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  1. Today is Sunday in Kunming. I don't have to go anywhere soon or do much of anything. Woke up late and wanted a breakfast that would be substantial enough for me to painlessly skip lunch. Already had the ingredients for this on hand, all that was needed was to whip it together. Thought I would show you the method since it's a versatile dish that one could reasonably have for a light supper along with a soup or salad. Cheap, nourishing, easy to make. Tofu here comes in many kinds. This recipe can be made with most of them. What I had in my fridge was soft tofu 嫩豆腐 in a small block that I had bought earlier in the week. Rinsed it off 洗净, cut it into small pieces 切小块 and simmered 焯 them gently for about 10 minutes in lightly salted water 盐水。Scooped them out 捞起来 into a bowl. Drained away the water 干水。This removes any off taste 腥味 and makes the tofu less likely to fall apart later when handled. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) Cut up 切段 one medium spring onion 大葱, a ripe tomato 番茄, and a clove of garlic 打算。Shown together here with three free-range eggs 土鸡蛋。 Using medium heat, saute 煸炒 the aromatics (onion and garlic) until you can smell them 爆香; they don't need to become brown. Add the tomatoes followed by the drained tofu cubes and turn them 翻炒 gently until they begin to change color and become a little bit golden 变金色。 Stir the eggs 搅拌 and add them, reducing the flame to between low and medium. Be restrained with your spatula 锅铲 so as not to break things into small fragments. I used a flat-bottom non-stick pan 平底不粘锅 which made it easy. Add a sprinkle of salt 食盐 and another of MSG 味精 if you use it. A tablespoon or so of light soy sauce 生抽 also improves the flavor. When the eggs are no longer runny, the dish is done. Don't overdo and turn them to leather. Plate it up 装盘。Goes well with a pot of green tea 绿茶。 Try it out; see what you think. This is a good straight-ahead project that will give you an intro to working with tofu.
  2. This is one of those dishes for which there are a hundred casual recipes on the internet, most of them sorely lacking. It has been oversimplified to death; but good results can be achieved with a modicum of effort. The bonus is that if you master the technique you will find it is transferable to a dozen other tasty dishes, all of which use this Chinese braising process. I'll show you how to do it. Buy 16 chicken wings, the medium joint. These should weigh about half a kilo or one pound. I've included a quick review of chicken wing anatomy below. The part to buy for this dish is the 鸡翅中。They cost more than the first joint, the 鸡翅根, but they are easier to work with because their size is more uniform, they don't have one large end and one small end. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) You will need 3 or 4 large spring onions 大葱, a thumb of ginger, 4 to 6 dried chilies 干辣椒, and a teaspoon of Sichuan prickly ash peppercorns huajiao/花椒。 Toast the huajiao 花椒 and the dried red chilies 干辣椒 over low heat until they begin to release their aroma. Scoop them out and pound the 花椒 with a mortar and pestle or simply crush them in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Tear the dry chilies into sections. Cut the white part of the spring onions into long pieces 切段 and slice the ginger into coin-sized segments. (The ginger does not need to be peeled.) Rinse the chicken, shake it dry, 洗净流干水分, poke a couple holes in each side with the point of a paring knife. You don't need to marinate the chicken for this recipe; it will acquire plenty of flavor as it cooks. Chinese poultry recipes usually have a step designed to remove any "off" flavors 去腥味 and cleanse the meat of blood 去血。This one is no exception. Put some of the spring onion and ginger into a deep skillet or wok along with the toasted and crushed Sichuan peppers and the chilies. Add a tablespoon of cooking wine 料酒。Boil this stock for a minute or two and then add the chicken. When the water comes to a full boil again, scoop the chicken out and set it aside to drain. This quick blanching step 焯 also serves the important function of thawing any frozen places so that all the wings will be the same temperature and can cook uniformly. Blot the wings dry with paper kitchen towels. Wipe out your wok or skillet 平地锅 and add two tablespoons of cooking oil. I generally prefer corn oil, 玉米油 though for this dish rapeseed oil 菜籽油 or peanut oil 花生油 are also fine. Add the wings and brown them about 3 minutes per side. If you have too many to do them in one batch without crowding, divide them in half. If you squeeze them all in too tight, they won't brown and will stew instead. The skin will never become crisp; it will be mushy and unappealing. By the way, even though I'm a firm believer in a standard, well-seasoned iron wok for most Chinese cooking, this browning step works best if you have a non-stick utensil 不粘锅。 Remove the chicken when it is golden 金黄 and add your liquid ingredients to the wok or fry pan. The cola needs to be standard old-fashioned Coke. Coke Lite or Coke Zero 零度 won't work. The artificial sweetener breaks down and turns bitter when cooked. Furthermore, the sugar is necessary for the meat to develop a pleasant caramelized surface. Pour in 250 or 300 ml; don't dump in the whole bottle. Two or three tablespoons of light soy sauce 生抽, two or three tablespoons of Chinese cooking wine 料酒 or dry sherry, and only one scant teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。If you use too much dark soy sauce, everything will just acquire a nasty axle-grease color. To these add the remainder of your spring onion and ginger plus a teaspoon of salt. When it reaches a gentle boil, add the pre-browned chicken wings. Let it simmer uncovered about 10 minutes over low to medium heat. Then pick out and discard the spring onions and ginger slices. Now you are ready to thicken the sauce by reducing it carefully over low heat 小火慢炖。Be attentive and don't let it scorch since that will ruin the flavor profile. This stage usually takes about 10 minutes, but depends somewhat on your pan and flame. Might take a little longer. Stir it gently and slowly, but stir it a lot. When the sauce develops a rich color and is almost gone, you're ready to plate it up. Sprinkle on some minced cilantro 香菜 and white sesame seeds 白芝麻。These wings can be eaten right away while nice and hot, or served later at room temperature. The chicken is tender and moist, not dried out, and has a rich flavor. The glistening skin is intact and not soggy or falling off. No surprise that this recipe was a favorite of the Qianlong Emperor. (Smile) To be truthful, there are many ways this dish can go wrong; it isn't foolproof; it does require some care. But if you can master the process, you will find that it provides a key to a host of other tasty traditional braising recipes such as red-cooked ribs 红烧排骨。
  3. Chinese chives, known over here as jiucai 韭菜, is an ingredient that's easy to find all over China and it isn't too challenging to track down even in the west. It's an ingredient that's fun to use because it is versatile, lending itself to many applications. It's also forgiving, not easily ruined when you are using it. I unexpectedly lucked in to a big batch this weekend and wound up cooking jiucai three days in a row. I had three days of jiucai feasts. The back story might be of interest. A hot springs sauna where I sometimes relax grows all its own vegetables organically out on the northeast edge of the city. It's one of their boasting points and is a claim to local fame. Whatever they bring in fresh in the morning, gets used up by the end of that same day; they are scrupulous about not holding anything over. "Completely organic and completely fresh" is what you can expect to eat on their premises, according to their promotional literature. They set a lavish buffet for lunch and another for supper. Breakfast is also provided, but it's a simple affair. If you are leaving anytime after supper, as you check out and settle your tab, they will ask if you want a bag of that day's leftover veggies. The receptionist won't let you pick through them or select what you want. One person, one bag; take it or leave it. I find it hard to say no to this kind of pot luck bounty, and usually smile and nod yes. This means that sometimes I walk out with a heavy bag of cabbage or half a dozen eggplants plus two carrots. This time my treasure was more jiucai than anyone could possibly eat at one go. Luckily, it keeps pretty well for a day or two in the crisper drawer of my fridge. Looses a tiny bit of it's fresh-picked bite, but not much. It's a pretty durable item. So now after three straight days of jiucai practice, I'm a self-declared expert. My best friend agrees, but we all know she's biased. In any case, I'll take great pleasure in showing you some jiucai tricks so that you can also perform jiucai magic at home, wherever you might live. This splendid green vegetable has a taste somewhere between that of onion and garlic, and is related to both. The flavor is more concentrated than either and it makes a very distinctive ingredient in many quintessentially Chinese specialty dishes, top among them probably being jiucai dumplings 韭菜猪 肉饺子。These rule the roost if you live up north, above the Chiang Jiang 长江, aka the Mighty Yangtze. Someone else will have to show you how to make those, since my dumpling skills are rudimentary at best. But today I'll gladly show you how to use jiucai in a stir fried scrambled egg dish 韭菜炒鸡蛋。Next we will make it up into crispy thin griddle cakes 韭菜煎饼。A day or two later, if there's sufficient interest, I'll take you through turning them into a tasty and simple fried rice 韭菜鸡蛋炒饭。All three were a hit with my Kunming friends. Never broke the bank or required excessive amounts of kitchen time. Trim off a little bit of the fibrous white root ends and discard any brown or wilted leaves. Wash them well, dry them, then chop into pieces 3 or 4 centimeters long. Break two or three eggs into a dish and mix them with chopsticks. I usually figure one egg per person when preparing this as a side dish to go with other parts of a meal. Scramble the eggs in a non-stick flat bottom skillet 不粘平底锅 with a little oil over low to medium heat. Turn the eggs out into a dish when they are barely done, don't overcook them. Sprinkle lightly with salt and set them aside. 备用 Wipe out the skillet, heat to medium, add a little more oil. Stir fry the jiucai until they wilt, but don't let them get real dark or burned. This usually only takes a minute or two. Add a light sprinkle of salt. Add back the scrambled eggs and cook them together for another half minute or so. Scoop them out into a serving dish. Set it on the table and dig in. This is a dish best enjoyed while it's still nice and hot, fresh from the flame. This goes well with nearly anything you can name in the wide realm of Chinese cooking. Its taste is distinctive but not overpowering. I've had it accompany a fish main course, or chicken or duck. One can simply enjoy it with a bowl of steamed rice as a brunch, or even with a bowl of Yunnan noodle soup 米线。 Hope you will give it a try. Eager to see what you think. On a spectrum of one to ten, this falls somewhere around zero on the difficulty scale. Highly suitable for fledgling Chinese chefs.
  4. This simple dish is reason enough to visit Yunnan. The province is famed for doing magic with half a dozen kinds of rice noodles, and this is one of the specialty dishes that contributes in a major way to that reputation. The best ersi arguably come from Tengchong 腾冲, in the west, not far from Burma. But they have definitely spread to Kunming. Instead of being extruded like most fresh noodles, whether wheat or rice, these er si 饵丝 are first kneaded and pounded into a firm cake and then carefully sliced. They are thicker and more chewy than ordinary rice noodles, which makes them delicious when fried then quickly simmered with a bold gravy/sauce (lu 卤)。During the process, the sauce penetrates the noodles as well as coating them with flavor. Here's what they look like: I've put some chopsticks on top to give you a better idea of scale. If you cannot get ersi where you live, you could use ordinary rice noodles by shortening the cooking time. One could also substitute wheat noodles, though the dish would not have quite the same mouth feel 口感 or taste 味道。 I bought them this morning in a street stall instead of my usual market. The vendor looked surprised and asked, "Do you know what to do with them?" I assured her that I did, but it reminded me that these aren't easily available all across China. They are one of the regional glories of Yunnan cuisine. This bag cost 2 Yuan and I used most of it today. Today I made lu ersi 卤饵丝 with some smoked pork just because I had it on hand. Usually I use roast pork belly 烤五花肉 bought from the market from a vendor who makes it fresh daily over slow coals in a clay oven. I've seen it in supermarkets for sale pre-wrapped. The recipe can also be made with plain ground meat, pork or beef 磨肉。 I paired this strong-flavored meat with a vegetable that could stand up to it as an equal: long green chili peppers 青椒/尖椒。 These are only medium hot and I take out about half of the seeds. Cut some in rounds, some in strips. One could tone it down by using bell peppers. Added a large spring onion 大葱 and some garlic, crushed with the side of my knife and chopped fine. Heat the wok, add some oil and give the meat a head start. Since my meat was already cooked by the curing process, I only gave it 30 or 40 seconds. Didn't want to dry it out. Added the vegetables and aromatics one by one, stirring and turning things over quickly 翻炒, with my spatula 国产 using high heat. Season with half a teaspoon of salt 食用盐, a tablespoon of oyster sauce 耗油, a tablespoon of soy sauce 生抽, and a teaspoon of prickly ash oil 花椒油。 I add about a quarter teaspoon of MSG 味精, but leave it out if it disagrees with you. A pinch of sugar is also optional (but suggested.) When these flavors have had a chance to blend and the vegetables have just barely begun to cook (don't want them to loose their crunch) add slightly less than a rice bowl of water (about a cup.) Stir it up, reduce the flame to medium, and add the ersi 饵丝。 Stir fry about a minute longer, until the ersi become slightly soft, just al dente, not too soft. If making it for the first time, it's best to err on the side of too short a cooking time. Maintaining the texture is important for an authentic result. Serve it up. In an unpretentious Kunming open-front café, they will give you a small bowl of clear broth 清汤 to sip as you eat, but between you and me, this fine dish goes very well with a cold beer. Give it a try and see what you think. Pretend you have been transported to Yunnan.
  5. This popular Yunnan lunch item is easy to cook but difficult to translate. It has no catchy English name. For several years I was sure 红三剁 meant "three red things that were chopped." This was always puzzling because it uses red tomatoes and pink lean pork, but combines those with very green peppers for color contrast. What happened to that third red ingredient? Regardless of the linguistic issues, I can show you how to whip it up at home. This is a quick and easy dish to make, doesn't require any fancy ingredients or techniques. Furthermore, it's difficult to mess it up; a good beginner 初级 project. A couple of nice ripe tomatoes 番茄,two or three long green peppers 尖椒, the white part of one large spring onion 大葱, a couple cloves of garlic 大蒜 and a small piece of fresh ginger 老姜。 Lean pork works best for this dish and I usually buy a piece of tenderloin 里脊。Marinate it 腌制 for 20 or 30 minutes with a couple teaspoons of cooking wine 料酒 and a teaspoon of corn starch 淀粉。Sometimes I also add a half teaspoon of sesame oil. Drop the tomatoes into boiling water briefly, score the skin with the tip of a knife and slip it off. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the seeds and pulp in the center. Chop them fine. Mince the ginger and garlic. 剁碎 Slice the spring onion fine. Do the same with the long peppers, removing the white fibrous sections and some of the seeds. These long slender green peppers are not very hot; the lady from whom I bought them at the market described them as "mild and fruity." Still, if you don't like spicy things at all, you could substitute sweet bell peppers 甜辣椒 (also called 柿子椒)。 Gentle reminder: You already started the rice, didn't you? Don't even think about heating the wok until the rice is ready. My rice cooker just dinged, took about 30 minutes plus a 15 minute soak. I checked the rice visually to make sure the surface had those important small steam holes. (Those tell you it's done.) Fluffed it up with a couple of chopsticks. Unplugged the cooker (don't leave it on "keep warm" 保温 or you will wind up with overcooked rice.) Closed the rice cooker lid, and now we are ready to proceed with the stir fry. Double check to be sure everything is ready; once you start the process, it goes fast. Today I used 150 grams of finely chopped meat 碎末肉 with two tomatoes and two long green peppers. These ratios are not critical, and you can make this dish by eye if you just use roughly equal amounts of meat, tomatoes, and peppers. First quick-fry 翻炒 the lean ground pork 猪肉末 with the minced ginger 碎末姜。Take it out and set it aside when about three quarters done 七成熟。The meat does not need to be browned, but it does need to lose its pink color. Wipe out the wok and add a little more oil. (Most Chinese families use a stiff bamboo whisk for this.) Stir fry the green peppers and the minced garlic for half a minute or so over high heat, being careful to not burn the garlic. When you can smell the aroma, add the tomatoes and the spring onion. Cook a minutes or so, adding stock 高汤 or water as needed to keep it from becoming dry and taking on a scorched note 糊。 Add the cooked meat and stir well, adding more liquid as needed. The result needs to be slightly soupy, not dry. Add salt 食盐 to taste and MSG 味精 if you like it. I usually add about a fourth of a teaspoon unless my guests ask me not to. Stir fry for a minute or two on medium heat. (Don't walk away.) And voila, the finished product. Serve it in a bowl beside steamed rice. My friends and I usually spoon some out and combine it with fluffy white rice in our individual bowls. Sometimes I present it as a plated "covered rice" dish 盖饭 because that looks extra nice. Either way, it tastes top notch. Hope you will give it a try someday soon, especially if you are in the mood for something with no good English translation.
  6. abcdefg

    Enjoying dim sum

    Dim sum 点心 is one of the glories of the South China Cantonese food world 粤菜。It is the fine art of leisurely early-day munching on an assortment bite-sized delicacies served in bamboo steamer baskets or on small plates. This kind of feast sometimes goes by the name of yum cha 饮茶 because these small tasty morsels are typically washed down by endless small cups of hot tea. I was fortunate enough to have had several memorable dim sum brunches last week during a trip to Macau and Hong Kong. Let me give you a look at how it works in the hope that this will help induce you give it a try, or if you are already an aficionado, to go back for another dim sum adventure real soon. Three days in a row I just walked across the street from my Macau Hotel (十六浦酒店) to an unpretentious dim sum joint that's always busy and popular with locals. Their name sign boasts 御龙海鲜火锅 but their operating hours are only from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. so nobody really goes there for that. Instead 茶市点心 is clearly their principal draw. You always have to wait a few minutes for the busy waitresses to clear you a spot at one of their long communal tables, each of which seats 6 to 8 people. (Upstairs the tables are round.) Reminder: You can click the photos to enlarge them. She brings you a pencil and a check-box menu. You order your big pot of tea (mine was Tieguanyin 铁观音) and study the options, taking time out to do the ritual washing of your eating utensils. It's something I thought a bit strange initially, but by now I wash my own dishes right along with the meticulous elderly grannies. You use the scalding hot tea water from your big pot, emptying the waste into a bowl provided temporarily for that purpose. In a few minutes the waitress returns with a receipt to show that your items have been entered into their ordering system. Sometimes these dim sum menus can be really forbidding, providing only the names of the dishes in Traditional Hanzi, with no pictures or descriptions and of course no English. I always try to grab an extra menu to study back in my room in preparation for the next visit. Dim Sum works best if you go with several family members or friends so you can order lots of different items and taste each other's selections. This time I was alone, so I just planned on having some leftovers. Not ideal, but still workable. The dishes arrive in no fixed order. As they are delivered, the waitress scratches them off your receipt with her thumbnail. I always struggle with whether to order my favorites, or to try out new options that might not be as much to my liking. Shrimp dumplings 虾饺, made with fresh shrimp, is one of those things I find irresistible. I'm also a sucker for well made Cantonese turnip cake 萝卜糕, shown just below the shrimp. This time I accompanied those two with an order of plain cooked caixin 白灼菜心。It's the small tender heart of a member of the cabbage family, immensely popular in the south. I had some of these left over for a late-night snack in my room, heated together with a container of instant noodles. Lingered at table about an hour, enjoying many cups of tea and even some conversation with two neighbors. Set me back under 100 MOP. This unit of currency is the Macanese Pataca, roughly equivalent to the HKD (Hong Kong Dollar.) Time and money well spent. Returned the next morning, intent on variety. Had rolled out early, hit the gym, gone for a swim, and worked up a good appetite. Decided on shao mai 烧卖 as my most expensive item. These are made with dumpling wrappers squeezed around a filling of lean pork and shrimp combined, leaving the top open, sprinkled with crab roe. (Many recipes exist, using other ingredients.) Accompanied the shao mai with griddle cakes made with whole kernels of sweet corn 香煎玉米饼 and some plain-cooked Cantonese lettuce 白灼生菜。 The menu designates items as belonging to one of several price categories. For example, today's shao mai and the shrimp dumplings that I had yesterday are both in the 特 category, costing 28 MOP. 大点 dishes, such as the luobo gao, sell for 22 MOP, and so on down to 中点 and 小点 items. Pot of basic tea costs 8 MOP, including endless refills of hot water. Some places offer gong fu tea 功夫茶 made in small pots, but not here. Today's expedition once again did not break the bank, coming out well under 100 MOP. If I'm with others, which I prefer, we always order a bowl of porridge 粥。It is offered in many varieties and goes very well with all of these other dishes. My personal favorites are the fish slice porridge 鱼片粥 and the century egg porridge 皮蛋瘦肉粥。These bowls are just right for 2 or 3 people. Sometimes, in a group, we will add a plate of fried noodles 炒面 or fried rice 炒饭。Sometimes a plate of sliced roast pork 叉烧 or goose 烤鹅。Cantonese roast pork, in particular, is a recommended specialty item, slow cooked and glazed with honey. Here was day three. No fear of monotony. One could come here lots of times without it becoming boring. On weekends, one usually sees extended family groups from grandparents to toddlers, making a real project out of it. Cousins and nieces coming to join the big round table as others are leaving, maybe one withdrawn uncle reading the newspaper, an auntie with her knitting, empty bamboo steamer baskets piled high. Merry conversation is the order of the day. They also love to praise and show off the babes in arms. How can a restaurant handle the logistics of putting a large variety of food on all these tables, given such close quarters? They don't use magic, but they utilize available space extremely well. Food is prepared in a remote kitchen upstairs and then sent to the waitresses by means of a "dumb waiter" on the guest levels. One cashier handles all the checks, guarded by a red-faced, bearded kitchen god and and equally iconic "Hello Kitty." (Could he be 关羽, General of Shu and blood brother of Liu Bei 刘备?) Here's what I enjoyed this time around. More Cantonese specialties. No trip is complete without at least one batch of 肠粉,which are a type soft steamed rice noodle rolls, built with an interesting stuffing. Mine were 韭王鲜虾 fragrant garlic chives and fresh shrimp, served with a brown sauce. Nicely balanced, while still following the 清淡 (bland, non-spicy) dictates of Cantonese cooking. Lots of these dishes probably would not sell well in Kunming, where seasoning is more "forward." Had them with an order of plain-cooked 芥菜,usually translated as "leaf mustard." I like that it has a slightly bitter note, even though it's not very aggressive,does not entirely take over the mouth. These steamed dumplings are something I saw my neighbors eating the day before. So darned pretty I had to try them. Made with translucent rice skins and stuffed with a mix of lean pork and a vegetable I don't know how to translate (Latin name Rubia cordifolia.) The Chinese name of the dish is figurative more than it is descriptive. 瑶柱茜草。You dip them in dark aged vinegar 老陈醋。 It's borderline bad manners to ask your neighbors too many questions about their food. OK to maybe just inquire, "What is that called?" 这是什么菜?You enter a troubled zone if you add, "Does it taste good?" 好吃吗?because then they will usually smile and offer you one of their three or four bit-sized pieces whether they really want to or not. So it was another great meal for under 100 MOP, rough actual cost about 70 Chinese Yuan or $11 US Dollars. And being a "tea nut" you probably guessed I would have to play with the leaves at least once. (Tieguanyin again. 铁观音) If you go to Guangzhou, Hong Kong or Macau, be sure to make time for at least one Cantonese dim sum meal. It's a regional specialty and culinary treat not to be missed. It is now copied all over the world, but this is the source, and it remains the original Mother Lode.
  7. You can have Kung Pao Chicken 宫保鸡丁at the all-you-can eat Chinese buffet in the strip mall on the outskirts of Smalltown, Texas, USA. I know because I’ve eaten it there. Panda Express also dishes up a ton of it at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Concourse B. You can always count on it to form the cornerstone of an honest, solid meal. East or West. But if you start chasing it around Mainland China, you will quickly find that the name is the same wherever you go, but what the waitress delivers to your table definitely won’t be what you remembered having last week down the road a piece. It varies all over the map. More so than most popular dishes. Why is that? Gongbao jiding originated in Shandong during the latter Qing. Chicken and peanuts were both staples of Shandong Cuisine, which is also know as 鲁菜 lu cai. The Governor of Shandong Province 山东省 was a real aficionado of that particular taste combination; anecdote has it that he would even occasionally fiddle around with cooking it himself instead of just relegating the task to his staff. We are talking about Ding Baozhen 丁宝桢(1820年-1886年.) Shandong Governor Ding was originally from Guizhou 贵州省 and that is where he began his political career. When his relatives and friends from back home visited him at the Governor’s Mansion, he couldn’t wait to introduce them to his Shandong “find.” They were suitably impressed and carried the word back to Guizhou. The dish was quickly adapted to the local palate, and soon became a staple of Guizhou Cuisine 黔菜 (Qian Cai) as well. Guizhou loves hot food, so the fire quotient was ramped up. Guizhou also insists that sour be part of the flavor mix. That was accomplished by including pickled vegetables 泡菜。 In his later years, Ding was appointed governor of Sichuan. Not surprisingly, he took his culinary discovery with him. Once again it was modified for local tastes and to make use of prized local ingredients such as Sichuan peppercorns, also known as prickly ash, a mouth-numbing member of the citrus family 花椒 huajiao. Today Gongbao jiding 宫保鸡丁 definitely belongs to the cannon of best-loved Sichuan Cuisine 川菜 chuancai. Ding continued to attract favorable national attention by revising the salt tax codes and by refurbishing the famous Dujiangyan Water Conservation System 都江堰水利工。In the course of his long career, Governor Ding caught the eye of the Qing Emperor in a positive way, and before long his favorite dish got picked up by the power elite in the northern capital city. It earned a proud place in Beijing Cuisine. So today your order of Gongbao Jiding 宫保鸡丁 can have many faces. Not to worry; they are all pretty darned good. I’ll show you one very decent recipe that’s not difficult to cook up at home, but I make no extravagant claims to it being the “one true way” or the “gold standard.” (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) The finished product and the vegetables. Start with the meat. Use two large chicken breasts if you plan to make enough for 3 or 4 people to share as part of a Chinese meal. I suggest buying fresh chicken, instead of frozen chicken breasts since they have more taste. The two I had today weighed 0.549 kg (a little over a pound.) I sliced them open first off so they wouldn’t be quite so thick, then proceeded to cut the meat into roughly one-inch cubes. 鸡丁 Safety tip: Put a folded piece of damp paper kitchen towel under the cutting board so it won’t scoot around. Marinate the cut chicken in a mixture of 1 beaten egg white 蛋清, ½ teaspoon cooking salt 食用盐, ½ teaspoon ground white pepper 白胡椒粉, 1 tablespoon of yellow cooking wine 料酒, and a heaping teaspoon of corn starch 玉米淀粉。Put on a disposable glove 一次性手套 and massage the seasonings into the meat. Let it marinate 腌制 in the fridge about 15 minutes. Notice that the marinade isn’t “soupy.” It coats the meat without much excess. Wipe a small amount of cooking oil around the inside of your wok and heat it with low flame. Put in a heaping teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 and stir them until you start to smell their lemon-zest aroma. Take them out and let them cool. Meanwhile, cook a handful of peanuts 花生米 the same way. You want them to slowly toast, but not scorch or burn. Keep them moving over low flame for a couple minutes. They become crunchy as they cool, not while they are still hot. Crush the toasted Sichuan peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or in a bowl with the back of a stout soup spoon. Toasting and crushing them like this greatly increases their flavor. Set them and the roasted peanuts aside, turning your attention to the vegetables. Cut the red bell pepper 红甜椒 into thumb-sized pieces and chop a cucumber 黄瓜 into cubes 丁that are about the same size as the chicken. If you are using long Chinese cucumbers as shown, no need to peel them. Cut the spring onion into rounds, using only the white part. Mince 切碎 a thumb of ginger 生姜 and a clove or two of garlic 大蒜。 Prepare a thickening sauce 勾芡酱 by putting a heaping teaspoon of corn starch and a half cup of water into a bowl. Stir well to dissolve. Stir in a tablespoon of sugar 白砂糖。Add a tablespoon of cooking wine 黄酒, a tablespoon of dark vinegar 老陈醋, a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and about a third as much dark soy sauce 老抽。Set aside. Prep finished, time now to cook. Get the chicken from the fridge, stir it up. I always like to lay out the ingredients and mentally rehearse what goes in first, what follows, and so on. I suppose you could even arrange all your “mis en place” dishes in time-sequence order if you were of a mind to. “Hot wok, cold oil” 热锅粮油。I realize you knew that. Preheat it before adding two or three tablespoons of cooking oil. I used corn oil today. Flame on medium 中火 instead of high. Chicken requires a different approach from pork or beef. Add the chicken in one layer, spreading it quickly with your chopsticks (not all mounded up in the center of the wok.) Leave it alone for a minute or so, allowing it to sear. Carefully scrape it up and turn it over, trying to minimize surface tearing. It should mostly have changed color from pink to white by now and have a little bit of golden crust. The goal for this first stage is to only cook it two-thirds or so; not completely done. Only takes two minutes max. Add the crushed Sichuan peppercorns and 4 or 5 dry red peppers 干辣椒。I usually just tear these peppers in half as I add them. Some people cut them into smaller bits with scissors. Stir everything well and then add the chopped cucumbers and red bell peppers. Add new ingredients to the center of the wok; that’s the hottest part. Then stir it all together. Give it a minute or so, allowing flavors to blend, stirring and flipping all the while 煸炒,翻炒。 Now the thickening sauce goes in, mixing it well because the solids will have settled in the bowl. Stir everything well for a minute or so until you see the chicken and vegetables developing an attractive sheen. Last of all, add the peanuts and incorporate them more or less evenly 拌均匀。You want the peanuts to have a very short cooking time so they will retain their crispy texture. Plate it up 装盘。Admire your handiwork. Snap a photo with your phone. Set it on the table. Call the team to come dig in. Gongbao jiding and steamed rice 蒸饭 are just about inseparable, so plan ahead and have some rice ready when the chicken comes off the stove. Took a little over half an hour today, maybe 45 minutes including clean up. I listened to the Sutherland - Pavarotti Turandot while working. London Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta. Although this is fun to make at home, it’s also an easy thing to order in a simple restaurant. Any random six-table Mom and Pop joint will be able to turn it out. I often supplement it with a clear green-leafy vegetable soup. 苦菜汤 kucai tang, for example, is easy to find and serves the purpose of turning this into a real meal: veggie, meat, and soup. Tasty and won’t break the bank. Try it soon and see what you think! Here's the recipe all in one place to make it easier to use: (Click "reveal hidden contents."
  8. 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.)
  9. Chanced onto some real nice shrimp this morning at a decent price. Could not resist. Sautéed them quickly using a method that provided lots of flavor without much oil. I'll show you how. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) This is 18 large shrimp, a little over a pound, 450 grams. Pull off the heads, remove the dorsal digestive vein, and either just cut away the legs or peel off the shells. Cooking them with the shells on makes them more juicy, but it means a little more trouble at the table. Today I opted to remove the shells, an operation which took a little over 10 minutes. Leave the tails attached. Wash the shrimp under running water and drain them in a strainer. Pat dry with a paper kitchen towel. Marinate in the fridge between 30 minutes and one hour covered with a sheet of plastic wrap 保鲜膜。The marinade consists of: 1 tablespoon each of yellow cooking wine 黄酒,light soy sauce 生抽,and oyster sauce 蚝油 plus a generous sprinkle each of sugar, salt, and ground white pepper. The longer marinating time allows them to cook fast and have less risk of drying out. While the shrimp are marinating, I prep some aromatics: a couple slices of young ginger 生姜, and a couple large single-head garlics 独蒜, finely minced. (Old ginger 老姜 and standard garlic are stronger; so use less of them.) Three to five dry red peppers 干辣椒 torn into two or three pieces. (If you can't get these, use crushed chili flakes.) Just before you're ready to fire up the pan, add about a tablespoon of corn starch 玉米淀粉 to the shrimp and mix well. This allows the marinade to coat them better, locking in more flavor. Use a flat bottom non-stick pan for best results 平地不粘锅。Set it on the flame but don't let it get screeching hot before you add a generous tablespoon of a neutral oil (such as corn oil) and lay the shrimp in one at a time with chopsticks. Don't just dump them in; don't crowd the pan. Let them sear undisturbed for about a minute on medium heat. When the tails become deep pink, flip them and add the aromatics. Another minute and they're done. Serve them up. 装盘。They go well with a simple vegetable and steamed rice. (I served these with baby bok choi 小白菜。) These shrimp have a bold flavor and a pleasant texture. Quite a bit less oil than the method I showed you last time. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58622-spicy-chinese-twice-fried-shrimp-油炸虾仁/ Hope you will give them a try!
  10. 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。
  11. If the weather’s gray, I don’t have hot water. Solar heater on the roof 太阳能热水。This is a recipe I developed during one of those spells to avoid as much dish washing as possible. It came out so good that I have continued to make it even when the weather is fine. It features er cai 儿菜, a popular winter vegetable I never met before moving here to Kunming but of which I have become very fond. Easy to use and plenty of flavor. Loaded with virtues; bursting with vitamins and minerals. It’s a member of the brassica family, and thus is related to cabbage, mustard and Brussels sprouts. One of those things your Mama would nag you to eat more of if she were here. It grows in much of China but is most plentiful in the south and southwest. Yunnan people can’t praise it enough. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Today I bought a kilogram of the lovely stuff for under 5 Yuan. Saved part for tomorrow, washed the remainder, broke off six or eight “knobs” from which I pared away the damaged or tough outer leaves. Sliced them into thick pieces as shown. Bottom right photo shows what I mean. Knobs in the middle, trimmings on the right, slices on the left. The central heavy white stem I hold back and use later for soup. Thinly sliced the white part of one spring onion and one small sausage, about 50 grams. I buy top grade Guangdong style sausage for this kind of use. 特级广味香肠。This kind of sausage hasn’t been smoked and has a slightly sweet taste. Meanwhile I have soaked my rice. Important step: takes 15 minutes and allows the rice grains to swell instead of burst when heat is applied. Assembled the ingredients, a pretty simple collection. My rice in my rice cooker takes about 30 minutes to get done. Although it doesn’t require military precision, my general game plan is to add the sausage after the rice has cooked alone for 10 minutes and add the ercai in a steamer basket on top when the whole works is 6 or 8 minutes from done. Now that the rice is underway, lets make a dipping sauce, a zhanshui 蘸水。Here’s where you can use your imagination. My personal favorite is a tablespoon each of dark sesame oil 黑芝麻油, aged dark vinegar 老陈醋, and light soy sauce 生姜。Into these I mix a teaspoon of red chili oil 红油。You could use a store brand such as Old Grandmother 老干妈。It’s pretty good; but I use my own home made chili oil instead and I would modestly point out that it’s perfect. (Recipe here -- link.) After 10 minutes, quickly open the lid and add the sausage, more or less in one layer. Don’t dally; you want to minimize the escape of steam. About 12 minutes later, add the steamer basket of ercai with the minced scallion sprinkled on top. Again, work fast when raising the lid. The rice cooker will beep when it’s done. It usually takes a few minutes more than the usual 30 because both sausage and the vegetable add some moisture. Take the ercai out and add a sprinkling of salt and a dusting of white pepper. Serve it up 装盘。What I did here just to make it look nice was to put a scoop of rice in the middle with meat on top and vegetables around the side. Second helping less fancy. Not a huge belt-buster feast; but still a well-balanced, relatively healthy dinner. Good tastes. Total cost for two people under two dollars; total time investment under an hour. Minimal cleanup. All in all, pretty sweet! (If you can't find ercai, you could use another vegetable such as Brussels sprouts or baby bokchoi 小白菜。)
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节 has brought too much rich and spicy food my way, even though I dearly love it. And on top of that, I've been the recipient of a couple decorative boxes of million-calorie moon cake 月饼。Yesterday I attended two banquets, lunch and supper. Thank goodness the second one included a particularly welcome "recovery dish." It hit the spot and I vowed to learn how to make it. Wasn't hard at all: let me show you. It involves a sublimely simple stew of green beans 四季豆, zucchini squash 小瓜,and eggplant 茄子。 First, here's a quick look at some of the high points of yesterday's banquet number one. It was held in a private dining room on the third floor of a local restaurant. You can probably recognize most of these delicious Yunnan and Southwest China dishes. (I'll include a key at the end so as not to spoil your guessing game.) (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) This was washed down with beer 啤酒 and baijiu 白酒 (China's own "white lightning"), cola and orange soda being available in reserve. This busy, no-frills restaurant is popular with locals; I've been there several times. Their food is always spot on and service is snappy. According to their menu, they were founded in 1983. Late afternoon I visited the home of some friends for a home-made meal every bit as good. I actually prefer that setting since I can wander into the kitchen and watch how things are done. By about 6:30, we had another delicious but filling meal which included two pressure-cooked and deep fried pigs feet in a fiery sauce. Two kinds of sausage 香肠, red cooked beef 红烧牛肉, a chicken floating in lovely mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers 花椒鸡, on and on. Here's a look at the chock-full festive table, plus a close up of the very basic vegetable dish which was such a revelation. The lady of the house explained that the green beans and zucchini both had a slightly sweet taste and needed to be cooked together without the addition of any spices, not even salt. I thought that was strange and was afraid it might be boring, but by golly it did taste refreshing that way. She made it with enough water in the pot to provide a clear soup to have along with steamed white rice as the meal drew to a close. She said she often made it with eggplant as well. The zucchini were just torn into large chunks, "farmer crude." This morning I bought the ingredients at the wet market and explained to the bean seller what I had in mind. She cautioned me again to use no salt. "千万不要放盐。什么都调料不妨。" No if's, and's, or but's about it. I had my marching orders. These 四季豆 beans (left in the photo) are broader and "meatier" than their two-foot-long cousins (长豆)。You may have eaten them in their most popular incarnation: 四川干煸四季豆 (dry-fried Sichuan style.) Here's the starting line-up. Use long, skinny Asian eggplants. No need to remove the skin. These 小瓜 are not actually zucchini, but very close. Other members of the squash family will work as well. Wash the beans, trim the ends and cut them in half. Cut the zucchini and eggplant into large chunks, thirds or fourths. Put them together with the beans into a pot with enough water to barely cover and start on high, but quickly reduce the heat to a simmer. Remember, no salt. No cooking wine, no pepper, no vinegar; "no nothing." As the lady said, “什么都不妨。" Put on the lid, but leave it ajar. After 12 or 15 or minutes, when the vegetables are beginning to get tender, cut the core out of a fresh tomato and add it to the pot. The idea is just to use the boiling water to soften it; don't let it cook apart. Remove the tomato to a bowl and slide off the skin. Coarsely break it apart using a spoon plus a dull knife. Finely cut a couple of spring onions 小葱,some ginger 生姜 and garlic, 大蒜 plus a scant teaspoon of hot sauce 辣椒酱。(Not enough to make it fiery, just enough to wake it up.) Mix these with the crushed tomato. Add light soy sauce 生抽, a pinch of sugar 白砂糖, a pinch of salt 食用盐。This is to be your dipping sauce 蘸水。 Take out the cooked vegetables, serving them in a bowl with lots of juice. Keep the remainder of the juice to use as a subtle clear soup. Offer it at the end of the meal along with a bowl of rice. Kind of cleans the palate. Provides a gentle and refreshing change of pace from all the highly-seasoned and fried foods that were the stars of the meal. The vegetables are soft, but not mushy. This is a traditional accompaniment to a family feast. You may or may not find it in a restaurant because it doesn't have much glamour, doesn't do much to boost your 面子 ("face") when ordering it for guests.
  15. 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.
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    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!
  17. 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.
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    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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. Lotus root 莲藕 and corn 玉米 are a winning team, often paired in hearty winter soups. The flavors go so well together that last night I combined them in a 凉拌 or big hearty salad, just right for a hot weather meal. Here's how I made it in case you'd like to try it at home. Lotus root is one of those things that isn't quite accurately named. Instead of truly being a root, it's actually part of the segmented stalk of an unusual underwater rhizome. Grown mostly in the south part of China, as well as in Vietnam, India, Korea and Japan, it's a plant which loves sunshine. The paddies where it flourishes are initially filled with large, vivid flowers, parts of which are also edible. The flowers have acquired a good deal of significance in several religious and philosophical traditions. Here's how lotus roots are grown and what they look like when freshly harvested. Being a lotus farmer is challenging work. The ones I buy in my neighborhood wet market are grown near Yiliang 宜良,to the east of Kunming, not far from Stone Forest 石林。The young man and his wife who operate the stand sell them alongside bamboo shoots, from hills in that same area. They are a friendly and helpful couple, enthusiastic about their wares, and the wife always quizzes me carefully as to the intended use of my purchase. First time this happened I wasn't sure what to think and kind of drew a blank. So she prompted me by asking, "For salad, for soup, or for a stir fry?" Then the light bulb went on and I could answer. She selects the appropriate specimens with your culinary goal in mind; pretty darned helpful when you come to think of it. When I got them home, I scrubbed them clean under cool running water. Then sliced off the hard surface with a sharp vegetable peeler. She has picked me nice pieces, the ends of which are still closed. Pieces that are broken or already cut in half sometimes have traces of sand and mud inside that is very difficult to remove and makes them slightly gritty. Mine were pristine. Note that these two segments are not terribly big around, they are young sections and thus have a milder flavor than some of the bigger, more mature ones. The latter are great for soups and stews, but these are perfect for salads. They are crunchy and mildly sweet, while being slightly starchy. This is an item that plays well with others; doesn't insist on always dominating or being the center of attention. Slice it thin and put the slices directly into acidified water. I used a splash of white vinegar, but lemon juice is also fine. If you don't do this and just leave it exposed to air after cutting, it turns brown and ugly; never gets white again regardless of how hard you might scrub it. Let these slices soak while you get the other ingredients ready. I cut a cob of fresh corn into thin rounds. This makes them easier to pick up later with chopsticks at the table. Boil them for about two minutes in lightly salted water. I planed down a carrot 胡萝卜 with a vegetable peeler, though you could just as well do it with a knife. Sliced a large scallion 大葱, and a single hot pepper 辣椒, removing most of the seeds. If you like more fire, leave them in. Washed and chopped some cilantro 香草。 At this point I like to make the dressing. I used one with dark vinegar 老陈醋 for the mixed vegetables and another one for the lotus root slices with white vinegar 白醋 so as not to discolor them. In each case it was just a tablespoon of vinegar, a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of sesame oil 香油。Salt and a pinch of sugar; add MSG 味精 if you like. (Most Chinese do.) Drop the lotus into boiling water (I used the same salted water in which I boiled the corn) and let it blanch for about a minute. If you cook it too long it becomes mushy and uninteresting. Plunge it immediately into ice water to cool it fast; this keeps it nice and crisp. Sauce the lotus and the other vegetables separately in two containers and put them into the fridge for about 30 minutes. Keeping them apart like this isn't essential, but it makes the finished product have more eye appeal. Very white lotus and colorful vegetables contrast nicely with each other when plated side by side. When you are ready to eat, build your big dinner salad and put it on the table. It's a tasty and healthy one-dish summer meal, easily supplemented as desired. I ate mine with French bread and Emmental cheese plus a glass of chilled Spanish white wine.
  24. These elusive jizong wild mushrooms 鸡枞菌 (no English translation) grow in the high backcountry of Yunnan and their life cycle depends on being just above a nest of termites 大白蚁。Their marriage is an obligate symbiosis in that the mushrooms are the main food source of the termites, and the termites allow the mushrooms to reproduce by aiding in spore transfer. If the nest of termites moves, the mushrooms die. They will probably reappear next year above the new nest. (These 2 are from Baidu) Most wild mushrooms, these included, cannot be cultivated. One must hunt them in pristine mountain forests the way one might stalk large game. Two years ago, in August, I took a driving trip into the Tibetan parts of NW Yunnan, up above Lijiang, along the road to Lhasa. One side of the winding road dropped off a thousand meters into a gorge, the other side was dotted with the parked cars of intrepid local fungus hunters. It was open season. The price of these famously delicious Jizong mushrooms 鸡枞菌 has gone up and up since demand exceeds supply. Not only are they are hard to find and have a short growing season, limited to the wet summer months, but they are highly perishable. They must be searched out, plucked, transported to market, bought and used within 24 to 36 hours. A kilogram of prime ones will easily set you back three hundred Yuan. Though I go all out and buy the “real ones” when cooking for friends, this time I was only feeding yours truly 一个人 and opted for a less expensive substitute: a taxonomically related mushroom that can in fact be cultivated and costs a fraction of the glorious wild ones. They are called “small black jizong” 小黑皮鸡枞菌, being diminutive and of dark surface coloration. Unlike some wild mushrooms, these are completely safe to eat; no chance of lurking poison 没有毒。The seller even offered some for free raw tasting on the spot. He provided a cup of pungent dark chili sauce for dipping, as you see below right. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) If you need help reading the mushroom sign, above right, click the spoiler ("Reveal hidden contents.") Chinese call these 人工的 (“man-made”) and Yunnan natives look down on them. I think they are darned good but must agree that they don’t have that distinctive “explode in your mouth” quality of the best wild ones 野生的。One taste of those and you will sell your soul for a second helping. Worse than opium 抽大烟。 Purveyors of cultivated mushrooms aren’t even in the same section of the market as the wild ones. The “wild sellers” squat on the ground beside their baskets. They usually look distinctly rural, scruffy clothes, dirt under their fingernails presumably from digging up the roots. The “cultivated guys” have actual stands so you don’t have bend or kneel to check out their wares. They offer a large variety of mushrooms; after all, Kunming is a mushroom capital for wild and cultivated ones alike. The traditional home-style 传统家常 way to prepare these is to just stir-fry them with spicy green peppers and lots of garlic, and that’s exactly what I did. Bought a handful of the crinkly medium-hot ones on the left below. The same seller offered five or six other varieties, with gradations of fire 辣 and sweetness 甜味。Peppers are not just about the heat: they promote complexity of taste; they make food interesting. Here are the mushrooms I bought. 300 grams for 20 Yuan. 小黑皮鸡枞菌。The seller has already cut away the roots, "shaping" the bottom of the stem like a school pencil. Buy ones with the caps fully or half closed, not sprung completely open like an umbrella. I cleaned them with a wet paper towel and a small brush then sliced them in half the long way. Cleaned and washed a couple of large spring onions 大葱, three heads of single-clove mild garlic 独蒜 and three of the crinkly medium-hot peppers. For an authentic Yunnan flavor, it’s desirable to retain part of the white membranous center when you chop the peppers. It supplies a subtly bitter note which helps in flavor balance. I keep about half the pith and most of the seeds. If you wanted less heat, you could omit the seeds. You wind up with lots of finely sliced pepper and minced garlic. If you are timid about such things, this dish might not be for you. Oddly enough, they don't overpower the mushrooms like one might suspect first time around. Slap the spring onions with the side of your Chinese cooking knife 菜刀 and break them down somewhat. Then slice them on a bias, about 45 degrees. This gives you “onion feathers” that release their essence quickly when introduced to the heat. Lets their flavors combine in seconds with your other ingredients instead of requiring minutes. Yunnan ham from Xuanwei County 宣威火腿, aged 12 to 18 months. Hard to go wrong with this flavorful meat in a dozen different applications. Notice how it is marbled. I cut away the rind but leave the exterior fat. If you first put it in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes that will allow you to slice it into fine slivers 肉丝 with very little effort. Cut across the grain. Ready now to rock and roll. Everything laid out below. Not pictured are my dry spices, namely salt and MSG, and my wet spices, namely light soy sauce 生抽, yellow rice cooking wine 黄酒, and aged dark vinegar 老陈醋。Set them out where they will be quick to use without having to search for them in the cupboard. If you anticipate being truly rushed, measure the liquid items into a small bowl so you don’t have to fumble with a spoon. Set your well-seasoned wok over high flame and when it gets thoroughly hot, just below the smoking point, add your cooking oil and swirl it around to coat. If in doubt regarding whether your wok is hot enough, sprinkle a few drops of water from your fingertips. They should “skittle” fast across the surface and disappear almost at once. 冷油热锅。 Add the garlic, peppers and ham. Stir and flip them continuously so as to have them cook rapidly and not burn. 不停的翻炒 When the garlic and peppers begin to soften and release their aroma 爆香,add the mushrooms. All new ingredients are added to the center of the wok; it's the hottest part. Leave them there a few seconds undisturbed before mixing with the other ingredients that you have pushed up the sides to make room. Gradually incorporate the new arrivals into what was there before. Continuing to use high heat, cook the mushrooms, peppers, garlic and ham together for a minute or two until the mushrooms become limber and develop a bit of golden color on their cut surfaces. Don’t walk away to check your Facebook; this dish can scorch and become ruined in the blink of an eye. Stir, scoop and flip with the wok tool 国产 nonstop as you shake the pan with your other hand. Blend in the “feathered” spring onions. Now is the time for your salt and MSG. Only use a little salt, because the Yunnan ham is salty. I added less than ½ teaspoon. A stingy pinch of MSG, probably no more than 1/8 of a teaspoon. One tablespoon each of vinegar, wine, and soy sauce, stirring after each new addition, so as to be sure they all get very well distributed. You want each bite to be more or less the same seasoning signature. As you see, it is taking shape. Continue to scoop and stir another minute or so. Presto, it’s done. Serve it up 装盘。 Prep for a dish like this can be somewhat laborious, but the actual "time over the flame," is no more than 5 or 6 minutes. This makes an excellent vegetable dish as part of a traditional Chinese family-style meal, along with a meat, a salad 凉拌, a soup 汤, and steamed rice 米饭。If I’m eating solo, like I was today, I turn it into a single-dish "gaifan" 盖饭 (as pictured below right) by putting it on a plate together with a small hillock of steamed rice. A bite of this and then a bite of that. Or I can even mix them a little bit with my chopsticks as I go along. Today I had a cucumber and tomato salad plus and ear of boiled corn to round out my simple meal. In the sad event that you don’t live in China, (you have my condolences) I suppose you could still make this dish using one of the more flavorful mushrooms, domestic or wild, from your homeland. They need to have some substance, a little bit of "chew," and should not be completely bland. If you are visiting China, especially the south, you could most likely find something similar in a restaurant by asking the chef for 青椒炒菌子。If you happen to be coming to Yunnan (lucky you) then it's a snap; you have it made. You will have your pick of mushroom dishes here from a slew of small, unassuming eateries as well as luxury establishments specializing in the precious wild ones.
  25. These wild mushrooms thrive when a couple of rainy days are followed by half a day or so of sun. That’s how it’s been this summer, and it has led to a bumper crop. As you probably already know, Yunnan is China’s top producer of wild mushrooms. We harvest a couple dozen varieties in the mountainous parts of the province. Lots of them are exported regionally, bringing top dollar in the fine dining restaurants of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. I used to just buy them at my nearby farmers market, until I was convinced by local friends to visit the mother lode late this spring. By this they meant the wholesale wild mushroom market 木水花野生菌批发市场 in an older part Guandu Quarter 官渡区。Better selection, fresher product, lower prices in return for a 20-minute ride on the subway/MTR 地铁。I have officially been converted. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) 32 acres, hundreds of merchants, mostly small stalls, wares spread on the ground. I’ve gone every week or so for the last month and a half, concentrating on getting comfortable with only one or two varieties per trip. I also research the best ways to cook the ones I’ve bought. When you first walk into the market, people may approach with small baskets offering you “a special deal.” This man was selling a nice-looking tray of precious 松茸菌 songrong jun/pine mushrooms (matsutake) for only 100 Yuan. They would normally fetch three or four times that much, so there’s probably a catch, probably something fishy. Walk away. Once inside, the selection is nearly overwhelming: Takes a minute or two to get your bearings. On this trip I had decided to focus on 鸡枞菌 jizong jun (collybia termitomyces), Yunnan’s famous “termite mushrooms.” That meant I had to ignore these delicious 牛肝菌 (Niugan jun) a type of porcini/boletus, pictured just below. Niugan jun are delicious and I love them dearly. But they can sometimes be poisonous with varying degrees of toxicity and thus require special handling. Best not to mix them with other varieties, cook them hot and long. (Another day I’ll show you how.) First time at the market, I was surprised to see these wild bee and wasp nest 蜂巢 vendors. They extract the larvae 蜂蛹/fengyong carefully with tweezers, sort and sell them while still alive and wiggling. Local people consider them a delicacy. A night on the town has no better finish than a plate of these fried crispy and dipped in a fiery chili sauce, chased with a tall cold beer 啤酒 or an incendiary glass of 白酒 (Chinese "white lightning.") Starting to close in now on the kind I’m after, jizong jun 鸡枞菌, locally called “The King of Wild Mushrooms.” Unfortunately, it has no snappy English moniker. Have been pricing them as I walked along, getting a feel for how much the prime big ones bring, how much for smaller and less perfect ones. Have been assaying the amount of “wiggle room,” the difference between rock bottom and initial asking price. On average, medium size and medium grade can be had for about 200 Yuan per kilogram. I’ve also been making a point of talking with a sampling of experts here at “wild mushroom ground zero” getting their thoughts on how best to use them. My advance plan had been to make a hearty soup or stew in which I paired the mushrooms with half a wiry free-range chicken. Everyone has recipe tips: “Lots of garlic, but easy on the onions.” Or "be sure to include the head and the feet. They add lots of flavor." I've been urged to not mix them with any other mushrooms; to use them all alone so as to be able to appreciate their unique contributions. I listen carefully and jot things down. The seller below left is sorting songrong jun 松茸菌。Notice how carefully she handles them, only by the stem. The jizong jun 鸡枞菌 that drew my interest have long stems that look like roots and closed tops. Price goes down if the caps are open like an umbrella. Price goes down if the bottom parts have traces of black soil instead of the red earth in which this species thrives. She snapped off the woody end of one of these long-stemmed specimens. She wanted me to see and hear the way it broke cleanly like a twig; how it wasn’t mushy or soft. Fresh ones should not just bend. These jizong jun 鸡枞菌 are sometimes called “termite mushrooms” because they must grow right above a nest of large-bodied termites 大白蚁。If the termites move, the mushrooms die. Obligate symbiosis 共生。 (These 2 photos are from Baidu) It’s easy to be distracted by exotics such as these delicate beauties, below. They aren’t actually wild, they are cultivated. They sometimes show up at banquets here, thinly sliced the long way and fanned out on a plate. 竹苏野生菌/phallus indusiatus. As you might expect, vendors of dried wild mushrooms are also well represented. Sealed packages of dried wild mushrooms in the supermarket are sort of a local joke. Kunming old-timers 老昆明人 won’t touch them. But they grudgingly admit that good ones can be bought here in bulk and used in the deep of winter. You can have your mushrooms professionally packed and shipped home to Shanghai or Beijing by air freight. Domestic tourists come here and load up. It’s not too difficult to slowly stew them down into a thick, rich sauce 野生菌酱 or 野生菌油 that keeps a long time, even without refrigeration. A big dollop of it transforms a simple bowl of noodles into a memorable treat. (Noodles Baidu) Beware of mushrooms that have been misted with water to keep them looking fresh. (See the water bottle below left. Click the photo to make it bigger.) I wound up buying nearly a kilogram of this guy’s jizong jun 鸡枞菌。(Below right.) I tagged along with a retailer who was buying a whole lot to re-sell across town, benefiting from his bargaining skills. I didn't get as low a price, because I was buying a much smaller quantity. The seller's mother gave me tips on cleaning them by gently scraping with the sharp edge of a paring knife, followed by scrubbing with a toothbrush. Leaving now, passed into a second hall. This one has some fresh fruit and vegetables in addition to more mushrooms. My friends who are in the know say to avoid coming on Saturday and Sunday morning because the place is mobbed with restaurant owners laying in a supply for weekend diners. It was a little past 11 when I headed home with my trophies. Stopped off at a shiny clean snack shop 小吃店 for a bowl of 米线 mixian/rice noodles heaped with fresh mint 薄荷。Seven Yuan. One of the young cooks had just finished chopping lots of fresh vegetables for the lunch crowd. The front of this small eatery opened onto the street, while the back led directly into the market. I would imagine lots of mushroom sellers eat there at noon. Honest, humble food. No Golden Arches or McNuggets.
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