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  1. This bold-flavored air-cured beef 牛肉干巴 originated with Yunnan's Muslim 回族 population hundreds and hundreds of years ago, but soon took the entire province by storm. Yunnan's Han 汉族 population prides itself on making succulent salt-cured huotui ham 火腿, and I've told you about that in an earlier post. These two meats are Yunnan's pride and joy, with our special Yiliang roast duck 宜良烤鸭 being a definite contender as well. The best of Yunnan's 牛肉干巴 comes from steep, rocky Zhaotong Prefecture 昭通州, up in the northeast of the province. This is a poor area, where once there was mining until it pretty much played out; and it's not a place tourists go unless they are very adventurous or are lost. Zhaotong now survives by subsistence farming and by raising sheep, goats and lean, rugged cattle. If you have been above Lijiang and Shangri-La, far up in Yunnan's popular northwest, you might have run into the delicious dried beef made from the huge hairy yak 毛牛 which thrive in the high mountains there. This is sold in small strips, mainly for snack chewing much like western jerky. It costs three or four times as much as the sort of more standard Zhaotong niu ganba 昭通牛干巴 we are discussing today. It's typically made from lean beef hindquarter meat, which is butchered into long pieces that follow the grain of the muscle. These are rubbed with salt and an assortment of spices, then hung on racks out of direct sun and allowed to air dry for several weeks. As the curing proceeds, the meat is cut into smaller strips and rubbed repeatedly with a combination of salt 食盐, hot pepper 辣椒,prickly ash 花椒,fennel 茴香 and perhaps some others, such as crushed star anise 八角。 At this point the meat can be shredded into floss for use in manufactured snack food or pounded into thin strips to make jerky. But the best of it is left as is and just cut to order across the grain and sold by weight in specialty stores, such as the one I visited yesterday in my neighborhood market. This popular stall is near the entrance to the market and they always draw a crowd. They sell a similar cured meat made from goats, but it is not as popular. I usually buy a piece of this cured beef, take it home and slice it myself to use in a stir fry. These guys are the same ones from whom I usually buy my tasty rubing 乳饼 (Yunnan goat cheese, pictured above) and they had been urging me to go "all the way" with their ganba for the best part of a year. So yesterday I finally gave in and decided to try it the more authentic 地道 and more popular way: deep fried with handfuls of dried chilies 干辣椒 and Sichuan Peppercorns 花椒。I wanted to experiment with just a trial-size piece, but 40 Yuan was the smallest order they would accept when cooking it for me there on the premises. A young woman carefully shook the thinly sliced meat into a deep wok of boiling oil after dumping in a generous handful of spices. The oil was already quite fragrant, since she uses the same batch over and over for each customer's order. She stirs it with a large perforated ladle 汤勺, carefully cooking it until well done. Then she scoops it into a paper carton 桶, which is placed in an open top plastic bag. The young man in the white butcher smock who was advising me said I could eat it just as is, letting it be part of a larger meal alongside vegetables dishes and rice. He said it could be warmed in the microwave for a few seconds if desired. I told him I would prefer to use it in a stir fry, and he said that was OK, but kind of wasteful 浪费 because cheaper meat would be adequate for that application. When I got home I nibbled a few pieces of it plain just to get an idea of its potency. Wow, it explodes in your mouth! Incredibly rich: concentrated flavor of cured beef plus all those aggressive spices and dripping with now-scented oil. But it was too much for my palate, and I had to mix it with some vegetables to dilute the strong kick a little bit. Cut up some crinkly Yunnan green peppers 虎皮椒 along with a scallion 葱,and a tomato 番茄。 And of course my fine cured and fried beef, bursting with Soutwest China flavor. (Even though it originated here, it is popular today in Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi as well.) Made a quick stir-fry, giving the vegetables a head start since the meat was already fully cooked. The resulting dish was monumentally loaded with flavor. Definitely not bland or boring. It would never remotely be mistaken for 清淡 Guangdong fare 粤菜 and it is admittedly not something everyone would enjoy. Served it with steamed rice 米饭 as a 盖饭。I was eating alone, and much prefer to make a one-dish supper when it's feasible. With guests, I take a different approach to meal planning. But I'd have to say it was right up there at the top when it comes to exploring adventurous regional cuisine. Being able to discover things that are not readily available elsewhere, like glorious Yunnan ganba 云南牛肉干把, is one of the reasons I like living here. Be sure to try some when you visit Yunnan.
  2. Tomatoes and scrambled eggs 番茄炒鸡蛋 is one of those simple, "go-to" dishes that even newly-wed brides and bachelors with tiny efficiency kitchens can easily whip up. The ingredients are available in all parts of China from the rural deep south to the industrial frozen north. It can be served at breakfast as a meal by itself, or at supper as a side dish which furnishes both a vegetable and a protein colorfully combined. You will find some variations, but the fundamentals are pretty well established. I made it this morning; let me show you how it went. Two large free-range eggs 土蛋 from Mr. Yang at the local market. Two small vine-ripened tomatoes 番茄 or 西红柿。Decided after starting that they were a little small, so I added a third one. One smashed and chopped garlic 大蒜/蒜茸。 I had a crisp stalk of celery 芹菜/西芹 left over from last night. A word about proportions 比例。Some cooks prefer a one-to-one balance of eggs and tomatoes, but most opt for having a little more tomato. I usually add a bit of minced scallion 葱花, but this morning I didn't have any in the fridge. Sometimes I will use a small palm-full of pre-cooked green peas as a color and texture ingredient. Today the celery served a similar purpose. Whatever you add, it need to be just a small amount and mild of flavor so as to not overpower the other two "star" ingredients. Remove the skin of the tomatoes by dipping them for half a minute or so in boiling water. Cool quickly under the tap and the skin will slip right off. This improves the texture of the finished dish as well as making the tomatoes release their juice more easily during the final sauté. But, truthfully, it isn't the end of the world if you omit this step. Core and coarsely chop the peeled tomatoes. Then turn your attention to the eggs. Crack them into a small bowl and add two tablespoons of cooking wine 料酒。 It's fine to use water if you don't have cooking wine on hand. Stir them up well with a fork or pair of chopsticks, but you do not need to actually whip them like you would for a soufflé Oil a wok that you have preheated over a medium flame. You do not want the wok to be too hot, because you only want to cook the eggs a little bit. Stir them quickly a few times until about 70% done, and remove to a warm dish you have placed nearby. (I rinse that dish with warm water, so it doesn't cool the partially-cooked eggs.) This egg stage is where you can go wrong; if you cook them too long or too hot, they will be tough 老 instead of fluffy and soft. Still with medium heat, stir-fry the celery and garlic together until you can smell the garlic aroma, then quickly add the tomatoes. (You don't want to burn the garlic because it will develop a bitter taste.) Add a sprinkle of salt and half teaspoon or so of sugar. Chinese think of tomatoes as a fruit more than as a vegetable and they always worry that it will be too sour. If this dish were Italian, French, or Greek, I would use more salt than sugar. But since we are cooking Chinese, we will follow the local custom and preserve the traditional seasoning properties. Now add back the egg, stir it all up, giving it another half minute or so. Serve while still slightly soupy. Some recipes call for adding a couple tablespoons of catsup, but they are in the minority and a traditional cook would consider that overly trendy. Serve it up; that's all there is to it. Some Chinese dishes are fine made ahead and eaten at room temperature, but this one is best enjoyed right away, while still nice and warm. This is available in just about every Chinese restaurant all over the world. But you can just as well give it a whirl at home for yourself. Ingredients are readily available in the west as well as in the Middle Kingdom, and the results are attractive as well as tasty. Last but not least, it's even pretty healthy.
  3. Xiang chun 香椿 is a "tree vegetable" consisting of very young shoots from the Chinese mahogany tree, Toona sinensis. They are at their best in the spring of the year and are usually referred to as a type of 野菜, which means "wild vegetable." If you leave the tree alone, it will grow to a height of 30 meters or so. But you can cut parts of it back and harvest tender leaves and shoots as a flavorful and nutritious seasonal food, loaded with anti-oxidants and vitamins. They taste floral and almost fruity while still being slightly spicy, suggestive of a cross between garlic, onion and apple, as unlikely as that may sound. It's abundant in Yunnan, but grows in quite a few other parts of China as well. The vendor from whom I bought them at the wet market was originally from Shandong. It was his wife who encouraged me to plop down the grand sum of 1.5 Yuan for this bunch and try cooking them. She explained that if they had a lot of red color, like these, instead of being all green, it means they will have more flavor. She was right: they were delicious. Let me show you one way to cook them, namely as an egg-based skillet pancake or 煎蛋饼。They only take a few minutes and will make a substantial breakfast or fit together with soup as a light lunch. First wash them well, then cut away and discard the tough, woody stems, leaving only small shoots and leaves behind. Blanch 焯 them in boiling water for 15 or 20 seconds. Just put them in the pan of boiling water, and when it comes to the boil again, fish them out. Set them aside until cool enough to handle, then squeeze out the excess water with one hand 挤干水分。The water in which you have blanched them will have a strong, sulfur-like smell. This step removes the excess of that volatile organic compound, while still leaving enough to lend a pleasant if distinctive flavor. Now chop the greens coarsely. Break two or three eggs, tudan 土蛋 (free range eggs) being preferred because they have more flavor. Mix in a teaspoon or so of corn starch 淀粉 and a generous pinch of salt 食盐。Then add the blanched and chopped vegetable. Some recipes call for adding a bit of minced scallion 葱花 but I really don't think it is necessary. I used one small handful of chopped vegetable for each egg. If the mix is real thick at this stage, add a teaspoon or so of cool drinking water. It's best if this slurry isn't too dense so that it will spread out evenly over the bottom of the cooking skillet or wok. The batter as pictured here was before I added an additional spoon water. There is a trick 小窍门 to cooking these which has to do with heat. Warm the wok over medium heat, and spread a little cooking oil over it; just barely enough to cover. Then add another tablespoon or so of cool (room temperature) oil and immediately pour in the batter. 热锅冷油。 Swirl it around, making an even layer and turn the cooking temperature to low. Let it cook for 2 or 3 minutes on low, at first undisturbed and then afterwards you can shake the pan to slide the 煎饼 pancake around. Carefully lift one edge and peek to see if it is golden 金黄 on the reverse side. If so, flip it over. That's not as difficult as it sounds if the pancake has "set" and become solid 凝固。 Take a deep breath and pretend you are a celebrity chef on TV, tossing it into the air with a flick of the wrist. Or you can be humble and use two spatulas together, which is what I did today. It didn't crumble or tear. Here's the finished product, with some sliced ripe tomato as garnish. Worth the trouble? Yes. This is something I will make again and again.
  4. This is another wildly popular Yunnan favorite that has gradually migrated to other parts of China. Yunnan cuisine has a knack for using unlikely ingredients in imaginative ways which sets it apart from many other better known food styles. Yunnan cooks embrace boldly fragrant herbs, such as fennel and mint, and they marry them to our famous hot peppers without batting an eye. Today we will see how that works with Grandma's Fennel Potatoes 茴香老奶洋芋。The potato 土豆 is called "foreign tuber" 洋芋 here for reasons that go back to the days when Yunnan was a remote backwater province, populated by proud minorities, rebels and outlaws. Things like potatoes, introduced from other parts of China, were foreign indeed. Most of China's potatoes are produced in the northeast 东北 and northwest 西北, but Yunnan also produces an abundance of good ones, especially in its high, rocky northeast, specifically Qujing 曲靖 and Zhaotong 昭通。This part of the province is as proud of its potatoes as Honghe Prefecture 红河州 is of it's paddy rice, grown in the famous terraced fields 哈尼梯田 of Yuanyang County 元阳县,which crown the Ailao mountain range 哀牢山 in the southeast of the province. But Yunnan's best potato fields are not as photogenic as its rice paddies 水稻。 I bought some of these potatoes today at the big Sunday wet market 菜市场 from a vendor who had a mountain of them stacked six feet high. It was a struggle to only buy a few; he kept trying to stuff more and more in my bag. Wound up with about 1 斤,roughly 500 grams for 3 Yuan. Larger potatoes, with a more uniform shape and fewer blemishes cost 4 Yuan. Those big pretty ones might have been better for "French frying" or other dishes where they remained more intact. Also bought a bunch of small scallions 小葱。 The fennel 茴香 here is gorgeous, picked young and sold complete with the slim roots, for only 2 Yuan per bunch. Fennel is a relative of carrots, and western varieties have a large bulb on one end. But this Chinese fennel is grown for its delicate lacy fronds, which are aromatic and full of flavor. Scrub the potatoes and chop them into thick slices. Steam them until they are done 蒸熟; check them with a fork or the point of a knife. You can cook them in the steamer basket of your rice cooker just as well, but I wanted to use a stove-top steamer pot today because that way I could use the boiling water to strip the skin off a ripe tomato. (Dunk it for 30 seconds, then peel under cool running water.) We saw this tomato technique recently in the recipe for scrambled eggs with tomato. https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53734-the-basics-tomatoes-and-eggs-番茄炒鸡蛋/ While the potatoes are cooking, prep the other ingredients, scallions, dry red peppers 干辣椒, garlic 独蒜, ginger 老姜。 Take a moment to make sure everything is lined up, ready to go. When the potatoes are done, let them cool enough to be able to handle, then skin them and break them up. You can use a tool or put a glove on one hand and break them up that way. They do not need to be totally mashed and smooth; just soft enough for your old toothless Granny to be able to gum them down. Oil your wok; use high heat at first. Begin cooking the aromatics until they release their aroma 爆香。 When you add the potatoes, turn the flame way down because they are easy to burn. As you stir them up, add a half teaspoon or so of salt. TIP: Sprinkle the salt in with your fingers, because it is difficult to distribute it evenly if you rely on stirring alone. The last thing to go in is the finely-chopped fennel. Toss it around 翻炒 for a minute or so, and then you are done. Serve it up. Works well in place of rice, alongside a meat dish 荤菜, a green leafy vegetable 青菜 and a simple soup 汤。 I should point out that you can easily make this without the fennel. You can also omit the tomato. Like many popular dishes, this one has endless variations. Every restaurant will have its own individual take on it. But it's also definitely "make at home," family-style food 家常菜 of the highest order.
  5. I always order these when eating hotpot 火锅 but never tried using them at home until this week. What gave me the idea was a large display in my corner store featuring half a dozen different kinds side by side. Had never thought about their having so much variety. Decided I had to get better acquainted with them in the name of diversity if nothing else . Called one of my "cooking friends" for some general pointers and then looked up lots of recipes. Will take you through two recipes here, one made yesterday and one from tonight. Wanted to demonstrate their versatility. They can be fried, stewed or boiled in a soup. They also do well as a salad 凉拌。 酸菜炖粉条, which follows, showcases how they combine with the spicy flavor of pickled greens, much loved in Yunnan cooking. This dish can be made vegetarian if desired, but I used a duck breast that I had on hand in the fridge. It winds up being a hearty stew. Cut up some celery 西芹, smash a large head of garlic (I used 独蒜) and slice the meat 熏鸭排。This duck was purchased fully cooked and had a smoky flavor. A chicken breast would do just as well. If you don't have pickled Chinese greens, you could use Korean kimchi instead. Wouldn't be exactly the same, but it would still be good. I rinse these greens once or twice quickly with water before using to remove the harsh edge from the flavor. These noodles can be made from white potatoes as well as sweet (red) potatoes. They can also sometimes be made from beans. The ones I found today were mixed with seaweed during manufacture to give them more flavor and more vitamins. I broke them in half for easier handling. This 200 gram package cost 6.90 Yuan. Boil them for about a minute and a half in water that you have put into your wok. This doesn't fully cook them; just softens them. Scoop them out and set aside. Fry the garlic and the celery, add the pickled greens, combining them well before adding the pre-cooked duck breast. Now add the softened fentiao noodles and stir well, adding water or stock if needed to keep it from getting dry and sticking. No salt required (the 酸菜 is salty.) It only needs a couple minutes for flavors to blend and for the noodles to cook. Test them by taking a small nibble, the same way you would check spaghetti. Serve it up; you're done. This is true "family-style" food 家常菜 in that it's not particularly pretty, but it has loads of nutrition and flavor. Will break this post here because it's long and I'm afraid the software might hiccup and make it disappear. Second half will be about using these noodles in a soup.
  6. We've been having hot days of early summer here in Kunming, interspersed with seasonal rains. The combination induces a case of the kitchen lazies, and I've turned to things that don't require much effort for my evening meals. Here's an example of something I've made (with variations) over and over using nothing but a rice cooker to supply the steam heat. Rice cookers generally come with a steamer basket that simplifies the process. Here's what mine looks like. It sits in the upper part of the rice cooker, allowing vegetables to steam while the rice below it is cooking to perfection. In Yunnan we call this long, pale green vegetable xiaogua 小瓜,but it goes by other names as well and closely resembles zucchini. Both it and red bell peppers 红椒 are easy to find, inexpensive, and stay fresh several days in the refrigerator if need be. I sometimes make this with xiaogua and carrots 胡萝卜。And I'm going to thinly slice these items with my sharp and trusty Hong Kong knife 菜刀。 Also coarsely chop some garlic 独蒜 and fresh ginger 生姜。The single clove garlic, as shown here, has a milder flavor than the usual kind that has multiple cloves. Same is true of fresh ginger; it has a lighter taste than the aged kind 老姜。Toss these condiments together with the sliced vegetables and a couple pinches of salt. I usually shake them in a plastic bag to mix them well instead of just stirring them in a bowl. Thinly slice some sausage 腊肠 or cured meat 腊肉。I'm using cured Yunnan Xuanwei ham today 云南宣威火腿。 As usual, wash the rice gently three times with tap water, then let it soak for 15 or 20 minutes. Add the meat slices right into the rice pot, and start it cooking on your usual steamed rice program. Since mine takes 30 minutes to complete and the vegetables take 10 minutes to cook, I add them in the steamer basket at the 20 minute point. Don't disturb the rice; don't stir it; just insert the steamer basket quickly and close the lid again before too much heat escapes. In about 10 minutes, take a look. Check the vegetables to see if they are tender. If so take the steamer basket out, and put the vegetables into a serving dish 装盘。Fluff the rice with your chopsticks. Serve it directly into your eating bowl from the rice cooker's pot. Can add the vegetables on top of the rice and meat instead of eating them separately. You're done. If you'd like, you can serve it with a dipping sauce of half light soy sauce 生抽 and half aged vinegar 老陈醋。Easy prep, easy clean up. Another nutritious and tasty meal.
  7. It hit me like a bolt of lightning yesterday at the neighborhood wet market: Maybe I should try a different kind of eggs. Have recently been looking for a way to make more flavorful tea eggs, and maybe these small quail eggs are the answer. And I'd heard that quail eggs make great bite-sized tea eggs. Decided on the spot to try it out. Most of the egg vendors from whom I buy there not only sell free-range chicken eggs 土蛋 and an assortment of duck eggs, they also offer quail eggs plus smaller batches of exotics (pheasant eggs, guinea fowl eggs, bantam hen eggs and others.) The lady next to the stall where I buy my hand-ground sesame oil, not only had two large crates of them, she also had a deep pot of tea eggs that she was making herself, mixed quail and chicken. She sold me half a kilo of fresh quail eggs for 6.5 Yuan and threw in a couple of the already-cooked ones just so I could have a taste. The brine in which they were soaking was room temperature, but it had boiled a couple hours previously, she said. Her eggs were tasty; I peeled and ate them right there to see. Asked if she had any tips; told her I had been struggling with them at home. She said to use plenty of soy sauce and plenty of salt. She laughingly added that a hit of dark vinegar 老陈醋 was her secret weapon. "Balance it with a little sugar so as not to make them sour." She explained how the vinegar drove the other flavors through the shell and into the body of the egg. I have no idea about the science involved in that, but I never argue with success. When I got them home, I washed the eggs well in clear, cool water, removing any broken ones. I had been gently sideswiped by a guy on a motor scooter in a traffic jam, and my egg bag took a hit. I had 4 broken ones, which I threw away. Counted them just for fun, and found that my half a kilo (500 grams) had 54 eggs, pretty uniform in size. Let them soak while setting out my other ingredients. Top, in the spoon at 12 o'clock, are fennel seeds 茴香,dried chili peppers 干辣椒 at 1 o'clock,star anise 八角 next at 3, followed by caoguo 草果,a type of savory seed pod related to coriander, at 5 o'clock a spoon of Sichuan peppercorns 花椒,sliced ginger 老姜 next, followed by cinnamon bark 桂皮,and orange peel 橙皮 at 9 o'clock. Bay leaves 香叶 at 11 complete the circle. Pu'er tea is in the middle; the Pu'er I used was from a decent, utility-grade ripe 熟茶 Menghai cake 孟海茶饼。 If you aren't familiar with using 草果, it's a good idea to bust it up a bit with the back edge of your knife to make the good parts more accessible. I put all these flavoring ingredients 调料 into my rice cooker, which has a heavy, cast iron pot. Added water about half way up the side and put in half a cup of ordinary soy sauce 生抽,a big tablespoon of vinegar 老陈醋,a big tablespoon of old soy sauce 老抽,plus a tablespoon of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Plugged it in and let these spices and seasonings boil for about 10 minutes before adding the eggs. This lets them develop their flavor and blend. I tasted this potent solution to see if it needed adjusting with more of anything, but it didn't. I let it cool to nearly room temperature before adding the eggs (also at room temperature) to prevent them cracking from the heat. Boiled them 10 minutes then scooped the eggs out. Let them cool enough to be able to handle them, then cracked each one gently with the back of a spoon. Returned them to the brine and brought them to a boil again, then turned the power down to the barest simmer and maintained that for one hour. The way you do that with a rice cooker is to first select a program that uses high heat, such as the one for zhou (marked 粥 or 稀饭) and then pressing the "keep warm" button (marked 保温)after the contents have been brought to a boil. A rice cooker allows better control of the heat than most stove-tops could supply. Take the eggs out, strain the cooking liquid, removing all the solids. Then keep the eggs in this while you refrigerate them overnight. I previewed a couple last night, but had a more generous serving this morning. Slip off the peel and pop one straight into your mouth. Bursting with flavor and tender to boot. These are now my favorite kind of tea eggs, at least as long as I'm in China. I owe a debt of gratitude to the intrepid Tea Egg Task Force, senior members being @Jellyfish and @Alex_Hart for keeping this project alive and ever striving, moving boldly towards better and better tea eggs, both for the ordinary citizens 老百姓 and the elite troops of the realm. Here's the post that started the tea egg discussion: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53701-tea-eggs-yunnan-style-茶叶蛋/?page=3#comment-417281
  8. Tofu made in Shiping town 石屏县城 in south Yunnan is something special, famous throughout China's southwest. We get lots of it fresh here in Kunming, but I've also had the privilege of enjoying it at its source, in the green mountains of Honghe Prefecture 红河州,not far from ancient Jianshui 建水 and scenic Yuanyang 元阳。They say the difference is mainly in the water, and verbal battles are still fought about which deep well has the sweetest tofu-making nectar; but since it has been around over 400 years, it's not surprising that supernatural claims also exist, the main one having to do with a fiery dragon and three wise tribal kings or chiefs. Here's what it looks like in the market. The difference in appearance of these two forms gives a clue as to how it is usually cooked and served. The kind in sheets, upper left, can be steamed, boiled, roasted or pan-fried. The small packets, upper right, are usually slowly toasted on a grate over coals. Both provide a serious taste treat for visitors to Yunnan and residents alike. The kind I bought this morning at my neighborhood wet market was the kind that comes in sheets, I bought one piece and it cost 3.5 Yuan about half a dollar (US.) It comes in two styles: a drier one, called 老豆腐,which is what I got today, and a very moist and somewhat fragile one that is mainly used for making a delicious snack called 包奖豆腐, in which the tofu is lightly sauteed on a sheet pan and served with a spicy sauce. This latter has a runny center. I love it dearly and will prepare it for you another day. I cut my single piece crosswise in half, and then in half again, so you could see the edge. The sheet is about 2 and a half centimeters thick. It can be cooked up as a snack 小吃 or as a side dish for a meal. In Jianshui, where I have enjoyed it often, it is frequently sold in street stalls that just grill it to order for you over coals and serve it beside a dish of dipping sauce. These places usually also sell roast duck and beer, sometimes noodle soup. It's not at all uncommon to sit down near dusk on one of the low stools around the fire mainly to give your feet a rest, still a bit too early to properly consider supper, and just munch few pieces of tofu kind of as a warm-up. But after a beer or two you decide those crispy, lean roast ducks hanging overhead on hooks really do look great, so why not. Then someone suggests a bowl of rice noodles in savory broth 米线, and before you know it, the clock is striking midnight and you walk home to your hotel in the company of three or four new friends. I speak from first-hand experience; it's the Jianshui magic. You have been warned. Back now in my Kunming kitchen, lets chop the extra ingredients 配料 before dealing with the tofu. If you like things really hot, use the tiny red peppers, bird's eye chilies 小米辣椒。If you prefer a mild to moderate approach, use the larger ones and remove most of the seeds. Also mince some ginger and a clove of garlic. Set out some Haixian Jiang 海鲜酱 (aka Hoisin) and about a teaspoon of sesame seeds, toasted 黑 or plain 白。 Reserve 备用 the cut up garlic 蒜, pepper 红椒, and ginger 酱。 Cut the tofu into bite sized rectangles or squares, put them into a preheated flat-bottom skillet 平底锅 with a little oil. The one I'm using here is non-stick, and works well for this application since only medium temperatures are required. When the first side starts to brown 金黄,turn the tofu and cook the other side the same way, never letting the skillet get too hot. You do not want it to burn or get dried out and tough. When side two is also golden, take the tofu out. Saute the pepper, ginger, and garlic in a little oil, then add two or three large tablespoons of Haixian Jiang diluted half and half with water. After a minute or so of stirring this sauce mixture, add back the cooked tofu and gently flip it over a few times with your spatula to coat it well with these complimentary flavors. Plate it up and sprinkle on the sesame seeds. You now either have a very nice snack or you have part of a meal. I think it goes real well with a bowl of soup and a cucumber salad 拍黄瓜。Those three things together do the job for me just fine on a summer evening. And I even usually have room for a piece of fruit afterwards. Be sure to seek out Shiping tofu 石屏豆腐 next time you find yourself down this way.
  9. Chinese cooks know how to embrace the bitter. They realize how well it can balance other notes, especially salty and sweet. Kucai 苦菜, literally "bitter vegetable," has become one of my favorite leafy greens here in Kunming, and today I'd like to show you one good way to turn it into a tasty stir-fry. My local outdoor market has several vendors that specialize in fresh greens. I particularly like one run by two young guys and their mother, because their family grows most of their produce themselves out on the south edge of the city. Dad stays there with one other relative and they do the farm work. Not only are their offerings always fresh, they grow some greens that I seldom see elsewhere. Here's what kucai 苦菜 looks like when it's still in the ground. It belongs to a family of wild plants that includes daisies and sunflowers. If you cannot find kucai where you live, you could substitute chard, kale, or collards. Mustard greens would also probably work. Sometimes one only finds it large and mature, with leaves 16 inches long. That kind is best for soup. (It can of course still be blanched for stir-fry use.) But this time I found some that was young, called 小苦菜,that was about a foot long, lush green leaves, very succulent and tender. Even though the name of this fine vegetable contains the word "bitter" it really isn't at all difficult to eat. Don't let the name scare you off. It has an almost sweet afternote, and is very fresh and clean, a little along the lines of chard or kale. Chinese herbalists and TCM practitioners 中医 hold that it cleanses the blood and dispels excess internal heat. Here's what mine looked like when I got it home. I washed it well and cut off the thick base of the stems so I could begin cooking them a little before the more tender leaves. Slivered some famous Yunnan Xuanwei huotui, a premium cured ham, 宣威火腿 off the larger chunk that I keep in the fridge. One can buy this in packages at most supermarkets, but here I have the luxury of patronizing a couple at the market who even give me large ham bones free that I can use to make soup stock or cook beans. I also smashed and course-chopped a garlic, one of the single-clove beauties that I prefer to use when I can. 独蒜。 Got out a plastic container of yesterday's left over rice 剩米饭 , spread it a shallow bowl, and then broke up the major clumps using chopsticks and moistened fingers. It's always best do that when making fried rice; if you just dump large pieces into the wok, they don't cook evenly. And day-old rice works better than freshly made rice for this application. As you see, I sliced some cherry tomatoes, and set out three dried red chilies 干辣椒。Everything is ready now, let's get cooking. Heat your trusty wok over high heat and add some oil. I used rapeseed oil 菜籽油 for this, because I was given a large jug of it by the phone company as part of a promotion. First add the garlic, peppers, huotui, and finely-sliced bits of kucai stem. These items need slight head start. Then quickly fry the minced greens. Keep stirring and flipping things over 翻炒 as the greens release their moisture. You can see the steam rising (I promise that is not smoke.) Next, add the rice into the center of the wok and break up any remaining clumps with your stirring tool 锅铲。Don't cover the wok, or the greens will turn a sickly yellow. Note a couple things at this point: First of all, the wok is not too full. You want to be able to move everything around fast and let it fry instead of stew. If you have too much volume, that cannot happen and you wind up with a gloppy mess. Second, notice the ratio of rice to meat and vegetables. You want this dish to be mostly rice. Now the cherry tomatoes are in play. I've added a sprinkle of salt 食盐 and another of MSG 味精。Remember that the huotui is salty, so don't go overboard by adding too much extra now. This dish doesn't need any soy sauce. A good chaofan is kind of dry, not soupy. Most individual grains of rice are separate from each other. Don't cook it to death; the vegetables should retain some crunch. Scoop it out into a serving bowl 起锅装盘, and presto, there you have the finished product. This is an easily-reproducible dish; I've made it many times and it always seems to come out well. Not much trouble, simple clean up, pretty healthy, and damned delicious. Give it a try and see what you think. 苦菜火腿炒饭。 ------------------------------ Footnote: The technique used here can serve as a rough general guide to making fried rice with other flavor ingredients.
  10. Sunny and 28 Celsius outside; blue sky with a few puffy white clouds 蓝天白云。Kunming's well-deserved reputation for great weather is easy to appreciate today. But these recent balmy late spring temperatures have made me hanker for lighter fare; in particular, something that isn't fried. The market had an abundance of a strange vegetable that I thought at first was a type of small bamboo shoot or maybe a variety of asparagus. A little snooping around revealed that it was really the peeled stems of the Manchurian wild rice plant, which in Chinese goes by several names: 茭白 jiao bai, 茭笋 jiao sun, and 茭瓜 jiao gua being the most common. This vegetable was real big during the Tang Dynasty, and was even praised by the likes of Mencius 孟子 as being nearly indispensable centuries before. But today it's mainly grown in the region just below the Yangtze River 江南, as well as in parts of Yunnan. (Also some in Vietnam.) The plant is no longer cultivated for its grain, instead being raised for its stem instead. Here's what it looks like in the field, in the paddies where it thrives. It's a member of the grass family, and has two main growing seasons, one of which is now. Not expensive: I bought 400 grams for 7 Yuan. Got it home, washed it and cut it up. Took a bit of work to reduce it to thin matchsticks; made me wish my 菜刀 and my 刀法 (knife skills) were both of a higher order. I've had this vegetable in restaurants, stir-fried plain 清炒 as a side dish. It has a bland, rather neutral taste, and I found it kind of boring when just made solo. So today I combined it with carrots 胡萝卜。Then even added a can of tuna at the end to make it suitable to serve as a simple, one-dish, warm-weather meal. Open a can of chunk tuna 金枪鱼 and turn it out onto a plate. The kind I had on hand was packed in spring water 矿泉水浸 instead of oil. Not difficult to find. Adding the tuna to this dish makes it less typical of the cuisine of the region, therefore less authentic; turns it into more of a "fusion" project. Blanch 焯 the jiao bai for about a minute, in order to make it a bit more tender. Dredge it out 捞出来 and drop it briefly into a pan of ice water. Do the same for the carrots, except 30 seconds is enough. Fish them out and drain 沥干水分。Cooling them quickly like this prevents them from getting soggy; you want the vegetables to retain their crunch. Dress them with a tablespoon of light soy sauce 生油 and a tablespoon of sesame oil 香油。Sprinkle in a scant teaspoon of salt 食盐 and a similar amount of sugar 白砂糖。 Add a pinch of 味精 if you like. Toss it well, mixing in only a single clove of chopped garlic 蒜茸 that you previously prepared. This entire dish has gentle flavors, and you want them to stay in balance. Shape it into a bird's nest 鸟巢 and put the tuna in the middle. Serve it up. Goes nicely with a glass of chilled white wine and some saltine crackers 苏打饼干。
  11. Pai huanggua 拍黄瓜 is another one of those dishes that every Chinese family can make at home and not even the most humble hole-in-the-wall restaurant would dream of not offering. I've eaten it in Harbin alongside 饺子 dumplings and in Zhuhai alongside 蒸鱼 steamed fish. I've had it in Qinghai beside skewers of roast lamb 烤羊肉串 and in Lanzhou with a bowl of hand-pulled beef noodles 牛肉拉面。And I often make it here my Kunming kitchen without giving it a second thought. It's a cool dish, or liang ban 凉拌, served at room temperature. These are the closest China comes to salads. They aren't popular in the Chinese restaurants I've tried in the US; in fact I didn't know they existed until arriving here on the Mainland a decade ago. Pai 拍 means to beat, clap or smash, and that's what you do to the hapless cucumber. Let me show you how it goes. Cucumbers here are not very big around, but are longer than your 综合 text book. One is enough for two people as a side dish. In the market, select ones that have firm flesh and a deep green color. Scrub it well with a bristle brush or coarse dish cloth. Peeling the cucumber is optional. Many people leave all the skin on. I usually take off a third or a half of it to make it easier to handle. It has a distinctive flavor which adds to the dish, so you don't want to peel the cucumber entirely. Now it's time to release that pent up aggression. Slap it with the side of your big vegetable knife 菜刀 until the flesh breaks into fragments. Are you upset about the Trump presidency? Fine. Are you miffed that your girlfriend didn't like the bracelet you bought her? Fine. Take it out on the cucumber; consider it therapy. Finally, cut the fragments crosswise so they will be easier to toss with the sauce. Put them into a big bowl and turn your attention to the seasoning. Do the dry seasonings first. Some garlic 独蒜 and some dry red pepper 干辣椒。Smash the garlic with the side of your knife, just like you did the cucumber. Then proceed to coarsely chop it. The dry peppers can just be torn in halves or thirds. Chinese salt is a little bit tricky because it is very fine. It's easy to make things more salty than you intended. Here's a comparison between it and imported sea salt. Sprinkle in a little of whichever salt you are using plus a sprinkle of granulated sugar. MSG is often used in restaurants, but you can omit it at home if you prefer. Mix it up all up a little with your chopsticks and dress it with the wet ingredients next. Equal parts of vinegar, light soy sauce, and oil. I've used some premium aged vinegar 老陈醋 which is 10 years old. Smooth like Balsamic. The soy sauce should be the light kind as shown 生油/生酱油。I'm partial to sesame oil 芝麻油, and that's what I used today. If you preferred, you could use olive oil or any other salad oil. For one medium cucumber, I generally will use a tablespoon of each of these three. Remember, you are not making a French vinaigrette; it's OK if it's a little soupy. Usually at this point I just toss it well and serve. Today I added a step that someone else* suggested here on the forum in another discussion. I put a lid on the bowl and shook it real hard. Sounded like a good idea, and by golly it was. The result was smooth and well balanced. Maybe I will finally get that elusive Michelin star. That's all there is to it. I often add some chopped cilantro 香菜 or wood ear mushrooms 木耳。 Beyond that you enter the zone of heresy, but can probably get away with sprinkling in a handful of roasted peanuts. At times I will defy convention by turning this into a light one-dish meal just by adding a chopped hard-boiled egg. --------------------- Footnote: The idea for shaking it all up at the end came from Publius, here: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/53734-the-basics-tomatoes-and-eggs-番茄炒鸡蛋。
  12. You see tea eggs 茶叶蛋 everywhere you turn during 春节 Spring Festival, but you also find them a lot during ordinary times 平时。Yunnan tends to put its distinctive stamp on many food that are popular all over China. So it should come as no surprise that what I'm going to show you today is our regional variation on this popular snack food item. You can either use chicken eggs 鸡蛋 or quail eggs 鹌鹑蛋, and you will encounter both when out and about, even though the chicken eggs are more common. One frequently sees a big pan of them simmering away near the entrance to 米线 noodle stands or 小笼包 dumpling shops. The 老板 owner will scoop one out and give it to you in a tiny plastic bag which is open at the top so you can eat it with your fingers without too much of a mess. Typical cost today in Kunming is 1.5 Yuan. Tea eggs are also extremely popular as "long-distance bus food" and are sold at most bus stations 汽车客运站 here. Accompanied by an ear of steamed or boiled sweet corn 水果玉米, and a small bag of steamed or boiled peanuts 卤花生, they actually make a pretty decent meal: economical, tasty, and nutritionally balanced. That "holy trinity" bus-rider's feast plus a bottle of Chinese fruit-flavored milk will last you most of the way north to Shangri-La, or most of the way south to Xishuangbanna. But when making them at home, you can improve on the basic concept and give them an extra Yunnan kick that you won't find if you buy them prepackaged in a grocery store. I'll show you one way to make them, with the immediate disclaimer that something this common has dozens of small variations. So this might not be the same as your Mom's recipe; and we both know that Mom does it better. 用料 = Ingredients 主料 = Main Ingredients: 鸡蛋 = eggs,茶叶 = tea leaves 辅料 = Auxiliary ingredients: 1. 八角 = star anise 5. 茴香 = fennel seeds 2. 花椒 = Sichuan peppers ("prickly ash") 6. 老抽 = dark soy sauce 3. 香叶 = bay leaves 7. 冰糖 = rock sugar 4. 桂皮 = Chinese cinnamon (cassia bark) 8. 食盐 = table salt 做法 = Method of making Assemble the ingredients. I used fresh free-range eggs 土蛋 from Mr. Chen at the neighborhood wet market. The ones I buy are medium size and cost 1 Yuan each. They have lots of flavor and a dark yellow yolk. He carefully packs them in pine needles, nestling one bag inside another. You will see dried red chilies 干红辣椒 on the upper left plate. These are a Yunnan touch, as are the sliced ginger 姜 and gancao 甘草 pictured above. The gancao has a licorice flavor and is used in TCM as a cough suppressant. Boil these herbal ingredients, together with the sugar and salt, for 10 minutes all by themselves. Then add some decent Pu'er tea, preferably a ripe Pu'er 熟普洱,because it has a deeper color and flavor. This is not the time to break out your very best tea, however; that would be a waste because here it is mixing with quite a few other items and won't have a chance to shine on its own. But using Pu'er leaves in the dish is a distinctive Yunnan touch that you are unlikely to find in other parts of China. Boil the spices and the tea together for another 10 minutes, then add the eggs. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook another 15 or 20 minutes uncovered. Fish out the eggs one at a time with a strainer and crack them gently all over with the back of a spoon. Return them to the pot, bring it to a boil, cover and turn off the heat. The longer they stand now, the more flavor they will develop. I always aim for 6 or 8 hours, though sometimes I cheat and eat one of the eggs ahead of time. When you are ready to eat or to serve, fish them out and peel carefully so as to preserve the pretty marbling. The ones you don't want to eat today can be kept in the strained boiling liquid for up to a week in the refrigerator. You can make them with fewer flavoring ingredients and they will still be tasty. Or you can be creative and put everything except the kitchen sink into the mix. Regardless, you will probably wind up with tea eggs that are decorative as well as a treat to eat.
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