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  1. Spring means asparagus 芦笋 here in Yunnan. My neighborhood wet market has recently looked like the scene of an impromptu Kunming Asparagus Festival: Neat green stacks of them everywhere. Even saw white ones, raised underground in complete dark. For the next two or three weeks, quality will be high; prices will be low. Time to invite the “King of Vegetables 蔬菜之王” home to dinner. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) You might be surprised to learn that China is far and away the world’s largest producer of this noble and nutritious vegetable. 7.84 million metric tons were grown in 2017, only about half of them destined for export to other parts of Asia. (Graph in a footnote below.) The rest find their way onto China’s dining tables. Even though asparagus somehow don’t seem quite “Chinese enough” to carry the flag overseas, they are quite popular here. Today I combined them with vine-ripened cherry tomatoes 樱桃番茄, even though larger tomatoes would work just as well. I seized an unexpected opportunity: The vendor had priced them low to sell fast because she knew they would be mush by tomorrow if they stayed on her stand. I snapped up a kilo for 9 Yuan. Used a third of them in tonight's dish. It’s such a treat to able to find tomatoes that are grown in small batches, outdoors 露天。These beat the pants off ones that are farmed in huge volume inside large plastic domes 塑料大棚, picked green, shipped a long way in refrigerated trucks and then “quick-ripened” with ethylene gas. My bunch of asparagus cost 12 Yuan. They weren’t much larger in diameter than a Number 2 pencil. Lower grades were available for less, but these caught my eye and won my heart. To fix them, first snap off the woody base of the stalk. Don’t use a knife; that leads to waste. Discard these bits or freeze them to use later in a soup. Clip off the flowery tops and set them aside, since they take only seconds to cook. Cut the remaining stems into pieces an inch or inch and a half long. It’s traditional to do this on a bias 滚切, the argument being that this exposes more of the interior pith to the pan juices and lets them develop a richer flavor. Blanch 焯 these stem segments in lightly salted water for 5 to 10 minutes. It improves the result if you squeeze half a small lime into the pot. The shorter blanching time is for thin stalks, the longer time for thick ones. Mine were tender enough at 6. Took them out with a large strainer and cooled them fast with cold water to stop the cooking process and keep them al dente. Ready to stir fry now. Last-minute check, like a pilot settling into the cockpit of his jet: tender asparagus tops in one bowl, blanched stems in another. Tomatoes cut in halves or thirds, finely-minced garlic 蒜蓉 and ginger 姜末, about a tablespoon of each. I used young ginger 生姜 for this instead of old ginger 老姜 because it has a gentler flavor. I used single-clove garlic 独蒜 instead of the standard kind 大蒜 for the same reason. A tablespoon of neutral oil such as corn oil 玉米油。Rapeseed oil 菜籽油, popular here, would not be the best choice because it imparts too much extraneous flavor. Spread it around with a folded paper kitchen towel or the back of a spoon while the pan is still cool. Go for medium heat, adding the ginger when the pan is ready 加热后。Give the garlic a few seconds head start, then sauté 煸炒 them both fast until they begin releasing their distinctive aroma. Don’t let them burn 不要炸糊。I usually lift and shake the pan with one hand while stirring with the other. Add the tomatoes plus a pinch of salt and stir briskly until they start breaking down and letting go of their juices. Chinese salt 食用盐 is often extra fine. I would suggest getting in the habit of literally using your fingers to add salt by the pinch to reduce the risk of using too much. Then put in the blanched asparagus stalks. Another pinch of salt follows these. (Salt early and often, but with a light hand. Don't just wait till the end.) New ingredients go in the middle of the pan, as shown above. I’m using a flat bottom non-stick skillet 平地不粘煎锅 instead of my big wok because it fits the volume of the dish better. Medium heat throughout. Asparagus cook fast. Roman Emperor Augustus coined the phrase "faster than cooking asparagus" to describe quick surprise military action. In go the tender asparagus tops. Splash in a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽 and a tablespoon of dark vinegar 老陈醋。Sprinkle in a small pinch of sugar 白砂糖 and a small pinch of MSG 味精。Another pinch of salt if you think it’s needed after tasting. Stir and flip to combine 翻炒。If you want to give your dish a professional touch, now is the time to add a splash of 水淀粉。This is a teaspoon of cornstarch mixed in a cup or small bowl with two or three tablespoons of water. It binds the flavors into a unified whole and thickens the sauce so that it will coat the vegetables better. Gives the finished product a “restaurant polish.” Plate it up along with a bowl of steamed rice. Bearing in mind that China doesn’t really distinguish between a side dish and a main, you can make this recipe more substantial by folding in a couple of tender scrambled eggs 炒鸡蛋 at the end. In the event that you are tired of eating out at Mr. Wang's Noodle Heaven, where everything comes to you loaded with salt, sugar, and MSG, swimming in mystery oil, consider making something simple like this at home instead. Inexpensive, quick, delicious. Footnote: Table of world asparagus production: (click to display) Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/279556/global-top-asparagus-producing-countries/
  2. Early spring in Kunming is glorious. The cherry blossoms open in February; by the end of the month the peach blossoms are everywhere too. Soon the golden fields of rapeseed flowers turn the karst hills of the outskirts into a stepped yellow sea; the crabapple orchards start releasing their flowers when gusts of spring wind blows, covering nearby roads with a pink and white snowstorm. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Now it’s mid-spring; Tomb Sweeping Festival 清明节 has passed. It hasn’t rained here since before the start of the month, today being Wednesday the 17th of April. This means it’s great for doing outside activities, riding my bike, walking in the park. But it also means the internal humors that TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) prattles on so much about are holding my metabolism for ransom. I’m told one ignores these factors at one’s peril. It’s real easy to get sick just now; it's a treacherous time. 风热感冒 in particular looms large on the horizon. Skin gets itchy and dry. That’s easy to see. Nose gets crusty inside; in every block of sidewalk when I’m on foot, I meet people with tissue rolled up and sticking out from one nostril or other in response to a nosebleed. Scratchy throat, slight hacking cough, nothing productive. What’s going on deep inside is not quite as obvious. TCM deals with imbalance between heat and cold, stagnation of Qi 气; all sorts of other oddities like wind in the thymus or spleen. Incomprehensible stuff. Took me about ten years of living here to begin taking heed to this strange and very foreign business, based on principles that are at best difficult to grasp. Furthermore, these beliefs are not well proven by the western scientific method at whose alter I burned incense throughout a long working life. (Medical practice for 35 years; now retired.) Chinese people, average garden-variety Chinese people, young and old, believe in the notion of food as medicine. Food as curative medicine, to take when you’re sick and trying to get better, and preventive medicine to take in order to stay healthy. You can talk about this subject with cab drivers, tailors, waitresses and cops; you can talk about it with the tousled guy who sells cigarettes and booze 烟酒 at that stall on the corner, or the the uniformed chap who lifts and lowers the gate at the parking lot in front of that newish mid-range hotel in the next block. What they tell you when queried may differ in certain details, often going back to what their mothers taught them when small, but every single person you talk to will have something to say; nobody will just draw a blank and look at you like you are nuts. I grew up in South Texas, the son of educated but working-class parents. My personal deck of early memories contains quite a few do’s and don’ts, but outside of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and an abiding belief in the restorative powers of chicken soup when fighting a cold, I really cannot remember much in the way of “food as medicine” hand-me-down lore or parental advice. Not to say that such advice is not to be had in the west. But I’d say it’s not exactly mainstream, at least not to the extent that it is here in China. I can remember reading paper-bound books as a teen, bought for a dollar, about the powers of apple cider vinegar or the amazing abilities of natural honey. What else? Not much. Hmm, that cannot be right. Wait, let me think harder. When my memory strays much beyond those narrow confines, I dredge up recollections of that middle-aged lady with the flowing gray hair and the tie-died dress at the health food store urging me to buy this or that expensive herbal supplement instead of just a quick, easy bottle of “One-A-Day” multivitamins. If you get to know her, it won’t be long before she wants to refer you to her iridologist to have your irises “read.” She may even give you a hot tip about that new “colonic therapist” who just started business out on the north edge of town. Not to say that what she has to offer is wrong; but it is mostly “fringe” stuff, not well-accepted or mainstream. In China, however, by contrast, health maintenance advice based on eating right is completely mainstream. You don’t have to be a quasi-fanatical macrobiotic gluten-free vegan to have some degree of knowledge about what to eat and when in order to avoid various internal imbalances that most of us don’t even know about, let alone care about. I was in that last camp, not knowing and not caring, until very recently. I still don’t know much but have decided to at least start listening to the “folk wisdom” of some of my friends and neighbors about a few of the basics. My lady friend from the deep south of Honghe 红河州, my coach at the gym, who hails from Zhaotong 昭通, the smart young guy from whom I buy tea (from somewhere west of Dali, near Baoshan 宝山) the old lady who cleans my house once a week (native of Kunming back before so many streets were paved) and the man who parks cars at my apartment complex (originally from Chongqing) have all chewed my ear about this within the last few days. They did it out of concern from someone they perceive as at risk by virtue of being clueless and foreign. Surprisingly, they all said the same thing, as though they had been raised and rehearsed by the same mother: The weather now is warm, dry and windy. In order not to get sick I need to drink more liquids, eat more vegetables, especially green leafy ones, plus consume lots of raw fruit. It's OK to have meat, but it needs to take a back seat to the plant-based items in my diet, at least for the time being. The Chinese internet is full of more specific advice on how to go about this, how to carry it out. I cannot give you a truly well-informed opinion about which bits of this doctrine are right and which bits are wrong. But I can give a few ways to implement the simplest, most basic of these ideas in case you live in similar climate and seasonal circumstances. Having finally reached the end of this long and perhaps controversial intro, today I would like to simply show you one easy way to begin at the beginning. Learn about a “cooling” beverage that you can whip up at home. It quells the internal fires of late spring. As a bonus, it tastes good. You already know that Yunnan is in love with mint 薄荷 so it should come as no surprise to meet it again here. I've previously shown you how to prepare it as a soup and as a salad and as an ingredient in a stir fry. Today it stars in a beverage. I bought this handful of fresh mint at the neighborhood wet market this morning for 1 Yuan. Not all the vendors will part with such a small amount. They tell me their margin is slim and they don't want to bother weighing and bagging such a tiny sale. In the grocery store down the street it is weighed out and pre-bundled in bunches that cost 2.5 Yuan each. Sometimes I must get more than I want, but generally find some way to use the remainder. Wash it and pick out any bruised stems or discolored leaves. I typically wash it in three changes of tap water in a large basin. If that runs clear, then I stop. If not, I wash it some more. Put a quart of water in a pot and set it over high heat so it will come to a boil without wasting too much time. When you see a healthy rolling boil, put in the mint, leaves, stems and all. Don't stir it. Just let the pot return to a boil and then shut off the flame. Leave the mint alone for the next hour. Turn your attention to the citrus. Kunming has an abundance of these small limes 请柠檬。They are juicy and cheap whereas yellow lemons 黄柠檬 are expensive and often not very nice. The decision is easy: go with the green ones and don't look back. I squeeze five or six of them into a bowl. Then I cut the remains into quarters. Set them aside. After about 30 minutes, the mint water in the pot begins taking on a rich emerald color. Add the juice and the rinds into the pot. The water will still be hot enough to extract all the flavor from the solids. Don't worry about the seeds; you will strain them out later. No need to boil it again. Let it stand undisturbed for another 30 minutes, making a total time in the pot of one hour. If you put in the limes too early, oils come out of the peel that can make the resulting brew bitter. While the mint and limes are steeping 浸泡, get started brewing some tea 泡茶。I usually go for 红茶 red tea (called "black tea" in the west) but it's fine to use green tea if you prefer. Once or twice I've even used Pu'er tea 普洱茶。It's a matter of your personal taste preference. In fact, real tea leaves are not essential to this concoction at all. You can make it with just mint and lemon alone. Nevertheless, what I generally do is just put the tea in a bowl and ladle some hot water out of the pot. It's still got enough heat to work if you are generous with the leaf and let the tea steep for 5 or 10 minutes. I brew two or three bowls like this. pouring the liquid back into the pot each time. Now strain the contents of the pot: mint and limes. Hand squeeze the small lime quarters to be sure you have gotten all their flavor. Sweeten the resulting tea after it's strained. I use wild honey from Simao 思茅 (the famous city in Yunnan which has currently been renamed as Pu'er City 普洱市。) A generous tablespoon of this per quart of brew is just right for me, but you could use more or less. If you don't have access to good natural honey, don't despair. I've seen recipes that use rock sugar 冰糖 instead, as well as ones which use granulated sugar 白砂糖。If using the latter, I think it works best to turn it into simple syrup first. Boil one part sugar with one part water until all the granules dissolve. This way you wind up with a drink that is equally sweet all through instead of having sugar settle out at the bottom of the pitcher or glass. Here's the end result. First pour on the left, second pour on the right. Notice that it gets a little cloudy as it stands. This might prevent the drink from ever achieving the top rung of fame at Starbucks, but I assure you it does not affect how it tastes in the slightest. It might be pushing my luck to try to tell you how to drink it. After all we are all consenting adults here. Nonetheless, I will say that Chinese traditionally don’t drink this beverage ice cold. It would be unusual to see a local person serve it in a tall glass over ice. The old folks 老头 of my acquaintance will serve it and drink it 常温 chang wen, which means a cool room temperature, a few degrees below lukewarm. Bear in mind that China is the land of "beer off a shelf" instead of "beer out of the ice chest." You might have been surprised and even upset when you first ordered a “cold one” in a restaurant with a meal. Regretted ever getting onto the airplane. "Good heavens, I've wound up in a country that doesn't know beer is supposed to be cold." But by now I'm sure you are used to it even though it might have been a rocky transition. Personally, I store this drink in the fridge in a carafe and drink it from a glass, but without ice. That’s cool or liang 凉, cold enough to be pleasant without shocking the system. It’s typical to sip it slow, not quaff it off all in two or three big gulps. That is supposed to be better for the digestion. But since you are most likely equipped with a western stomach instead of a Chinese version, I will leave that step completely to your discretion. However you make it, however you drink it, this beverage is a winner, even apart from its medicinal qualities. Try it and see what you think. 薄荷柠檬茶。
  3. Last week we looked at the Chinese BLT; today here are two other sandwiches that you might not have tried before. The first one presses salted duck eggs 咸鸭蛋 into service. This is one more of those foods that is not well known in the west even though it is immensely popular everyday fare throughout the Sinosphere. You have doubtless seen them in stores and markets if you live here: blue-gray in color and larger than chicken eggs. Inside, the yolks are deep yellow with a rich, slightly-salty flavor. You may have run into them simply sliced open and served as part of a multi-course meal. Or perhaps your Beijing grandmother crumbled one into the morning porridge 粥 on winter mornings when she knew you were facing exams. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) (Photo above right is a Baidu stock picture, not one of my own.) They are made by brining duck eggs for several weeks and then packing them in a special red mud mixed with ash and salt, allowing them to air-dry. This loads them with flavor and cures them so that they can be kept without refrigeration at home for a couple of months. I buy them in the neighborhood wet market from Mr. Yang for 1.5 Yuan each. He offers some that are still covered in red earth as well as the "cleaner" edition on the right in the photo below. They are available in different sizes and he usually asks me if I want ones with a strong flavor or ones that are mild. (I opt for more flavor.) Note that these are different from "Century Eggs" or "Thousand-Year Eggs" 皮蛋 that we have talked about before. These don't have that strong sulfurous note; they simply are rich and somewhat salty. Very "egg-y" tasting. Slice a steamed bun/mantou 馒头 or a huajuan 花卷, which is what I've used here. Slice a ripe tomato and salt both sides. Part of a sweet onion completes this part of the prep. The baker was hard at work when I bought the bread, puffs of steam rising out of his stacked baskets. This time I decided to toast my bun in spite of it being fresh. Spread the toasted bread with mayonaise and put it together: egg, onion, tomato. Eat it "open-face" -- Continental style. Slightly messy to handle, but lip-smacking good! ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Another non-traditional sandwich that has now become a staple in my house is built around lufu 卤腐, a prized Yunnan fermented tofu, pickled in a spicy brine. Other parts of China have something similar called furu 腐乳 that is not quite as pungent. You can find it in crocks or jars in stores, but I buy mine directly from one of the spice and sauce merchants at the neighborhood market because it is fresher. The photo below left shows two kinds of lufu, both cut into square chunks. One is Shilin 石林 style, the other is the Yuxi 玉溪 variety. A single large cube of it costs 2 or 3 Yuan. Slice it prior to use so that it's easier to spread. If you are eating it beside a main dish as a table condiment 辛辣调味品, just pinch off a bit with your chopsticks. Slice the bread and do the same for a fresh cucumber. Slather on lufu and put it together. The result is intense. You will know you are no longer in Kansas. Both of these are treats you won't find at Subway anytime soon, so you are better off trying to make them at home. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Footnotes: 1. Here's more about "Century Eggs" 皮蛋 -- You can see how they differ from the "Salted Duck Eggs" 咸鸭蛋 used today: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53530-century-egg-rice-porridge-皮蛋瘦肉粥/?tab=comments#comment-409678 2. Here's a short photo essay I found about how lufu 卤腐 is traditionally made: http://www.sohu.com/a/223291723_661256
  4. If you’re Chinese, this is a familiar classic. Your mom made it for you once a week every summer from the time you were a tadpole until you finally went off to college. It was mandatory hot weather food. Bitter melon 苦瓜/kugua has myriad health virtues, chief among them is that it dispels excess internal heat. It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals, delivering them with relatively few calories. People striving to lose weight and adult-onset diabetics are always advised to eat plenty of it. For the rest of us it’s somewhat problematic; it seems foreigners either love it or hate it. Furthermore, you're not likely to find it at Panda Express. If you aren’t sure which camp you belong in, I would urge you to give it a try. Paired with beef like this and with the bite reduced through smart handling it has a lot going for it in the flavor department. You could try it first in a restaurant and if you think it’s a winner, then come back here for the “how to.” Ask for 苦瓜炒牛肉 (kugua chao niu rou) and you won't get any strange looks; the waiter might even think you're a local. Here's what this bad boy looks like in the wild, namely in the wilds of my neighborhood wet market. It will be less bitter if it's not too large and the bumps (called "teeth") are not too prominent. Light green is milder than dark green. After selecting a couple, head over to the beef lady with her sharp cleaver. Ask for a cut that's suitable to stir fry so you don't wind up with stew meat. Butchers in the local market are specialized: this one only purveys pork, that one only beef, and another one, flanked by woven bamboo coops, handles chicken, killing them to order right on the spot. (Remember, you can click these photos to enlarge them.) At home, you should start on the meat first, since it requires some time to marinate. Chinese beef can be tough, and restaurants all give it special handling. The Muslim restaurants 回族餐厅 are especially skilled at making it tender and delicious. But you can use some of their tricks in your own kitchen. First and foremost it needs to be properly cut. Sharpen your knife and work across the grain of the muscle 横着。When I remember in time, I put the meat in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes to firm it up and make it easier to handle. What I had today was a 320 gram piece of eye of round, a relatively tough and lean cut from the rump of the cow ("黄瓜条“). The grain of the muscle fibers is not well seen when viewed from above (left photo) but you can see how they slant in the right photo. This meant my cuts needed to be on an angle, as shown, instead of straight down. I was slicing as thin as I could, being deliberate about it. If you are pressed for time, shortcuts are possible, but tday I wanted to be sure to get it right, so I took the long, careful road. Put the meat in a bowl and sprinkled in a half teaspoon of baking soda 苏打粉。Added enough water to barely moisten it and massaged it with a gloved hand for half a minute or so. Let it stand 10 to 15 minutes, then washed it clean with potable water. This gets it ready for the main marinade, composed of 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce 耗油, one tablespoon each of Shaoxing cooking wine 黄酒 and sesame oil 香油, a half tablespoon each of light soy sauce 生抽 and dark soy sauce 老抽。Resist the urge to go nuts with the soy sauce or you won't be able to taste the beef itself. Put on another disposable glove and give it the second massage of the day. Let it stand 20 minutes or so on the kitchen counter, or up to an hour in the fridge. (The two marinade steps can be combined, but use less baking soda if you do it that way.) Move on to the beautiful melon. Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Use your spoon to scrape away at least some of the white pith, since it has a very strong flavor. Cut it into uniform pieces that suit your fancy. If it's a small melon, I just cut straight across, but this one was larger so I cut on a rolling bias 切棍。 To reduce the bitterness, salt these cut melon pieces and let them stand about 10 minutes. Then blanch 焯 it all for a minute or so, straining it into an ice bath. If you prefer your dish to have more of a bite, like I do when I'm making it just for myself, omit either or both of these two steps. Strain the cooled melon and set it aside. Now it's time to quickly stir fry your marinated beef. But first add a teaspoon of the last-minute secret ingredient, 木薯粉/mushu fen/cassava powder. Mix well. Using high heat, preheat the wok and add two or three tablespoons of oil (beef tends to stick.) The meat needs to just barely cook, to still be slightly pink in the center in order to avoid becoming tough. This only takes a minute or so. Scoop it into a pan on the counter 备用 and rinse out your wok. Most people use a stiff bamboo brush for this step. A little more oil in the hot wok and quick fry part of an onion, some minced ginger and garlic. They don't need to brown; only need to begin releasing their aroma 爆香。 Add the bitter melon and fry quickly for a minute or two. You want the vegetable to become slightly soft but to still retain some of its crunch. Then add back the cooked meat. Cook it all together for a quick minute so the flavors can blend, adjust the seasoning. Shouldn't need much, if anything. Plate it up 装盘。 Serve with steamed rice. Some Chinese food can be made a few minutes ahead and served at close to room temperature without significant loss of its charm. This dish, however, really needs to be eaten hot from the wok. If I'm making several dishes for guests, this is the one I do last for that reason. Any discussion of bitter melon seems to include comments about how learning to "eat bitter" or 吃苦/chi ku early in life builds character and is essential to wisdom and virtue. I would certainly not want to argue with the sages, and simply present that as one more reason to try this fine dish without too much delay.
  5. DavyJonesLocker

    Selecting a wok 炒锅

    thanks for the right up @abcdefg Incidentally I think I need a new wok. Even frying ginger is sticking to the pan. Moderator note: This thread has been split from abcdefg's write-up on cola chicken wings.
  6. If you are recently arrived in China, you may have discovered that the vegetable section of many restaurant menus features hearty combinations with stick-to-your-ribs portions of meat and potatoes that overshadow the lighter veggies in the dish. Furthermore, these often arrive at your table swimming in oil. If you are puzzled regarding how to get some simple fresh vegetables in a restaurant, three approaches can help you out. The first is to just order a vegetable stir-fried alone, such as 清炒菠菜。This would get you a plate of plain sautéed spinach. The waitress might ask if you wanted them to add garlic, 加蒜泥。 Another method is to order a clear soup made with a green leafy vegetable. Example of that would be 苦菜汤, the unfortunate translation of which is “bitter sow thistle.” It’s usually just the named vegetable and water, boiled till tender, with perhaps a dash of oil and a pinch of salt. The third approach is to order a 凉拌 or cold dish, made with a vegetable and an oil-vinegar dressing or sauce. Even though the name says “cold,” these are usually served at room temperature and take the place of salad in a western meal more or less. Today I’ll show you how to make one of my summer favorites: long green beans and king oyster mushrooms 四季豆杏鲍菇凉拌。Simple flavors with a pleasant crunch. I sometimes eat it by itself as a light lunch topped with a hard-boiled egg, but it can also be a side dish for your dumplings/jiaozi 饺子 and your lamb kebabs 羊肉串。 These 四季豆 beans go by several names, much as they do in English, and are easy to find in supermarkets here as well as closer to the source. They should be fairly stiff and not limp; color should be a vibrant deep green. I buy mine at the wet market, where a large bunch, enough for two generous meals, sells for 2 or 3 Yuan. They are traditionally paired with king oyster mushrooms 杏鲍菇,but if you can't find these, the dish will work with other mild-flavored mushrooms just about as well. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) King oyster mushrooms 杏鲍菇 are on the left. They often grow on the stumps of dead hardwood trees. They have an umami note as expected and a tender texture, often compared to abalone or ... well, better yet, about like oysters. Flavor is mild, sometimes with a slightly sweet aftertaste. Cut away and discard the base of any thick, woody stems. Brush off soil with a wet paper towel. It's not necessary to scrub or soak them. Chinese chefs find their texture is best if you tear them into strips or coarse shreds with your fingers instead of chopping them with a knife. This gives a more pleasant mouth feel 口感。 Wash the beans and cut off the stem end. These are about as long as my forearm, but they aren't tough or knobby. They don't have tough "strings" or "threads" on the margin like some other varieties.The peas inside the long pods are tender and immature. I slice them into 6 or 8 inch sections, cutting on a diagonal, but you could chop them straight across to save a few seconds if necessary. I've also finely chopped three or four cloves of garlic 大蒜 and a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger 生姜。Removed some of the seeds from three hot chilies and cut them into thin strips 切丝。 Blanch 焯 the mushrooms in a pot of lightly-salted boiling water for a minute or so. Lift them out with a strainer and drain their water 捞出、流干水粉。You will use the same pot of water in a minute to boil the beans, so don't discard it. Saute the chilies, garlic and ginger in a little oil. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry quickly, adding a conservative pinch of salt. They don't need to brown; you just want the flavor of the aromatics to develop and blend with that of the mushrooms. Scoop them out into a temporary holding pan 备用。 Boil the beans for 4 or 5 minutes, testing them frequently so as to stop the process when they just barely begin to get tender. Don't overcook them; better if they are al dente. Drain them and "shock" them quickly with ice water. This stops the cooking and also improves their color. Drain them well and toss them with the cooked mushrooms 拌匀。 Sauce the combined beans and mushrooms with 2 tablespoons of olive oil 橄榄油, 1 tablespoon of aged vinegar 老陈醋, 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽, half a teaspoon each of salt 食用盐 and sugar 白沙糖。 MSG 味精 1/4 teaspoon if you use it. (I do.) Toss everything together and allow the flavors to blend by putting it in the fridge for 20 or 30 minutes. It doesn't need to actually get cold. Best served at cool room temperature. It's easy to find this dish or some variation of it in simple neighborhood restaurants all over China. It's also pretty straight forward to make at home. Give it a try and see what you think. This kind of food works real well when the days are warm, such as now.
  7. Chinese kitchens usually don't have an oven, but everybody has a rice cooker 电饭煲。Even bachelors and newly-weds have a rice cooker; it's as essential as a wok 炒锅。Here's a simple chicken dish inspired by a more complex Hakka 客家人 favorite. Not much to it and the taste is surprisingly delicious. You will need one small, relatively young chicken, about 2 kg cleaned weight. If you've shopped for chicken lately, you realize the process does have a few small wrinkles. Avoid the big, fat, tough stewing hens 老母鸡 that make such splendid soup. Also, steer clear of the prized free-range chickens 土鸡 that are so flavorful in stir-fry dishes. Both of those require too much heat to become well done. And there's no need to spring for an expensive ultra-tender 三黄鸡 even though they are great for poaching. What's called a "fryer" in the US is just fine; this is a younger, smaller bird. Sometimes I make this dish with a whole chicken, sometimes with a couple of thigh quarters. A whole chicken has the disadvantage of the white meat (breast) cooking faster than the dark meat (legs.) Today I made it with the rear half of a small chicken. Note that it didn't have much fat. Washed it well and cut it up, removing the backbone (saving it for soup.) I separated the drumstick 琵琶腿 from the thigh 大腿 by slicing through the joint. My chicken parts weighed 0.6 kg, about 1.3 pounds. Fresh chicken works best for this. Avoid the "weekly bargain special" frozen legs often found in the supermarket; they contain too much water. Rub the cut chicken pieces liberally with coarse salt and let them stand undisturbed for 30 minutes or an hour in the refrigerator. No need to cover them; just put them on a plate. This partially "dry-brines" the meat. It's OK to leave it two or three hours if you'd like, but not overnight. (Chinese table salt is very fine; best to use a coarse-grained salt such as sea salt or Kosher salt.) Cut two large spring onions 大葱 into segments 切段。Slice a thumb-sized piece of ginger生姜 into coin-shaped rounds. Two or three dried chilies 干辣椒 optional. Set these aside. Mix two tablespoons of light soy sauce 生抽 together with half a teaspoon of dark soy sauce 老抽。Slip on a disposable plastic glove 一次性手头 and rub the soy sauce mix into the chicken well. Do it two or three times, massaging thoroughly 按摩。 Add a tablespoon of cooking oil to the rice cooker bowl; use your fingers to rub it all around. (Don't let it just pool in the middle.) Arrange most of the spring onions and sliced ginger (and dry hot pepper if you are using it) in the bottom of your 电饭煲 and set the chicken on top. Use the rest of the 葱姜 on top. Add two tablespoons of Shaoxing wine 绍兴酒 or yellow cooking wine 黄酒/料酒。 Turn on the heat. Select the program that is designed to cook ordinary rice. On mine, it's the orange button, top right ("灶烧饭。) That cycle usually takes between 20 and 30 minutes, but is controlled automatically. No need to fuss around with it. Go put your feet up and read a book. Enjoy some music and a glass of wine. When the rice cooking program ends and the machine beeps and switches to "keep warm/standby" mode 保温, open the lid and turn the chicken over. (That's the photo below left.) Then close it and press the same "cook rice" button a second time. This time it may finish a little quicker. When that cycle is done, don't open it up immediately. Let it stand closed and unplugged between 5 and 10 minutes. This lets the chicken re-absorb some of its cooking juices. If you have made a whole bird instead of just legs, stick a chopstick into a thigh joint to make sure it goes in easily and the juices run clear (not bloody) as a final check for done-ness. Take it out and serve it as you wish. The meat is tender and juicy. Balanced flavor, crispy skin. Can be picked up and eaten straight off the bone, can be sliced, or it can be torn into long shreds. Today I sliced it and served it on a platter with some just-cooked noodles and a raw cucumber. Not much labor; no fancy technique; easy clean up. Decent, tasty meal. This cooking method originated in Fujian, but spread to neighboring Guangdong. Today it's popular not only in China, but in every country where there is a significant Chinese diaspora. The original way of doing this uses a kilogram or two of salt, with the chicken double wrapped in parchment paper and cooked very slow in a covered wok for a long time. (The "kilogram or two" is not a misprint.) The rice cooker simplifies the process immensely. If you like chicken, might want to give this simple dish a try. If you have not yet bought a rice cooker, this is another good reason to take the plunge. Every Chinese household, no matter how small or large, no matter how rich or poor, has two small electric appliances: a rice cooker and an electric water kettle for boiling water to brew tea.
  8. It has rained a lot over the last week; our rainy season 雨季 has started with a bang. Clueless tourists will be stranded in mud slides before even making it to the entrance of Tiger Leaping Gorge. In Kunming we know about weather and adapt to it, and when the rain clears, like it did this morning, we jump fast to take full advantage. The sun was out by 9 a.m. and I was in the wet market 菜市场 with my shopping list by ten. It was bustling and busy like a Sunday. The aunties 阿姨 and grannies 奶奶 had large baskets and cloth bags to take home a portion of the bounty. I made a beeline to where the most people were grabbing stuff; this produce was bound to be the freshest, cheapest and best. Most locals are savvy shoppers and I imitate them. I loaded up with crispy green long peppers, the pointy kind, not sweet bell peppers. Thought I would make an old standard, green peppers and lean pork stir fry 青椒肉丝。But then I noticed the abundance of mushrooms. It's too early to eat the wild ones 野生菌 just yet, there is too much chance of unpleasant toxins 毒 Later in the season the wild ones are safer, so I usually wait another month or so. With that in mind, today I bought cultivated ones instead 人工香菇。 Swung by the stall that features "black pork." That designation puzzled me for a long time, until I finally figured out that 黑猪肉 doesn't mean black meat, it means the meat from pigs that have black hide. Supposed to be a little more tasty. They are raised in the hills in large pastures, sort of "free range," instead of being confined to cages or pens. Purchase a nice piece of lean loin meat 猪里脊。This cut is not marbled and it can be tough; but proper technique can make it delicious. Came out real good, so I thought I would share. Here's how I put it together. (Remember, you can click the pictures to enlarge them.) Clean the mushrooms and cut off the stems. Slice the caps thin. Wash the long green peppers and cut off the stems. These are spicy, have a nice bite, but are not fiery hot. I leave most of the seeds but remove the pith near the base. Cut some of them into circles instead of slivers. Why? Because it looks good. Locally these go by the name of 青辣尖叫 some of the time. You can find red ones as well, same shape and basic flavor profile. Peel down the outer leaves of a few spring onions and snap off the root end. Slice them into small rounds, using all of the whites and some of the greens as well. Wash and finely chop some cilantro. Stems as well as leaves. Assemble the vegetables. Turn your attention to the meat. I had put it in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes while prepping the vegetables to let it get firm and be easier to handle. The goal was to slice it thin across the grain, into slivers 肉丝 or very small pieces 肉片 so it would cook fast. This piece weighed only 150 grams; less than a fourth of a pound. It doesn't take much: a dish like this is mainly about the vegetables. The meat is just in it to enhance the flavor, to give it a little more punch. Marinate the cut meat in corn starch and cooking wine for 30 minutes or so. Makes it more tender. Fire up the wok. Use high heat. You want these ingredients to sear, cook fast and get a little color without actually scorching. If the flame is too low they will stew and be soggy. This is the part of the process that requires your full attention; don't play with your phone or look out of the window. If you don't stir fast enough, something will burn. Start with the meat; cook it about three-quarters through and scoop it out while it is still faintly pink. Then cook the mushrooms, stirring and flipping 翻炒 them constantly. The idea behind a process like this is to start with the ingredients that take more time to be done. Mushrooms take longer than peppers. When the mushrooms have released their moisture and wilted, add the peppers to the center of the wok. That is the hottest part. Let the peppers get soft and even begin to get slightly brown before adding the spring onions. Last of all, add the cilantro leaves and stems. At each step along the way I add a sprinkle of salt, instead of waiting until the very end. It's easier for me to judge the right amount that way, though it isn't essential to follow that strategy. Return the cooked meat to the pan and cook it all together for a minute or so to blend the flavors. At this stage I added a splash of soy sauce 生抽 and a few spoons of a corn starch slurry 水淀粉 to thicken the juices. If you like a pinch of MSG 味精, this is the time to put it in. (I use it, but realize not everyone can.) When the juices have been absorbed into the dish and all these harmonious flavors marry, in only a minute or so, it's ready to serve. Don't want to overcook things like this; the vegetables still need to have some crunch. That's part of what distinguishes real Chinese food from what you get for $5.98 at Golden China Buffet in the strip mall on the loop in small-town Texas where I spend part of every year. Plate it up. Goes well with plain steamed rice. Goes well with sunshine after a week of rainy days.
  9. abcdefg

    Middle Kingdom Limoncello

    Limoncello is native to the citrus growing region along southern Italy's Amalfi Coast, but it can be home made in Kunming as well. We have an abundance of fresh, full-flavored citrus, especially in the cooler months of the year. If silk and porcelain and tea could make their way west centuries ago, no reason why the caravan cannot now head back to the east. Home made limoncello has always been the best kind, with a taste more fruity and fresh than commercial brands. It is traditionally enjoyed as a post-prandial digestif, served cold in a small glass right after eating. It is also loved as an aperitif, before the meal. Or it can be turned into a tall drink with club soda or tonic water. It is sunny and bursting with fresh lemon/citrus flavor. Let me show you how I make it. Buy a couple of bottles of trusty and potent Red Star Er Guo Tou 红星二锅头, which is known and maybe loved/maybe hated by every Old China Hand worth his salt. This notorious 白酒 is 52% alcohol, making it over 100 proof. One of the beauties of this recipe is that it is a way of "taming the dragon" -- transforming this fiery "rocket fuel" Er Guo Tou even beyond the palatable, actually turning it into a beverage which is smooth and enjoyable. This is the famous grain neutral spirit that is sold in every hole in the wall lunch stand in "unit dose" sized bottles. You regularly see hard hat guys knocking it back with their noodles. A 500 ml bottle of this powerful concoction costs the princely sum of 13 Yuan and 50 Mao. I used a bottle and a half, about 750 ml, just because of the size of my containers. The Er Guo Tou distillery produces some other whiskey that is more refined and lower proof. Don't need it; this original wild potion does just fine at a price which cannot be beat, only pennies more pricey than Coca Cola. Buy four to six nice firm lemons, preferably from the market where they haven't been sprayed with wax to extend their shelf life (as is common in the US.) Oranges are prime just now and I bought five of those along with my five lemons. Limoncello can easily be modified by using part tangerines or grapefruit. I've experimented with youzi 柚子 (pomelo) and the small green limes 青柠蒙 that are so popular here. Both have very thin skin, making them difficult to use. But mixing lemon with another citrus fruit makes the resulting liqueur have a less aggressive character; sort of rounds it out. Scrub them well with a vegetable brush and sharpen your best paring knife. The goal is to deftly remove the yellow zest with very, very little of the bitter white pith underneath. I used a ceramic-blade peeler and the paring knife. It takes some time to do this right. One can alternatively use a micro-plane grater, but it will make the finished product slightly cloudy. Do the same with the oranges. Just like the lemons in the picture above, you can see the full thickness peel on the left, the white pith sliced away with careful scalpel strokes, leaving the finished peel on the right. I pull a chair up to the table, set it all out on a cutting board, put in earphones with some Bach or Beethoven, and take my time. Let my mind go blank into that semi-meditative 刀法 zone. (daofa = knife skills) As you work, drop the finished peels into a big wide-mouth jar that contains your alcohol. Screw the lid on tight. If the fit is not snug, put a piece of Saran wrap 保鲜膜 over the top before sealing. To backtrack a moment, Er Guo Tou is really not the only way to go. Everclear plain grain alcohol would do, but I've never seen it for sale in China. Similarly, vodka is ok, but you need the 100 proof kind, which is nearly impossible to find. You want a high alcohol content because it acts as a solvent and puts the aromatic elements of the fruit into solution. Set this jar up on a shelf for at least a week. Every day or two agitate it gently. Some schools of though call for leaving it like that for a month or more. A week is as long as I've personally been able to delay. Maybe resting it longer would make it a hundred times better, but I will probably never know. After a week, it is time to make it sweet. This is done with a Chinese version of simple syrup. Bing tang, Chinese rock sugar, 冰糖 adds an element of smoothness that works with the Er Guo Tou like the two were made for each other. I used a cup of rock sugar and three cups of water. This will make the finished product about 50 proof, which is about right for my palate. You could use less water or more depending on your personal preference. Bring the sugar to a gentle boil in a saucepan, stirring off and on until it's all dissolved. After that, be sure to let it cool completely to room temperature. If you rush that step the resulting brew will be muddy in appearance. Now pour the cooled simple syrup into the alcohol and citrus peels. Seal the jar again and let it stand overnight. My jar wasn't big enough to hold it all, so I improvised with a clean ceramic casserole. Next morning strain it into a bottle. I used a fine mesh strainer first, set in a large funnel, then did it twice more with cheese cloth. One can also use a coffee filter, but I didn't have one. When you do this, don't be greedy. Don't try and press all the liquid through with a wooden spoon or such, determined to get the very last drop. The reason is that this would push through the unwanted crud attached to the peels; stuff that you would like to discard. Here's my finished product. You can smell the citrus across the room. And the taste is smooth, without that ferocious 白酒 bite. I poured mine into a saved vodka bottle because it's the right size to fit in my fridge. This finished limoncello doesn't absolutely have to be refrigerated, but it keeps longer like this so I don't feel compelled to guzzle it too fast. Safe for a month or more. It still seems to disappear pretty smartly on its own; I sometimes think there must be some refrigerator mice with straws at work after lights out. Why have I included a picture of ginger? Because I thought I would tell you a Chinese herbal secret. This limoncello is fantastic served hot with an additional squeeze of lemon or lime and several slices of fresh ginger. Put the juice, ginger, and a generous shot of limoncello into a mug and fill it with nearly-boiling water. In the technical parlance of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it will "cure what ails you." So you have wound up with a bottle of first rate home-made joy that can be served strait as an aperitif, mixed tall with club soda or tonic water, taken after the meal to settle things, or utilized as medicine to chase away the winter vapors. Can't go wrong with that. Give it a try and see what you think.
  10. Grandmother's spicy tofu is an essential Sichuan dish, and graces the menu of every Sichuan restaurant I've ever seen, anywhere in the world. It is quintessential Sichuan food, bursting with flavor and chock full of bold spices. The Chinese name refers to its historical inventor, a grandma with a pockmarked 麻子 face. Yunnan, where I live, has fondly adopted this dish and has made it our own. Not surprising, since we appreciate spicy food here just about as much as they do in Sichuan. After enjoying it for years in restaurants, I've been making it at home these last several months. A major advantage of doing it yourself is that you can adjust the heat of the dish, adapting it somewhat to your likes and dislikes, while still retaining its essential character. But I don't want to mislead you: no matter how you tweak it, this is food for an adventurous palate. It's not white toast or mashed potatoes. Let me show you how I made it yesterday. Like many good things here, it begins with a trip to the market to pick up the best fresh ingredients. I almost always approach these projects by telling the vendor what I intend to make and asking for specific ingredient recommendations. My usual tofu seller reluctantly turned me away. He specializes in tofu from Shiping Town and he told me what I needed for this recipe could be had for half as much money just across the alley. (As always, click the photos to enlarge them.) What I needed was "soft" 嫩 tofu, and that's what I got. Neither the silky "flower" tofu 豆花 that falls apart immediately or the "firm" tofu 老豆腐 that is best for sautéing. Will show it to you closer in a minute. I also bought long, tender green garlic greens, plucked before they start to form the characteristic root bulb. These go by the name 蒜苗 or 青蒜 and Sichuan cooks love them. They impart a mild garlic flavor, with some crunch and a fresh note missing from dried cloves of garlic. They are "brighter" as well as more subtle. To the right of the garlic greens in the photo above you see fresh cilantro, complete with roots, stems, and leaves. I bought a handful of these. They have so much more flavor than dried coriander seeds. On to the spice lady now, master of pickled foods and slow-preserved sauces, some of which you see just above. I always get a thrill out of entering her kingdom, and linger as long as I possibly can. She shows me new arrivals and tells me of alternatives to my tried and true selections, tempting me to expand my horizons. My shopping list from her only called for two items, but both were crucial to the success of the venture and neither would admit of any compromise. First was 豆豉, salty fermented black soybeans. These are in the left foreground of the picture above left. The beans are discrete, not mashed into a paste; but note that they aren't black "turtle beans" such as are used in Mexican cooking; they are a special soybean variety. And the star of the seasoning lineup, and one of her specialties, was the rightly famous Pixian douban jiang 郫县豆瓣酱。It is shown in the photo above right, in the big bowl on the left-hand side. This magnificent seasoning has often been described as "the soul of Sichuan cuisine." It is made from fermented broad beans and chilies, plus an assortment of auxiliary spices. The best of it takes months or even years to ferment and has so much punch you can smell it across the room. Let me show you now how all this came together in my Kunming kitchen yesterday afternoon. Important side-note: Before anything else, as in most Chinese home cooking, start soaking the rice. It needs a 15 minute pre-soak, and then requires about 30 minutes to boil and steam in my electric rice cooker. I do ingredient prep while the rice gets a head start, but never actually fire up the wok until the rice is completely ready. One prep item was a little out of the ordinary, and that was the essential Sichuan peppercorns 花椒。For this dish they need to be toasted and ground. I used a non-stick skillet with no oil and a marble mortar and pestle. You toast them until they begin releasing their aroma. When you smell them at that moment, it's a reminder that they aren't really peppers at all, they are unusual members of the citrus family. They have a distinct citrus aroma. I used two teaspoons of them. The tofu needs to be cut into cubes and soaked for 20 minutes or so in lightly-salted warm water. This does two things: first it removes any "off" flavors and second, it firms it up a bit so that is easier to handle during cooking. Less likely to fall apart or crumble. Finely sliver or mince some fresh ginger 生姜,enough to make two or three teaspoons. Do the same with two cloves of dry garlic 大蒜 and roughly tear apart three or four dried red chilies 干红辣椒。This is an important juncture because it's where you can easily alter how fiery you want the dish to be. To crank up the heat, use fresh chilies instead of dry ones. Selecting more potent chilies will allow you to earn admission to the "forehead drenched in sweat club" when you eat the finished product. 出汗 Finely cut the garlic greens 蒜苗, fresh cilantro 香菜, and the white of a large spring onion 大葱。I hold back a few of the chopped garlic greens and coriander so I can sprinkle them on the top of the finished dish as a garnish. I do the same with some of the crushed 花椒 toasted and ground Sichuan peppers. The rice just now announced that it was ready. I checked it, gave it a quick stir with a pair of chopsticks, unplugged the cooker and cracked the lid. Gently drain the tofu and set it aside. Everything is now ready to go, including the ground pork. One could use beef instead. I bought about 400 grams of tofu and abut 50 grams of meat. (I buy them by eye and then weigh them afterwards at home.) A ratio of six or eight to one is about right. This is mainly a tofu dish, not a meat dish. Mushrooms can be substituted for the meat if you are vegetarian. I've laid out two heaping tablespoons of douban jiang 郫县豆瓣酱 (on the left) and one heaping tablespoon of fermented black beans 豆豉 (on the right.) Used my big knife 菜刀 to finely chop the black beans so they will cook a bit quicker. Add some oil to a hot wok, quickly stir-fry the minced ginger, and add the garlic and dry red peppers when it begins to change color. Taking care not to burn the garlic, next add the ground meat and fry it until it looses it's pink color. Add the chopped garlic greens, cilantro, and spring onion, stirring quickly 翻炒 over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生抽, two tablespoons of Shaoxing cooking wine 料酒, and about a cup of chicken stock or water. This is the point at which to add a teaspoon or so of sugar if you think it is getting too spicy. Sugar seems to slightly moderate the heat. Mix everything well and then gently add the tofu, turning the fire to low. Let the tofu cook 2 or 3 minutes with minimal stirring. When you do stir it, do so with the back of your wok tool 锅铲 or ladle 大汤勺, only pushing slowly away from yourself, moving it in one direction only. No vigorous swirling, flipping or back and forth movements that might cause the tofu to fall apart and sort of just disappear. When the tofu has taken on the colors of the sauce in which it is cooking, you can thicken the juices with a mixture of cornstarch 淀粉 and water 水淀粉, prepared ahead of time by mixing one teaspoon of corn starch with two or three teaspoons of water. Don't add too much. The pan juices should just barely coat the back of your spatula or ladle. Don't turn it into a paste. I usually don't put in any extra salt because the beans, bean paste and soy sauce all are salty. Sprinkle on the remainder of the freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns, scoop it all out into a bowl and garnish with some of the reserved greens. This is a dish that is best served right away, while it is hot, straight from the stove. Diners, myself included, often heap some of it directly on top of a bowl of steamed rice and eat it that way. Might mention that some recipes call for adding additional vegetables to turn it into a one-dish meal. Though that's an approach I sometimes take with other Chinese food, I prefer not to risk messing up this classic. After all, it's one of China's "top ten" signature dishes, famous throughout the Middle Kingdom as well as all corners of the "outside world." Give it a try if you are in the mood for something spicy and memorable. It will make your day and it will do it the Sichuan way!
  11. Let's say you arrived in China earlier this year either for work or for study and don't have a lot of time, money or language skills at your disposal. And, though it was fun at first, eating out all the time has become problematic. Yes, it can be cheap, but it isn't the healthiest of options and it isn't always as convenient as just whipping up something simple at home. Several of us old timers will try our best to give you a few hints and tips as to how to make some of your meals at home without much in the way of tools or materials. These won't be gourmet feasts, but they will keep body and soul together without costing an arm and a leg and without cutting too deeply into your busy schedule. This thread is intended to provide a forum for discussion, comments, questions and answers. We hope it can serve as a useful starting place for your China cooking and eating adventures. You will find that once you try cooking for yourself over here, it will also make it easier to order when you do go out since you will have some familiarity with Chinese ingredients, seasonings, and preparation methods. You will know what those words mean when you see them on a menu. A personal digression, to be up front and get it out of the way. I first came to China in 2006 and fell in love with the people, the food, the way of life. I was still working full time back in the US at the time, but took progressively longer and longer vacations. Am an ER doctor, and was senior enough to have the luxury of being able to schedule generous unpaid time off as long as I did it well in advance. Spent most of my China time learning the language and immersing myself in China's rich history and culture. Have traveled to every province with the exception of Tibet and Xinjiang. Lived in Zhuhai, far south, and Harbin, far north. Spent time in Dalian and Beijing as well. Tried Shanghai. Eventually retired and settled in Kunming, where I now spend most of each year. Go back to Texas for a couple months annually. At every stop along the way I have either stayed in a dorm or rented a small apartment, with a short lease of 6 months or less at a time. Never wanted to invest in purchasing top-notch tools or appliances since I knew I would have to soon leave them behind. So I have, by now, equipped six or eight small kitchens, and have done it frugally. Have had a chance to correct beginner mistakes and do things better the next time. Learned tons from my Chinese friends and shamelessly copied their methods. Dorm cooking is similar to bachelor cooking in a bare-bones efficiency apartment. It assumes not much room, not much money, not much time. Let's start today with the basic durable items that will make it possible to prepare at least some of your own chow. You will need something to cook in, such as a flat-bottomed wok. The one shown is a real good one; but a no-name "starter wok" will cost under 100 Yuan and is adequate when beginning. Wok is 炒锅。Mine, illustrated here, is ASD brand 爱仕达。That's a good label; 苏泊尔 Supor is another reliable one. Some woks are round on the bottom, and only work well when cooking on gas. My old one was that kind, pictured below. Flat bottom wok is 平地炒锅 though that can also mean a western-style skillet with strait walls. Please see this earlier article for more about selecting a wok plus how to season it and care for it. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51217-wok-and-chopsticks/#comment-392506 Woks almost always come with a lid. It shouldn't cost extra. Lid = 盖子。Here are my two lids, the one with a glass center and a convenient "stand up" attachment. The old plain one is lying down beside it. Here, below, is a wok I saw in the store yesterday for peanuts (19 Yuan and 80 Mao.) You want one that can be used on an electric hot plate 电炉, such as the one pictured above. Electric hot plates can be purchased for between 100 and 200 Yuan. Expensive ones have a larger heating area and put out more intense heat. Sometimes they are also programmable, a feature you won't need. An alternative to a wok plus hot plate is an all-in-one electric skillet 电炒锅。These can be bought for as little as 100 Yuan. I would suggest spending around 200 Yuan instead because they cook more evenly. The very cheapest ones have hot spots and cold spots that makes it difficult to cook food without parts of it burning. Best to buy a major brand. Two which are dependable are 美的 and 九阳。Supermarkets like Walmart 沃尔玛 and Carrefour 家乐福 carry them. Appliance stores such as 苏宁电器 are also a good bet. Prices will be the same across the board, unless you hit a special sale or promotion 活动。 I don't have one of these, so cannot tell you for sure first hand, but I've heard that they don't cook as fast as a wok on a hotplate. Arguably, none of these electric skillets do as good a job of 炒菜 frying, but they are satisfactory for less demanding tasks, such as boiling broth for hot pot 火锅 or for 涮菜, useful tasks in a minimalist kitchen. A knife and cutting board 菜板 are essential. This cutting board can be of bamboo or plastic. Either option only costs 10 or 15 Yuan. The square Chinese "cleaver-like" 菜刀 is great for most tasks and one can be had for a song, well under 50 Yuan. A paring knife, known here as a fruit knife 水果刀 can also be useful. The ones on the left, above, are mine. But here are snapshots from a recent shopping trip to the corner store showing a knife and cutting board for 10 Yuan each. Not a very large investment. You need something with which to stir the food and eventually scoop it out. A special stir-fry spatula or 锅铲 may even be included with your wok at no extra charge as a bonus or "sweetner" to clinch the deal. This is the single most important hand tool. A ladle 汤勺 and a coarse strainer 滤网 are also handy. Furthermore, you would be smart to buy some chopsticks 筷子。Knife 刀, fork 叉子 and spoon 勺子are optional but suggested. A supermarket is where to shop for these. Useful "extras" include something with which to handle a hot dish or hot pan. You could, of course, just use a rag instead. Something on which to set a hot pan to keep it from burning the table also is handy, but once again, you could improvise with a magazine or one of last-year's textbooks. The third item in this category of "nice to have" doodads is a steamer stand so that you could place a dish of food in your wok and let it steam over simmering water (with the lid on, of course.) Dishes from which to eat are always discounted in one or another supermarket, and typically cost between 5 and 10 Yuan each. The essentials are a rice bowl 饭碗 and a soup bowl 汤碗。A flat European-style soup dish is also useful, in that it can be used for steaming as well as for eating at the table. You can also find paper plates and paper bowls to use some of the time. I will stop here for discussion before moving to the next section, which will be about essential perishable/disposable items that need to be in your cabinet, such as oil and salt. Please pitch in with your own experiences and ideas. Feel free to offer additions and corrections. Matters of this kind have no absolute right and wrong; lots depends on one's personal preferences and perspective. Thanks!
  12. Been buying and cooking lots of wild mushrooms this season (summer 雨季)。Have gone a little bit nuts over them, in fact. They are Yunnan’s pride and joy, available for only a small portion of the year. Must be hunted in the mountains and harvested by hand, can’t be planted and grown like ordinary vegetables. Not sure if there is sufficient interest here to make it worthwhile to post complete and detailed recipes. Will gladly make them available on request but meantime what I’ll do instead is just give you a quick glimpse into a few ways they can be enjoyed, family style, without any special equipment or sophisticated culinary skills. A couple weeks ago I bought a batch of 鸡枞菌 jizong jun which only have a scientific name and a nickname in English. (Collybia termitomyces/”termite mushrooms.”) They must grow right above a termite nest in the wild. Can’t be cultivated. Chinese often call them “King of wild mushrooms” 野生菌之王 because of their scarcity, appealing texture and flavor. Easiest thing to do with wild mushrooms is to make them into a hearty soup or stew 煲汤/炖汤。That’s what I did with these. Made a chicken stew using half a full-flavored free-roaming chicken 土鸡。Didn’t mix the jizong jun 鸡枞菌 with any other mushrooms so as to let their flavor shine. After all they are “the King.” (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Frankly, it’s a moderate amount of hassle to clean these, to get them from looking like the first photo above to the second. Requires scraping with a paring knife and scrubbing with a stiff toothbrush, plus judicious soaking, many rinses. Some edible wild mushrooms are known to contain traces of poison and make you sick if eaten raw or under-cooked; these are not among their number; these are completely safe. First chop the chicken and cook it in a pressure cooker 电压力锅, adding ginger, garlic and spring onion. When the chicken is barely tender add the mushrooms and finish by simmering with the top of the pot open. Simple and delicious. The mushrooms have a color and texture resembling that of chicken; they have a full-bodied flavor which is faintly nutty. Can serve this as part of a larger meal or with rice on its own. Bowl of soup; cup of rice. Another time I bought a combination of 青头菌 and 鸡油菌。These both are “safe” wild mushrooms (no traces of poison) and they go very well together. In combining mushrooms, one must consider texture as well as flavor: They need to cook at about the same rate. These are both less expensive than 鸡枞菌。 清透菌 qingtou jun (Russula virescens) can be translated as “green head mushrooms” but they aren’t common in the west. This is what 青头菌 look like. They have a slightly chewy texture 口感 and a subtle sweet note in their aftertaste 后感。 Combined them with 鸡油菌 jiyou jun (Cantharellus cibarius), called golden chanterelles in the west. They have a faintly fruity aftertaste and are sometimes nicknamed “apricot mushrooms.” Made a hearty soup or stew again, this time using small pork ribs. In China, pork ribs 排骨 come in two main kinds, the big hefty ones cut from up near the backbone, and the smaller ones from farther down near the front/ventral side . These smaller, more tender ribs are called 肋排段 and cost a little more. As before, started the pork ribs in the pressure cooker, adding the wild mushrooms when the ribs were just about done. Spring onions 大葱 on top for garnish and extra flavor. The beauty of these hearty mushroom soups or stews is that after eating them “as is” on day one and two, you can easily transform them into interesting one-dish meals by the addition of compatible vegetables and some pasta 面食。 Once I cooked in some mildly spicy green peppers and served them over curly noodles 火锅面 (a bit like ramen.) Another time I cooked in a green leafy vegetable 苦菜 and some ripe tomatoes 番茄, serving them with fresh rice noodles 米线。I either saute or blanch the vegetables before adding them to the left-over mushroom stew. These wild mushrooms also stir-fry well, and another day I’ll take you there, show you those. That's probably the most common way to find them in restaurants unless one is dining at a specialty establishment featuring wild mushroom hotpot 火锅 (delicious.) Links to other recent wild mushroom articles: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58788-kunming-behind-the-scenes-wild-mushroom-wholesale-market-木水花野生菌批发市场 / https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58735-yunnans-termite-mushrooms-鸡枞菌-jizong-jun/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/58742-turn-leftovers-into-fried-rice-剩菜变成炒饭/ ---------------------------------------------------------------- Informal Poll: Just for my own interest, could you let me know if you have ever had a chance to try fresh wild mushrooms? If so, was it in China? How about dried wild mushrooms? Comments? Questions?
  13. Summer is wild mushroom season in Yunnan, peak time for skilled hunters to find them in the forest and peak time for you to find them in the market. Peak time to eat them in a restaurant or make them at home. Today’s report is about a robust and spicy mushroom sauce concoction that can turn the humblest bowl of noodles into a memorable gourmet treat. It's highly prized in Yunnan, 云南特产,though not well known in other parts of China or in the west. Shown here with sautéed red bell pepper 红甜椒 strips on top of freshly made 碱面 noodles. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) In the interest of keeping costs down, one can use a mixture of several varieties of mushrooms, including some which are less expensive. But since we have had a bumper crop of Jizong 鸡枞菌 this year, Yunnan’s prized “termite mushroom,” I splurged and used just that one kind to make a deluxe version: Jizong sauce 鸡枞菌酱 or jizong oil 鸡枞油。 Here’s a quick look at the process. If you need a detailed recipe, let me know. Pictured below is a kilogram of jizong wild mushrooms, picked within the last 24 hours in the wild. Cost me 135 Yuan. Found them once again at Kunming’s main wild mushroom wholesale market 木水花野生菌批发市场。Getting a little more savvy about the acquisition process: Bought these from the back of someone’s van instead of from an official vendor who had paid rent on an inside stall. (Below right.) Before cleaning, separate the stems and tops. This prevents sand from the stem (菌柄) from washing into the gills of the cap (菌盖)。Nothing worse than biting down onto a mouthful of gritty mushrooms. Well, that’s not quite true. A poison “look-alike” mushroom would be worse. Fortunately, these jizong 鸡枞菌 are safe. It’s not a “tricky” variety. Once they are thoroughly cleaned, by which I mean trimmed and brushed and scrubbed and rinsed, shred the stems by hand and slice the tops into coarse chunks. The spices 调味品: Twice as much garlic as ginger by volume. A generous handful of dry red peppers 干辣椒。I use a local pepper which has lots of flavor but not too much heat. It’s the 丘北 Qiubei pepper, from Wenshan Prefecture 文山州 in the SE of Yunnan province. I will only use a tablespoon or so of the dried 花椒 (Sichuan prickly ash) shown here, not the whole bowl. At the end I’ll add some fresh green ones and mix them in. Heat the wok over medium heat, add a lot of fragrant rape seed oil 浓香菜籽油, 300 to 500 ml, and fry the aromatics until you smell them, being careful not to let them burn. Add the mushrooms after draining and shaking out all the rinse water 沥干水。Stems go in first to get a head start, followed in a minute or two by the tops. Stir almost non-stop in order to prevent sticking and scorching. Medium fire at first, then quickly change to low. As they cook, the mushrooms will “sweat” out their water and break down, reducing quite a bit in bulk. If you wish to moderate the effect of the chilies, you can pick some or all of them out after a few minutes. In about 30 minutes they start to take on a golden color. Add a small amount of salt at that point. No other seasonings. Continue frying them until the color deepens, becomes richer. Mine required between 30 and 45 minutes, constantly attended. I took off my shirt, put on headphones and tuned in to an audiobook. At long last, scoop everything out, all solids plus the remaining oil. Let it cool. This was the first time I have made this, so I'm not an expert. Kept sending WeChat snapshots back and forth to a friend who has made this at home for years. He would say, "add more oil" or "it needs to be more golden, cook it longer." The finished product can be stored in a crockery jar for a couple months, maybe more. I keep mine in the fridge, but am told that's being overly cautious. My friends just keep it on a kitchen shelf beside the 红油 (hot chili oil.) The Chinese name translates as "mushroom oil." 菌油 -- 鸡枞油 or 油鸡枞。The technique involved is not at all the same as what western culinary traditions call either a ragout or a ragu. Even calling it a "sauce" is a bit of a stretch. Wish I could talk it over with Julia Child, but she's gone. Is making this great stuff cheap, quick and easy? No, afraid not. Furthermore, it requires lots of oil and cleanup is a chore. But is it delicious? Yes, in a major way. Use it on noodles, as above, or as a condiment to give some zing to a bowl of chicken soup. Put some in with your wonton 馄饨 broth. Add it to fried rice. Slather some on a hot steamed bun 馒头。 The mushrooms retain enough texture to require that you chew them. As you chew they release layer upon layers of complex earthy flavors plus a huge hit of umami. Aftertaste is clean and almost sweet. An authentic “Bite of China.” An authentic “Taste of Yunnan.” 云南风味食品。Hand made at home with care. Better quality than what you could purchase on line or in a store. You know for sure that only top ingredients were used and you know that no shortcuts were taken. To my way of thinking, that makes it worthwhile.
  14. abcdefg

    End of the season 青头菌

    It's almost the end of wild mushroom season: the summer rains are playing out, cooler days arriving. Selection is limited, prices climbing. I paid ¥60 for a little over 500 grams of 青头菌 qingtou jun ("green head mushroom") a couple days ago and they were decent but not prime. This is another of those Yunnan mushrooms that don't really exist to any significant extent in the west. Their Latin name is Russula Virescens and they grow in mixed mountain forests, broad leaf and pine. The best ones come from the lower NW of the province: Chuxiong 楚雄, Baoshan 宝山, Dali 大理。 Decided to make them into a hearty soup, building on a rich home-made chicken stock. Normally I would use them solo so they would shine, but this time they shared the limelight with several other vegetables to round out the flavor. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Cooked them with 苦菜 kucai, 番茄 tomato,洋葱 onion, 大蒜 garlic, and chicken thigh meat 鸡腿肉。 Served the soup one day with rice and the next day with noodles. Tasted good; full and mellow. Recipe on request. Overall it has been a great year here for wild mushrooms. Plenty of rain with sunny days in between the showers. One will still be able to get good ones in restaurants for several more weeks, but they will cost more than most of us regular folks are willing or able to pay.
  15. Local peaches have come in. 10 Yuan per kilo for small, slightly irregular ones; 15 Yuan for the larger, prettier specimens. The seller I visited at the farmer's market 农贸市场 was from Chenggong 呈贡,Kunming’s university and government suburb an hour or so to the south. The fruit orchards there aren't ancient, but they still long predate these relatively recent encroachments of civilization. This part of China has several kinds of peaches; friends tell me there are four main ones. The ones I got today were 水蜜桃 (“honey water peaches.”) Here’s what they looked like in the market. The peaches to the friendly lady's right are the big ones, the one to her left front are the small ones. Not a whole lot of difference to the casual eye. Most of my Chinese friends turn up their noses at soft peaches. A peach is supposed to have every bit as much crunch as an apple. I disagree but am unable to buy fully ripe ones unless I drive out to the fruit farm, which is a lot of trouble for a family of one. As you probably know, now is the time to be eating peaches 桃子, apricots 杏儿, plums 梅子 and nectarines 油桃。These are the so-called “stone fruits of summer” and all can be poached to excellent effect. I will show you how. These are the “small” peaches I bought this morning. Eight of them made a kilogram and cost me 10 Kuai. I bought a kilo of the larger ones last weekend. Six of those made a kilo. Wanted to see if there was much if any difference beyond the size. I think the big ones were a little riper, maybe slightly sweeter, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Don’t just rinse them off, scrub them well several times with a clean dishcloth or peel them. Most of my Chinese friends recommend the latter. If I were feeding growing children, I would follow suit, but since I’m not, I usually don’t take that extra step. This weekend I made them with the skins on; today I peeled them. Difference in time spent was minimal. Chop the flesh off the stone. Don’t fuss around playing surgeon and trying to get every last little bit. Leave them rough cut and nibble them afterwards like a squirrel. 不要浪费。Assemble some condiments and half a lemon. Today I used cloves 丁香 and cinnamon 桂皮。Last weekend I used ginger 老姜。Carefully strip the zest off half a lemon (avoid as much of the white part as you can.) You will put this in with the fruit along with the juice of half a lemon. I used brown sugar 红糖 both times because I happen to have a large supply of top-notch brown sugar, hand made in a small town in Zhaotong Prefecture 昭通州。It was a gift. One could equally well use rock sugar 冰糖。Whatever you use as a sweetener, start with a about a tablespoon and add more if you like things sugary; less if your tastes run in the tart direction. Put a little water in a saucepan, a cup or so, and dissolve the sugar over low to medium heat. Put in the other spices. Add the cut peaches and enough additional water to almost, but not quite, cover them. Simmer uncovered over low heat for about 10 minutes. Check the tenderness of the peaches with a fork. If you like them softer, cook them a little longer. If you are left with too much liquid, turn up the flame briefly and boil it off. I had some poached peaches in the fridge leftover from this weekend and I mixed them together with this new batch at the last minute, letting them all come to a rolling boil in the interest of food safety. Didn't want to risk their going bad. Pour the fruit into a pan or bowl and let it cool. I usually can’t resist having a helping or two while they’re warm and aromatic. I store them in a re-purposed quart jar that I’ve sterilized with boiling water. You can buy new quart jars for very little at the nearest supermarket, 沃尔玛 or 家乐福。The fruit will keep refrigerated in its juice for 4 or 5 days. If you make a real big batch, it’s best to freeze some. These poached peaches are tasty mixed with yogurt. I sometimes also put them on oatmeal in the morning. Now is the time to act on this project, ladies and gentlemen. At first peaches are nowhere to be found. Bingo, they miraculously appear and suddenly are everywhere, cheap and good; then poof, they vanish for another year. Seize the moment. If you snooze, you loose.
  16. This is a dead simple soup made with only two main ingredients, a green leafy vegetable and plain tofu. Chinese have a soup with almost every meal. It often does double duty as the beverage. Tea is not served until after. The soup I'll be showing you today is "poor people food" not something you would find at an imperial banquet or a state dinner for big shots in Beijing. My China recipe basket here in Kunming has two parts. One for things that are quick to whip up on a week night when I'm eating alone and the other part for things that I would call "labor of love" projects that I would be more likely to make for guests on the weekend. This soup holds a place of honor in both camps. Let me explain. Tonight I made it for myself to have with a couple of sliced fresh tomatoes, steamed rice and a piece of roast duck 烤鸭 from a stall in the market. It supplied the green vegetable necessary for a balanced meal and it only took five or ten minutes to prep and half that to cook. Two weekends ago I made it as part of a dinner for friends to go alongside a Chinese chicken curry served atop rice 咖喱鸡肉盖饭 and a "smashed" cucumber 拍黄瓜 salad. It shines in a situation like that because it can be finished at the last minute with minimum labor. Here's what kucai 苦菜 looks like while still growing (photo from Baidu,) and after I purchased 3 Yuan worth and brought it home for supper today. One of the games I no longer enjoy playing is "What is this stuff called in English." It's best just to refer to it as "kucai," (kootz-eye) using its Chinese name. Why? Because the dictionary says that in English it would be "bitter sow thistle." How unappetizing can you get? I would never eat anything with such an ugly handle, even though I love "kucai." (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) It is one of those vegetable that you can find any day of the year in a fresh market or even in the supermarket. It's so popular that people here often just call it 青菜, a generic term for "greens," kind of like in the American south you might say "greens" instead of taking time to be clear about whether you mean mustard greens or turnip greens or collard greens. It has a slightly bitter flavor, prized by Chinese because it tends to offset other dishes that have prominent spices or are fatty. Also, it has "cooling" properties that make it great for use in hot weather. Lots of Chinese cooking is about preparing things that regulate internal heat and thereby act as preventive medicine. Baidu (a popular online Chinese-language encyclopedia) says there are 9 distinct varieties that are grown in different parts of the country. My market usually has three or four. I tend to lump them into ones with very large leaves and ones with relatively small leaves. These latter are more tender and less bitter; they are what I usually buy. They go by the non-scientific nickname of 小苦菜 or "small" kucai. In buying look at the roots as well as the leaves; they are a good indicator of when the plant was picked. The roots should have small filamentous "rootlets" as well as just the main white part. I try to usually shop for vegetables in the morning because sellers often keep misting them with water all through the day so they will look nice. Towards late afternoon, they get soggy; the flavor becomes "dull." Once I get them home, I trim off the roots and cut them into pieces about three inches long. My Chinese friends gasp in horror at that level of waste, but I honestly don't think they add anything and they are devilishly hard to get clean. Wash the greens well in several changes of water, until all that rich red earth is rinsed away. Nothing is worse than gritty soup; it will cost you your Michelin star. If you take a mid-morning stroll along the small side streets of my old and not-terribly-affluent neighborhood, you will see young waitresses sitting on low woven bamboo stools 草凳子 outside small open front cafes washing vegetable in pans while gossiping about their boyfriends and wondering if that handsome new cook might still be available. It's a ritual of meal prep that gets handed down to the least senior employees. Some dishes require soft tofu 嫩豆腐 to turn out well, and others must have firm tofu 老豆腐 instead. This soup can be made with either kind. I bought a generous chunk, about 450 grams, for 2 Yuan. Used half of it for this dish and put the other half in the fridge to scramble with eggs tomorrow morning. Rinse the tofu and cut it into bite-sized pieces. The kind I bought today was firm. It's just what the tofu lady had that looked freshest. Put some frozen stock on the stove to thaw in a two quart pot. Add enough water to fill the pot about two-thirds full. I sometimes make bone stock 骨头汤 (mostly pork bones) and chicken stock 鸡汤 on a rainy afternoon when I'm bored and freeze it in convenient "drinking glass" sized chunks. If you don't have stock, you can use chicken bouillon 鲜鸡汁 or just plain water. I sliced three small tomatoes. Now that it's spring, they again have lots of flavor. I usually buy smaller tomatoes that are gown in open air 露天 instead of the huge photogenic ones that are raised in large plastic tents 塑料大棚。I prefer the ones that someone raises as a sideline instead of the ones that are produced by the ton. Cannot swear it, but I think they usually taste better. My favorite egg seller's middle-school daughter raises some as a pocket-money project. That's where these came from today. When the water and stock come to a boil, put in a scant teaspoon of salt and add the greens. Let the pot come to a boil again, and then add the tofu. When it boils again, the soup is done. You want the vegetables to be tender but still have some crunch, and you don't want the tofu to cook apart. Taste and see if it needs more salt. Finish the soup with a teaspoon or two of sesame oil 香油 and a large pinch of MSG 味精 (about a fourth of a teaspoon.) A word of caution about Chinese salt: it can be very fine, making it easy to over-salt things. For cooking I prefer a coarse sea salt or large-granule Kosher salt, but can't always find those here. Before serving it make a small bowl or two of dipping sauce (zhan shui 蘸水)。You serve this to each diner so he or she can use it to add flavor to some bites of vegetable or tofu. You lift individual bites out of your soup bowl with your chopsticks and dip them into the sauce, using as little or as much as you want. Sometimes I use ground red pepper 干辣椒粉 but tonight I used a home-made red chili sauce 红油 that I had in the cupboard. A tablespoon of the hot stuff, a tablespoon of aged vinegar 老陈醋 and a tablespoon of clear soup from the pot. Serve it up proudly with a smile. It's not a complete meal on its own, but it plays well with others: easy to combine with whatever else you might feel like making or already have on hand, including left-over pizza. I like that it does not compete for attention with the star of the show, but it still adds a lot to the overall dining experience, sort of rounds it out, makes it complete. Try it and see what you think. Might add as a footnote that if you are eating out in China, this is a "failsafe" thing to order in any small restaurant, north, south, east, west. No weird "surprise" ingredients and a good way to get some plain vegetables when you tire of them arriving at your table over-salted and swimming in oil.
  17. Since I'm in China I usually eat Chinese style, complete with rice bowl and chopsticks. But every now and then I get a definite hankering for one or another old favorite from back in the US. Earlier this week I succumbed to an illicit desire for a BLT sandwich (bacon, lettuce and tomato.) You know by now how much I hate to brag, but it turned out exceptionally well. Let me show you how to do it, here in your new China home, instead of spending a pile of Dollars or Yuan on a plane ticket back west. First buy some mantou 馒头。I know, I know, you would prefer a crusty San Francisco sourdough or a chewy loaf of deli rye from Brooklyn or Bronx. These steamed buns are not quite the same, but they will do in a pinch. I buy them at my local wet market where they typically go faster than hotcakes and consequently are always extremely fresh. That's important since they don't age well. This seller boasts a baking technique that originated long ago in Shandong. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) They start them over a large cauldron of simmering water outside the open-front stall. Don't think I've ever seen a taller stack of steamer baskets 蒸笼; ladder required for access. These metal baskets have holes in the bottom so steam goes up through all of them. An athletic young guy clambers up and down the stack re-arranging them and moving some over for immediate sale when they are done. It's a bewildering process; don't know how he keeps it straight in his mind. Several kinds are available, some made with corn meal 玉米面 and others made from whole wheat 全麦。Some are folded back on themselves several times, look almost braided, and are studded with sesame seeds 芝麻。These are called 花卷 hua juan. I buy some of each. They are still warm when I get them. The sign says: "Buy three, get one free." I usually go for supermarket sliced bacon instead of wrestling with a slab of the real stuff, 腊肉 la rou, which requires a higher degree of dedication. I would not presume to tell you how to cook bacon in the privacy of your own home, but I usually start it in a small amount of water to render and remove some of the fat. The last part of the bacon ritual lets it get crisp in the pan over low flame when the water has boiled off. The photo above shows a 花卷 on the left and a standard 馒头 on the right. If you feel the call to go whole hog, buy a slab of 腊肉 and knock yourself out. I've done it a few times and it yields good results. Also, you can slice it thicker than you can find in the supermarket. Here's where I buy it when struck with the urge to do it the old fashioned way. 47 Yuan per kilo 千克。 While I'm at the neighborhood wet market 菜市场, I pick up some lettuce 生菜. Though many varieties of leaf lettuce are available, I don't think I've ever seen tight round heads of iceberg 球生菜 for sale locally. The one I generally go for is a flavorful variety of Romaine. If the lettuce doesn't look nice, I make my sandwich with fresh spinach. Yes, don't remind me. That's not how they do it at Sal's Diner. As I rounded the corner with green leafy vegetables in hand, I saw a small boy walking a reluctant crawfish on a leash. 小龙虾 Arguably the most important ingredient of all is the top-shelf, partly vine-ripened tomato 番茄。I was excited to find these last time just by pure dumb luck. Tasted a wedge right on the spot and then bought a large bag full. The sign says they are local 本地 and grown out of doors 露天。The 正宗 is for emphasis, kind of like saying "genuine" -- pronounced "gen-you-wine," with emphasis on the last syllable. These develop more flavor than the ones grown in large plastic tents 塑料大棚。But I cannot claim any credit for discovering these on my own. I watched a local chef buy a bunch of them first even though they cost more than the ordinary ones. Once home, I washed the lettuce well and dried it by rolling it gently in a towel. Sliced a couple of tomatoes and salted them on both sides. Thinly sliced part of a big red Bermuda onion 洋葱。 Sliced the mantou 馒头 as well. Spread a bit of mayonaise on the bread and put it together. (Mayo and Mustard available at Carrefour or WalMart.) Eat these "open face" Danish style, lettuce on top. Otherwise it gets too thick for anyone except a crocodile to handle. Uncork a bottle of white wine or pop a beer. Who said you can't have all the comforts of home right here in the Middle Kingdom? Well, you almost can.
  18. abcdefg

    The Kunming Cucumber Rickey

    It would be best to confess up front that I have finally caved in to popular demand. Here's the drink recipe for which you have all been clamoring. Cuba has its Mojito and Daquiri, Mexico is home of the Margarita, and Kunming boasts the Cucumber Rickey. As the days heat up it's difficult to resist a refreshing after-work libation. With one as crisp and clean as this ready to hand, your prayers have been answered. I promise not to tell if you have more than one. The ingredients, a short list, are at their best right now. Perfect time to buy: quality high; price low. What you will need per person, be it man, woman or child. (Wait. I got carried away. No children allowed at this party.) 1. One small lime -- 青柠檬 2. A half or a third of a cucumber, depending on size -- 黄瓜 3. Gin -- 1.5 ounces or maybe even 2 if you don't have many pressing items on your agenda this evening 4. Simple syrup -- A tablespoon for each ounce of gin. (Footnote below on how to make simple syrup.) 5. Club soda -- 苏打水 (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) We have three kinds of cucumber in the local wet market just now. First we have these large ones, as shown in the photo, which I call "English cucumbers." Then we also have the long, skinny "Asian" ones, the length of your forearm. They are smaller in diameter than these "English" ones, with a thicker and darker green skin plus more prominent bumps. The third kind is the smaller "Persian" cucumbers, which have dark, smooth skin. Any of these will do just fine; they are interchangeable here. Don't let yourself be bogged down in detail when pursuing this project. Forge ahead. Victory belongs to the bold. No need to remove the cucumber skin; just wash it well. Slice about a third of it into long, thin slivers, as shown. I use a ceramic-blade peeling tool; but I could use my trusty Chinese vegetable knife 菜刀 just about as well. Use one whole lime if they are small. Too much lime juice is better than not enough so err on the side of generosity instead of parsimony. I cut two or three wedges from the lime and squeeze the rest into my glass. I dice an additional inch or two of cucumber, putting it into the bottom of the glass along with the wedges of lime. Add a tablespoon of simple syrup for each ounce of gin. More if you like your drinks sweeter; none at all if you happen to be a purist. (A "how to" on simple syrup follows below.) Notice, if you please, that all these photos are streaked with long shadows. Please construe that as evidence that the sun is well over the yardarm and it's time for a little righteous alcoholic refreshment. Now muddle this all in the bottom of the glass with a roundish soup spoon or similar. Add the gin and crush everything up a little more. The idea is to coax the lime and cucumber to release their delicious essential oils so they can diffuse throughout the other ingredients and become part of the whole drink. Bartenders have an actual dedicated instrument for this, but I would suggest spending you hard earned cash on more gin instead of a silly single-use tool. I first discovered this drink one very wet night in Kuala Lumpur when my plans got rained out and I took refuge in the rooftop bar to soothe my disappointment. Wind was lashing the palms outside by the pool, making quite a racket. I could barely hear the mellow jazz coming over the speakers. This drink is just as much at home on the Pacific Rim as it is in Europe or Latin America. The featured brand that night, being poured at a discount, was Hendrick's in the black bottle. It's a gloriously complex "craft" gin distilled in Scotland and it has cucumber and rose notes all its own to start with. But lately I've been buying Gordon's or Seagram's, since they are on special at the nearest Carrefour for only 49 Yuan per bottle (750 ml.) The glass that I use could probably be called a "large, sloping-walled old-fashioned," except that I bought it right here in China. Line it all the way around with the thinly sliced cucumber strips, add ice cubes and top it off with club soda 苏打水。Stir once with a light hand. That's all there is to it. Eat the cucumber as you go along. A variant of this drink includes mint, and I will take you there another time.
  19. Now is the time for cauliflower: it's at its best in local markets. We find two kinds at the wet market near my house, one being the traditional tight head of cauliflower such as is popular in the west, and an organic 有机 variety which has longer-stalked, gangly, looser florets. This latter kind has more flavor, and it's the one I usually buy. It's the one I bought today. Here's what they look like. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) Dry frying or 干煸 (gan bian) is a cooking process popular in the southwest of China: Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. The idea is to cook a mild vegetable with a minimum of extra moisture so as to concentrate the vegetable's flavor. 干煸花菜 (gan bian huacai) is popular here and you can find it in most restaurants, large and small, at this time of year. If you like Sichuan food 川菜, you are probably familiar with dry-fried green beans 干煸四季豆 (gan bian siji dou); they are a staple menu item, both here in China and overseas in the western world. It's a dish that has been successfully exported. I'll show you a straight-forward way to make this nice cauliflower dish at home. Doesn't take much time; requires no fancy tools. Today I was making it for one, and I used about a third of a head of organic cauliflower, the kind with the longer, somewhat spindly florets. Use your fingers to tear it into shreds. Large pieces of stalk should be cut into thin pieces. If you are using western cauliflower, with the bigger florets, cut it up into thin slivers. The idea behind this is to allow it to cook fast with dry stove-top heat. Thick pieces would require a different cooking method to become tender. Soak these cauliflower pieces in dilute salt water for about 20 minutes. (I used a scant teaspoon of salt in nearly a quart of water.) While it is soaking, prep the other ingredients. Many Chinese recipes call for using fat pork belly meat 五花肉 (wuhua rou) sliced thin. Others call for sausage. Today I used Yunnan slow-cured ham from Xuanwei county, in the NE mountains of the province. 宣威火腿。Sliced it thin, alongside some minced ginger 老姜 and garlic 大蒜。Tore up two or three dry red chili peppers 干辣椒 and sprinkled out a half teaspoon of cumin seeds 孜然。I had some tasty cherry tomatoes 小番茄 in the fridge, and I sliced a few of those. Since the quantities were small, I used a non-stick saute pan today 不粘平底锅, but I could just as well have used a wok 炒锅。Quick fried the garlic, ginger, peppers and ham slivers over medium heat until they began releasing their aroma 去香味。Careful not to burn the garlic; only takes 20 or 30 seconds. Drain the cauliflower and blot it dry, then add it to the spices in your skillet. Stir it with a flipping motion 翻炒 of your spatula or wok tool 锅铲 keeping the heat between medium and high. When the cauliflower begins to take on a bit of golden color 变金黄, add the small tomatoes. At this point you could also add some fresh hot green peppers 青辣椒 for more heat, or sliced spring onions 大葱 for greater complexity. Reduce the heat to medium now and continue stirring until the cauliflower is tender-crunchy and the tomatoes have lost most of their moisture (about 5 minutes.) Add a sprinkle of salt and another of sugar. (Remember that the ham has some salt, best not use too much.) Add a teaspoon or so of light soy sauce 生抽 and another of dark aged vinegar 老陈醋。Don't be tempted to add water to make a gravy, as you might if this were a standard stir-fry. You want all the flavors to be absorbed into the vegetable as it cooks. It's ready when the stalks yield easily to being pinched with chopsticks. Plate it up 装盘 and dig in 动筷子。This can be served with rice as a side dish in a larger meal. If you prefer a vegetarian version, just leave out the meat. The finished product!
  20. Fennel 茴香 (huixiang) here means the fragrant lacy fronds of the fennel plant; not the solid bulb that you are used to seeing in the west. If you've traveled much in China, you have probably met it paired with ground pork in dumplings 茴香猪肉饺子, but in Yunnan it's the prime ingredient of a very tasty soup. Yunnan takes pride in making main dishes out of several items that you are used to thinking of as seasoning or garnish. Mint is one such that we have looked at before. Link to that: Mint soup Today I'll show you how to make an honest, straight-forward soup from fennel and silky tofu. The process couldn't be more simple. My concern, however, is that you might not be able to get fresh fennel fronds overseas. Even though the plant has a long growing season, the fronds are delicate and surely don't travel well. Pretty sure they are usually just discarded, like carrot tops. Here's the kind of fennel we are talking about. Bought some this morning in the market. Three big handfuls at 1 Yuan each. (Fennel in the middle of the image.) Stopped a few minutes later on "tofu row" for 2.5 Yuan worth of Mrs. Zhang's best small-batch soft tofu (嫩豆腐)。Note how the firm tofu (老豆腐) in the foreground stands up straighter. The soft tofu towards the rear is bulging and leaning over. Please click the photos to enlarge them. At home I washed the fennel and chopped it into pieces a couple inches long. Three slices of fresh ginger 生姜 and a piece of aged dry tangerine peel 橙皮, just to kick it up a notch. Don't fret if you don't have aged tangerine peel; it's not essential; just leave it out. In fact it's worth pointing out that this is an extremely flexible recipe: if you want more fennel or less fennel, that's OK; if you want more tofu or less tofu, that's OK too. Make it the way you like it. Give the ginger a sharp whack with the side of your caidao 菜刀 cleaver knife to partly crush it and then put it plus the tangerine peel into about 750 ml of chicken stock. One can make this soup more dilute or more concentrated according to taste. If you're vegetarian, it's fine to use plain water instead of stock. Let these seasoning ingredients simmer about 10 minutes to extract more flavor. (Maybe next time I'll simmer them even longer.) Rinse the block of tofu and cut it into irregular pieces, suitable in size to be picked up easily with chopsticks. Gently add the tofu to the stock and simmer it a couple minutes with minimal stirring. This makes the tofu more likely to stay intact instead of falling apart. Then lift the tofu out with a strainer so it won't get too fractured and beat up while you cook the fennel. The fennel only takes two minutes or so. You want it to retain some crunch and not be completely soft. When it has reached that point, add back the tofu. Season with a scant teaspoon of salt 食盐, a dash of white pepper 白胡椒粉, and a half teaspoon of chicken essence 鸡精 ji jing. This latter seasoning, popular in China, is like granulated chicken bouillon plus a small amount of MSG. Let it come back to a simmer, and you're almost done. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed (might need a little more salt, depending on your chicken stock.) Serve it up. As an afterthought, I garnished the dish with a couple of thinly-sliced cherry tomatoes. I'm sure they caught your eye in the market picture up top. Obviously, I had to buy a few. Big tomatoes are not great right now, but these little ones have lots of flavor with a pleasantly tart finish. Served it with a bowl of left-over chicken rice. It probably would make a nice lunch alongside a grilled pannini sandwich.
  21. It's cold outside: Time for a big bowl of winter melon soup 冬瓜汤。In all fairness, this is one of those family favorites that can be enjoyed any time of year. It's mild and warming; not difficult to make. Sometimes I cook it without meat, but today I used ground pork meatballs. Let me show you a reliable and straightforward way to go about it. At the market you will usually see two kinds of winter melon. Admirably, the nomenclature couldn't be easier: namely big 大 and small 小。Wish all ingredient names were always that obvious. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) The big ones, pictured on the right, are so large that you would have to use both arms and grunt to heft a whole one off the ground. They are always sold in small sections, such as those just in front of the friendly shopkeeper. Notice the white "frost" on the surface. This is where these gourds got their name. They actually grow better in the summer months, but way back when, a long time ago, their appearance reminded someone of a snowy winter. Smaller winter melons are also for sale, left part of the picture. They are more fibrous and work better in stir-fry dishes. This seller also has lush, deep orange butternut squash 南瓜, near the back of the picture. These all grow on vines, often trellised to improve yield. Her husband and her brother tend the farm, south of the city. She comes to town to sell the bounty. Both kinds are really cheap. For under 5 Yuan you can buy enough for two or three meals. The big ones have a texture somewhere between that of a watermelon and a cucumber. Donggua has a bland flavor, ever so slightly sweet. They aren't eaten raw; and they shine as an ingredient in soup because they don't eclipse other flavors. Often they are paired with pork spare ribs in a hearty soup 冬瓜排骨汤。I'll show you that one another day. One of the reasons this vegetable is such an integral part of Chinese family-style cooking is that it can keep a long time after being picked: 3 or 4 months if it hasn't been cut. For many of China's lean years it was a "go to" peasant food, along with cabbage 白菜。It could be grown without a lot of pampering; didn't require the sort of modern plastic tents 塑料大棚 that today make summer vegetables available nearly year round. The seller will peel and seed it if you ask her, but I usually do that at home since I might not use it all at one go, and it keeps better with the peel on. Today I rinsed it and peeled it with my knife, then cut away the soft central pith. Sliced it into pieces a couple centimeters thick as shown. I bought a few flavorful organic carrots 有机胡萝卜, some spring onions 葱,single-head garlic 独蒜, and a piece of ginger 老姜。Cut these up as pictured, taking pains to mince the garlic and ginger really fine 切米. The Chinese term for this kind of cutting means that they should be minced into pieces no larger than grains of rice. I bought some pork, ground to order with about 70 percent lean and 30 percent fat (by eye.) Pork prices have gone up recently because some pigs have had to be killed to prevent spread of a nasty virus. This has impacted stockpiles and supply lines. Put the ground pork on a chopping block 菜板 and minced it even finer with my cleaver 菜刀, turning it this way and that plus folding it over on itself half a dozen times. Then mixed it in a bowl with half a teaspoon of salt, a fourth teaspoon of ground white pepper, a tablespoon of soy sauce, one egg white 蛋清, and of course the minced garlic and ginger. Stirred it all together really well 搅拌均匀。 Put about 750 ml of water on the stove to come to a simmer and then spooned in the seasoned meat, forming it into approximate spheres using two teaspoons to make them round. Sometimes I put on a disposable glove and shape it with one hand, using a squeezing motion. Drop these one at a time into the simmering water and let them partially cook. When they all float, after about 2 minutes, lift them out gently with a strainer and put them in a bowl. We will finish cooking them a little later. Since the carrots take longer to cook than the winter melon, start them first. Sometimes I use sections of corn on the cob instead of carrots. They can be put in right along with the winter melon. When the carrots become nearly tender (can be pierced with a fork) add the winter melon. It cooks fast, usually only requires about 3 or 4 minutes. When it's partially translucent 半透明 and tender (can be pierced with a chopstick) then return the meat balls to the soup. Give it all another 4 or 5 minutes for the meat to finish cooking and allow the flavors to blend. Keep the pot at a low simmer; a rolling boil would overcook the vegetables and meat, plus make everything kind of fall apart. The best Chinese clear soups are made by cooking the ingredients just barely long enough. I've chopped some fresh cilantro 香菜 as well as the spring onion 葱花。Just before the soup is finished, I taste to see if it needs more salt and sprinkle these aromatic leaves on top as a garnish. Dish it up. This mild-flavored soup can be served as a side dish or it can be served with steamed rice 米饭 as a light meal. Adjust the amount of liquid to suit your taste. I prefer it kind of concentrated, and that's the version that is shown here today. In a restaurant, it's more likely to be somewhat thinner. This is one of the advantages to cooking things at home. This glorious but humble soup started as the food of farmers and factory workers, eventually becoming so well accepted that it's now found in five-star banquets. It's another of those authentic regional dishes that I'd never heard of, let alone tasted, until coming here a decade ago. It probably would not sell well at the all-you-can-eat China Star Buffet on the strip mall in Smalltown, Texas, USA. Try it and see what you think. Nothing flashy. Just honest family-style Chinese food. The real deal.
  22. Last week I had something real good in a local restaurant and today I tried to reproduce it at home. That is always a risky proposition, but what I wound up with was a pretty good adaptation even though it required more labor than initially expected. As you know, Kunming is famous for its cross-bridge rice noodles 过桥米线, as is most of southern Yunnan. One local eatery which I frequently visit is known for its variations on the old, time tested theme. They offer a variety of vegetables and meats to put in the boiling hot broth: sometimes they offer seafood, sometimes pigeon or quail, other times it's wild mushrooms that takes center stage. Last week they were trying out beef combinations with mint. One dish was called 滇味牛肉过桥米线 which had thin-sliced cooked beef 白切牛肉, green peppers 青椒, and mint 薄荷。It was available at an introductory price of 15 Yuan, down from 17 list. The other new menu item was those ingredients plus sliced beef stomach tripe 牛肚, called 金牌牛肉过桥米线 at the special price of 23 Yuan instead of the usual 25. If you aren't familiar with Yunnan cross-bridge rice noodles, please take a look at this previous discussion. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/52493-yunnan-cross-bridge-rice-noodles-过桥米线/?tab=comments#comment-404109. Here's what it looks like in the restaurant, complete with raw quail eggs and chrysanthemum flower petals. (Click the photos to enlarge them.) Small plates 碟子 of cool or room temperature items are brought to your table along with a bowl of uncooked rice noodles. The waiter next delivers a bowl of extremely hot broth 高汤, and you put it together yourself, adding ingredients one at a time so they cook quickly on the spot. The noodles go in last of all, so as not to prematurely cool off the broth. My home adaptation of this dish saw me making it on the stove. If I had owned a free-standing hot plate or induction burner, could have done it right on the dining table instead. The flavors of beef and mint seem like they were meant for each other and the combo is a staple of Yunnan cuisine, much as lamb and mint are wedded in some western traditions. This dish showcases the marriage of beef and mint. Here's how I did it; here's how you can make it yourself at home. First, let's look at the beef. Bought a piece of rump roast, about 800 grams. Didn't actually need that much; a third or even a fourth of it would have been enough for today. But the trouble involved in slow cooking it means that it makes sense to cook a big piece and have some left over for other projects. Buying beef in the market tends to be an adventure. Works best if you are armed with some knowledge of the various cuts. They aren't identical to those used in the U.S. This cut sells for about 50 Yuan per kilo and doesn't have much waste. Slice it in half and tie the two pieces with twine so it will cook more evenly than if it had a thick "head" and a thin "tail." Bring it to the boil quickly in lightly salted water to clean it of blood and surface impurities, throwing away that water. Beef here in China tends to be tough, at least the most economical cuts do. So it's best to keep that in mind and cook it in a pressure cooker 高压锅 on high for 25 or 30 minutes. Let it come down to a safe temperature naturally over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, don't need to use a "quick-release" method. If you don't have a pressure cooker, you can slow simmer it for 60 to 90 minutes until it's tender when pierced with a fork. Include some ginger 老姜, garlic 大蒜, a cardamom pod 草果, one star anise 八角 , a piece of cinnamon or cassia bark 桂皮, and a bay leaf 香叶。A few "numbing" Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 and several dried Yunnan red peppers 干辣椒 are optional. (I admit liking to add them.) After it cools completely, slice it thin. This process gets you what is known as 白切牛肉, plain sliced boiled beef. It's one of the old standards of Chinese cooking. Often served just like that with a fragrant and spicy dipping sauce 沾水 at the start of a special meal. I saved the stock this produced and combined it with some chicken stock I already had on hand. Turned my attention to the vegetables. Most of China, and most of the world, views mint differently from Yunnan. Here it's a bonafide green leafy vegetable, not just a garnish or a condiment. We eat it by the handful, especially in summer since it's a "cooling" food 清凉。Here's a link to mint soup, which shows it in its "vegetable" role: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/51575-early-kunming-summer-mint-soup-and-mangoes/ Used the crinkly-skinned spicy green peppers 虎皮椒 that are so popular here along with a red bell pepper mainly for color. Had a bunch of garlic chives 韭菜 and a bunch of very small spring onions 小葱。Washed and sliced thin as shown. I went through the mint as I washed it and tossed out any tough woody stems and damaged bits, being careful to not just wind up with leaves since small and medium mint stems have lots of flavor. Assembled the meat, shown here beside some home-made chili sauce 辣酱 and spicy pickled turnip greens 酸菜 cut fine. Got out a handful of rice noodles; this is about 1 Yuan worth. Put the stock 高汤 on low flame in a clay casserole pot, uncovered. When the stock barely began to simmer, I added the peppers. Let them cook a minute or so, until just starting to soften a little, then added the small spring onions and the garlic chives. Stirred it frequently so it didn't boil over. Now it's time for the thin-sliced cooked beef and a pinch of salt. (Don't need much because the 酸菜 diced pickled vegetables are salty.) As soon as the meat heats through, add the mint. Let these flavors combine for a half a minute or so, minimal cooking time. Add the rice noodles, preferably a few at a time instead of in one big clump. These are fresh noodles, straight from the maker. They have never been dried. If you're using dried noodles, probably best to start them off to the side in a separate pot of lightly salted water. We're done. It's ready. Eat up 动筷子!The mint combines great with the beef and the other flavors are completely harmonious. Every spoonful of broth makes you want to close your eyes and smack your lips. Try it, you'll see what I mean.
  23. It is with some trepidation that I will try to give you a little background on how tofu is made and consumed here in my part of China (Yunnan, Kunming.) Since it is such a vast topic and I lack expertise, what I did was just walk around my neighborhood wet market and take snapshots of the tofu that was readily available. I'll simply show you the photos and tell you what I can about what they show. (Remember, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It goes without saying that other types can be found in supermarkets, the result of rigidly standardized large-scale industrial processes. These are nicely wrapped and have ingredients and expiration dates listed on the package. But they often come with flavor enhancers, preservatives, stabilizers, and coloring agents to make them sell better. My 老百姓 neighbors eschew them as "factory food," and find their way to the wet market to buy the "real stuff" instead. It also goes without saying that tofu differs from place to place within China, and even more so when talking about those from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and so on. These often represent the taste preferences of members of the Chinese diaspora who landed and settled there many years ago. These "foreign tofu's" also often reflect changes made to incorporate local ingredients: coconut milk on such and such island, fish sauce in such and such port, and so on. All tofu starts out as soy milk, extracted with heat from soybeans, that has been acidulated to produce curdling or coagulation into a solid form. That basic raw tofu is then strained and pressed into blocks. It can be pressed a little or a lot, making it thin enough to need to be kept in a pot, or a little thicker, sort of like jello, or a lot thicker and firmer like cheese. (I have oversimplified grievously.) Here's a look at some of that basic raw tofu. In the two photos above, you can see a color difference between the tofu in the foreground and that in the background. The "whiter" tofu in back is softer; it is called 嫩豆腐 (nen doufu) or "tender" tofu. That in the front is slightly firmer and is called 老豆腐 (lao doufu) or "tough" tofu, though it isn't very tough at all. Some recipes work best with one, some with the other. Tofu vendors frequently sell other things as well, things that are often paired with tofu or things that can easily be made with the same raw materials. Photo on the left shows soy bean sprouts and mung bean sprouts next to the nice lady who sells them. Bottom left in this photo is a non-tofu item that is often eaten instead of tofu; it's made from bean sprouts that have been processed differently, often with addition of some natural gelatin. Goes by the name 凉粉 (liang fen) around here; in the west, when it can be found, it gets the odd name "grass jelly." In these parts it's usually cut in strips and served cold with a sauce of chilies and scallions. Sometimes the tofu is barely solidified at all, being described as "silken." This extremely soft style is known here as "tofu flowers" 豆花 and is used in making several delicious dishes such as 豆花米线 (tofu flower rice noodles) which is one of Kunming's signature snacks 小吃。Douhua mixian 豆花米线 is shown below right. The food stall offers a meatless version or a version with seasoned ground pork. I'm not vegetarian and I enjoy the kind that has meat, as you see here. It is sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and includes pickled chopped greens 泡菜 and several kinds of herbs to achieve a result that is just this side of Heaven. Often tofu is processed instead of being consumed in it's raw, unadulterated state. One of the most common things that is done to it is to press it, removing some moisture and allowing a concentration of flavors. This process is particularly prized when the water with which the tofu has been made tastes good on its own. This is true of the deep Artesian well water of Jianshui 建水 and Shiping 石屏, both ancient cities in SE Yunnan's Honghe Prefecture 红河州。 Here is some of that on display at the stall where I usually buy it: Not surprisingly, these rectangular sheets of pressed Shiping tofu come in different tastes and textures. You can buy firmer or softer; milder or more flavorful varieties, tailored to your preference or cooking application. Some of this tofu has been allowed to ferment slightly and is formed into small "packets" shown at the rear of both photos above. This tofu is "mildly stinky" 臭豆腐 -- a far cry from the hugely pungent product popular in Taiwan. In the far left of the photo just above, in a white basket, is the notorious "hairy tofu" 毛豆腐, that has a very distinctive look, aroma, and taste. The photo below left shows another vendor's hairy tofu. Some days it's more photogenic than others. Below right you see a snack stall on the edge of the market where the guy is grilling the small briquettes of stinky tofu to serve hot with a spicy dipping sauce. You belly up to the bar facing him, sit on a low stool, and eat your fill. He keeps track of your consumption with small colored beans and and the sharp eye of an experienced casino croupier; you settle your account after eating your fill. Once tofu has been pressed it can be brined and then smoked, as discussed in the recipe posted here yesterday. As you can well imagine, the finished product is affected by the kind of tofu one pressed to start with and then how it was soaked, in what and for how long. Finally, the flavor and texture are further dictated by how it is smoked, over what wood or twigs and for how long. It comes in several shapes, analogous to the way smoked cheese varies: a smoked Edam is not the same as a smoked Provolone. One from this maker may not be exactly like that from his neighbor. Sometimes tofu is deep fried, puffing it up and giving it a golden color. It can then be eaten with a sauce, or served together with dishes that contain lots of gravy, such as red cooked pork 红烧肉。Here below left is some of it coming out fresh from the wok. That's a good time to buy it, instead of later the same day after it has sat around in a plastic bag getting stale. Sometimes tofu-making byproducts are for sale, such as tofu skin that has risen to the top of the pot during processing. It can be air dried or fried, and is usually sold as tofu skin 豆腐皮。(Below right.) Numerous special local wrinkles exist, such as this vendor who only sells tofu made with the water of a prized mountain spring in NE Yunnan's Xuanwei County 宣威县。It sells for a small premium but there is always a line outside his stall, telling me that it's in high demand. I've tried it, but honestly can't tell the difference. One part of my neighborhood wet market is "tofu row" with about 25 vendors near each other. Some have the usual fare, and others have exotica. Some make it completely on the premises and others have workrooms nearby where the rent is cheaper. They resupply throughout the day by motorbike or electric scooter 电动车。 This vendor makes his on the premises and has a workshop behind the sales area. You can see a tall pot on the stove, in the left corner. Probably has more kinds than anyone else. Unfortunately he is not very forthcoming and doesn't like to chat about his wares. You point and he bags it up; you hand over your money and leave. Not even a thank you. What I do from a practical standpoint is buy certain tofu staples over and over from the same one or two vendors. Then from time to time I branch out and try new types or new variations on the old types. I often ask the sellers for their recommendations as to cooking methods. Sometimes I try something in a restaurant that I would like to try to reproduce, or watch something being made on TV. Before moving here a decade ago I seldom ate tofu at all; in fact practically never. Now it's something I have about once a week. Good source of protein without many calories and it is definitely economical. For better or worse, tofu has become part of my China life. Here's a link to the last two tofu recipes: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56990-addictive-smoked-tofu-青椒豆腐干/ https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56975-sunday-brunch-tofu-and-eggs-豆腐炒鸡蛋/
  24. 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.
  25. 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。
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