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  1. This cornerstone condiment is somewhat unusual in that it's not only found in every Southwest China kitchen for daily use in cooking, but it is found on nearly every restaurant table as well, in an open-top jar or small ceramic pot. You won't find a salt shaker on cafe tables in Kunming, but even the simplest 小吃店 snack shop has some of this 红油 readily available so you can easily add it to your noodles 米线, fried rice 炒饭 or wonton 红油馄钝。 Let me show you how to make it at home. Sure you can buy it ready-made, and that's better than going without. But when you make it by hand in your own kitchen you will know what goes in it. No artificial coloring or flavoring, no MSG, no unpronounceable stabilizers and preservatives. First and foremost you need some dried chilies 干辣椒。I made a small batch yesterday afternoon and it required two large handfuls, on my small kitchen scale this was 50 grams. Rinse them quickly to remove any dust, and spread them out to dry thoroughly in the sun. Smash a thumb-sized piece of ginger 老姜, two large cloves of garlic 大蒜。Coarsely cut the white part of one large spring onion 大葱。Set these aside and turn your attention to the dry spices. Cinnamon bark 桂皮 at 12 o'clock, followed by a smashed cardamom pod 草果,a piece of dried orange peel 橙皮,two or three star anise 八角,two bay leaves 香叶,four or five cloves 丁香,a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns 花椒,most of a tablespoon of white sesame seeds 白芝麻,and finishing up at 11o'clock with a teaspoon of fennel seeds 小茴香。Toast these quickly over medium-low heat in a dry skillet, shaking it constantly so they don't burn. Take them out and then toast the dry red peppers the same way, again being careful not to let them get too hot. This slight caramelization of the peppers really boosts the flavor of the finished sauce. (But I must caution you that this step is where it's easy to go wrong; it's easy to scorch them if your attention wanders.) Now grind the peppers fine either using a mortar and pestle or a blender 搅拌机。You want a coarse powder, not chunks and flakes. Might mention that if you want to tone down the Scoville heat a little, you can remove some of the seeds now, before you do the grinding. On the other hand, if you want to soup it up and give it more kick, this is the place to add a small amount of some other smaller, more pungent dry chilies, chopped fine. Plenty of options exist. Your 50 grams of dry peppers should yield about half a cup when ground. Pour this into a heat-proof bowl (I use metal) and scoop out a hole in the middle like the crater of a volcano. Now pour a little more than one cup of rape seed oil 菜籽油 into the skillet 平底锅 with the toasted dry spices and the ginger, scallion and garlic. Use medium heat to gently fry these flavor ingredients for three to five minutes. Don't let the oil get hot enough to smoke. When you can smell the aroma of the spices and can see the white scallions and garlic beginning to get golden brown 金黄,take it off the flame and strain the oil. Discard the solids and return the oil to the heat. When the oil reaches the point of just barely beginning to smoke, turn off the flame. Pour about a third of it into the dry peppers and stir quickly with chopsticks as it boils, fizzes and bubbles. Let the oil stand for another few seconds, most of a minute, and then pour another third into the peppers and stir, just like before. After a few more seconds, half a minute or so, add the sesame seeds and pour in the remaining hot oil, stirring it some more. It is said that pouring the oil in stages like this lets the hottest oil develops the fragrance (增香) of the ground chilies, while the second develops the red color (颜色变红) and the third balances their heat (会辣)。 The old Chinese kitchen saying that deals with this is 一香二红三辣。 Let it cool overnight to let the flavors blend before using. It also gets more red as it stands. Some of it can be stored in a small ceramic pot on the table and the rest can be put away in a screw-top jar in the fridge, where it will last 3 or 4 months. Of course if you live in Sichuan or Yunnan, you will use it all up long before then. In the photos below, I've poured some in a plate so you can see it better. This red chili oil 红油 is good stuff! Versatile and tasty. It's fragrant, rounded and balanced; pungent, yet without any sharp bite. Much more to it than simple liquid fire. Makes a great dipping sauce for 饺子 jiaozi, combined with equal parts soy sauce 酱油 and black vinegar 黑醋。
  2. Here's a rough guide to what fruits are in season now, early summer. I hope it might be useful to you in staying well fed while you are in China. The list will obviously differ from one part of China to another. Best to ask some local gray-hair/long-beard types who have lived in your new temporary hometown for a long time. Even many younger locals, especially the women, will have been schooled by their mothers and grandmothers and can help you some. In the market I always ask lots of questions. I ask the old lady who is shopping for same thing I am why she buys this piece of fruit instead of that one. Why the dark ones and not the light ones?; why the ones with leaves attached?; why those big ones with the obvious blemishes? They usually seem to enjoy helping me. I also ask the vendors why one bin costs more than the one next to it. Maybe simply that these are small and those are large. Maybe those others over there are very ripe and need to be used today. Vendor must move them out. Don’t assume or guess; better to ask. What I did when starting out was to actually follow people who seemed to fit the demographic of “wise locals” in the outdoor wet market/"farmers market" 农贸市场 and copy their buying habits. I also made a note of how much they paid after bargaining, so I didn't have to shell out the "foreigner price." I took lots mobile-phone snapshots; still do. I made a point to learn the name of things. I asked the vendor, I looked for signs. I whipped out my notebook and a pencil and asked someone standing nearby to write it out for me. Then I read up on it when I got home to try and learn a little more. Baidu is great for that. Run it through a translation app if your Chinese isn’t up to the task. Vendors love to tell you how to cook whatever it is that they sell. 95% of them are eager to help you turn it into a good meal. Share your plans. “I was thinking about frying this with some ham, what do you think?” Some are reserved at first, but once they see your ears are open, realize you aren't arrogant, the good, sound advice pours out. It can be priceless; save you tons of grief. Don't try to be James Bond about any of this; it is not a covert action. If people gave me a funny look, I just explained I was recently arrived here on these shores and was trying to learn how to shop wisely by studying their methods. Most seemed flattered and some took me under their wing to voluntarily explain all sorts of other stuff I would not have dreamed to ask. Even what bus to take to get home, where to get an honest bowl of noodle soup; good place for a haircut or a foot massage. One very common buying axiom, that locals apply to most vegetables as well as fruits, was “buy it today, cook it today” 今天买,今天吃。 Especially true for leafy greens, of course. Potatoes, carrots, and big red onions would a keep a couple days longer. Ginger and garlic could be kept on hand. There were other exceptions: lemons, limes and oranges could last several days. Several fruits are better poached or stewed. Seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. This is probably the default method to enjoy local peaches and plums, for example. Lots of Chinese people seldom eat them raw. Poaching enhances flavor; boosts the taste. Some fruits are real good steamed, even though that approach is uncommon in the west. I seldom, almost never, buy fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. Very simple reason: longer supply chain. It may have been picked or harvested a couple weeks ago. The produce I get at the outdoor market was in the ground or on the tree yesterday. At least much of it. Need to seek it out. Learn how to get the good stuff for your own table. One insider's tip: shop in the morning if you possibly can. Vendors often sprinkle water on fruit (and vegetables) all through the day to keep it looking fresh. You don’t have to be a great sleuth to figure most of this out. If you go to a fruit store 水果店, just look to see what’s featured; what gets most of the counter space. If you go to the outdoor farmers market, see what is piled up left and right. See where locals are lining up and look at what’s in their shopping bags if you meet them on the street. Anyhow here’s a “from the top of my head” list of what fruit is locally available and in season now in Kunming. Please contribute if you see errors or omissions. Please expand it with info from your part of China. Remember, where you live the crops might very well be different; Harbin is a long way from Guangzhou. Apricots, peaches, plums, nectarines. These are the “summer stone fruits.” 杏儿、桃子、梅子、油桃。Good right now. Will be finished in three weeks or so, depending on the weather (mainly how much rain falls.) Here's a recent post about one good way to deal with the peaches: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58514-local-peaches-poach-them-please-煮熟桃子/?tab=comments#comment-454606 Smaller, locally grown cherries 樱桃 are in season now (almost at the end.) The great big ones 车厘子 from South America (Chile) arrive in the winter. Blueberries 蓝莓 are abundant now, but they have a short season. Won't last long. Big ones cost more than little ones. Mangoes 芒果 are in. Lots of them are from Thailand and Burma. They will get cheaper in a week or two. In three or four weeks, they will have vanished. Watermelon 西瓜 is abundant and flavorful. I think the small ones are sweeter. Some are trucked in from Burma. 5 or 6 yuan per kilo. Get the seller to cut it up. Doesn't cost any extra. (Ditto for other melons.) Cantaloupe 哈密瓜 and Honeydew melon 蜜露瓜 are good now. They are just starting. Some are local, some from Xinjiang and Qinghai. The best will be from Xinjiang in two or three weeks. Grapes 葡萄。Many local, green ones and red ones; seedless and seeded; tender skin and thick skin. Large vineyards near Mile 弥勒县。Some brought in from Xinjiang and Qinghai. Parts of Gansu and Ningxia. Bananas are still good. They have a long season. Some are from South Yunnan. Some are from Hainan. 5 to 10 Yuan per kilo. The small ones from South Yunnan are excellent. They are called 八角 and have twice the flavor of the big ones. Cost 50% more. Lemons are cheap and good; limes are expensive and kind of dry. Six weeks ago, the situation was reversed. Dragonfruit 火龙果 is good now; plentiful and relatively cheap. 10 to 15 Yuan per kilo. Lychee 荔枝 are great now. About 15 Yuan/kilo. Look for ones that say 妃子笑。It’s a particularly flavorful cultivar. Local ones from South Yunnan, Honghe Prefecture. Many are from Vietnam. Some from Thailand. Longyan 龙眼 aren’t ready yet, but will be soon. Wait a week or two. Keep your eyes peeled. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries are over for the year. So are local (south Yunnan) pineapples. You can still find a few, but they cost twice what they did three weeks ago. Forget about avocados牛油果。Imported ones don’t ripen well and cost way too much. Local ones are scarce. Chinese don’t much like them. No demand means very limited production. Grapefruits 西柚/葡萄柚 are arriving to some fruit stands, not all. They aren't local; not sure where they're from. Frankly, I"m not sure about them. Pomelo 柚子 (much larger than grapefruit) is finished (it’s a winter fruit.) See a few oranges and tangerines, but not many. (More in the cold months.) Pears get good when the weather turns chilly in the fall of the year, after 中秋节。Apples are at their best in fall and winter too. The big orchards of NE Yunnan are dormant now, for example. (昭通州) Shanzhu 山竹 (mangosteen) are finished for the year. Best are from Thailand. Yangmei 杨梅 and rambutan 红毛丹 are finished for the year. (early spring fruit.)
  3. abcdefg

    Dim Sum Menu

    Here is the menu for the recent food article in which I reported on three mornings of Cantonese dim sum. This menu is from Yulong Seafood Hotpot Restaurant in Macau, near Ponte 16. The dim sum article is here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/54982-enjoying-dim-sum/?tab=comments#comment-424075 (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) The waitress brings a pencil along with the menu, and you put a check mark below the items that you want to eat. She told me it didn't matter which box I checked, one of which is for ordering an item a la carte 单点 and the other for ordering an item as part of a larger meal 加单。 She returns later with a typed receipt for the order as it was entered into their system. Always a good idea to double check at that point to be sure there was no mixup. Pricing category designations appear beside the name of the item: 特点,大点,中点,小点。 I always try to pick up a blank extra menu so I can study it at my leisure later in the day and do a better job of ordering tomorrow.
  4. Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节 has brought too much rich and spicy food my way, even though I dearly love it. And on top of that, I've been the recipient of a couple decorative boxes of million-calorie moon cake 月饼。Yesterday I attended two banquets, lunch and supper. Thank goodness the second one included a particularly welcome "recovery dish." It hit the spot and I vowed to learn how to make it. Wasn't hard at all: let me show you. It involves a sublimely simple stew of green beans 四季豆, zucchini squash 小瓜,and eggplant 茄子。 First, here's a quick look at some of the high points of yesterday's banquet number one. It was held in a private dining room on the third floor of a local restaurant. You can probably recognize most of these delicious Yunnan and Southwest China dishes. (I'll include a key at the end so as not to spoil your guessing game.) (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) This was washed down with beer 啤酒 and baijiu 白酒 (China's own "white lightning"), cola and orange soda being available in reserve. This busy, no-frills restaurant is popular with locals; I've been there several times. Their food is always spot on and service is snappy. According to their menu, they were founded in 1983. Late afternoon I visited the home of some friends for a home-made meal every bit as good. I actually prefer that setting since I can wander into the kitchen and watch how things are done. By about 6:30, we had another delicious but filling meal which included two pressure-cooked and deep fried pigs feet in a fiery sauce. Two kinds of sausage 香肠, red cooked beef 红烧牛肉, a chicken floating in lovely mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers 花椒鸡, on and on. Here's a look at the chock-full festive table, plus a close up of the very basic vegetable dish which was such a revelation. The lady of the house explained that the green beans and zucchini both had a slightly sweet taste and needed to be cooked together without the addition of any spices, not even salt. I thought that was strange and was afraid it might be boring, but by golly it did taste refreshing that way. She made it with enough water in the pot to provide a clear soup to have along with steamed white rice as the meal drew to a close. She said she often made it with eggplant as well. The zucchini were just torn into large chunks, "farmer crude." This morning I bought the ingredients at the wet market and explained to the bean seller what I had in mind. She cautioned me again to use no salt. "千万不要放盐。什么都调料不妨。" No if's, and's, or but's about it. I had my marching orders. These 四季豆 beans (left in the photo) are broader and "meatier" than their two-foot-long cousins (长豆)。You may have eaten them in their most popular incarnation: 四川干煸四季豆 (dry-fried Sichuan style.) Here's the starting line-up. Use long, skinny Asian eggplants. No need to remove the skin. These 小瓜 are not actually zucchini, but very close. Other members of the squash family will work as well. Wash the beans, trim the ends and cut them in half. Cut the zucchini and eggplant into large chunks, thirds or fourths. Put them together with the beans into a pot with enough water to barely cover and start on high, but quickly reduce the heat to a simmer. Remember, no salt. No cooking wine, no pepper, no vinegar; "no nothing." As the lady said, “什么都不妨。" Put on the lid, but leave it ajar. After 12 or 15 or minutes, when the vegetables are beginning to get tender, cut the core out of a fresh tomato and add it to the pot. The idea is just to use the boiling water to soften it; don't let it cook apart. Remove the tomato to a bowl and slide off the skin. Coarsely break it apart using a spoon plus a dull knife. Finely cut a couple of spring onions 小葱,some ginger 生姜 and garlic, 大蒜 plus a scant teaspoon of hot sauce 辣椒酱。(Not enough to make it fiery, just enough to wake it up.) Mix these with the crushed tomato. Add light soy sauce 生抽, a pinch of sugar 白砂糖, a pinch of salt 食用盐。This is to be your dipping sauce 蘸水。 Take out the cooked vegetables, serving them in a bowl with lots of juice. Keep the remainder of the juice to use as a subtle clear soup. Offer it at the end of the meal along with a bowl of rice. Kind of cleans the palate. Provides a gentle and refreshing change of pace from all the highly-seasoned and fried foods that were the stars of the meal. The vegetables are soft, but not mushy. This is a traditional accompaniment to a family feast. You may or may not find it in a restaurant because it doesn't have much glamour, doesn't do much to boost your 面子 ("face") when ordering it for guests.
  5. Here's the backstory to yesterday's recipe. (Link, in case you missed it: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56622-spicy-green-peppers-and-mushrooms-香菇炒青椒/?tab=comments#comment-438182 ) Let me give you a look at my trip to the outdoor market for the ingredients. It's a look at my neighborhood wet market in early summer. It's also a daily-life taste of the non-tourist China. (As usual, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It was clear that lots of people had the same idea at the same time because it was hard to find a place to park my bike outside the gate. As previously mentioned, rainy season has arrived, and we all rush out to do errands when we get a blue-sky sunny day. We have begun to see some wild mushrooms for sale, though not the abundance that will be here in a month. As business is slow, the vendor even has time to puff his Yunnan water pipe, lower right. Instead of buying wild ones today, I headed for the large table where they sell an assortment of cultivated mushrooms. The boss was having a reflective moment, contemplating the meaning of life. Next door, I bought a pile of dragon fruit 火龙果. They were being sold by the pile 一堆 instead of by weight. You couldn't sort through them, but my pile had 4 fruits for 10 Yuan, so I wasn't about to complain. These had been brought up from Vietnam. One of the glories of this market is the large assortment of fermented condiments, pickled vegetables and vibrant Yunnan spices. Look at the lovely long red pickled peppers in the photo lower right. They are not as hot as they look and make a great accompaniment to a roast chicken. Today I bought a chunk of lufu 油卤腐, a specialty of nearby Yuxi 玉溪。It's a rather strange salty and spicy fermented product, made from hairy tofu 毛豆腐 pickled in chilies and oil for several months. It's pungent and sort of stinky; reminiscent of Limburger cheese, great spread onto a fresh steamed bun baozi 包子。 Even better when spread on one of these steamed braided buns hua juan 花卷。Doubt it will ever be a hit with Joe Sixpack back in Texas. Here's the source of the peppers in yesterday's meal. They are abundant just now. I bought the green ones 青椒 or 青辣尖椒, but red ones are available too. They are moderately piquant, and sometimes I prefer small red bell peppers instead. Yunnan people love their peppers and one can find a couple dozen different kinds. I stopped to say hello to Mr. Gao, purveyor of edible flowers. I sometimes cook the large yellow ones, but never got around to making the photos to show you. They are very tasty, but require some extra work. Today he had a basket of perfect jumbo figs, bottom left corner of his display. I bought a few one day early last week; an experience to be long treasured; goodness they were sweet. One fills you up and makes the sun shine even at night. A few meters away, a cluster of people looked over the lettuce and cabbage. It was a popular spot: prices were low and quality was high. It was early in the day, and the place I usually buy roast duck was just gearing up for round two. They hang the birds to air dry for a while before rubbing them inside and out with spices. Then they put them into sealed clay ovens to roast slow. This produces the famous Yilaing roast duck 宜良烤鸭 for which this region is famous. It rivals those from Beijing. They are prized for their tender meat and their crispy skin 脆皮。 Next door someone was selling roast duck by the kilo. They were cheaper because they were prepared somewhere off premises. Competition was stiff and they had a bowl of free samples that you could spear with a toothpick. This middle-aged couple lingered there a long time, sampling steadily as if trying to make up their minds. They didn't fool me and they probably didn't fool the duck seller; eventually they moved on without making a purchase. At the bottom of the frame, lower right, notice the big metal pan of spicy Yunnan chicken feet. They are not for the faint of heart. By now it was time for a bowl of one of my favorite local specialties, silky tofu "flowers" on rice noodles with a pungent pickled vegetable sauce 豆花米线。Mine had a sprinkling of ground meat, although they make a meatless version as well. 7 Yuan for a medium serving. The boss was bouncing a baby on his knee. I asked if it was his grandson. "No, he is my neighbor's.” 他是隔壁的。In a couple minutes the mother came over from the stall next door to reclaim her happy little boy. On the way out with my trophies, I passed some zongzi 粽子 booths just getting cranked up. Dragon Boat festival 端午节 is on the horizon and will be here in less than two weeks. Zongzi made with Yunnan ham 云南宣威火腿 are very popular here. Made my way back to the street, passing some free lancers selling small items they had carried in by hand. Outside the market proper there are always several small mobile vendors selling just a few items. Doubt they are really making a living; more likely just supplementing their slim pensions. The old man had brought in some small dried fishes, carried in two baskets on either end of a bamboo shoulder pole 扛。 When people back home ask me about the "Real China," I never know quite what to say, then I think about places like this. Ten minutes by bicycle from my apartment.
  6. Here's another good way to turn Chinese chives (jiucai 韭菜) into something tasty without too much trouble. Admittedly, it requires a little more effort than the simple stir fry scramble that we made with them a couple days ago, but not a whole lot. That recipe is here in case you missed it: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56328-chinese-chives-韭菜-two-or-three-ways/?tab=comments#comment-435504 Today we'll make griddle cakes 煎饼 which can easily serve as a breakfast or as the backbone of a light supper or lunch. Adding a bowl of rice, a salad or a soup turns it into a decent, well-balanced meal. Start with the same primary ingredient 主料, namely a bundle of fresh jiucai 韭菜, aka Chinese chives. The first time or two that you make this, you might want to be more careful with the weights and the measures, though after that it's fine to just work by eye. This handful of jiucai weighed about 250 grams when I started, and about 200 grams after pulling off brown or dead leaves and trimming away the tough sandy/muddy ends of the white stems. Washed them well three times, until the wash water remained completely clean to the eye. Drain in a colander and blot dry. This time, instead of cutting them into short pieces like we did before, I chopped them up fine. This makes them easier to incorporate into a batter a few minutes later on. Also cut up a few slices of lean ham/huotui 火腿, this time using some I bought in the store instead of my favorite which comes from the wet market a little farther away. Canadian bacon would work well in place of this if you live in the west. Finely diced half a large carrot and lightly beat two fresh eggs in a small bowl with my chopsticks. Made a thin batter from 50 grams of all purpose flour and about half a cup of potable water. Stirred it well with a fork. You could also use a small balloon whisk for this, but an electric mixer would be overkill. Mix in the two eggs, followed by the ham, carrots, and jiucai. Stir it well to evenly distribute all ingredients, adding about a half teaspoon of salt 食盐 as you work. 搅拌均匀。It should be a somewhat soupy, wet batter for this particular use; not a thick, stiff batter like you might prefer in some other applications. Use a non-stick flat-bottom saute pan 不粘平底锅 for this instead of your trusty wok. If you don't have one of those, don't despair. A well seasoned wok will also get the job done, though it requires a little more oil. Heat your pan over medium heat and add the batter using a large spoon. The individual cakes won't be perfectly round, but don't fret about that. It's not your year for that second Michelin star anyhow. After a couple of minutes, turn them with a silicone spatula and a pair of chopsticks. Let the second side brown as well. By now the centers are well cooked, but still moist. Take them out of the pan and reserve 备用 on a preheated plate or platter. You will probably have to make them in two batches. What I do is pour boiling water over a large plate and then dry it. Cover the finished griddle cakes 煎饼 loosely with a clean kitchen towel. This way your fresh-cooked goodies are still hot when they reach the table. Dig in. You and your friends or family are ready to enjoy a home-made jiucai treat.
  7. abcdefg

    Roast duck mango salad

    Summer is approaching fast and, as the days get warmer, a hearty salad sometimes hits the spot for supper. Here's one of my favorites. Cannot really call it Old School Yunnan cooking, but it nonetheless is a fine fusion of some classic local flavors. The duck was one of our prized Yiliang birds, purchased from the market for 25 Yuan. The type of bird and the method of cooking it are different from the more famous Beijing roast duck. The bird is very succulent, with crisp skin, partly attributed to being roasted in large, free-standing clay ovens. They originated east of Kunming, not far from Stone Forest in the small town of Yiliang 宜良县城 but now are widely found in Kunming as well. We old timey locals brag that they put Beijing ducks to shame. The vendor usually chops them into pieces for you, but today I asked him not to. Was a little surprised that it was a trick to find the right verb. They don't call it qie 切 or duo 剁,instead using kan 砍。"老板请不要砍" got the job done. (Remember you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The mangoes were from Thailand, and cost 12 Yuan a kilo. Price will come down a little next month. These are "sheng de long" mangoes 圣德龙, a sweet, sought-after variety. The seller will help you select a couple that are ready now, today and tomorrow, and a couple others that will be ripe towards the end of the week. Took me most of my first mango season to master this simple trick of "strategic spaced purchasing." Transported my bounty home in the basket on the handlebars of my bike. Wasn't feeling terribly ambitious, but fortunately this dish is really easy to make and doesn't even require turning on the stove. Bought a sweet Bermuda onion 洋葱 and a small bunch of fresh cilantro with the stems 香菜。A crisp Asian cucumber 黄瓜 and a couple limes 青柠檬。These cucumbers are long with tender skin that isn't bitter. I only partly peel them. The limes have less bite than Chinese lemons. Rough cut half of the onion. This ginger is different from what is usually exported: it's fresh 生姜 instead of dried 老姜。It has a milder flavor; you can use more of it with impunity. Coarsely sliced a big piece of it, the size of two thumbs. Doesn't need to be peeled. I usually buy cucumbers from the same lady. For whatever reason, hers are always fresh and sweet. She also has the bigger English-style cucumbers for sale; you can see them in the right front of her display. I partly skinned one Asian cucumber and cut it in half the long way. Scooped out the seeds with a spoon and sliced it into pencil-sized slivers. Put the cucumber and onion in a bowl, added salt and a pinch of sugar. Squeezed two limes and added the juice along with two tablespoons of olive oil. Cut a few stalks of fresh coriander, stems plus leaves. Tossed it all together. Skinned and sliced one ripe mango 芒果。It was so sweet and juicy that it required considerable self control not to just wolf it down immediately and forget the rest of the meal. Tossed it together with the vegetables, making sure the mango slices got well coated with lime juice. Let the flavors marry while cutting up the duck. I cut and tore the tender breast meat off the bone. One of the hallmarks of well-made duck is that the juices stay in the meat, trapped by the golden crispy skin. I added a sprinkle of salt. If you didn't have roast duck readily available, you could use roast chicken, although it wouldn't have quite as full a flavor. Home stretch now. Just toss it all together. This is enough for two hungry people as a main course. Great for a summer evening when you don't feel like firing up the wok. Hope you will give it a try before too long. You won't regret it.
  8. With the arrival of warmer summer days, I've been looking for ways to have less fried food while still enjoying premium local fresh produce and bold Chinese flavors. Eggplant 茄子 (qiezi) is one of my favorite vegetables, and tonight I made it steamed for supper. Let me show you how. Bought three of these tender long Asian eggplants 长茄子 at the outdoor market, along with some mildly-spicy crinkly red peppers 红椒 and a handful fresh spring onions 大葱. Took three heads of single-clove garlics 独蒜 from my existing kitchen stash. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) When making an eggplant dish it's best to prepare the other ingredients first, saving the eggplant until last. If it stands too long in room air, the cut edges turns an unattractive brown color. So that's the sequence I followed today. If you're not used to cooking with these Chinese spring onions, I can save you some time. Don't try washing them to remove the sand and soil. Just grasp a few leaves and peel them all the way to the root end, then snap that part off. I cut them on a bias with my sharp Hong Kong knife 菜刀 so they would fall apart and blend better with the eggplant in the steamer. Next I sliced the peppers in half and removed the fibrous core as well as most of the seeds. Sliced them into julienne slivers 切丝。 Smashed the garlic, removed the skin, and then minced it fine 蒜蓉。 After washing the eggplants, removed the stems and cut them into long pieces 切条 without worrying too much about making them completely uniform in size like you would if using them in a stirfry. These eggplants are young and tender; no need to remove the skin. Put all the ingredients together in a shallow bowl and set it in a steamer. Had I not had a steamer, would have used a wok with a lid. Let it steam for a scant 7 or 8 minutes, until the eggplant pieces can be easily pierced with a chopstick. While that was going on, I made a simple sauce. Whisked together one part aged vinegar 老陈醋, one part light soy sauce 生抽, one part sesame oil 香油。Stir in a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精, and a big pinch of sugar. When it's done, lift it out. Remember that the dish is real hot, so best to use a tool such as the one shown here. Drizzle on the sauce, stir it gently and serve while nice and warm. Inexpensive, healthy, easy summer food. Give it a try and see what you think.
  9. Freezing drizzle mixed with light snow flurries outside my window today here in the City of Eternal Spring sent me on a quest for some simple comfort food. Kunming has real good weather overall, but that doesn't mean we totally escape winter. Managed to make a quick run to the fresh market on one of the trusty Ofo shared bikes before getting really socked in. Invested 3 Yuan in a nice slice of long, skinny Yunnan pumpkin 南瓜, not the Jack-O-Lantern kind. The seller had donggua/wintermelon 冬瓜 on offer as well. She lets you buy as much of one as you want, since both these vegetables are usually too large for only one family. Deftly scoops out the seeds and shaves off the thick rind, then chops it into two pieces so it will easily fit inside my shopping bag. Wound up with 600 grams, a little over a 斤 or a pound of usable flesh 肉。 Before anything else, I started washing and soaking the rice. I used one cup total, about half of which was medium-grain white rice 大米, with the remainder being millet 小米 and short-grain sticky rice 糯米。That combination is completely optional; the recipe works just fine with all plain rice instead. The thing I most often got wrong when starting out making zhou 粥 several years ago was that I always seemed to use too much rice. It's easy to forget how much it will expand during the process of cooking, and you want the result to be soupy, not thick. I would suggest thinking long and hard before exceeding one cup of grain, since it eventually needs to be diluted 10 to 1 or 12 to 1 with water or stock. Next order of business, and another of those simple things that is easy to slight, is to wash the rice very well. The idea is not just to get it clean, but to remove surface rice powder and begin softening or even breaking some of the grains. This is different from making steamed rice where you would like to maintain grain integrity. Rinse it four or five times, each time scrubbing it around with your hands, rolling it between your palms. Consider this some kind of mild primal therapy. Put on loud music if necessary. Then let it soak. Ideally for about an hour. And this soaking water will be discarded before you actually start cooking. Now turn your attention to the pumpkin. Wash it quickly under running water and then slice it into thin pieces. These don't need to be tiny slivers, but it works best if they aren't large chunks. Steam these for 15 or 20 minutes, until they are soft and pierce easily with ordinary blunt chopsticks. Some recipes call for mashing them at this point, but I think that's unneeded labor. While the pumpkin was steaming, I defrosted a large cup of frozen chicken stock that I had made a week or two before. Water can be used instead if you want to go vegetarian. Poured off the rice soaking water, which by this time was pretty clear, added the stock and enough extra water to be twelve times the volume of the dry rice. Add the soft steamed pumpkin and turn on the heat. I'm using my trusty rice cooker, which has a setting for zhou, labeled 稀饭 because that's the preferred term in Yunnan. Make sure your rice cooker is not more than about three quarters full; don't want it to boil over. If you don't have a rice cooker you could make it stovetop, but it requires lots of stirring to be sure it doesn't stick. You can also use a slow cooker 电子砂锅。The "zhou" program on my rice cooker takes a little over 30 minutes. But I open the lid every five minutes or so and stir it well with chopsticks. Want to break up any clumps and make sure it doesn't burn in the bottom of the pot. Towards the end of cooking time, I add a teaspoon of salt 食盐 and four or five pieces of rock sugar 冰糖。Taste to be sure the rice is cooked through and completely tender. If not, give it a few more minutes. The results are smooth, steamy, aromatic, and nourishing. I garnished the bowl with a few wolfberries/gouqi 枸杞。 You can use your imagination in adding other ingredients, or you can keep it classically simple. Regardless, it will chase away the cold weather blahs admirably and not saddle you with much in the way of cleanup. Give it a try.
  10. A dear friend went home for Hani New Year 哈尼族过年 recently and returned with a gift of some specialty meat from her village. It's a prime cut of pork belly 五花肉 that is first marinated or brined 腌制, then slow smoked over low coals, followed by a quick whiff of evergreen cypress 柏树。Finally, it's hung outside in the shade for a week or two and rubbed daily with various spices, sort of kneading them into the meat. Each part of the process must be adjusted for weather and other natural factors. So much flavor is packed in by this intricate process, that it's best when cooked simply. Goes by the name of 烟熏肉 or 烟熏腊肉, with 烟 and 熏 both meaning smoked. It was made from my friend's family "New Year's pig," the animal which had been carefully raised for most of the year with this special occasion in mind. Here's how I prepared for supper it today, at home in Kunming. After first washing under running water, it should be briefly blanched 焯。I put into boiling water, then turned off the flame after it returned to a boil, and left it 5 or 6 minutes. Lifted it out 捞出来 and set it aside to cool and dry 一旁待用。 Meanwhile I prepped the vegetables, a simple but flavorful combination of garlic greens 蒜苗, spring onions 大葱,and peppers 请教/红椒。These long green peppers have a little bit of heat, but nothing really challenging. I remove the white pith and some of the seeds. Sliced the meat thin after it was cool enough to handle. Got everything ready. When my rice cooker signaled that it was done, I fried the meat fast 翻炒 in very little oil. The meat itself releases some fat as it cooks. When it has turned a deep golden color, scoop it out and save it off to the side 备用。 Even though we often wipe out the wok after precooking 煸炒 the meat, this time that would be a felony crime. The oil that is left has way too much flavor to discard. We use it to stir-fry the vegetables, adding them in an appropriate cooking order. Ones that take longest to cook, such as the peppers, go in first, followed by the garlic greens and finally the spring onion. Last of all, add back the meat. I added a dash (about a quarter teaspoon) of MSG 少许味精, but you can omit it if you prefer. No salt needed most of the time. Stir in a small amount of corn starch slurry 水淀粉 as a binder and agitate the wok slowly another half minute or so. (I used 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch and a tablespoon of water.) Serve it up 装盘 beside bowls of steamed rice 米饭。Go right ahead and 动筷子,no need to stand on ceremony. It's a robust and hearty dish which goes well with 白酒。(And no, Dorothy, that does not translate as "white wine.")
  11. Lotus root 莲藕 and corn 玉米 are a winning team, often paired in hearty winter soups. The flavors go so well together that last night I combined them in a 凉拌 or big hearty salad, just right for a hot weather meal. Here's how I made it in case you'd like to try it at home. Lotus root is one of those things that isn't quite accurately named. Instead of truly being a root, it's actually part of the segmented stalk of an unusual underwater rhizome. Grown mostly in the south part of China, as well as in Vietnam, India, Korea and Japan, it's a plant which loves sunshine. The paddies where it flourishes are initially filled with large, vivid flowers, parts of which are also edible. The flowers have acquired a good deal of significance in several religious and philosophical traditions. Here's how lotus roots are grown and what they look like when freshly harvested. Being a lotus farmer is challenging work. The ones I buy in my neighborhood wet market are grown near Yiliang 宜良,to the east of Kunming, not far from Stone Forest 石林。The young man and his wife who operate the stand sell them alongside bamboo shoots, from hills in that same area. They are a friendly and helpful couple, enthusiastic about their wares, and the wife always quizzes me carefully as to the intended use of my purchase. First time this happened I wasn't sure what to think and kind of drew a blank. So she prompted me by asking, "For salad, for soup, or for a stir fry?" Then the light bulb went on and I could answer. She selects the appropriate specimens with your culinary goal in mind; pretty darned helpful when you come to think of it. When I got them home, I scrubbed them clean under cool running water. Then sliced off the hard surface with a sharp vegetable peeler. She has picked me nice pieces, the ends of which are still closed. Pieces that are broken or already cut in half sometimes have traces of sand and mud inside that is very difficult to remove and makes them slightly gritty. Mine were pristine. Note that these two segments are not terribly big around, they are young sections and thus have a milder flavor than some of the bigger, more mature ones. The latter are great for soups and stews, but these are perfect for salads. They are crunchy and mildly sweet, while being slightly starchy. This is an item that plays well with others; doesn't insist on always dominating or being the center of attention. Slice it thin and put the slices directly into acidified water. I used a splash of white vinegar, but lemon juice is also fine. If you don't do this and just leave it exposed to air after cutting, it turns brown and ugly; never gets white again regardless of how hard you might scrub it. Let these slices soak while you get the other ingredients ready. I cut a cob of fresh corn into thin rounds. This makes them easier to pick up later with chopsticks at the table. Boil them for about two minutes in lightly salted water. I planed down a carrot 胡萝卜 with a vegetable peeler, though you could just as well do it with a knife. Sliced a large scallion 大葱, and a single hot pepper 辣椒, removing most of the seeds. If you like more fire, leave them in. Washed and chopped some cilantro 香草。 At this point I like to make the dressing. I used one with dark vinegar 老陈醋 for the mixed vegetables and another one for the lotus root slices with white vinegar 白醋 so as not to discolor them. In each case it was just a tablespoon of vinegar, a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of sesame oil 香油。Salt and a pinch of sugar; add MSG 味精 if you like. (Most Chinese do.) Drop the lotus into boiling water (I used the same salted water in which I boiled the corn) and let it blanch for about a minute. If you cook it too long it becomes mushy and uninteresting. Plunge it immediately into ice water to cool it fast; this keeps it nice and crisp. Sauce the lotus and the other vegetables separately in two containers and put them into the fridge for about 30 minutes. Keeping them apart like this isn't essential, but it makes the finished product have more eye appeal. Very white lotus and colorful vegetables contrast nicely with each other when plated side by side. When you are ready to eat, build your big dinner salad and put it on the table. It's a tasty and healthy one-dish summer meal, easily supplemented as desired. I ate mine with French bread and Emmental cheese plus a glass of chilled Spanish white wine.
  12. Youzi 柚子,sometimes translated as pomelo or shaddock, is one of the foods typically associated with Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节, which arrives tomorrow. The formal name for this luxurious fruit is "citrus maximus" and that's a good fit because it's much larger than a grapefruit, nearly the size of a bowling ball or cantaloupe. In fact, it's the biggest member of the citrus family. When I went to the market yesterday, they were everywhere I looked, fresh and cheap. Now is the start of their season (they aren't available in summer.) I bought one and wanted to show you how it worked out. The youzi lady helped me pick out a good one: heavy for its size and firm all over with no soft spots. Hers were from Fujian 福建, though we also get them brought up from Hainan 海南。This fruit is actually popular all over SE Asia, but is not found much in the West. She asked if I wanted it peeled or not, and I asked her to do the honors and save me some work. She scored it with a large knife, cutting through the tough rind barely into the white pith. Then she separated the center with a large flat plastic spoon and lifted it out. Often a "cooked rice scoop" is used for this, the kind that came free in the same box as your rice steamer. If I had been a bit more ambitious, I would have asked her to give me the rind. It can be turned into fantastic marmalade, or dried and candied as a sweet snack. I usually have a large jar of the marmalade in the fridge year round. The best of it comes from Korea and is made with honey instead of white sugar. It goes by the name of "youzi cha" 柚子茶 here, and stirring a spoon or two of it into hot water makes a refreshing warm drink. Here's the center of the youzi as it looked when I got it home. I tore it in half and removed the bitter white pith from several sections. The chopsticks are just for size, they aren't necessarily needed when eating it. Fingers or a fork are just fine. I had also purchased a bag of fresh Mandarin oranges, since they are at their best now also. Even though I usually just eat yozi plain, today I decided to make a pretty salad because my ladyfriend was coming over to bring me a gift of some Mooncake 月饼。Peeled a couple oranges and pulled them apart into sections. Dug out some youzi in a similar manner, freeing it up from the tough segmental membranes. Tossed it together with some fresh mint 薄荷 and a sprinkle of gouqi berries 枸杞 (aka "wolfberry.") Set it out with some toothpicks 牙签 to use as utensils. Youzi has a mild taste, with less tang and bite than grapefruit. It's a mellow companion for orange slices with enough taste contrast between the two to make the combination interesting. I've also seen it served with cucumber slices and a vinaigrette dressing. That was fine enough for us just as shown above, and we enjoyed nibbling it together at the living room table. Hard to go wrong with something that is this pretty as well as tasty. But I'll go ahead and show you how to "gild the lily" if you want to take it a step or two further sometime just for fun. Mix two tablespoons of citrus jam, here I'm using one made from lemon, with one tablespoon of Cointreau. This makes an unparalleled tangy-sweet dipping sauce. Shake some ground red pepper and salt into another shallow dish beside it. First dip a piece of fruit into the sauce, then barely touch it to the salt and hot pepper. The contrasting flavors make your mouth oddly happy, although admittedly this treatment is not going to please everyone. Regardless of how you use it, youzi is a very worthwhile addition to your citrus fruit repertory. And now is the perfect time to enjoy it. Not only is it part of this holiday season, it's something that can stand on its own admirably all through the cooler part of the year.
  13. Since I am fortunate enough to be able to easily put my hands on some of China's best tofu and some of China's best ham, it would be a pity not to combine them into a simple main dish from time to time. The premium Yunnan tofu I'm bragging about is from Shiping Town 石屏县城 in Honghe Prefecture 红河州 to the south of Kunming, and this fine Yunnan ham is from Xuanwei 宣威 in Qujing Prefecture 曲靖 to the northeast. I buy them both fresh by weight at my local wet market. Bear in mind that wherever you are, it's easy enough to substitute a local tofu and a local ham for these particular specialty items. The results can still be tasty and the cooking technique is the same. Here's how I did it today. Assemble the ingredients. Only used about half of this small block of dark-cured ham. Three or four dried chili peppers 干辣椒 for a little heat. This isn't a fussy recipe with critical weights or measures; a little more or less of any single item won't much matter. You can adjust it to taste. I've made it many times and never had it fail. Smash the big spring onion 大葱 with the edge of your knife 菜刀 to partially flatten it out and release more of the aroma and flavor. Then slice it thin on a bias, with the knife blade almost parallel with the cutting board. Slice a little bit of ham into very thin slivers. Use a just-sharpened knife and try to make them nearly transparent. Roughly dice one fresh tomato. The one I used here is from a batch that I knew to have slightly tough skin, so I quickly dunked it in boiling water and slipped the skin off before cutting it up. Put one large tablespoon of oyster sauce 耗油 together with one large tablespoon of catsup 番茄酱 in a small bowl and mix in two or three tablespoons of water, making a slurry. Cut the tofu sheets into rectangles of a size that will later be easy to grasp with chopsticks at the table. Brown them slightly over low to medium heat in a non-stick pan with a little bit of oil. When they are golden on both sides, take them out and reserve them nearby. Now add the ham, roughly-torn chili pods, and spring onions into the pan and lightly saute them. Add the tomatoes and the sauce, stir it up, and then add back the tofu. Heat through to combine flavors and serve. Since the ham, the oyster sauce and the catsup all have some salt, you won't need to add any extra. This tasty dish only takes 10 or 15 minutes from start to finish and doesn't require much in the way of special equipment or cleanup. Give it a try one day when you aren't sure what to cook for supper. Your expedition into the flavors of Yunnan will be amply rewarded.
  14. Spring Festival 春节 bounty:A generous friend brought bought me back a big piece of slow-cured mountain ham from his village up in Zhaotong Prefecture 昭通州 and I asked about some of the favorite ways they used it back home. Today's dish headed the short list. Use the tender shoots of the garlic plant to make a simple stir-fry. I gave it a try and it turned out first rate. The complex aged ham was offset by the slightly sweet garlicky flavor of the tender spring vegetable. Let me show you how to do it yourself. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Lately these garlic stems been abundant and inexpensive at my local wet market. The ones I got cost 4 Yuan for a big bundle, and the sign says they were grown locally. This is another of those vegetables I'd never seen until moving to China. My background reading says they are sometimes called "garlic bolts" or "garlic scapes" in the west, though I admit to never having heard either of those odd names. Farmers cut them off so that the (underground) garlic bulb will grow larger. In any case Chinese love them and call them suantai 蒜苔。They are at their best right now. Later in the full heat of summer they become tough and somewhat woody; now they are juicy and tender. I bought one large bundle, washed them and cut them into pieces between two and three inches long. Trimmed and discarded a few brown tips. You can see the unopened garlic flowers near the growing end of most stems. (Yes, you eat that part too.) They have a pleasant garlicky flavor without any of that garlic bulb heat and bite. Almost sweet, though not quite. Texture is close to that of young asparagus. Washed and then cut a couple of small red bell peppers 红甜椒 into thin slivers (removing the stem and the seeds.) 洗净、去蒂、去籽、切丝。 Rinsed off a piece of ham and carefully cut it into very thin slices. Leave the fat, it adds to the flavor. (Sharp knife is essential. My trusty Hong Kong caidao 菜刀 did not let me down.) This ham was two years old; rich, complex flavor. The pigs from which it came are about half wild, roaming large pastures instead of being confined to small pens. Elevation 3,000 meters. Yunnan's most famous ham comes from Xuanwei 宣威, in Qujing 曲靖, a bit south of Zhaotong 昭通。It is similar in character to an Italian Parma ham. Smack a large spring onion 大葱 with the side of the blade to crush it and flatten it somewhat, then slice it thin. Partly flattening it like that makes the volatile aromatics release easier when it hits the heat. Boil a small pot of water and drop the garlic stems into it. When the water returns to a boil, scoop them out and drain them well 沥干水。You only want to blanch 焯 them; be careful not to overdo it. These were so tender I actually could have omitted that step. Readied my soy sauce 生抽 and some cooking wine 料酒。Put a teaspoon of corn starch into a rice bowl along with a tablespoon or two of tap water, mixing them together to make 水淀粉。Will use this in the last step to thicken the sauce and bind the various flavors. A little oil swirled around in the bottom of my hot wok to coat. Full flame, almost making it smoke. Add the ham, stir it around to render some of its fat. Quickly add the red peppers and spring onion, stirring constantly. Then in go the blanched garlic stems. Continue to stir fry 翻炒 briskly and shake the wok at the same time to keep things from sticking and burning. I've turned the heat to medium, but the steel of the wok is still plenty hot. It smells real good by now. Add about a tablespoon of soy sauce and the same amount of cooking wine. No salt or MSG needed. When the vegetables are just beginning to take on a golden color, add the corn starch solution and stir a few seconds more. The entire cooking time was only a minute or two: fast and hot is the ticket for this. You are done. Serve it up. Sip a glass of white wine. The vegetables are tender, but have retained their crunch. Eat it with steamed rice and a simple clear vegetable soup to make a light warm-weather meal. If you can locate the ingredients, give it a whirl. A farmers market would be the place to look for these garlic stems. I've seen recipes which use processed ham links 火腿肠 and young asparagus 芦笋。Not quite the same, but probably still good.
  15. abcdefg

    Crazy for pickles 泡黄瓜

    Before moving here a decade ago I hugely underestimated Chinese love of pickles 泡菜。Fortunately, it was not a fatal mistake. Pickled vegetables of some sort are served with nearly every meal, including a nice salty-spicy dish of them with your porridge 粥 for breakfast. It's always risky to generalize, but this holds pretty much true from the frosty northeast 东北 to the humid sub-tropics of Canton 广州。 It's definitely true in Yunnan, where the predominant style of pickling is the one developed in neighboring Sichuan: namely long, slow fermentation in special crockery and glass jars with a water-seal lip that allows gas to escape while denying entry to stray unwanted bacteria. Not only are a wide assortment of vegetables transformed in this way, but the process is applied to such diverse ingredients as lake crabs and chicken feet. Some Chinese pickles are closer to being a relish or a chutney than they are to my usual mental image of a pickle: a big Kosher Dill carefully fished out of a wooden barrel at the old corner Deli, one block over from P.S. 106, Bronx, New York, circa 1950. Yunnan also has a truly perverse love affair with pickled fruit. One frequently sees street vendors selling small pickled pears and plums. They taste of anise, cinnamon and clove; right beside strong notes of chili, garlic and ginger. Some pickles are eaten raw, others are used as ingredients in cooking. Pickled greens 泡菜/酸菜 are often combined with fish and meat. (Recipe for pickled greens with fish slices here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51433-yunnan-spicy-fish-酸菜鱼片/) (And here's one for pickled greens with pork loin: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/47975-suancai-chao-rou-酸菜炒肉/) In the warmer months of the year, we are fortunate to have several varieties of cucumber here in Kunming, all of which invite pickling. I've been turning out at least one batch a week for the last few months. Thought I would show you how to make them yourself in case you have a "pickle tooth" too. Sometimes I use carrots, radish, bell peppers and even cauliflower, but today we will be sticking to cucumbers. (The method adapts easily to other vegetables if you prefer them.) This morning at the local wet market I found two of the three main kinds of local cucumbers: the long thin ones with bumpy skin (sometimes called "Japanese cucumbers," and the shorter stout ones with smoother light skin (sometimes called "English cucumbers.") A third kind that is smaller than either of these, with dark smooth skin, might have been present somewhere, but I didn't run across them and had no particular reason to seek them out. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) The kind on the right in this photo are the ones that work best for "smashed cucumber salad" 拍黄瓜。(Recipe for that here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53783-another-simple-classic-smashed-cucumber-拍黄瓜/?tab=comments#comment-412400) The big ones on the left are the kind I bought this morning to turn into pickles. These two varieties cost approximately the same. The smaller, "gherkin-sized" ones, cost a little more. In selecting a fresh cucumber, regardless of size, nothing works as well as a gentle squeeze test. It should feel firm, without much give. If it's soft, that means it's old. These local cucumbers don't need to be peeled. The surface isn't bitter and they haven't been sprayed with wax or oils like they are in some US supermarkets. The recipe I'm using for these today is one that originated in Fujian and is popular in Taiwan as well. It made its way to Guangdong and Hong Kong, but isn't terribly popular here in Kunming. It's a "Quick Pickle" that doesn't require much time. It's also not terribly salty or sour: very well balanced, at least for my palate. Scrub the cucumbers and slice them into rounds about a half an inch thick (2 cm or so.) Don't peel them and don't remove the seeds. Notice that these have nice looking centers; if they were past their prime, the centers would have larger seeds and a network of large empty spaces. Peel the garlic 独蒜 and smash it into chunks, scrub the ginger 老姜 and slice it thickly, unpeeled. Cut the hot pepper 小米辣 into thirds and remove some of the seeds if you want to decrease the heat. The dry orange peel 橙皮 is optional, but the dried licorice root 甘草 is very strongly suggested. It adds a distinctive note and the resulting taste would definitely be less interesting without it. You can buy it in Chinese herbal pharmacies if your grocery store doesn't stock it. For each large pickle combine 2 tablespoons of soy sauce 生抽, two tablespoons of aged vinegar 老陈醋, and two tablespoons of white rice vinegar白醋. Add one tablespoon of sugar 白砂糖 and one teaspoon of salt 食盐。Do not add water. As the pickles marinate, they will release some of their own flavor-laden moisture. Put everything in a saucepan and boil it for one only one minute over low to medium heat. Remove it from the flame and let the pickles cool in this liquid. You can cool it in bowls if you want it to go a bit faster. When it is cool enough to handle easily, put everything into the jar and screw on the lid. Let it stand out on a shelf or counter top overnight, then refrigerate it in the morning. The pickles are ready to eat in 24 hours and will keep ten days or two weeks, though I confess I've never made a batch yet that possessed that degree of longevity. Let me be clear: the pickles didn't go bad; I just ate them all up. They improve with every passing day. On occasion I've made a half batch to replenish the jar, adding the new ones to the bottom. These pickles really do have a way of disappearing. I like that they have plenty of crunch, aren't too sweet, aren't too sour, aren't too hot, but still definitely are not too bland. They make a great mid-afternoon snack, along with a hard-boiled egg. You won't be struck by lightning, however, if you want to vary your own batch of pickles to taste. What I've hoped to provide for you here is a safe and sensible starting place so you can avert disaster while carrying out your own personal fine-tuning. I often eat them along with a sandwich, or better yet, alongside a fresh steamed bun spread with spicy fermented tofu. I was introduced to this sterling combination several years ago when climbing Mt. Emei 峨眉山 (in Sichuan, south of Chengdu) very early one morning trying to get to the top by sunrise. I stopped for a break beside the steep trail and two middle-aged ladies sat down beside me. They were friendly and shared their snacks, which were, you guessed it, mantou, lufu, and pickles. Plus a big thermos of green tea. As an impressionable youth, I was hooked for life. Three rounds of rehab have not put a dent in my shameful cravings or my ruinous pickle addiction. This morning I bought a folded steamed bun with sesame seeds (huajuan 花卷) instead of plain mantou 馒头。Ate the last few remaining pickles from my jar before starting a new batch. These had been marinating about one week and were bursting with flavor. A fine compliment to the spicy fermented tofu (lufu 卤腐) which is one of the odd-ball darlings of Yunnan cuisine. Life is too short not to eat plenty of pickles; especially home-made Chinese pickles. Give these a try and see what you think!
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.)
  25. 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.)
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