Friday, August 01, 2008

Fish with back bean sauce

This dish is really nice if you want to eat fish the Chinese style. It is quick to prepare if using whitefish fillets, and a meal by itself or with more dishes for a larger Chinese dinner.
You will need:

400 grams of cod (or other white fish)
1 spring onion
1 cm of ginger
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, Shaoxing rice wine, corn flour,
dried black beans from a jar/pot. [I use the dried kind which keeps forever].

Cut the fish into chunks and marinate in a tablespoon of Shaoxing rice wine and a tablespoon of light soy sauce. Meanwhile, take a tablespoon of black beans and soak in cold water. Cut ginger into julienne strips, slice the garlic and shred the spring onions into very thin strips.

Dip the fish in cornstarch until completely coated and fry the pieces in hot oil until both sides are golden. Take out and put aside. Then, in the leftover oil, fry the ginger, garlic and drained black beans until fragant. Add about two tablespoons of Shaoxing rice wine, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a tablespoon of Chinese black vinegar and a pinch of sugar. Add a few tablespoons of water to make a sauce, then, gently, put back the fish and simmer briefly until done. You don't have to turn them over - of course you can if you want to, but they might fall apart if you do so. Anyway they will be delicious, especially if you spoon over some of the sauce when they simmer.

Take out the fish and arrange on a pretty plate. Pour over the sauce and scatter with spring onion julienne. Eat with rice. You could add some drops of sesame oil in the end, and add some chiles if you like the heat. The black beans give a salty tang to this dish, and the balance of soy, vinegar and sugar is really nice.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Conimex Beijing ad

Nooooooo, you can't be serious!!!! I thought, wachting the newest tv-ad for the well-known brand of Conimex (Unilever), a huge producer of Asian convenience foods in the Netherlands. This brand has been around locally since the 1950s, when Conimex started to cater for the growing demand in ingredients for the cuisine of the former colony of Indonesia. Conimex has been selling Indonesian ground spices in small jars, spice mixtures (bumbus) and sweet soy sauces (kecap) for decades now, but have recently strengthened their share of the Dutch market by selling convenience packets of Indian, Malay, or otherwise Asian flavorings, like sauce mixes for stir-frying and new inventions for cooking, like 'wok oil'.

The newest Conimex ad features two men - probably famous Dutch sportsmen (although I don't who they are) roaming about Beijing for the Olympics. The main sports guy walks on Tian'anmen square, while the voice over says : "As a sportsman, eating well is really important. That's why I buy fresh produce at the local market."

We see him heading to this farmer's market, where there are red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and red, green and yellow Dutch glasshouse peppers on display. Our sportsman is bargaining hard for one cauliflower (a true Dutch vegetable), pays 5 yuan for it, gets himself some spring onions, and hurries home to his Beijing appartment with his shopping bag.

When he passes a rickshaw puller enjoying a bowl of noodles, the sportman says: " They are, like us, crazy about Chinese food, but ... I'd rather cook it by myself! That's why I take as much as I can from Holland, including Conimex". He comes home, plonks his bags in the kitchen, greets the second (sports)man sitting on a couch reading the paper, then opens up the pantry, takes out a packet of ready-to-wok rice, a packet of sweet-and-sour sauce, and starts to chop up the red bell pepper on a chopping board.

He heats a wok, and in 5 seconds, he mixes the pepper and chicken (?) with the cooked rice (the cauliflower and spring onions have disappeared), puts in green peas, pours a sweet and sticky looking sauce over his fried rice, and takes two flat plates to the couch where he and his friend enjoy the view of the new 'bird's nest' stadium. He sighs happily and says: "Just like home, but don't forget: they use chopsticks here..."

I was really jumping up and down in front of my tv screen at this moment. Nooo nooo nonooooo !!! You stupid man! How can you take your own bloody rice from Holland and your sweet and sour sauce, which have nothing to do with Beijing, and cook this plainest of Chinese foods, FRIED RICE for God's sake!, by yourself, while on the streets of Beijing, everywhere, at every street corner, in every restaurant, for a price way cheaper than your own imported fake Dutch package stuff, you will eat more delicious food than the two of you will ever dream to have when you insist on 'cooking' in your appartment?

The commercial is, however, well made, and quite funny in its stupid way. But I don't think there is any hope for Dutch Chinese cooking. Want to have a look yourself ? The Conimex ad is on YouTube.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

pickled cucumber

These cucumber strips might look too plain and simple to blog about. But in this miniseries on Chinese starters, you really can't miss out on this one. It is actually the starter I order immediately with no second thoughts when see it on the menu - and in China that is almost always the case.

There are of course some varieties, not only in taste but the way the cucumber is cut. You have the banquet-style strips which you can pile several stories high, woodlog cabin-shape. Then you have the home-style cucumber slices or chunks, which shape is really up to you. And you have the cucumber peels which I had last time in China, challenging your chopstick skills by their curly nature, but very refreshing nevertheless. These are on the photo.

The cucumber is usually flavored with sugar and white vinegar, and some salt, sesame oil or ginger for extra flavour. In Sichuan they fry some dry chiles in hot oil and put in the cucumber chunks in the wok for only some seconds, enough to get flavors from the spiced oil.

For this recipe you need:
2 small cucumbers
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons white vinegar (I use Japanese mizkan brand)
salt / grated ginger / sesame oil
optional: dry hot chiles

Cut the cucumber. Don't peel, every version has peel for extra flavor and crunch. Style 1, restaurant style: take off both ends, cut cucumber into 3 or 4 chunks, cut them lengthwise, scoop out seeds, flatten them and cut into long, even strips.
Style 2: home-style. Slice in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds (spoon works fine), then cut into batons (half moon shape) or strips (but not as pretty as restaurant style.)
Style 3: skin-peels style. Cut the top off the cucumber, then hold it upright and slice off a 5cm wide piece of peel with flesh on. Cut all the way round as if peeling a long apple skin. Continue with next layer of peel and cucumber. They will curl up, this is half the fun!

Whatever style you use: add 2 teaspoons of salt, mix the cucumber, and let sit for about 20 minutes. Pour off drained juices and marinate the cucumber pieces in a mixture of sugar and vinegar, a little bit of grated ginger (half a teaspoon) and half a teaspoon of sesame oil. Mix well and put in fridge to cool.

When you would like the cucumbers to be more spicy: fry chilli pepper carefully in a couple of tablespoons of oil, then add the slices of cucumber to the wok, fry for 15 seconds, then put on a plate. Or just fry the spices and pour over the hot oil, then mix.

Enjoy this crunchy starter with other starters or just a glass of cold Qingdao or Yanjing beer.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

1000-year old eggs with ginger

This Chinese starter scores high on the scary-looking exotic foods list. Although your guests can tell these blackish things probably won't be monkey brains, they will not easily pick up their chopsticks to take a bite, until you tell them these are a must-try.

These duck eggs, with their black translucent outside and gooey greenish-grey from the inside, look definitely off. They have been packed in a mixture of mud, salt and lime with special ingredients, and left to cure for about 2 months. This makes the mixture permeate the shells so the eggs are cured on the inside. In Chinese they are called pidan, 'skin eggs', or songhua dan, here known with their poetic name 'century eggs' or '1000-year old eggs'.

These century eggs were originally sold out of giant Chinese ceramic jars, each packed in clay with straw and rice husks clinging to it and wrapped in a thin plastic bag. Because of a food scare they were not sold in Europe for many years, but have now found their way back into the stores, but in a different packaging. They now come from the UK in a normal looking egg-packet of six, and cost around 1 euro for each egg.

packet of 6 century eggs
Chinese black vinegar
fresh ginger
optional: red chiles and/or green spring onions

For a starter, shell 3 to 4 eggs carefully and wipe clean under running water. Slice them with a knife, each egg into 8ths, and arrange in a circle on a plate. The yolk might be runny and sticky when you cut the eggs, so - messy it will get. Pour over 2 to 3 tablespoons of black Chinese vinegar and sprinkle over at least 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh ginger. For extra decoration, you can add tiny slivers of spring onions or some preserved red chiles from the jar. Enjoy!

Note: when you have them the first time, they might smell really stinky; but believe me, with vinegar and ginger they really have a special addictive taste - you even might stock up on them as I do, so you can always have this side dish to a Chinese meal!

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Monday, June 09, 2008

smashin' radishes

With this second post, I am on my first steps in getting together a series of Chinese cold starters for hot days. Making a Chinese meal is difficult enough with all the prep work you have to do. It can be tough: cutting and shredding ingredients for hours on end, not even able to finish one dish; so making a cold starter can be very satisfying. You do the assembly work, put it on a plate, plonk it on the table, and that's one dish less to worry about!

This starter I found at YouTube, where I found a real nice range of Chinese cooking videos by yeqiang, who is explaining enthousiastically how to make this radish salad, she sure made me want to try! She uses a large cleaver to smash radishes one by one for the full 5 minutes of the video, giggling happily all the time. This is how it goes: take 2 (to 3) small bunches of radishes and smash with the blade of a Chinese cleaver. Don't worry if they almost fall apart: they are supposed to be that way. A nice kitchen chore to get rid of any stress!

Put them in a large bowl and mix in 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt. Let sit for about 20 minutes, then throw away the water drawn from the radishes. Add 2 tablespoons of dark Chinese vinegar (or a mild white vinegar if you don't like the Chinese vinegar flavor so much), 2 tablespoons of sugar and a half a teaspoon of sesame oil. Mix to combine, put in a nice serving bowl and garnish with some beautiful radish leaves. The bitter flavour of the radish has disappeared, giving you a clean and crispy bite. Very nice. Thank you Yeqiang!

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salad with tofu shreds

On my last trip to China I saw this salad everywhere on the menu: a cold salad with finely shredded strips of tofu, almost resembling noodles, seasoned with sesame oil, garlic and cilantro. This is the kind of thing you order first to have with cold beers on a warm summer night, and you practice your chopstick skills on it while waiting for more substantial dishes.

It is a perfect summer food: a small vegetarian starter, full of flavor. I made it the other day to have at home. Once you find your pressed tofu sheets in the Chinese supermarket, this dish is easy to prepare, it only involves cutting, no cooking. (Note to self: these tofu shreds might improve, texture-wise, by soaking for a short while in hot water).

Shred a package of dried tofu sheets into very fine noodle-like strips. You may have to peel the strips apart. Then cut half a clove of garlic into minute dice; mix it with 3 tablespoons of sesame oil, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1 tablespoon of vinegar, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 1 or more tablespoons of (homemade) chili oil to your liking. I think hotter is better!

Mix the sauce carefully with the tofu shreds and taste for seasonings - you might need some more oil, it shouldn't be dry. Adding more sesame oil might be too nutty, try adding vegetable oil. Add three tablespoons of chopped cilantro - or leave them whole, so it is strips all over - and sprinkle over some sesame seeds if you like.

Serve with ice cold beer on hot nights and wait for the next dishes to materialize on the table!

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

new kitchen stuff

Too bad I have to go home again. I just started to enjoy this life of walking around, chatting with people, and trying out food in all kinds of restaurants. I haven't been in the kitchen for two weeks, but back home, I will have to cook again myself.

But not without new stuff! I have had lots of dishes to try, especially the quick and easy vegetable ones, which put together ingredients in a way I wouldn't have come up with. I snapped about a picture of everything I've eaten here. My table mates have resented this when they, hungrily, had their chopsticks ready, but I can enjoy my pictures for new inspiration.

To the Chinese supermarket I went all by myself, to buy stuff-to-take-home. While other foreigners might hang around silk stores or calligraphy stores - not me, I am in the supermarket, eyeing the shelves with Sichuan pepper and vintage vinegars. I asked the shop girls for info, and some passers by, too. They told me their favorite brands and then I simply added another item to my shopping basket.

I will travel home with bags of huajiao, chile peppers, dried shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, huajiao oil, fragrant vintage vinegar, new chopsticks and brand new chopping knife. I bought some strange looking packets of sauces to try. Also, I bought a new jiaozi board, for putting on home-made jiaozi so they won't stick.

When I walked on the street with this large round board (the equivalent of a Chinese in the Netherlands walking around with a poffertjespan), an older woman stopped me to ask where I got it. When I told her she wanted to know the price as well (7.90 yuan, being €0.79), and then she went to the shop to get one, too.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

update: salted chiles

Just a short update on the chiles. I preserved them in salt more than 3 weeks ago and kept them out of the fridge all the time. To be honest they were in the fridge in the beginning and I peeked after 3 days ( I guess I shouldn't have). But then I made the firm decision I should let the chiles undergo their fermenting process or curing process, so I put them out in the kitchen again and kept the glass jar closed for the rest of the time.

This is what you get: the water has drawn out of the chiles, and they kept their absolute red brightness. The taste has mellowed somewhat : you can eat the chiles raw. Which I did. They look more fierce now than they actually are. And they are great to use in any dish that needs a bit of heat. I should now ponder which dish that is going to be, and then I'll keep you posted.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

new vegetable: jiaobai

Yesterday I was, again, funshopping in the Asian store, choosing a different one then the large supermarket I usually go to. There are 4 Chinese supermarkets in the center of The Hague, and I visit them in turns, although I seem to skip the one in the Wagenstraat (Cheung Kong) because it is further off from the tram stop.

Somehow Amazing Oriental (Dongfang in Chinese) in the basement of the large new Pathe cinema at the Spui, has a more international section then Wah Nam (Huanan, meaning 'South China') in the backstreet behind the Bijenkorf. While AO has Thai fish cakes and frozen octopus and lots of Indonesian, Vietnamese and South Chinese snacks and bottles, WN features more Chinese vegetables and homecooking ingredients. So there I found the vegetable jiaobai, light green in color and resembling bamboo shoots; it is also called water bamboo.

After searching the web, but with guests breathing down the wok so to speak, I made a simple stir-fry. First take off the husks of the jiaobai (which I wrongly called wosun in this post earlier on - this is the update) and cut into small chunks. Fry in a little oil and add salt, a pinch of sugar and a half cup of water. Simmer until almost all water has dissappeared, stir the vegetables now and then. The jiaobai will still have some crunch and tastes, surprisingly, like a cross between asparagus and firm cucumber with a hint of jasmine flavour!
A nice side dish in a Chinese dinner. Will try it again soon. Have a look at more pictures here at Flickr

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

chopped salted chiles

Being in a Chinese cooking mood, I decided to try out this staple of the Hunan kitchen: salted chiles (duo lajiao). These chiles are supposed to go on steamed fish dishes, or accompany noodles and other treats. But buying them from a jar in the Chinese store might not get you the right stuff (buying Hunanese produce might prove challenging); on the other hand, it might turn out these chopped salted chiles are just like store-bought, only I have to wait now for (Fuchsia says) ' a couple of weeks'.

It has been one week now since I went to the market and bought 300 grams of fresh red chiles and cut them up, trying not to rub them so as to avoid eye sore later on. For 300 grams of chiles, you need 1/8 cup of salt. Fuchsia Dunlop makes 500 grams, but I think I might be the only one in the house eating them anyway.
After cutting them up coarsely, mix them with half of the salt and put them in a glass jar. Then cover with the remaining salt, shut the lid tightly, put in the fridge, and wait.

And wait some more. I dreamt about tasting these chile peppers, which is strange, because I hardly dream about food (I am mostly traveling). But anyway, I tried them and they were very mellow-tasting, and I remember expressing surprise about this fact in my dream. When I woke up I smiled, knowing this is very probably not going to happen! I anticipate them to be fiercely hot.

But who knows... I have to wait 2 more weeks at least before I can tell you how they turned out.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

shark's fin and sichuan pepper

As soon as I found out Fuchsia Dunlop had written a new book with her memoirs on eating in China, I ordered it rightaway. I read it cover to cover in one day. Fuchsia Dunlop's story is very interesting: she did all the things one would have liked to do in China.

For starters, she lived in Chengdu, heart of Sichuan, were the spiciest food of China comes from. Fuchsia Dunlop had ample opportunity, Chinese liuxuesheng [foreign-student] fashion, to hang out in all those eating places instead of staying in her dormitory to study - but then, studying Chinese on the street is studying too, doesn't it? Then Dunlop managed to attend a three month Chinese cooking course in the Sichuan culinary institute, together with a German friend. After the summer, she was asked again to enroll in the real chef training of the same institute. How awesome, to be trained as a Chinese chef for a full year!

This book tells this, and more. How to acquire a Chinese taste takes a very long time; truly enjoying special Chinese textures, like sea cucumber or tripe and that sort of thing. But she is not snobby about this, it just happens as you keep on eating. Dunlop describes how living in China changes you to become two selves, one Chinese, and one English one. But there is a downside too, she was fed up for a while with China and the Chinese, always lusting for food.

Although Dunlop craves Chinese food more than anything, all the Chinese food scares did have her think about being a vegetarian. The growth of the Chinese economy and the opening up to the world might change things in the West as well: what happens when the hungry Chinese turn to the Western cheeses, wines and fish (think of the Japanese tuna scarcity since the Chinese start to eat sashimi?)

After writing her first book (Sichuan cookery / Land of Plenty) Fuchsia Dunlop got a job at the BBC writing about Chinese food, and was voted as culinary journalist of the year 2006. She wrote a second cookbook (about Hunan cuisine), which I own as well now. I like her recipes, they are well written and she sure knows what she is talking about. On the picture here one of the things from Sichuan Cookery / Land of Plenty: garlicky pork slices.

These garlicky pork slices are not made by me, but by Flickr friend FotoosVanRobin, who I met IRL last Wednesday. That was fun! We went to the shops to get all kinds of ingredients and then cooked together. I made some baozi in her wonderfully large steamer, and she had prepared two mouthwatering dishes from Fuchsia Dunlop's books (see photo). Recipe of this pork dish can be found here.

Fuchsia Dunlop. Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. W. W. Norton, 2008.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

cauliflower stir-fry

Cooking can be an elaborate affair, but sometimes it is quick and easy. Like last night. I didn't quite know what to cook so I looked in my fridge to see what I would find there. Half a cauliflower (well, why not?). This is a challenge to some - see Mr. WateetOns' la semaine des choux fleurs - but it doesn't have to be. It can be really easy.

Cut the cauliflower into small florets. Open freezer to find frozen peas. Take about a cup. Cut some cooked frozen shrimp (also from freezer, I used about 4) into pieces.

Stir-fry the cauliflower florets in a wok with hot oil. Keep stirring, don't burn. Add frozen peas. Add a little bit of water, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a pinch of sugar, a bit of salt and let simmer for about 5 minutes. Add shrimp and simmer a little bit more until cauliflower and shrimp are done. Now that's an easy Chinese style dish isn't it?

We had it with a second stir-fry of potato slivers, which I made again to check if FotoosVanRobin's complaint about my long cooking times for that dish were OK or not. Turned out it much depends on the kind of potato you use (but 10 minutes might be a bit much), so the only thing I can say is: check while you cook, don't only go for the egg timer!

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Thursday, March 06, 2008


It is funny how lately my new food surprises don't come from a new cooking technique. I have been surprised by the excellent taste of mapo tofu that materialized; I have been surprised by the delicious flavour of the Chinese eggplant recipe; and yesterday I was shocked to find my homemade baozi (Chinese meat buns) tasted really great. Great as in “if I ordered this in a restaurant I would be happy and come back again” kind of way.

But the funny thing was this didn't have to do anything with my cooking techniques. The secret was all in the ingredients. For my mapo tofu recipe, I found adding a lot of oil to fry meat and chili sauce in, makes the difference between pretty OK and great; for the eggplant I found buying Chinese slender eggplants does the trick (so tender and not-bitter); and for the baozi (meat buns – white dough with a meat or vegetable filling, eaten as snack in China, called bapao in Dutch because of our Indonesia connection) using the right flour turned out to be vital. Without this flour, your buns might not get the right texture and you might end up with a food experiment: interesting, but just for once.

I bought an interesting package with a dark green Chinese paksoi cabbage on the front with a very white flour inside. On the package it said 'low gluten flour' in Chinese, but “Plain Flour” in English. The package explained it was suitable for Chinese style buns. So: I found a recipe in one of my older Chinese cookbooks and gave it a try. For the dough, you will need 300 grams of white flour (low gluten) and 120 grams of sugar. I thought this was a bit much on the sweet side (and I ran out of sugar) so I added about 70 grams. Then 2 tablespoons of lard, one tablespoon of baking powder and 250 mls of water. The dough became a bit sticky so I added a bit more flour, so in the end I am not sure if it was supposed to be supple like that. Cover with a wet towel and let sit for 10 minutes.

For the filling, you will need: 125 grams of ready charsiu meat (Chinese style cured pork); one tablespoon of soy; one tablespoon of sweet bean paste; one chopped clove of garlic and 2 small spring onions. Fry garlic and onions in some oil, add soy, sweet bean paste and meat; stir to combine. Thicken with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch diluted with some water. You will need a thick filling. Add some drops of sesame oil and some pepper. Don't add salt since the bean paste and meat are quite salty by themselves.

Cut the dough into 12 portions and shape into rounds. They might be sticky, flour your workspace. Then take a large tablespoon of filling and pleat the dough to close the baozi buns. It actually doesn't matter if they are closed tightly or not, because they will expand and be artistic and fluffy anyway. Shape them one by one – you will find you can make them quite quickly. Handle them gently, the low gluten content makes them tear easily. Put on a floured tray until ready to steam. Put in a bamboo steamer, lined with baking paper and steam for about 10 minutes until puffed up and ready to eat. They will have doubled in size and taste great! The dough is light and spongelike, like a cake, and has a slight sweet flavour. The filling is savory and delicious.

I never suspected the dough to have anything to do with the sweet flavour I tasted when having a baozi, so this was quite an eye opener for me. I always thought the sweetness was in the filling somehow. You could make this with minced meat or ckicken too, easily. Just fry it beforehand and add flavorings, then use cornstarch to thicken it up. Easy and tasty snack.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

fresh lily bulb

Roaming through Chinese supermarkets is certainly my idea of a good time. Holding a basket, I can go through all isles as if I have to study it all. I read the packaging for different brands, I hover above their frozen food section, I stare at their collection of vinegars (for example), and I check out their vegetable and fresh fruit collection. It can be fun to try out things you haven't seen or eaten before. So, last time I was in the Chinese supermarket I stumbled upon this strange foodstuff: fresh lily bulbs. They were on a rather large display, selling 2 bulbs for 1 euro.

I couldn't resist trying, but in the back of my mind was the famous Dutch horror story of a whole classroom of primary school students, who were given flower bulbs to eat by their teacher as a school project. The idea of this was to have the students taste the bitter times of the 'winter of hunger' of 1944-45, when there was a famine in the west of the Netherlands, so the local population started eating tulip bulbs for nutrition. Unfortunately, this particular teacher didn't know which flower bulb was edible and which not. He boiled the bulbs of the narcissus instead of tulips and got the whole school sick. Would these fresh lily bulbs be edible? Or only after simmering for hours with certain herbs or flavours?

These white lily bulbs have the size of a garlic bulb or small onion, and I was quite at loss at what to do. So I read the package. It said they were from the highlands of Lanzhou in Western China, and highly valued for their sweet, crisp and refreshing flavour (plus their nutritional value of course). They were traditionally a tribute gift for the imperial court. If you want to eat them raw (package says), use them in cold platters or have them with Western style (!) salads. For stir-frying, fry no longer than 1 minute or they will lose their sweet flavour; if you decide to cook them, do not cook more than two minutes. The funny thing is the package says you could also use them in Western style cakes and sweets - has anyone ever heard of lilies used that way?

Anyway, I wiped them clean of their Chinese yellow earth, peeled off their petals, which looked beautiful, and had a bite. They were indeed very crispy, with a sweet tinge, they had a crunch like raw Belgian endives (witloof), but a much sweeter and crunchy taste. I used them in a (western-style) salad (picture here) and quite liked them. Now I still have to think of a nice way to use them in a sweet dessert, or have them as a receptacle for blue cheese, cream cheese, or some other spread as an amuse.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

mapo tofu

This is one of my favorite tofu recipes from China. It is easily the best known one: soft white cubes of tofu floating in an intense red chili oil sauce, with minced meat, spring onions and garlic and ginger. It has quite a funny name: mapo means pockmarked woman, and this woman with her bad-face-day is said to be the inventor of this Sichuan favorite, more than 200 years ago.

Pockmarked or not, she sure was a kitchen princess! While the Official Dutch Bureau of Food has fried tofu in white wine sauce for their Christmas vegetarian meal (I shudder when I type this), I think you will bring out the best of tofu when its softness and bland flavour clashes with some true spicy stuff.
Without trying to sound fussy, much depends on the kind of tofu you use. The spectacular result I had last time was really tofu-related. I will list the kinds of tofu for this dish in my preferred order. Try to get the top of the list, but don't despair if it can't find tofu number 1.

For this dish I recommend: 1. Fresh soft tofu from the Asian store. I bought mine for a mere 0.39 cents (300 grams, rather small) This serves two people. 2. Japanese silken tofu in a carton. They come in red or blue packaging and have quite a long shelf life, but cost like €2.50. 3.Fresh normal tofu. These cakes are bigger than tofu no.1, but have a more coarse structure. 0.80cents. 4. supermarket tofu, packed in thick plastic packaging. Usually too coarse and its taste is not subtle. When your first bite of tofu ever was tofu no.4, you will probably be put off for life, but please try the better ones on the list, you won't be dissapponted!

For this dish you need: 50 to 100 grams of ground meat (pork or beef or mixed is OK), garlic, ginger, spring onions, Sichuan chili broad bean paste - tobanjiang or doubanjiang, soy, sugar, cornstarch, ground Sichuan pepper, sesame oil, and stock or water.

Cut up the tofu in small cubes and soak in hot scalding water for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, pour a pool of oil in a wok and fry meat. Don't skimp too much on the oil, because if it isn't there, the end result won't turn out so great. When the meat starts to brown, add 2 cloves of chopped garlic, 2 cms of chopped ginger and fry until fragrant. Add two tablespoons of tobanjiang (Sichuan chili broad bean paste. The best brand is from Pixian County, and called Pixian doubanjiang. Ask your shop. And keep asking. I know it's for sale in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague). Stir until fragrant, add water or stock to make a sauce. Carefully, add the tofu cubes and stir to coat the cubes with the sauce. It will smell delicious already!

Simmer for a couple of minutes and add half a teaspoon of sugar. Meanwhile, chop up 2 small spring onions into small rings. Prepare the Sichuan pepper powder: fry two tablespoons of Sichuan pepper (huajiao) in a dry pan until fragrant. Let cool and grind into a powder. You can use your stone mortar for this, it's fun!

In the end of the cooking, dissolve one tablespoon of cornstarch into half a cup of water. Use this water to thicken the sauce, first add half of it and see how thick it gets, add more if needed. If everything is to your liking, put all on a pretty plate, sprinkle on some sesame oil drops, scatter over the spring onions and the finely ground Sichuan pepper and ... enjoy.

For all steps in this recipe, you can view my photoset on Flickr called how to make mapo tofu

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sichuan Sauerkraut

Sichuan Sauerkraut
Originally uploaded by kattebelletje.
I think about food. I think about food a lot. Even when commuting on a train, I think of food, and of ways of getting or cooking food. Sometimes I just think about lists on what to buy in the supermarket. But sometimes flavour combinations pop into my head and I start to map them out. This is one of them!

I thought of how much I like the Sichuan style dry-fried beans. Basically, it uses garlic and ginger and dried shrimp and sugar an sesame oil to flavour string beans, which then take on a whole different flavour. Then I thought of sauerkraut and klary koopmans' recipe on baked sauerkraut. Then this new idea hit me: to fry sauerkraut with the Sichuan string-beans flavour!

For this recipe you will need: 1 packet of sauerkraut [450 grams]; I prefer organic; 2 cms of ginger, chopped; 2 mashed cloves of garlic, some chili oil flakes, a tablespoon of dried shrimp (put to soak in boiling water); soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and cilantro.

Drain the sauerkraut, you could also give it a rinse in water to get rid of some of the sour flavour, if you think it is too strong. Then heat a few tablespoons of oil in a frying pan and fry the sauerkraut slowly for a while. Take out. Pour in new oil and on a low fire fry chopped ginger, mashed garlic and your soaked dried shrimp, chopped. When fragrant, add some splashed of soy and add 2 tablespoons of sugar. You can add more to your liking later on. Return the fried sauerkraut to the pan and stir to combine. Fry longer until the sauerkraut takes on the flavours; I like it to be quite dry. Add chili flakes. At the end, add half a teaspoon of sesame oil and taste for flavour. Don't probably don't have to add any vinegar or salt, because it will have plenty of those flavour already! Put on a plate and add some chopped cilantro.
I love this dish. I like the savoury vinegary flavour of the sauerkraut, but making it have a dry, a little charred texture, and adding the Sichuan flavours, bring out a whole new twist.
Have it as a side dish to a Chinese meal, or eat it as a starter. This is my contribution to fusion: sublime Sichuan Sauerkraut !

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

potato stir-fry

You can prepare potatoes in so many ways: cook them, bake them, broil them, slice them, make them au gratin, mash them - but this way of stir-frying potatoes doesn't make its way to the table very often. You don't see this dish in Chinese restaurants in the West, because this dish is considered to be way too plain. I mean, the ingredients are just potatoes and some spring onions, right? No meat, no fish, no frills - but it is a truly comforting and addictive dish, because the potatoes have a great texture and a special flavour to them, brought by Sichuan pepper oil (read on to see how to make that).

Even so, I wish they would serve it, because I am thourougly fed up with the limited amount of dishes they serve in Chinese restaurants in the Netherlands. When you start counting, it is just 5 to 6 sauces with 5 to 6 ingredients, which makes a long list, but is very boring indeed. This potato stir-fry, however, is definitely a home-style dish, quite common in Northern China, with many variations to it. I always order it when I see it on the menu there, because it is tasty, and so cheap you really can't not-order. Not long ago, I had this at a Chinese friend's house, and made up my mind to recreate this dish.

Peel 3 large firm potatoes (not the kind for potato mash) and cut into very thin slices. Then cut the slices into very fine strips (julienne). Cut 2 spring onions into similar strips and chop one clove of garlic very fine. Prepare the Sichuan pepper (huajiao) oil as follows: heat 6 or 7 tablespoons of oil in a pan or wok, add 3 tablespoons of huajiao (Sichuan pepper) and fry on low heat until the oil is fragrant. Discard the Sichuan pepper and sieve the slightly colored oil into a bowl. Let cool until use. For extra flavour, soak 3 dried shiitake mushrooms in hot water until soft, cut into strips. (you can omit this step if you like). Put the potato strips in boiling water and boil for about 10 minutes - check regularly, they shouldn't turn soft! This doesn't happen quick ,though, it has to cook quite a while. When still a little undone (but not raw), drain the potatoes and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok and fry the spring onions and the garlic for 1 minute until fragrant. Add the potatoes, stir to combine, and keep on frying for about 5 minutes. Add some salt, some of the Sichuan pepper oil (taste, about 2 tablespoons), half a tablespoon of sesame oil, and taste again. Add half a tablespoon of sugar and the same amount of Chinese vinegar, stir. Put on a plate and garnish with cilantro and ground Sichuan pepper. Lovely! You can add chili oil too, if you like. This dish is also good served cold. I will definitely make this more often, as it is easy and quick to prepare; a vegetarian side dish with lots of flavour.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dry-fried string beans, Sichuan style

When looking at this picture, you might easily think this is one of my culinary mistakes; and the post is going to be a long lament on the failure of this dish. But no! These are fried string beans Sichuan style, simmered until they reach this crispy and dry texture, with an amazing palette of flavours. First, get yourself some ingredients from the Asian supermarket: dried shrimps; tinned Sichuan preserved vegetable; a piece of ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil.

Start with putting a handful of dried shrimps in a bowl with water that you have just boiled, and soak for about 30 minutes. Take about 300 grams of spring beans and clean them, snap them in two when they are too long. Put 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok on quite a high fire and stir-fry the beans for about 2 minutes until browning in places and shriveling a little bit. Turn down the fire and keep frying and stirring them on a lower heat for 6 minutes or so. Take out. Drain the shrimps and cut them very finely. Take about a ping pong ball of zhacai or Sichuan preserved vegetable and cut as fine as the shrimp. Take 2 cms of ginger and 2 cloves of garlic and mash very fine, too. Then, in some new oil, fry shrimp with ginger, then add preserved vegetable and garlic; then add 1 or 2 tablespoons of sugar and a splash of sesame oil, add some soy too.

Return the beans to the pan and let dry-cook for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The fishy sweet gingery flavors will be absorbed in the beans and their texture is very interesting! I truly loved this dish and will make it often! By the way, I tried to cook the twice-cooked pork I blogged about a week ago, and the result was great! This was mainly because I finally just asked the butcher for a different cut of pork then they usually sell, and this turned out the be the key to the right look and feel (and taste!) of the dish.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

twice cooked pork (huiguo rou)

This classic Chinese dish, lovely pork slices in a spicy, garlicky sauce, never fails to please. It is called twice-cooked (actually it is called 'back to the pan-meat') because it is first cooked, then stir-fried with seasonings. I found a video which shows you exactly how to make this. First the ingredients.

For this recipe you will need: 400 grams of hind shoulder of pork (with fat layer) - I don't know if there is a western equivalent cut for this... - Dutch people: use speklap); two or three white leeks (sometimes white cabbage is used); some Shaoxing rice wine (left) -10 grams, 50 grams of vegetable oil (about one cup), 4 grams of salt; 5 grams of sugar, 4 grams of MSG; 10 grams of ginger, 10 grams of spring onion; 75 grams of Pixian chili bean sauce from (the most famous chili bean paste from Sichuan), 30 grams of sweet bean paste (the kind you have with Peking duck).

Now watch the video, the cooking starts at 1:25: Put the whole piece of meat in a pan of boiling water, cover with a lid and boil for about 10 to 15 minutes (until "70% tender", you go figure it out...). Take the pork out, cool slightly, and cut into very thin square slices (you can prepare this beforehand). As you can see, each slice is part lean meat, part fat. Heat oil in a wok and stir-fry the slices in hot oil until slightly browned. Add ginger and spring onion and keep stirring. When it starts to smell delicious, add rice wine and sweet bean paste. Put in chili bean paste, salt, MSG, soy sauce, leeks.

After just a short mixing of ingredients, put on a plate and serve. The plate looks a bit on the small side, but as you can see, the sauce is very delicious and coveres most of the plate. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

boiled jiaozi for the Chinese new year

Happy Chinese new year, everyone! Traditionally, you have to eat jiaozi [boiled dumplings with a filling of pork] on New Year's eve. This time it was very easy; I used ready made dumpling skins from the store (from Korea, they were, the Chinese store only stocked wonton wrappers), and the filling I took ready made from the freezer, since I made jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) a couple of weeks before. With the egg timer, I proved you can make about 15 jiaozi in 10 minutes. (View my Flickr jiaozi set here to see the whole procedure)

The ready-made jiaozi wrappers are made from a mixture of flour and cornstarch, they have a much drier feel than home-made ones. Therefore you need to dip your fingertips in water and wetten the edges before pinching them close. This makes shaping the jiaozi a bit tiresome, but of course it is better than starting from scratch if you don't have time and just want to eat it as a snack!

After wrapping, boil the jiaozi in boiling water and cook until done (when the water comes to a boil, add a cup of cold water, then wait until it comes to a boil again and repeat, after 3 times the jiaozi are said to be done. You can see it when they float on top and look shiny. Serve in small bowls with Yinyin sauce on top; the filling is hearty, the jiaozi hot and succulent, and the sauce spicy and truly delicious. Don't stop eating!

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

cold noodles, Sichuan style

I had these Sichuan style cold noodles for lunch the other day; they make such a perfect simple meal! Their taste improves with time, when all ingredients mix with the noodles, so it is ideal to prepare this the morning before, or even the night before you are eating them. Cheap, filling, easy to prepare, and very tasty, what more could you want from lunch? So why aren't there noodle joints offering these as a quick snack?

Alas, I live in a tasteless country, suffering from the ICDB (I Can Do Better) scenario (meaning everywhere I go and order something simple, I feel I would have been able to make something tastier with the same ingredients - this doesn't mean I can cook so well, but it means eating places here seem to have uninterested, lazy, or even lousy cooks), so I take my own noodles to work.

How to prepare: take 60 or 70 grams cooked noodles, drained, or even soaked in cold water to prevent the noodles from sticking. For each serving, add 1 large tablespoon of sesame oil, 1 tablespoon of sesame paste, 1 tbsp of soy sauce, 1 tbsp of Chinese dark vinegar, 1 tbsp of white sugar, half a clove of crushed garlic (or leave this out when you are at work), and a large tablespoon of chinese chili sauce (or Yinyin sauce), or more to taste. Mix those ingredients in a bowl together and add to the noodles until all noodles are covered with sauce. Add more hot sauce if you dare, you should eat this as hot as you can handle! Add half a cucumber (or a little less), cut in slices and then in thin strips to go with the noodles and some peanuts (or pine nuts, as I did here). You could add some cold blanched bean sprouts as well...
Put in an airtight container and enjoy this meal with your chopsticks!

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Yinyin sauce

I can't help myself, ever so often I just NEED to eat jiaozi, Chinese dumplings. Or the fried kind, called guotie or potstickers. I put in the usual chopped pork, chinese cabbage, ginger, soaked dried shiitake mushroom, shredded spring onion and soy sauce and sesame oil for the filling, but added an extra leaf or two of the cime di rape I had a couple of days before. That made it really tasty!! I fried them in a pan but they stuck a little to well to the bottom.

Anyway, I made a salad like I had in Beijing: with a sauce of vinegar and sugar, plus an extra tablespoon dark Chinese vinegar. I soaked the cucumber in this vinaigrette for half an hour and added shredded lettuce and fried peanuts. Now for the jiaozi-sauce, I was taught this by a Chinese friend who cooks extremely well, and my family has called this sauce 'Yinyin sauce' ever since.

First make a hot sauce by putting dried chili pepper flakes, white sesame seeds, a little salt and a handful of huajiao (Sichuan pepper) in a fireproof bowl. Heat oil until really hot and pour carefully on the mixture; it will look like it will explode and a lot of hot steam escapes. Careful! When cooled off, you will have a dark red spicy oil. For the Yinyin sauce, mash 2 cloves of garlic, add 4 tablespoons or so of sugar, add as much dark Chinese aromatic vinegar until all the sugar is absorbed - stir, then add soy sauce and 3 or more tablespoons of the hot chili oil. Taste for spicyness and adapt to your liking. It tasted extremely well with the just fried potstickers and the salad will cool you off. Powerful.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

most favorited dish

This is the dish I ordered most in China: Gongbao jiding or Gongbao Chicken. I have always liked it;Diced chicken, Gongbao style has chicken, lots of peanuts, spring onions and dried chili peppers, and a truly hot and spicy Sichuan (Szechuan) flavour. It is one of the classic Sichuan dishes, hot, spicy and completely irresistible.

Sadly, in the Netherlands there is not one Chinese restaurant I can think of where they make a proper Gongbao jiding. It is always to sweet and sour to my liking, or just plain mild with cashew nuts replacing the peanuts. So, over time, meaning, not having a right tasting dish like they make in China, the true taste of Gongbao jiding can disappear from memory. Therefore, my recent trip to China proved to be vital!

In general, the Chinese Gong bao Chicken was much more sweet, almost caramel-sticky than I remember. Also, there were more peanuts in the dish than I thought would be, and a great amount of tender and juicy spring onion chunks. It invariably had quite a lot of oil, and the chicken and peanuts were very glossy and slippery. The almost blackened peppers gave a sweet and dark spicy flavour. True heaven. One dish costs about 18 yuan, being €1,80... I photographed every gongbao jiding I had on my one week trip (4 dishes), click the link to my Flickr photos to view gongbao jiding in different styles.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

potstickers (guotie)

Making guotie (potstickers, gyoza) is a quite long affair! Made from scratch, they taste delightful. Prepare a dough from flour and water, roughly ration 2 to 1. Knead until supple and leave to rest for half an hour.

Meanwhile, prepare a filling with a food processor: mince fatty striped pork and a about 1cm of ginger until completely smooth. Put into a bowl and add water in which you have soaked shiitake dried mushrooms (the black Chinese mushroom you can buy in Chinese shops). Add water, soy sauce and rice wine; add salt to taste. Add sesame oil. Add chopped spring onion, chopped shiitake and, optional, some chopped cooked spinach. Also, add chopped Chinese cabbage, after squeezing all water out. Stir this filling until smooth.

Now shape the dough into small rounds with a wooden rolling pin and put your filling in the centre. Fold the dumpling in the typical half moon shape and leave on a bamboo jiaoziboard (or plate dusted with flour). For dumplings or jiaozi, cook in water; but for panstickers fry in oil in a pan, then add water, wait until all water has evaporated and fry intil crispy on the bottom and succulent in the centre. Enjoy with a hot sauce or just plain Chinese vinegar. See more photos on Flickr.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

eggplant fritters with huajiao-dip

Chinese snack time: eggplant fritters with huajiao-dip. Huajiao ??, usually called " Sichuan pepper" or "Szechuan pepper", are the fragrant, almost hallucinating husks and berries of the huajiao shrub, which grows in the hills of Sichuan province of China.

Although you can buy several brands here in Europe, I got a bag of the stuff, imported from China by a friend, and they turned out to be very aromatic indeed! I think their intense flavor spoiled all the things in her suitcase, impregnating it with its strong smell. To use Sichuan pepper, roast two tablespoons of huajiao in a dry pan, when they start to give off their flavor, take off the heat and let cool. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and grind them into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. Set aside.

Cut a small eggplant into slices and make a batter of 1 egg and some tablespoons of corn flour. Mix until you have a smooth paste, in the beginning it looks very lumpy, but this will smooth out. Dip the slices of eggplant into the batter and shake off excess batter, then slip into hot oil (a wok is fine). Fry in not so hot oil until brown; drain on kitchen paper. Serve with the Sichuan-pepper-dip, it will be sharp, tingling and numb-making , but oh so good!!!

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