to Mozart fitted in somehow and I had Don Giovanni coming through bluetooth earphones. It was the Vienna Philharmonic recording with Sherrill Milnes and Anna Tomowa-Sintow. Note: Strategic thinking is important here. If you prep things in the wrong order it’s more work. But no worries: you have just received a battlefield promotion from grunt private to full bird colonel, so “big-picture” strategy has become your bread and butter. What I advocate is to divide the task into several distinct and separate parts and address the lotus itself last. If you clean and slice the lotus at the outset, it will discolor to an ugly brown unless you submerge the slices in cold water. Then you are committed to drying them well before frying. Better to eliminate that step entirely by dealing with the lotus last. With that rationale in mind, I got busy on the sweet and sour sauce first. Six tablespoons 汤勺 of vinegar go in a bowl. Three of those are white vinegar 白醋 and three are dark aged vinegar 老陈醋。 White vinegar is more sour and acidic; dark aged vinegar is more mellow and rich. A half-and-half blend works out just right. One tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 completes the liquid part of the sauce. Add 4 tablespoons of granulated sugar 白砂糖, a teaspoon 茶勺 of cooking salt 食用盐,and a half a teaspoon of MSG 味精. Mix this well several times. The solids are granular and tend to settle to the bottom. Equal amounts of vinegar and sugar is the most common recipe equation. If you like your sweet and sour sweeter, go a little heavier on the sugar. The opposite holds true as well, and I’ve elected to use slightly more of the sour note in my mix today. Then I make the thickening sauce by combining two or three teaspoons of corn starch 玉米淀粉 and about a half cup of cool tap water. This doesn’t need to be exact. Slice the red bell pepper 红甜椒 into thin rounds, discarding the white pith and seeds. Crush and coarsely chop a head of garlic 蒜头。(I use single-clove garlic 独蒜 because it’s milder.) Survey your handiwork, checking mentally to be sure you haven’t skipped anything essential. Everything else is ready now, so turn your attention to the lotus. I go so far as to even put the pan on the burner (don’t turn it on,) add a tablespoon of oil, and get my spatula handy before starting "lotus work." I generally use a flat bottom non-stick pan 平地不粘煎锅 for this dish, even though a wok will also do just fine. Scrub the lotus with a brush under running water. The piece I bought today has both ends closed. As mentioned, that’s important because the last thing you want to turn out is an order of gritty lotus root. Serve it to the wrong table, and there goes your hard-earned Michelin star. Poof! Just like that. Peel it with a vegetable peeler or scrape vigorously with a very sharp knife. Work quickly; the clock is ticking now. If you dally, the whole thing will change from pearly white to muckle dun. Slice it into rounds about ¼ of an inch thick. If they are slightly uneven it doesn’t matter, but it’s best to avoid cutting large chunks, wedges or slabs because they will require more cooking time. Uniform pieces are one of the keys to success with this dish. Turn on the gas, medium flame, and quickly sauté the garlic. When you start to smell its aroma 爆香 (15 or 20 seconds) add the lotus and stir it briskly 翻炒 so as to coat both sides with oil. When it just barely begins to color 七成熟 add the sweet and sour sauce, stirring it to coat the lotus well. Cook it for a minute or so, still over medium heat, tossing the lotus so that all of it gets well sauced. Add the corn starch suspension; stir and toss a minute more. Add the red pepper rings. The lotus slices and the peppers should maintain their crisp texture; keep the flame at medium and shake the pan with one hand while you stir with the other. When the juice thickens 粘稠 and most of it has been absorbed, you are done. Transfer it to a serving plate with the remaining sauce poured on top. This is a dish which wins most prizes if eaten right away because the lotus and the peppers are still 脆嫩 crunchy but tender then. It’s not the end of the world if it comes down to room temperature, but don’t make it an hour or two ahead on purpose since it's less interesting if it becomes soggy. Sweet and sour lotus root is a warm-weather staple throughout most of China, and it is especially beloved in Yunnan. Hope you will try it and see what you think. Here's the recipe all in one place for your convenience: (Click the "Reveal hidden contents" tab.)
  2. It’s tomato soup in the summer, all over China. Here that usually means tomato and egg soup or tomato and tofu soup. This time of year, I make one or the other nearly every week. Both are easy, quick and delicious. Neither will break the bank. Good tomatoes are key: It’s worth paying a little more for ones which are vine ripened and fresh. I look for ones sold by small-scale outdoor 露天 growers instead of ones produced in huge quantities inside large plastic Quonset hut tents 塑料大棚。(Please click the photos to enlarge them.) I buy from a seller who is proud of his wares, who will gladly give anyone a taste. My minor wrinkle is to eschew his huge red perfect beauties and take smaller tomatoes that are blemished instead. Don’t look as nice but taste every bit as fine. 7 Yuan per kilo instead of 10. If the big tomatoes don’t measure up, I select miniatures instead, even though they are a little more work. Cut a shallow “x” on the bottom of each tomato; plunge them in boiling water for less than a minute. Cool them quickly under cold running water or plunge them into an ice bath. Slip off the skin, remove the stem and core. Cut them into cubes; sprinkle them very lightly with salt. (Salt early and often but do it with a light hand; don’t just wait until the end.) Finely chop the white part of a medium scallion; mince two or three coin-sized rounds of ginger. Then turn your attention to the dark horse that is the surprise star of this dish: Fuling Zhacai 涪陵榨菜 pickled mustard tuber. It is well worth a short detour. Beyond any doubt, zhacai is China’s number one pickle. It’s as much a part of everyday life here as sauerkraut is in Germany. The best of it comes from Fuling District in Chongqing Municipality. If the name Fuling strikes a note, it could be you heard it before as the place where Peter Hessler’s book was set: “River Town; Two Years on the Yangtze.” At harvest, this knobby and fibrous section low on the stem of certain varieties of mustard plant is first strung like a string of pearls and hung to air dry for several months. Then it is pickled in brine, chilies and spices for several more months. After that it is slowly pressed to extrude most of its moisture (the name 榨 comes from the pressing.) The best-known example of this condiment is made in Fuling, and that can be bought just about everywhere in cans, jars, or even small foil single-dose pouches. You may have had it served as part of an airplane meal to add a bit of spice to otherwise bland staples. Here in Kunming, I buy some which is locally made from my spice seller. Today I bought 200 grams 二两for 5 Yuan. They are a husband and wife team who hand make all the regional classics from scratch. For example, they also do a great job of Pixian Douban Jiang 郫县豆瓣酱 (originally the pride of Sichuan.) I quickly rinse a bit of this zhacai in a bowl of cool tap water to remove excess chili heat, though that is optional, not required. (I use it as is in other applications.) Chop it up to make it easier to eat. It retains a distinct crunch. No need to remind you how texture is valued here every bit as much as flavor. Ready to light the fire. Last minute check. What I usually do is run through the ingredients in the order I will need to add them to the skillet: Ginger, tomatoes, zhacai, scallions, water, eggs. I’m using a non-stick pan, so I oil it before it gets hot. One tablespoon of corn oil, swipe it around with a piece of kitchen towel. When my pan gets to medium, in goes the ginger. Never use more than medium heat with a non-stick pan; they just are not made for it. Don’t wait for the ginger to become brown; as soon as you smell its aroma, put in the tomatoes. Continue to work fast; these only need a minute or so to begin breaking down and releasing their juice. Add new things to the center of the pan, just like you did with your wok. Next up is the zhacai. Let it heat, then spread it around. Mix everything well. Follow that with most of the spring onions. Hold back a few for garnish. Stir well and let the flavors blend. Add 500 ml to 750 ml of warm or hot water. I have kept the pot of hot water that I used for boiling the tomatoes to remove their skin. It’s off to one side. Sometimes I make this as a thin soup when the rest of the meal is filling and heavy. Other times I make it thicker so it can be a more central part of the meal. Add about ¼ teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精。This contains some MSG, so skip it if you prefer. Taste the broth to see if any more salt is needed. (Remember the zhacai is salty.) Now you are ready to add the eggs. Stir them a few times with your chopsticks and add a pinch of salt. Turn off the flame and pour them in gently without any stirring. If the soup is boiling hard or you stir vigorously, the raw eggs will break up and kind of disappear, just make the soup cloudy, failing to add an interesting texture contrast. Now give it one or two slow stirs with a spoon. Once the eggs are evenly distributed, turn on the flame and bring the pan just to a boil. Immediately turn it off again, garnish with scallions and serve. This is one of those soups that I had mentally written off as "ho hum" until I personally tried making it a year or two ago. Didn’t expect it to be so interesting and complex. Today it has become one of the reasons I look forward to the arrival of premium tomatoes every summer. Can’t wait to get some home just for this very purpose. Hope you will try it and see what you think. Here’s a condensed version of the recipe to help you along, in Chinese and in English. Tomato and egg soup – 番茄鸡蛋汤。(Click the "Reveal hidden contents" link below.)
  3. The anatomy of garlic: a key Chinese cooking ingredient. This post fits together with and expands on a thread I started yesterday, about how to use garlic bolts, or stems with Yunnan ham. (https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58187-gift-ham-and-garlic-bolts-蒜苔炒火腿/?tab=comments#comment-451727) I use plenty of garlic here in my Yunnan kitchen. Love it in all of its various forms. Some of the lingo might be new if you've just moved to China of if you've just begun cooking authentic Chinese food. Please allow me to tease it apart for you. What you normally buy in the grocery store or the market is heads of garlic 蒜头。Generically it's referred to as 大蒜。These heads are composed of individual garlic cloves 蒜瓣。It looks like this: In Yunnan, we have another kind of garlic, namely that in which the whole garlic bulb is comprised of one large un-partitioned clove. It's easier to work with if your recipe calls for a large amount of garlic (quicker to peel.) The flavor is a bit milder, reminiscent of a shallot. Dusuan 独蒜 is what it's called. You might have already guessed that because you know that 独立 means independent or separate. And you slice 切 or chop 剁碎 or mince 蒜蓉 these garlic cloves most of the time when cooking. Sometimes you turn them into a paste 蒜泥。You have probably met spinach stir-fried with garlic paste, since it's a very common menu item: 菠菜炒蒜泥 When the next season rolls around, the farmer or gardener plants some of the individual cloves to grow more. It takes several months (six or eight according to what I read) for the new crop to mature. In the early stages of growth, the tops are green and luxuriant. The garlic bulb itself is under the ground, the green tops consist of two parts. Lots of leaves and a single flower stalk (aka "scape" or "bolt" or "stem.") Both of these parts of the garlic plant are prized here in China. They are largely ignored by commercial growers in the US. I'm not sure about England and Europe. The leaves, below left, are sold as suanmiao 蒜苗。The flower stalks, used in the recipe that started this ramble, are suantai 蒜苔。The farmer trims the flower stalks away to allow more of the plant's growth energy to be directed into the garlic bulb, making them larger. Sometimes the stalks are straight and sometimes they curl, as shown below right. He leaves the long leaves alone and they eventually start to become brown, signaling that the garlic bulbs are ready for harvest. When the garlic is eventually harvested, the bulb is gently dug up and the long leaves are left attached. It is hung with the bulb down for weeks or months to get firm and dry. Then the garlic bulbs are trimmed and sold. Some are held back to divide into cloves and plant for next year's crop. Variations in this process exist for different varieties of garlic and for different growing conditions. It's not exactly the same all over the world and not even all over China. Additional "garlic words" for your flashcard vocabulary file: 大蒜 = garlic heads, general name for garlic. Don't confuse it with 打算。Different tones, different meaning. 大蒜末 = garlic powder 大蒜油 = garlic oil 吸血鬼 = vampire. Yes, of course garlic repels vampires. How could you possibly doubt it? The rest you can extract on your own from the text of this post and the one which preceded it. Let me know if you have questions, bearing in mind that I'm not really a farmer.
  4. abcdefg

    Practicing humble tasks

    Early on I learned an "Imron Principle" that has proved very useful. He urged that we practice the skills we hope to master. Seems obvious, but is often overlooked in the dash or struggle towards language proficiency. Simple can sometimes be profound. As someone interested in food and cooking, I pick up the weekly "specials" flier at the entrance to Walmart when I go to shop. These kick around on the coffee table in my living room or on the kitchen table for a week or two. I study them like a textbook, learning common names for foodstuffs, ingredients, seasonings, drinks, woks, rice cookers and other counter top small kitchen appliances. Along the way I pick up names for common brands. Eventually I toss these all out and start collecting new ones. When I get my purchases home, I read the cash register tape, trying to figure out what I've paid for what. Sometimes things are abbreviated and I have to scratch my head. Gradually this process has become faster and I do it quickly the first time while I'm still in the check-out area of the store. Do the same with menus at restaurants I visit. Particularly like the ones with pictures. I typically put a copy in my pocket and study it when I get home and the dishes are still fresh in my mind. More and more restaurants have these "disposable" menus, partly for use by take-out customers. Then I refer to them when I'm thinking about making a dish or going out somewhere to sample a new version. When I can pick one up and read it well enough without the help of a dictionary, I throw it out. The goal is to let me read new menus at a glance, scanning quickly for things I might like to try. Sometimes a special opportunity presents, such as this one at KFC where they were highlighting all the spices that they use in making a new signature crawfish dish, 小龙虾。They list the the spices (bottom of picture) along with pictures of them. Good for a review. I suppose all these tasks could be done in a completely digital form, but I find that having the actual paper copies around the house leads me to pick them up for just a couple of minutes of casual review. Seeing them serves as a reminder. I do browse lots and lots of Chinese recipes on line, not having any Chinese cookbooks. As I read these materials, I put new words automatically into a Pleco review queue and hit them a few times more on my phone as flashcards when I'm sitting on the bus or waiting my turn at the bank or otherwise just killing time. Small things like this are all around us while living in China. Paying attention to them and using them to build useful vocabulary is an easy thing to do and it's one way to get full value from your "immersion dollar." It's not a glamorous process or one you can brag about back home; but as a refinement of "survival Chinese" it's kind of fun and relatively painless.
  5. Bitter melon is still everywhere you look in the market even though autumn will be here soon. Still fresh, cheap and plentiful. Realizing that kugua/bitter melon 苦瓜 won't be around too much longer, I couldn't resist using some again today. Made a recipe that arrived in Yunnan via Hakka immigrants 客家人 from Fujian Province on the east coast. The melon retains a mildly bitter flavor 微苦 which I find pleasant though I realize not everyone will. Here's how to make it at home if you would like a change of pace from your usual fare. Buy one kugua melon 苦瓜。If you don't like kugua, you can make this with zucchini 小瓜 or large cucumber 黄瓜。Look for a kugua with medium sized "bumps" 牙齿 ("teeth") and a pale green color. It should be firm without soft spots or large blemishes. Mine cost 1 Yuan this morning. What a fine bargain! (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Pick up a few medium-sized spring onion 大葱,a couple of carrots 胡萝卜, and a handful of either wood-ear mushrooms 黑木耳 or xianggu (shitake) mushrooms 香菇。 Next head for "pork row." My favorite pork is from a butcher who promotes semi-wild mountain pigs with black skin, known as 黑猪。The are "free-range" pigs 野跑猪, not raised in pens and the meat has more flavor with less intramuscular marbling. I asked them to grind me a piece of lean shoulder along with about 25 percent fat, just measured by eye. Sometimes I buy a large chunk and mince it myself at home, but today I didn't want that additional step. So I just bought 肉末, custom ground. Here's a look at the main ingredients and another picture after being chopped fine 切碎。Garlic and ginger are on the bottom, 蒜姜末 along with the spring onion 葱花。Carrot and wood ear mushrooms 木耳 on top. I used about 200 grams of meat, froze the rest for another day. Put it on my heavy tree-trunk chopping block and cut it one way and then another with a heavy cleaver 菜刀。Folded it in on top of itself and repeated the process several times. The goal was for the meat to be cut more finely than when it came from the butcher's machine. Next in chopped in the minced ginger and garlic, using the same type of process. Wash the kugua and slice it into rounds, each piece about an inch and a half tall. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the seeds and white pith 去籽、去瓤。 That's where most of the "bitter" resides. Put the meat in a mixing bowl and add a tablespoon of corn starch, a half teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon of sugar, and one small to medium egg 液蛋。(If your egg is a large or jumbo one, just use its white 蛋白 and save the yellow for something else.) add a couple tablespoons of finely chopped carrot and finely cut mushroom. Mix this all together with a wooden spoon or chopsticks, moving in only one direction, clockwise or counterclockwise doesn't matter. 搅拌均匀。This motion makes the mixture get stiff and sticky, the better to use as a stuffing. Blanch 焯 the cut kugua in your wok for about one minute using lightly salted water. Scoop it out, cool it quickly by dunking it in cold water and set aside. Stuff the meat filling into the kugua sections 将肉馅塞入苦瓜段中。 Dry the wok and add a tablespoon or so of cooking oil after it gets hot again. Put in the stuffed kugua sections and turn the heat down to medium. Let them brown on one side 煎 then flip them over so the other side can brown too. Now add enough water to reach about half-way up the kugua sections, but not enough that you cover them. Put in a dash of soy sauce and another of oyster sauce. Stir these around. Reduce the heat to a simmer. After about 10 minutes (uncovered) most of the liquid will be gone and they will be done. Add a couple tablespoons of corn starch slurry 水淀粉 to produce a simple gravy. Plate it up. Spoon on the luscious pan gravy. Serve warm. Goes well with steamed rice and a bowl of plain leafy green vegetable soup 青菜汤。 This is not General Tso's Chicken or Sweet and Sour Pork. It will never be a big hit on Main Street, Small Town, USA. But if you would like to venture a bit beyond the safe confines of Panda Express, this is one good way to do it.
  6. I went to a working lunch a couple weeks ago at a respected restaurant in an exclusive conference center out near Dian Lake. It was sponsored by a hospital group with which I'm consulting part time. About a dozen people were present and it didn't take long for the conversation to shift to the always-interesting topic of "Spring Food." China eats by seasons as well as by regions. Most of you probably knew that. But it's not just a little bit; it's fairly extreme. Some of this is simply dictated by what's available when, but lots is also dictated by what is considered beneficial for health as the body is going through this particular stage of its annual changes. What promotes qi when emerging from winter, for example, and what helps maintain the proper balance between wet and dry, internal heat and internal cold? Such subjects are not considered esoteric here, and are things every boy or girl grows up understanding while still at grandmother's knee. The consensus of our group of knowledgeable locals was that the absolute glory of this time of year is wild vegetables. Things that don't thrive in cultivation and must be harvested by hand up on the side of the mountain. Under their guidance, we ordered several such items and my curiosity was piqued about several more. Here's a quick look into that world: Yunnan's wild spring vegetable world. Remember -- You can click the photos to enlarge them. Many wild vegetables are served with eggs. The dish above left is one of those. The small golden flowers are called 金花,logically enough, and are cooked tender and moist with their supporting green tips, resulting in a thin griddle cake, or 煎饼 of the type we have encountered before. What makes them great is that their taste is so fresh, so pleasant, so mild. The eggs let them shine. The bamboo shoots on the above right are a special kind found only in spring. Their distinguishing characteristic is that they are ever so slightly sweet. Being tender, all they require is a quick stir fry, here presented with red and green peppers. I often make them at home. The lady at my neighborhood wet market, above left, peels the tough outer leaves after weighing your purchase. Easy to fix, they are one of my "go to" meals at this time of year. One can also buy baby bamboo shoots, already peeled, that are usually sold as 春笋, sometimes a 竹呀 (bamboo sprouts.) I like these too and have posted recipes for them here in the past. You can see them above right. Our meal included a spicy, vinegary salad with an unusual earthy kick. It was made from the leaves of a root vegetable that's popular in Yunnan, namely the 折耳根。It has no translation, pronounced "zhe er gen" and I'd be surprised if it's found in the west. It's not even popular in other distant parts of China. The roots are like "underground vines" and can be found year round here, but the leaves are at their best now, tender and "peppery." I bought some at the market this morning, shown above right. Plan to prepare them at home tonight. Adding a spoon or two of fermented beans 豆豉 rounds out their taste. They served a large basin of small fish that were freshly caught an hour before in the nearby lake that we could see from the window. They were served in a spicy sauce, one to each diner, and were considered a special spring treat because each fish was filled with roe. The roe had been cooked in place. Interesting flavor and texture. I had not had it before. The lunch featured lots of vegetables, emphasizing what was best right then, going light on meat. These pictured above right are related to asparagus. Lightly steamed and served with a sauce, ready to be mixed at the table. The sauce had fire and a bite. Yunnan does love its spices. The lunch left an impression and I've been trying to make a lot of the same things to enjoy at home. When I went to the wet market this morning, I was bowled over by a huge assortment of edible flowers and edible ferns. Some I've made at home in years past, but others are still a mystery. Those give me something to which to look forward in days to come. Lady above left, in ethnic garb, has 3 or 4 kinds of flowers displayed as well as lots of young okra, popular here just now as 黄蜀葵。It's usually fried, sometimes pickled and served as a salad. 凉拌。Pretty sure you can make out the red roses, lower left in the frame. The fiddlehead ferns on the basket on the right above are sold as 蕨菜。 Often they are served scrambled with eggs. I bought a bunch of the fresh, crimson tipped 香椿 (aka "Chinese toon") pictured here to the left, and plan to make it tomorrow. They require a little knack, and if not done right can taste too strong to be pleasant. It's actually the young tip of a tree branch, the tree from the mahogany family, and it occupies an interesting niche partway between delicacy and survival fare. But I've made them in past springs and enjoyed them. Pretty sure I've posted some recipes here. Will go back and check later. I bought three of these small tropical pineapples for 10 Yuan. Some are brought up from Vietnam, but I understood her to say these were from Xishuangbanna, in the deep south of Yunnan. The seller will cut them into bite sized pieces, but I usually do that at home one at a time so they keep longer. I passed on the cherries this morning, though I bought some last week. Tasty. These are the small tart Yunnan cherries that become available in the middle of March every year. You recall that our cherry trees bloom in February, much earlier than those revered in the Cherry Blossom Festivals of Japan. No trip to the market would be complete without stopping off at the food stalls for a nice hot bowl of something or other local and delicious. Today I opted for won ton in a spicy red sauce 红汤馄饨 。Sometimes instead I have a bowl of 豆花米线,rice noodles with soft tofu "flowers," equally good for a Saturday snack. Both can be made at home, of course, but they are 6 or 8 Yuan very well spent in my estimation, just to avoid all the fuss and give the morning a "holiday" feel.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. I'm in Taiwan for a few days and tonight visited the Ningxia Night Market 宁夏夜市 to enjoy a moveable feast. (Please excuse me for not being able to type the 繁体字 characters in this browser.) It's not one of Taipei's bigger and more famous markets, and it doesn't draw a lot of foreign visitors. But it had the appeal of being only a short walk from where I was staying. The night was not too hot, with only a little intermittent rain. Here's some of what I found during a couple hours of highly enjoyable grazing. First stop was this stand, where the grill lady/proprietor filled half seashells with chopped scallops and oysters, mixed with cheese and shredded vegetables, all topped with an oven-roasted breadcrumb dressing. You could have a small one for 40 TWD or a large one for 50. She dusted it to order with a spice mix according to your preference. I had it hot. She put it in a paper basket and gave me a plastic spoon. Wow, what a great blend of flavors. I became an instant fan. Since I live in Kunming, which is way inland, I'd been missing seafood and have made it a focus of my Taiwan eating experiences. I sampled several straight forward fresh seafood items tonight, as well as some exotics. You could have fish and shellfish grilled, deep fried, sauteed on a griddle, or cooked into a soup. I passed on the small oyster pancakes that are so popular here, because I had them in Taizhong less than 24 hours before. Next stop was for these interesting griddle-balls, which were made of a dough that was filled with mixed seafood and spices. They got browned on the outside as they cooked. It was one of the stands that I would have tried blind, without any idea of what they were selling, simply because the line was several times longer than of the other nearby stands. They lived up to their reputation, moist on the inside and with a crispy exterior. Mine were dusted with chili powder, though you could have had curry instead. Fresh fruit was everywhere, some sold as slices, some blended into juice according to your specs. I saw sugar cane and coconut and pineapple. Several vendors even had fresh durian for sale. I paused a long time at a place selling large deep-fried buns stuffed with seafood. My hunger had been sated, but my eyes were still talking to my mouth and making it water. I managed to hold off, though I really wanted to try one. Maybe next time. And then there was another place where I lingered and watched a long time, struggling valiantly, but finally succumbed to temptation. By now I was really wishing I had skipped the chicken wings. They were great tasting, but nothing truly unusual. What had me talking to myself here now was grilled baby squid that were mixed with a batter and fried in small molded balls. Not only had I never eaten any such item, I didn't even know they existed. I was intrigued by what they might have to offer. Could not ignore them. Four came in an order for 100 TWD. I knew that would be impossible, and I only wanted a taste. After some intense negotiation, I managed to buy only two pieces for 60 TWD, content to be paying a premium to cover the cost of the paper carton, skewers and plastic bag. They turned out to be pretty chewy and tough. Glad I had not bought four. This was the only dish the whole evening that did not meet or exceed my expectations. I now stumbled into a convenience store and bought a bottle of plain water. Sat down on a bench outside and washed my greasy hands, splashed water on my face in an effort to revive the nearly comatose gourmand. It worked well enough that after a while, I gathered a second wind and went back into battle. The two sides of the food alley were close enough together that the heat from the fires was now becoming oppressive. People were gently bumping each other with their umbrellas, albeit more tentatively and politely than if they had been scrimmaging on the Mainland. So now I walked along the outside of the food stalls where they offered some seating. This also let me see the actual walk-in restaurants which lined the street (Ningxia Street) and take a look at their slightly more formal offerings. Plenty of booths were completely out of the question for me at this stage in the game, but I still had to pause briefly for a look. This one had an assortment of delicious-looking sausage. This one next door to it featured large grilled mushrooms, each one the size of an ear of corn on the cob, brushed repeatedly with a spicy sauce as they cooked, and then sliced thin after cooking. These aren't the superbly savory wild mountain mushrooms of Yunnan, but they still looked pretty good. Time to go now. A bite of something sweet and that would surely do it. Just then I saw exactly what the doctor ordered, a stand selling two very small scoops of taro flavor ice cream, topped with some kind of shaved nut candy, freshly planed from the top of a large block, all wrapped in a crepe and folded into a bag like a cold desert burrito. I had never seen any such culinary invention in my threescore years and ten. Had to have one, even if I could only finish half of it. Well, that was quite an evening. Turned around and headed for home. Passed a block that was mostly given over to carnival-boardwalk-type games for children. One booth offered a chance for young kids to fish for small shrimp and minnows. The rain had stopped and I bought a plastic cup of freshly blended kiwi fruit, with a dash of local honey. Just tart enough to be interesting, but not so sour as to generate a pucker. Perfect for sipping on the road as I strolled back to the hotel and the vendor promised it would also aid digestion. Wish I knew more about how these treats were made. It impressed me that lots of them were original and inventive, not simply old standards rehashed. Such things as these night market snacks 夜市小吃 are not to be missed if you have a chance to visit this interesting Chinese island.
  11. This dish found its way across the ocean to just about every Chinatown 唐人街 in the West, but is also still alive and well here on the China Mainland. One of the nice things about making restaurant food at home is that you can put in more of your favorite items than you might get by ordering trusty old Number Four at China Star Café and Buffet at the corner of Main Street and Vine. Case in point is cashew chicken. Cashews are a relatively costly ingredient and are often sparse in the finished dish when you order it out; but you can easily add more when you are in charge of the process at home. Let’s start from the beginning, and that would be the chicken. When cooking at home you can use better ingredients throughout. For example, I used fresh free-range chicken instead of bulk-pack, industrial frozen. Two ways to go in selecting the meat, and the decision is entirely yours. Leg meat is dark and has more flavor than light breast meat, but it takes a little more effort to prepare. Today I had time, and opted for leg. In Kunming I haven’t seen chicken thighs for sale separately, either in the wet market 菜市场 or in the Walmart/Carrefour type super stores 超市。Have to buy a whole leg, including the drumstick, which is not ideal. But doing what you can with what you’ve got is part of the China experience. First off, disjoint it at the knee; make a long slit and then work your knife along the bone of each piece while pulling at the same time. Takes a little concentration at first, but no sweat once you get the hang of it; eventually goes fast. It is beyond the scope of this humble article to turn anyone into an expert poultry butcher, so here’s a link to a good video which clearly shows the how-to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWMMm1D4zYQ If you are in China and your VPN is too slow for YouTube, don’t despair. Use Baidu to search “鸡腿怎么去骨头” to find some good “deboning chicken” tutorials. It won’t stay a mystery long. I bought 4 fresh (not frozen) good-sized legs that weighed 900-odd grams, just shy of a kilo. They yielded about a pound of meat, cut into pieces no larger than the tip of your thumb. It’s important not to make these pieces too large; they need to cook fast and get golden brown. I did the meat prep just before starting the rice, because the meat has to marinate half an hour, and that’s how long it takes the rice to cook. Left, above, is the raw chicken. Right, above, is the chicken after mixing with the marinade. Note that it isn’t soupy. Marinate the cut chicken cubes in a combination of: Cooking wine, 黄酒 (绍兴酒)-- 1 Tablespoon Light soy sauce (酱油) – 2 Tablespoons Sesame oil (着麻油)-- 1 teaspoon Corn starch (小粉) – 1 teaspoon White pepper (白胡椒) – a generous dash, maybe two While you have these ingredients out, go ahead and prepare a sauce to be added to the stir fry later, near the end of cooking. It serves both as seasoning and as a “binder,” bringing diverse flavors together. Chicken stock – ¼ cup. If you don’t have it, add some chicken bouillon or ji jing 鸡精 to a quarter cup of hot water. (Do be aware that most brands of ji jing contains some salt and MSG.) Soy sauce – 1 Tablespoon – a light soy sauce works best. Look for one that has 生 in its label name, such as the 生抽 pictured below. Sesame oil – 1 teaspoon – can be light or dark. Dark has a stronger flavor. White sugar – 1 teaspoon Corn starch – 1 teaspoon – 小粉 or a comparable starch is fine. White pepper – a generous dash or two. Prepare some garlic and ginger, minced fine, a generous tablespoonful of each. Next, prep the vegetables. Every recipe seems to have a different assortment of vegetables. The classic combination is red bell peppers, onion and celery; not too much of them. This leaves 腰果炒鸡丁 being mainly a meat dish, and as such it requires a side dish of vegetables to make it into a full meal. Personally, I like to add some other vegetables with the aim of turning it into a one-dish stir-fry meal. The guiding principle should be that they are all things which cook quickly and go well together. Best to avoid veggies with an overly strong flavor, since you don’t want to eclipse the gentle chicken and cashews; they should have star billing. I used red bell peppers, green mildly-spicy Chinese peppers 虎皮椒, some onion 洋葱,and an ear of young corn. This choice was partly dictated by what I had on hand. They also look nice together. A tip about cutting up peppers. First slice off the stem, and set the pepper on its broad end, tip in the air. Slice from the apex towards the base, leaving a central core of seeds. After that, I julienned the flesh, shiny side down on the cutting board. I sliced the tender corn off the young cob. Prep completed, now heat the wok over high flame until you can sprinkle a couple fingertips of water into it and they immediately skitter and disappear. Then you know it’s hot enough to add oil. Add only a tablespoon of oil, and stir fry the cashews. It takes about half a minute, and they become crispy, changing hue from pale to golden. Scoop them out into a pan and set aside. No seasoning needed. No need to clean the skillet or wok between steps. Just add another couple scant tablespoons of oil and toss in roughly half the ginger and garlic. Ginger goes in first because it requires a little more heat to fully develop its flavor. Fifteen seconds later, add the garlic. (I was fiddling with the camera and almost waited too long.) Now add half the chicken cubes and stir fry 3 or 4 minutes. They need to become slightly golden. Best not to crowd the pieces together or else they will stew instead of sauté. The pan should be hot enough that the chicken cubes can dance around and cook very quickly. Scoop them out when done. Add the rest of the ginger and garlic with a little more oil, and stir fry the remaining chicken. Scoop it out into a bowl and set it aside. See how nicely the color has developed by the end. Wok tip: When you are stirring a small-cut ingredient like this quickly, I think it helps to use two utensils, as pictured above. Gives better control of the process. If you prefer to just shake the wok with one hand like a celebrity chef, go for it. Now you are ready for the vegetables. They should be all lined up and ready. A couple more scant tablespoons of oil, and put them in. I like to add the onions first, but these vegetables all have about the same cooking time, so it doesn’t really matter. If some took longer than others, you would add them first and give them a slight head start. Cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring briskly. Now for the last part. Photo below shows the chicken, the sauce, and the cashews, lined up right to left in the order in which they will be added to the pan. Add the chicken and the pre-made sauce. Stir for a minute or so. Then in go the cashews. Stir on the flame another few seconds, and it’s ready to serve. A side bowl of steamed rice, and time for a big smile. Dig in. When people write cooking articles like this, they sometimes have a hidden agenda. Maybe it’s “eat more chicken,” or “buy more cashews.” In my case, what I’m trying to do is show you that you can make delicious food at home with limited tools and limited time. I’m hoping you will realize that it’s quite feasible to make a favorite restaurant dish on your own. Odds are that you can do it better in your kitchen than if you bought take out from China Star. Less salt, less oil, and so on. In the interest of explaining a little more about how to do that, let me take you behind the scenes and show you a couple of personal tricks that help me when cooking for one. Sometimes I have guests, and that's always more fun, but most of the time I cook and eat solo. When I serve my plate, directly from the wok, I put the remaining food in a microwave-safe plastic container. If I have a guest, the same principle applies, serve two plates and “serve” my storage container at the same time. The left over rice goes into something similar, ready to be popped in the fridge once it’s cool. Leftovers are easy to reheat for a quick lunch. (The cashews do lose their crunch.) Also, I’ve been washing the prep dishes as I go along, grabbing a few non-critical seconds here and there. The wok and a few dishes are all that is left; the others are already clean and drying in the rack. Let the wok soak while we eat. After the meal, scoop out the left over rice, and let the rice-cooker pot soak a while. Wipe down the stove and I’m done. There is no huge pile of dirty dishes to make me wish I had visited China Star instead of cooking at home. In my opinion, it's a huge disincentive to to have to return to the kitchen and tackle that chore once you put down your chopsticks. An approach such as described here allows you to triumph over that obstacle. You can have your cake and eat it too; or in this case you can have your cashew chicken and eat it too.
  12. This delicious flavor combination is popular all over China, especially in the summer months. The two main ingredients, long green beans 四季豆 and eggplant 茄子, are both thought to help the body deal with hot weather. I was reminded of how good it tastes this weekend as a guest at a business lunch in a “home style” 家常菜 restaurant known for its Yunnan take on such well-known dishes. Today I decided to make it at home while the mental image was still fresh in mind. Here's the restaurant version. I didn't think to snap a picture until it was nearly gone. Hence the half-empty plate. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Yunnan food is not quite as fiery hot as that of Sichuan and Hunan, but it is definitely no shrinking violet when it comes to using a bold palette of spices. This dish is a good example of how Yunnan cuisine constructs a distinctive regional flavor. These beans 四季豆 are as long as my forearm. My neighborhood outdoor farmers market has several related varieties, all inexpensive and fresh. I picked a nice-looking bundle, paid 3 Yuan, and then moved on to find some eggplant. At this time of year lots of small eggplant are being harvested, some no longer than my outstretched hand, from wrist to fingertips. I bought 2 that were a little larger than that. Paid 2 Yuan for them. Bought a red bell pepper 红甜椒 for 1.50 and a couple of moderately-large spring onions 大葱 for one more Yuan. Ingredient total at this point was under 8 Yuan. Factor in some garlic and ginger plus bottled sauces, and you are looking at a lavish total investment of around 10 Yuan. Washed 洗净 and cut the vegetables 切段, making the sections of green bean and eggplant approximately the same length. The pieces of eggplant were strips, about the size of a finger 切条状。Finely chop a little garlic and ginger, smash and slice the spring onion, sliver half the red bell pepper, and set out a tablespoon of doubanjiang 豆瓣酱。This is a spicy fermented bean and chili sauce that originated in Pixian County, Sichuan. 郫县, not far from Chengdu 成都。 Not shown is one small rice bowl containing a mixture of my liquid ingredients, prepared so that they can be added quickly without having to measure when the pan is hot and food is cooking fast. (1 tablespoon of soy sauce 酱油, 1 tablespoon of dark aged vinegar 老陈醋, 1 tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒, and 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce 蚝油。) A second small rice bowl contains a half teaspoon of corn starch 玉米淀粉 mixed with about two tablespoons of water, to be added at the end as a binder and thickening agent 勾芡。 Preheat the wok over high flame; when it’s hot, add a couple tablespoons of cooking oil, 2 or 3 depending on the volume of the eggplant. I think rapeseed oil 菜籽油 works best for this since it isn’t overly delicate, stands up well to high heat and adds a little flavor of its own. Add the eggplant, stirring constantly until it becomes tender and starts to take on a golden color. Remove it to a pan and set it aside. If your wok is well seasoned, it won’t need washing at this point. You can just wipe it out with a paper kitchen towel and add another tablespoon or so of oil. Continuing to use high flame, add the cut green beans and stir fry them for two or three minutes, until they become slightly tender and start to look “crinkly” and develop speckling with dark in color. You don’t want them to actually scorch, but a little color is desirable. Below right, you can see the "breath of the wok" (wok hei or 锅气/镬气) as the beans near the end of their cooking time. It's closer to smoke than it is to steam. When you shake the pan, sometimes small tongues of flame jump into it. Adds depth to the flavor. Scoop them out into a pan. Set them aside. Wipe the wok and add a little more oil. (It won’t need much; a teaspoon or two.) Put in the ginger 姜末, followed by the minced garlic 蒜泥, thinly sliced red bell pepper 红甜椒丝 , chopped spring onions 葱花, 4 or 5 dried red chili peppers 干辣椒, and the doubanjiang 豆瓣酱。Stir fry these together until they are well mixed and you can smell the aroma. Add back the beans and the eggplant. Combine them well with the spices. Now add the bowl of wet seasonings, a pinch of salt 食用盐, a pinch of sugar 白砂糖, a pinch of MSG 味精。If it looks too dry, add a splash of boiling hot water (not cold water; you don't want to slow down the cooking process.) Cover and cook on low heat for two minutes. Remove the lid and mix in the corn starch slurry 水淀粉。 After it comes to the boil again, it’s ready to serve. Plate it up! Goes real well with steamed rice and part of a small roast chicken. At the restaurant it was just one component of a big lunch spread at a round table that had a dozen other dishes: chicken, pork, beef and fish. Vegetables that were steamed, boiled and fried. A couple types of soup. We rotated the center of the table slowly and had our fill of a fine assortment of Yunnan specialties. Can’t do all that at home of course, but still wanted to reproduce one small piece of it today and show you how. Here's the recipe all in one place if you would care to give it a try: (Please click "reveal hidden contents.")
  13. abcdefg

    Steamed fish 清蒸鱼

    I tend to forget about fish because I’m living in the interior (Kunming) instead of on the seacoast. But yesterday I saw some nice “fresh caught” ones on ice and bought a single 银鲳鱼 (yinchang yu) of about 450 grams. In English these are called silver pomfret. They live in the coastal waters of southern China, SE Asia and India. Cost ¥15.80, about $2.25 US. The seller cleaned and gutted it 清理 (qingli)。Please click the photos to enlarge them. Steaming 清蒸 is a very popular way to prepare fish in China and that’s what I did last night. Washed the fish out 洗净 and rubbed it with a wet paper towel to remove the few remaining tiny scales. Cut off the pectoral fins and enough of the tail so that it would fit into my steamer. Deeply cross hatched the flesh on both sides and rubbed it down with cooking wine 料酒 (liaojiu) followed with salt 食用盐 (shiyong yan) and white pepper 白胡椒粉 (bai hujiaofen)。Put slivers of ginger 生姜 (shengjiang) and spring onion 大葱 (dacong) into the cuts and some into the cavity as well. Let it marinate 腌制 (yanzhi) like that 10 or 15 minutes. Then transferred it onto a bed of halved spring onions plus more ginger and set it into the preheated steamer 蒸锅 (zheng guo)。 (Water already boiling.) These relatively flat-bodied fish only take 5 or 6 minutes to cook, depending on size. At 5 minutes I open the steamer and check the flesh with a fork. It should be white and flaky. If you cook these small fish too long, they become sort of rubbery and tough 肉老了 (rou laole)。 Lift it out and pour off any excess steam condensation water 多余汤水 (duoyu tangshui)。Some usually pools in the bottom of the steaming dish. Discard the onion and ginger slivers that have cooked with the fish. Spread on a tablespoon or two of light soy sauce 生抽 (shengchou) or better yet use the same amount of special fish steaming sauce that is readily available in Chinese markets. It is called 蒸鱼豉油 (zhengyu chiyou) -- photo below. It’s a seasoned soy sauce that has some taste similarities with oyster sauce 蚝油 (haoyou)。Cover the fish with slivers of spring onion 葱花 (conghua -- the white part) and finely sliced carrot 或萝卜丝 (huoluobo si)。 Heat a couple tablespoons of high-grade peanut oil in a small pan until it just begins to smoke 威冒烟 (wei maoyan)。Pour that over the fish in its serving dish. It should be hot enough to pop and sizzle as it instantly cooks the scallion and carrot, carrying their flavors into the fish below. (My photo does not do the process justice.) The flesh of this fish is buttery and tender. Furthermore, it doesn’t have a lot of tiny bones 鱼刺 (yuci)。 One fish feeds two light eaters if served with vegetables, soup and rice. If the fish are small, 400 to 500 grams, it wouldn't hurt to make two. It's OK if they overlap a bit in the cooking dish. If you’ve been thinking about making a Chinese fish at home, this 清蒸鲳鱼 (qingzheng changyu) is a good one to try. Widely available, tasty, inexpensive. Healthier than frying. Footnote about the steamer: If you don’t have a dedicated steamer pot, you can set a shallow dish on a wire rack in your wok, add some water, put on the lid. Available in any small neighborhood supermarket 超市 (chaoshi) for 10 or 15 Yuan. Called 蒸菜架子 (zhengcai jiazi)。
  14. If you live in China, you've probably noticed the push-cart sweet potato sellers out in force recently, shouting “红薯, 红薯, 买红薯"。This morning I succumbed and bought a kilo from a local auntie 阿姨 with a hand-held balance scale 称子。Cost me ¥3.5 for six of them (1 公斤/ 1 kilogram,) about 50 cents US. This afternoon I'll show you a quick and simple way to fix them as a side dish for your evening meal. The lowly sweet potato is not a star in the West. It often shows up in the US at Thanksgiving, then disappears. But it's definitely a staple in the Far East, particularly China and Japan. It has lots of nutrition without many calories. Furthermore this fine root vegetable is just now coming into high season here. That means it's abundant and prime quality is cheap. In a month or so, the itinerant potato roasters will be out and about with their charcoal fires, standing on a street corner or moving slowly with a cart. Wash them well and peel them 洗净剥皮。The surface usually has some grit. Slice them into angled rounds 2 or 3 cm thick 切片。The three sweet potatoes shown here weighed just under 400 grams /400克。(Click the photos to enlarge them.) Add a quart or so of tap water to your steamer pot 蒸锅。If you don't have one, you can use your rice cooker 电饭煲 with its steamer basket. Failing that, use your wok 炒锅, with a wire rack and a lid 盖子。Place the sliced sweet potatoes in a shallow bowl 浅碗子, set it inside and cover the pot 盖上盖子。 Using high heat 高火, bring the water to a boil, 沸水, such that you can see escaping steam 看到上汽。Then turn it down to low 小火 and cook for 10 minutes. When your timer rings, turn off the flame, leaving the pot covered and undisturbed for another 10 minutes 关火焖十分钟。 While the sweet potatoes are cooking, mix 2 tablespoons 两汤勺 of honey 蜂蜜 with 1 tablespoon of hot water 热水 in a cup or rice bowl 饭碗。When the time is up, check to make sure they are done by being sure it's easy to pierce one or two with a chopstick. You want them to be soft 微烂, but not mushy and falling apart. Lift them out 去锅, sprinkle them lightly with coarse-ground salt 食用盐and drizzle with the honey mixture. Toss gently 轻轻的拌匀。Serve while hot. They really hit the spot as well as being cheap and easy. Give them a try when you have a chance.
  15. If you are vegetarian in China, you have doubtless become acquainted with this popular dish. I'm not of that persuasion, but several vegetarian friends have told me it was sufficient to sustain life for their first few weeks here on the Mainland before they had enough vocabulary to explore and branch out. You could do much worse than a steady diet of this, alternating perhaps with tomatoes and scrambled eggs 番茄炒鸡蛋。Plus of course steamed rice 米饭。 地三鲜 di san xian is a simple but glorious combination of eggplant (aubergine), green peppers, and potatoes 茄子,青椒,土豆。It supposedly originated in Shandong and is part of the "Lu Cai" 鲁菜 tradition (one of the "big eight" categories of Chinese cuisine 八大菜系。) It quickly spread throughout China's northeast, however, and is today more commonly thought of as being representative of the food of Dongbei. I've eaten it in Qingdao, Dalian, Beijing, and Harbin, and surely other places that have escaped my memory. This dish is easy to make at home, and today I'll show you how. Potatoes are abundant now that winter has arrived. In the market yesterday I saw four kinds of white potatoes and three kinds of sweet potatoes. It's difficult to sort them out and choose. What I usually do is tell the seller what I plan to make, and let him recommend the best type. (Reminder: You can click the photos to enlarge them.) Most recipes call for using roughly equal parts of potatoes and eggplant by weight, or maybe going slightly heavier on the potatoes. Today I used two of each, opting for the long, slender eggplants that grow year round here. Picked up some spring onions 大葱 and a couple green peppers 请教。The pepper lady had red ones for the same price in the adjacent bag, so I bought some of each. Scrub and peel two potatoes, and cut them up. I used a "rolling cut," but thick slices would also get the job done. Washed and cut the eggplant the same way. No need to remove the skin. Seeded and coarsely chopped the peppers (these are not at all spicy.) Thawed a cup of bone stock 高汤 that I had frozen in a big batch one rainy weekend in late summer. (If you don't have stock on hand, you can use bouillon or chicken extract -- 鲜鸡汁。) Minced a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜, a piece of ginger 老姜,and slivered one large spring onion 大葱。Ready now to rock and roll. I used a deep non-stick skillet 不粘平底锅, but could just as well have used my wok. Poured three or four tablespoons of oil into the cold pan and heated it up about three quarters hot 七八热。Fried the potatoes until they developed some golden color 变金黄色 and got soft enough to easily pierce with a chopstick. That took between 8 and 10 minutes. Lifted the potatoes out into a pan on the counter top. Save for later 备用。 Started frying the eggplant, using the same oil. Kept the temperature medium to medium high, tossing them more or less nonstop 翻炒。When they developed a rich golden color and were soft enough to easily pierce with a chopstick, I knew they were ready and scooped them out into a bowl. It took 6 or 8 minutes. Don't overcook them, since they will get some more heat later when all the ingredients are put together. Potatoes and eggplant are both cooked now, but not overdone. Ready to meet other flavors. Put the minced ginger in the hot skillet and give it a 15 or 20 second head start before adding the minced garlic. (Garlic cooks quicker.) Add the red and green peppers and stir fry them with the aromatic spices. Saute them until they begin to soften. Add back the potatoes and eggplant. Cook everything together a few minutes while adding dry seasonings: a scant teaspoon of salt, a dash of white pepper, a sprinkle of sugar, MSG if you use it (I use 1/4 teaspoon of it.) Then put in the (thawed) liquid stock 高汤, a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒。Add the spring onions; stir it well a minute or two and allow the flavors time to blend and let most of the liquid be absorbed. At this point add a small amount of corn starch thickener 水淀粉。I always make this in advance with a teaspoon of corn starch 生粉 and two tablespoons of water, mixed well together into a suspension. This holds all the flavors together 勾芡 and produces a tasty gravy. Boil for half a minute more, and you're done. Serve it up 装盘。Dig in 动筷子。Can be served as a vegetable side dish to complement a simple meat such as roast chicken or it can be a vegetarian main dish (hold the stock.) Goes well with steamed rice.
  16. I've had a lingering cough from a winter cold and have been exploring traditional Grandmother-type home remedies, as suggested by several Chinese friends. Pears 雪梨 kept topping everybody's list. Can't swear that they are the best thing since the invention of penicillin, but it seems they might actually be helping some. Furthermore they taste real good. Snow pears 雪梨 (xueli) are the variety most highly recommended, but if they aren't available where you live, other pears can be used instead. The best xueli come from Xinjiang 新疆。 They cost more than locally-grown varieties, but they have more flavor when cooked. Turns out these pears are often prepared as a thin rice porridge, usually served warm. This combination is a staple in many households not only for its medicinal value, but simply because it is tasty, refreshing and easy to digest. Often recommended for the very young, the very old and the ailing or infirm. Not something I ever encountered in the west. Thought I'd show you one way to fix them at home in case you'd care to try them for yourself. The rice can be ordinary white rice 大米, but glutinous rice 糯米 is generally preferred. The recipe I'm using today mixes it 2 to 1 with millet 小米。It's a good idea to soak the grains for several hours or even overnight. If you forget, it's not a deal breaker, but texture is affected. Here's what these ingredients look like. Millet 小米 is at the top, with glutinous rice 糯米and ordinary white rice 大米 below. The grains of glutinous rice are nearly round, bottom left, and it is said to have more nutritional value than the white Dongbei rice 东北大米, pictured bottom right. Please click the photos to enlarge them. One can use just the grains and the pear alone, very plain, but to enhance efficacy one can add some lotus seeds 莲子 and a few chuanbei seeds 川贝. Grocery stores have lotus seeds; a pharmacy 药店 will have 川贝。The latter is a powerful Chinese herbal medicine, tiny root bulbs of the Fritillaria cirrhosa plant, which grows on alpine slopes and meadows. These two items also benefit from soaking, right along with the grains. Recipes often call for hongzao 红枣 Chinese jujube dates, and gouqi/Chinese wolfberries 枸杞 as well. I like both, so included them. Cut the pear into small pieces, removing stem and seeds. It's not necessary to peel it, though it does improve appearance. The traditional way to make rice porridge/zhou 粥 is in a covered clay pot on the stove. Doing it that way takes an hour or more of frequent stirring and requires that your stove burners have a "simmer" setting which supplies very low heat. Lots of Chinese home cooktops tend to put out too much flame. Consequently, one turns instead to the trusty rice cooker 电饭煲 which is found in even the leanest of small home kitchens. Put the grains together into one small bowl so you can get an idea of combined volume, add them to the rice cooker, then supplement the grains with roughly 10 times that amount of water. Less or more to taste, depending on whether you prefer your zhou thin or thick. (Regional preferences exist.) Put in a small handful of dried Chinese jujubes 红枣 and a "palm" of dried Chinese wolfberries 枸杞. A tablespoon or so of rock sugar 冰糖, more if you like it sweeter. Also add a tiny pinch of salt. I cut up one large pear and put it into the rice cooker bowl to become part of the zhou/porridge, and cut up the other one to place into the steamer basket. This way I'll have some extra pear to enjoy with nearly zero extra time and effort. Plug it in; crank it up. Most rice cookers have a button marked 粥, but in Yunnan we call it xifan 稀饭 instead (bottom right.) Let the cooker run through its cycle and shift to "keep warm" 保温 (top left.) This usually requires 30 to 40 minutes. Open it and take a look, stirring with your chopsticks. If the porridge still shows rice that isn't falling-apart tender, give it an extra 15 minutes or so. On my machine I do that by pressing the 蒸/煮 button, all the way to the left, bottom row. Sometimes I use my electric pressure cooker 高压锅 instead of the rice cooker 电饭煲。It also has a 粥 setting, which is what I use. It does a good job in about half the time. It's finished now. Serve it up. Tasty, healthy stuff. Restorative for the lungs. 止咳、 润肺、化痰。
  17. Curries don't have a venerable ancient dynastic history; nobody claims they were invented on the banks of the Yellow River in the Ming. But it's an indisputable fact that curry has caught on and is now very popular Mainland fare. It's not considered "exotic" here; it has been adopted and assimilated. Curry is also big in Japan and Korea; same is true in much of SE Asia, notably Thailand, and even down into Malaysia and Indonesia. All over China you can find it listed on the short tabletop or wall menus of small family-style restaurants right beside traditional favorites like hongshao rou 红烧肉 (red-cooked pork.) Simple grocery stores patronized by local people here in Kunming often have six or eight kinds of curry spice blends available for sale, attesting to demand. Chicken curry and beef curry have both become favorites in my own simple kitchen; today I'll show you how to make a killer Middle-Kingdom version with the humble chicken leg 咖喱鸡腿。Frozen chicken drumsticks 冻琵琶腿 (pipatui) are cheap and plentiful; they are what I used today. Six of these cost about 20 Yuan (weight 900-odd grams, nearly a kilo.) I picked up a couple potatoes and a couple carrots plus one medium sized onion. Sprung for an optional apple and one ripe tomato. As an afterthought, I bought a few spicy long green chilies to increase the heat. Figured that would give the dish a nice Yunnan touch. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) When I headed to the spice aisle, I found lots of different curry seasonings. The most popular kind here is sold in solid blocks. Chinese cooks claim the flavor is more robust, but one can also buy several brands of curry powder. Most of these spice blends are graded as to their "fire quotient." The kind I bought today was marked 微辣, or barely hot; category 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. I'd rather add spiciness by means of actual peppers, fresh or dried. Seems to me the results that way are better balanced and less likely to yield an unwelcome last minute surprise. Here's a closer look at my curry cubes and a shot of the coconut liquid I bought. Curry comes in all sorts of flavor profiles, the one I made today had apples and coconut to offset the heat. Chinese "take-out" curry in the US often is mainly meat and onions. Today's edition is a little more complex and interesting. This brand of curry cubes, House or 好特,is what I usually buy and has been dependable. Note the circular "heat meter" in the upper right corner. The store only had this coconut drink 椰汁, and not the more concentrated 椰奶 that I would have preferred, but it still served the need. One can rudely hack the chicken legs into pieces with a heavy cleaver, leaving the bones in place. That is the "family style" approach 家常菜 used in lots of small mom and pop, open-front eateries. Today I decided to cut the meat off the bone; it's a more elegant approach and doesn't really take much time. Wound up with about 650 grams of usable meat and some bones that I will freeze for stock. What you do is first make a circular cut all the way around the smaller end of the drumstick. Then slice along the bone, working in the direction of the larger joint, producing a "lollypop" effect. Then sever this leg meat that you have sort of "turned inside out." Cut it into smallish pieces so that it cooks more evenly and is suitable to eating with chopsticks. If you want to remove some of the shiny white tendons with the tip of your knife, your guests will thank you and Gordon Ramsay won't shout loud obscenities in your direction. Marinate these chicken pieces in a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒, a tablespoon of soy sauce 生抽, a dash or two of white pepper 白胡椒粉 and a half teaspoon of salt 食盐。I often add a teaspoon or so of vegetable oil 食用油, because that makes the chicken less likely to stick to the pan later when it's on the heat. If your kitchen is warm, set it in the fridge 放在冰箱。If it marinates longer, it doesn't matter. (I've sometimes been interrupted and it has waited an hour or two; the prolonged time might even give it more flavor.) If you are pressed for time, it's OK to use chicken breasts 鸡胸脯肉 in this recipe. They dry out (overcook) easier and usually have a bit less flavor than the dark meat of the chicken's leg. If your market offers boneless chicken thighs, that would be ideal. (Not available in China.) Wash and cut the vegetables. In addition to the onion, potato, carrot, apple, tomato and peppers already mentioned, I used a large clove of garlic 独立蒜 and about an inch of ginger 老姜, both of the latter minced. I took the skin off the tomato by dunking it in boiling water for half a minute. The apple proved too big, and I only used half of it. Nibbled the remainder -- cook's prerogative; the spoils of war. Should mention that before prepping the vegetables, I put some rice on to soak. Wanted to have the finished curry with fresh steamed rice. I would start the rice cooking after it soaked 15 minutes. Turned out that this particular onion was over the hill and it's flavor was too strong. Didn't have another one on hand. So I soaked it in cool salted water after chopping it. Changed the water several times. This tamed it. (A good trick to know.) First order of business is to make the curry base. Did that by stir-frying 煸炒 the ginger and garlic for a few seconds, added the onion and continued to stir for a minute more. Next, put in the the green peppers. When all these have begun releasing their aroma and have wilted down (without really becoming brown,) then add the tomato. Poured in one rice bowl of hot water (about 250 ml.) and put in the curry blocks. Stirred them well to dissolve. Put on the lid 盖上盖, turned the fire to it's lowest setting 小伙, and cooked this sauce 15 minutes, peeking and stirring several times. It all pulled together nicely and the flavors blended. I let it thicken somewhat, until it would coat the back of a spoon, but was careful not to let it scorch. Poured it out into a dish 备用。Rinsed and dried my wok. By now this rich sauce looks attractive and smells delicious. 熬好的酱特别香! Saute the potatoes and carrots until you see a little bit of color developing. No need to actually make them golden brown. Add the apples last, the idea being just to heat them through. Stir fry some more, medium heat, scoop it all out into a bowl and set aside for later 去锅,备用。 Ready now to cook the chicken, which has been marinating in the fridge. Hot wok, cold oil 热锅冷油 (old Chinese kitchen saying.) Stir fry 翻炒 it over high heat until you no longer see surface pink. The illustration below left shows that it still needs more time. Be careful, however, not to dry it out. Add the coconut milk. Curry recipes often call for adding sugar or even honey, but since this coconut milk is sweet, as are the apples, I didn't use any. Next add the curry base that you already prepared. Stir it well. Add some additional hot water if it looks too dry. Cover and cook on low for 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes 焖煮。This lets you check the progress and prevents it from sticking to the bottom of the wok. By now the chicken is cooked through 熟透 and the flavors are well developed. Time to return the vegetables to the wok and allow it all to marry. Cover and give it 15 minutes on low. Near the end of that time, check the potatoes and carrots to see if they pierce easily with a fork. This will let you know that they are done. Taste and adjust the salt (mine needed a little extra.) If there is still lots of liquid, turn up the flame and leave the lid off for a minute or so, stirring as it reduces. 至汤汁浓稠。Don't make it too dry, however, because that flavorful juice is delicious over rice. By now your rice is done, tender and piping hot. Notice the little steam holes telling you it's ready. Fluff it up with a pair of chopsticks and leave it in the rice cooker. Close the cover to keep it warm, but unplug it so that it does not continue to cook. The "keep warm" 保温 setting supplies too much heat. Time to eat. What I usually do is serve the first round as individual plates 盖饭 gaifan style to get everyone started. Then set the remainder of the curry on the table so my friends can help themselves to seconds (and thirds, and fourths.) The rice stays in the rice cooker, off to the side but within arm's reach. Hope you try it soon. One point three billion Chinese are unlikely to be wrong.
  18. Smoked tofu 豆腐干 or 香干 is one of those things that I would have given you a funny look about only a few short years ago. Today I can't get enough. It has its own distinctive flavor but also plays well with others. One traditional popular taste combination results from pairing it with slightly spicy tapered green peppers 青椒 or 青尖椒。This is one of those dishes that you can confidently order in any real Chinese kitchen from a simple hole in the wall to a prestigious place sporting a Michelin star. Let me show you how it worked out today, partly as a way to introduce you to yet another kind of tofu. It most often comes in rectangles about 4 by 6 inches and a bit less than half an inch thick. As you can see from these pics however, that is not a hard and fast rule. The ones I bought yesterday cost less than one Yuan each. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) At home I cut mine into thin strips 条。Sometimes I cut them into postage-stamp squares or cubes 丁 instead. Here's the green pepper 青椒, a large spring onion 大葱, and a few mushrooms 香菇。Later I added a red bell pepper 红椒 for enhanced eye appeal. Chopped a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜 and ginger 老姜。These green peppers have very little bite, but if you must have really bland food, substitute a green bell pepper. Got out a jar of Grandma's douchi 老干妈豆豉, a type of spicy fermented soybeans popular here, originally from Sichuan. Sometimes I supplement this with 豆瓣酱, but today I didn't have any on hand. Scooped out one heaping tablespoon of it into a small dish. That's how much I will use, and I wanted to show you what it looks like. Add a tablespoon or two of corn oil 食用油 to a flat-bottom skillet or a wok (both work well for this) and fry the aromatics over medium heat until they begin releasing their aroma 炒出香味。The aromatics here mean the onion, ginger and garlic. These are such a classic combination that in "recipe shorthand" they are written as one word without punctuation: 葱姜蒜。Then add the spicy fermented bean sauce 豆豉 and crush most of the whole beans with the back of a spoon. Add the smoked tofu strips 香干丝 and stir fry using flipping motions 翻炒 with your spatula tool 锅铲 for a minute or two, until everything begins to soften a little. The red pepper goes in last because it takes the least time to cook. It's OK to add a little water if needed to prevent things from burning. Some dishes need to be made dry 干煸, but this isn't one of them. Now sprinkle in a half teaspoon of salt 食用盐 and a quarter teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精。Add about a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and thicken the dish 收紧 with a small splash of corn starch slurry 水淀粉。Presto, you're done. Total time on the flame well under 5 minutes. Plate it up 装盘。Good eats! I've read that it's not difficult to smoke tofu in your back yard over coals, but haven't tried it. Obviously this dish goes well with steamed rice; after all, what doesn't? Easy to make, inexpensive, and tasty. If you live in China I would respectfully suggest that this needs to be part of your week-night arsenal to keep from relying too much on delivered take-out. If you live in the West, it will add some variety to your usual fare without taking much time or busting the budget.
  19. If you thought of loofah 丝瓜 as only being a luxurious exfoliating bath scrubber, well…stick around and prepare to have your horizons broadened. The young ones cook up into a very tasty vegetable that is popular in China, especially in the summer. Traditional Chinese Medicine ascribes it cooling properties 清凉, which is why your favorite Chinese grandmother 外婆 made it for you when growing up. She saw it as her sacred duty to keep your humors in balance. This is the kind of loofah you might be used to seeing. These are great for scrubbing away dead skin and are also good for scouring pots and pans in the kitchen. Loofah is a gourd that grows on a climbing vine, gaining maturity really fast. If picked young, it makes good food, and I'll show you how I cooked it up tonight. (Click the pictures to enlarge them.) Here they are at the market, each one adorned with a bright yellow flower. The flowers are edible and I'll show you how to cook those another time. Smaller loofah gourds are available as well, some only 6 or 8 inches long. This plant is related to cucumbers 黄瓜 and zucchini 小瓜。 Here, as all throughout the market, they are vying for table space with kugua 苦瓜 bitter melon, which are at their peak right now and selling like hotcakes. In selecting sigua 丝瓜, look for ones that are of uniform diameter, from stem to flower, end instead of ones that have a thick part and a thin part like a baseball bat or bowling pin. I bought two nice ones, firm and evenly colored, each about the length of my forearm. Together they cost 2.5 Yuan, equivalent to 30 odd cents US. Most of the ones on sale here are the "ribbed" variety, (shown below) because they have a better flavor. The smooth ones are slightly cheaper, but the better-tasting ribbed ones ones are really not going to bust your budget. Mine are laid out here with a couple fresh, sweet carrots 胡萝卜 and some garlic 大蒜 plus a small piece of ginger 老姜。 I bought a few mushrooms 香菇 and a couple large spring onions 大葱。Had some premium Yunnan slow-cured ham/huotui 云南宣威火腿 in the fridge and I pressed it into service. Had I not had any ham, could have used a couple pieces of bacon. One can also make this dish meatless or with tofu. Sliced thin pieces of ham then cut them into slivers. Washed the mushrooms and cut away the stems. Instead of slicing them, cut them into thick sections so they would cook a bit slower and retain more texture. Cut the carrot and the spring onion. Finely chopped the garlic and the ginger. Kept them separate from eachother so I could give the ginger a few seconds head start. (It cooks a little slower than garlic.) Got out several dried red peppers 干辣椒。After all, this is Yunnan. Once everything else was ready, it was time to prep the sigua 丝瓜。Do it last since if it stands too long after being cut, it turns brown. Peel it about half way, strips of skin removed but also leaving some. If you buy smaller sigua, no need to peel it at all. Cut it in rolling wedges, rotating the gourd about 90 degrees between cuts. This looks nice plus it exposes more cut surface area to the spices and lets it absorb more flavor while still cooking fast. The flesh should look white and homogeneous, without prominent cavities or seeds. All set. Ready to fire up the wok. At this point I like to pause and mentally go through the order in which I'll put ingredients on the flame. Items that require more cooking time go in first. I also set out all the spices I'll need right beside the stove top so as to avoid last minute fumbling. In this case, I set out some salt 食用盐, sugar 白砂糖, MSG 味精。A bottle of soy sauce 生抽 and another of aged vinegar 老陈醋。Put a teaspoon of corn starch 淀粉 into a small bowl with enough water to dissolve it into a slurry 水淀粉。 Wok goes onto high flame, when it's plenty hot but not smoking, add the oil. Add the main aromatics (蒜姜.) When they become fragrant 爆香, add the carrots. Once they begin to soften, add the ham, then the mushrooms. All this takes maybe 90 seconds. Stir constantly. Mushrooms release some of their moisture as they cook and following that, they reduce in volume. That's your cue to add the spring onions; don't wait for the mushrooms to brown. You've set the stage for the entry of the star, the tender and juicy loofah gourd/sigua 丝瓜。Put them in the middle, just like you've done with each new ingredient. That's the beauty of a wok for making quick-fried Chinese dishes like this: add new things to the hottest part in the center as you push other ingredients up the sides. Don't walk away. Keep stirring and flipping things 翻炒 as they cook. Turn the heat down to medium. If it looks dry, add a splash of water; don't let it burn. This is the point at which I add dry and wet spices, blending well. 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of MSG (optional), 1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. Nothing overwhelming. The sigua gourd 丝瓜 itself has a gentle taste; don't want to hide it or cover it up. Poke a piece of gourd with your chopsticks to gauge resistance; indents easily when the vegetable is done; you can also stick it with a fork. The goal is to have it cooked through without becoming soft. Doesn't take long. Total cooking time is only 4 or 5 minutes. Just as everything is done, add the corn starch slurry. This thickens the sauce and binds the flavors. Serve it up. Goes well with steamed rice. And there you have it: a fresh, tasty supper from the lowly loofah gourd.
  20. It's been a cold and rainy October; perfect weather for beef stew. Sometimes I make this dish with shortcuts, but today I had time for the "top shelf" version. It took several hours, but came out delicious. Let me show you how to do it. Buy a good looking piece of beef; I most often go for brisket 牛胸肉 or a rib cut 肋排肉。You can use shoulder or rump, but they are tougher and take a little longer to get done. I ask my butcher to include a couple of marrow bones 筒骨; sometimes she is in a good mood and tosses them in free because I am a regular customer 老顾客。Sometimes I have to pay, but even then it's usually only ¥5 extra. Don't need to trim it, just rinse well under tap water 洗净 and cut it into more or less equal sized pieces 切块。This piece of beef weighted 600 grams and cost 38 Yuan. (BTW, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) Put these in a pan with cold water and let them soak 30 minutes. Don't add anything. Some blood will come out and slightly color the water. Here are before and after shots. I use that 30 minutes to prepare dry seasonings for the next step. Boil some water in your wok (no need to get another pot dirty.) Add a splash of yellow cooking wine 黄酒 and a few slices of ginger (don't need to peel it.) Simmer it for two minutes and scoop off the foam 去掉浮沫。Lift out the meat and discard that water. Don't worry about losing flavor; a couple minutes of boiling here just cleans the meat; the long, slow stewing yet to come will develop plenty more good tastes. Let the meat drain and then blot it dry with paper towels so it won't splatter too much when you brown it in oil. Here are the dry spices: a few dry red chilies 干辣椒 at 12 noon, two pods of cardamom 草果 at 2 o'clock. Smash them open with the heavy blunt handle of your knife so they will release their flavor more readily. Cassia bark is next at 6 o'clock. (It's a relative of cinnamon.) At 9 o'clock are two pods of star anise 八角,and in the middle are two or three bay leaves 香叶。Not shown in this photo is a tablespoon of rock sugar 冰糖。 Crush some garlic, two or three cloves, and slice it coarsely. Several large slices of ginger; no need to peel it; cut them big so you can pick them out later before serving. Lay out a heaping tablespoon of rock sugar 冰糖。(This will help give the meat a pleasant golden color. I've included a closer look at the magic ingredient that some people call "The Soul of Sichuan Cuisine." It's Pixian Douban Jiang 郫县豆瓣酱, a fiery paste, concocted of fermented soybeans, broad beans, rice and crushed chilies. It's beloved in Yunnan too, and I buy it in bulk from the spice lady at my nearby wet market so I can always have some in the fridge when needed. It's a staple in my house. A thoroughly worthwhile condiment. It's available in jars from your Asian market or from Amazon. Now you want to brown the meat. Put a couple tablespoons of oil into your wok (which you have dried well after using it to boil the beef) and stir the meat cubes around until it develops some color. One at a time, add the rock sugar 冰糖, ginger, garlic, and the Pixian doubanjiang. You probably recognize this way of starting the meat as typical of recipes for making red cooked beef 红烧牛肉。 Now scoop this out into your pressure cooker 压力锅 with enough water or stock to cover generously .Remember, your vegetables will be added later and the liquid level should be enough to cover them as well. I prefer to use stock, and usually have some in the freezer which I thaw and use for things like this in place of plain water. Add any remaining dry condiments. Deglaze the wok with cooking wine 黄酒 and pour that flavorful juice into the the pressure cooker as well. Put the big marrow bone in with the meat. Add two tablespoons of soy sauce 生抽, a teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。 Close the top and cook it using the "beef/lamb" cycle 牛羊肉。On my pressure cooker that is 25 minutes. When it turns off, don't immediately open the lid with a "quick release" method; give it time to come down to zero pressure on its own. On mine, that means waiting another 25 minutes or so. I use that time to wash up any dishes that have accumulated during the meat prep. Clean and put away my wok. If you don't have a pressure cooker, this stew can be made in a big clay pot set over a burner of your stove, using a very low flame. That requires periodic stirring attention so that it doesn't run dry or scorch on the bottom. A better alternative is an electric clay pot slow cooker 紫砂电锅。These are common in China and usually cost about the same as a pressure cooker (¥350 to ¥450 or so.) Need to allow 4 or 5 hours of slow cooking time. Start it on high and reduce the heat to low after it reaches a boil. I used one of these for years and loved it; only this year did I buy a pressure cooker. When the cooking cycle completes, let the pressure come down on it's own as before. Open it and lift out any pieces of meat that offend you with too much fat or heavy gristle. It's better to trim it now than when it was raw; you lose less flavor. Here's what I discarded, shown below. The immensely-practical Chinese way is to leave it all intact, and let each person just spit out what they don't want later at the table. The remaining beef is now almost tender enough, but not quite. I washed the mint, lovely and fresh. It's an essential part of Yunnan cuisine and even the supermarkets stock it, a large bouquet of it for only a few Yuan. Furthermore, it goes extremely well with beef; the flavors are complimentary. Now add a generous handful of mint and give the meat another cycle, just like the one you did a few minutes ago. This is a good time to get the vegetables ready, except for the shanyao 山药 because it discolors if it stands exposed to air. (You can put it in cold water after cleaning it to retard that process.) I used half an onion. Slipped off the tomato skin by dunking it in boiling water for a minute or so, scoring it with a knife after cooling it enough to handle (using cold running water.) Next I got the shanyao ready. Wash it well with running water; scrub it a little 擦干净。 Since it grows in the earth, sand and soil remain when it is harvested. Shanyao 山药, the name literally means "mountain medicine," is a rhizome, it grows underground in sections up to about three feet long. The best of it is harvested in winter. Chinese Traditional Medicine calls it a "restorative" and "anti-aging" vegetable. Said to "nourish your Qi." It's a highly-recommended cold weather food: suitable for fall and winter. Then peel it and cut it into "rolling sections" 切棍块 -- rotate the stick of shanyao half a turn with each cut to wind up with wedge-shaped sections. It is mucilagenous and slippery; hard to handle. (That feature disappears when cooked.) I used 300 grams today (about half the amount of meat.) My carrot weighed 250 grams. When the second cooking cycle completes and the temperature comes down to a safe level, open the pressure cooker, remove the bone and lift out the mint. Also fish out big pieces of ginger, star anise, bay leaves, and cassia bark. Anything that you would not like as an alien surprise when you are wolfing down your stew. Add the vegetables and cook it on a short cycle of 8 or 10 minutes. On my cooker the fish program does a fine job of cooking the vegetables and blending the flavors. Be careful with adding salt; the doubanjiang is salty, as is the soy sauce. A pinch is OK, but don't overdo it. When it comes down to a safe temperature, open and serve. The beef is tender enough to tear it with your chopsticks. The meat has acquired a flavor profile similar to that of 红烧牛肉 (red cooked beef.) I garnish the serving bowl and each individual bowl with a few pieces of mint, not just for looks but so we can eat it as we enjoy the stew. That's common practice in Yunnan, land of mint and peppers. It's not quick and easy, but it's bold and balanced: worth the effort. Try it once and you will never look back.
  21. 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.
  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. 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.
  24. Most of the year one can only find dried lily bulbs 干百合, suitable for making porridge 百合粥, but during July and August fresh ones 新鲜百合 hit the market in a big way. Versatile and tasty. These are one of those things that you won’t find in the west; reason enough to try them while you’re here. These root bulbs grow deep in moist soil, concentrating nourishment so the lily plant can form its flowers. Botanists call them "storage organs" and refer to them as "energy reservoirs." They have a firm and slightly crunchy texture, not unlike that of fingerling new potatoes; a pleasant, mostly bland flavor with a mildly sweet aftertaste. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) assigns them lots of benefits. They are frequently recommended as a food that can help rid your system of excess internal heat; plus they moisturize the lungs, thus reducing cough 润肺治咳。Furthermore, with continued use they are said to promote restful sleep at night 安眠的作用。 (This lily flower is a Baidu picture.) Ducked out between rain showers this afternoon and bought some at the local farmers market. Decided to pair them with tender snow peas 荷兰豆 and a sweet organic carrot 有机或萝卜。Added a few slivers of Yunnan ham 宣威火腿 to boost the flavor. Minced one head of single-clove garlic 独蒜。(Please click the photos to enlarge them.) The seller had older, more mature snow peas (shown on the left of the frame above) as well as the very tender young ones that I was after. Bigger ones are cheaper, but both kinds are inexpensive. Wash them and snap off the stem. These usually don’t have tough “strings” along the seam. Scrub and slice the carrot (doesn’t need to be peeled.) Here's a closeup showing how these are mostly "pod" at this stage, with only undeveloped peas inside. Lily bulbs grow in moist sandy soil , usually requiring full sun. They need to be washed well, all grit removed. The way to do this is to take them apart by hand, peeling off one petal at a time. Each bulb has a woody "stem" or "bud" that should be removed and discarded, as should any brown or damaged parts. These tough central bits become next year's flowers, but they aren't good to eat. Wash the petals again after they are “disassembled.” Each bulb required almost a minute. I used three of them. I blanched the cleaned lily petals and the sliced carrot for half a minute in a pot of lightly salted water. If the snow peas had been more mature and tougher, I would have blanched them too. Heat the wok over high flame, add a little oil. Start with the ham and minced garlic. Add the lily petals and carrot slices. Keep them moving briskly for half a minute or so until they begin to soften. Add the snow peas. Stir and flip, shake the wok, only about a minute more. You want the vegetables to be tender, but still retain their crunch. Add a light sprinkle of salt (remember that the ham is salty.) That’s all. No need for chili peppers or complex sauces. You want the gentle flavors of the lily, carrot, and peas to shine. Serve it as part of a larger meal or alone with steamed white rice. Clean and simple taste. Fresh seasonal combinations like this are one of the glories of China. Not much trouble; not much expense. Don’t let them pass you by.
  25. I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the classics of Chinese cuisine, things you run into again and again in simple mom-and-pop restaurants all over China. Would want to focus on dishes that are easy to make at home; ones that don't require exotic ingredients or specialized equipment. Have bought the fixings for 红烧茄子 -- hongshao qiezi (red-braised eggplant) and will make it later tonight to kick things off. It's good either meatless for vegetarians, or with meat for omnivores. The method of making it is easy to adapt to other red-braised dishes, such as Chairman Mao's beloved 红烧肉 -- hongshao rou (red-braised pork,) red-braised ribs 红烧排骨, red-braised chicken wings 红烧鸡翅 and so on. My short list so far has 鱼香肉丝 -- yuxiang rousi (fish-flavored pork slivers), which doesn't taste anything like fish, but is spicy and loaded with southwest charm. The same technique and flavor palette can be used with eggplant to make 鱼香茄子 -- yuxiang qiezi if one does not eat meat. Also thought I'd make 扬州炒饭 -- yangzhou chaofan (Yangzhou fried rice,) not only because it's great in its own right, but as a rough template for how to make other kinds of fried rice. Please let me know what else you think should be included. Everyone is also welcome to post their own recipes, preferably with photos to make them easier to understand and use.
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