International Meals – China, Part 4: The Central Highlands

The central highlands of China means we are into the spiciest region: Sichuan!  However, that’s not the only region in the area with a food pedigree – Hunan is also one of the “eight great” cuisines, and there are others to consider as well.  As always, let’s start by going shopping!

A kitchen table with Chinese ingredients

Lots of stuff we’d never cooked with this time around – Lily Blossom, Osmanthus Syrup, Dried Red Dates, Fresh Water Chestnuts, Fermented Black Beans.  In addition, a fresh jar of something we HAVE used before, all the way back in our meal from Bhutan – spicy broad bean paste, or Doubanjiang. (This is the thing everyone THOUGHT I was holding last week when I pulled out the fermented bean curd.  They are completely different, however.)  We’ll talk about the various ingredients as we get to them, so let’s dive in.

Note that this is NOT the order we cooked things, but just one that makes sense in terms of the meal.
Bitter Melon Frying

Our first dish was simple fried slices of bitter melon.  The cookbook swore up and down that these were delicious.  They were… not our favorite.  We’ve had bitter melon before as a component in a larger dish, and it’s, well, bitter. All by itself, there wasn’t anything to distract from the bitterness, and the frying didn’t really do much to change that.  Perhaps a different frying temperature, or type of oil, or slice size would have made them more interesting.

Or maybe we’re just Philistines, who knows?

OK, on to dish number two – a stir fried assortment of Lily Bulbs, Ginko Nuts, and Chinese Celery.  Except the store was out of Ginko Nuts and Chinese Celery.  So here’s a stir fried assortment of lily bulbs, cashews, and western celery:

It was… crunchy.  All of these things are crunchy.  Yep. Crunchy. It would likely have been different with the correct ingredients.  As it was, it was fine, but not exciting.  Crunchy, mostly.

So – our first two selections are definitely not living up to Sichuan’s reputation for hot and spicy flavors.  This is probably our fault – we picked the recipes, after all.  There’s a lot of other things in the cookbook that might have worked, but we didn’t want to get too crazy with the vegetables so we could focus on the entrée.

The entrée DEFINITELY saved the meal from our otherwise humdrum menu choices.  Mapo Tofu, an American restaurant staple, here in somewhat funkier form!

Once of you have your mise en place ready, this dish comes together fast, so it’s important to get all the prep setup ahead of time.  On separate bowls, dishes, cutting boards, and colanders we had:

  • Soft tofu, poached and drained.
  • One leek, chopped.
  • Ground beef, beaten into paste with the back of a cleaver. (That was fun)
  • Chopped ginger
  • Spice mix: Fermented black beans, Doubanjiang, ground chilies
  • Cornstarch & water mixture
  • Topping: toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns and chopped scallions

Chopped LeekTofu in a colander

Into the wok with all of these things, in their correct sequence, being careful not to destroy the tofu! And at the end, here’s the final meal:
Central Chinese meal
Did the Mapo Tofu bring the flavor?  It sure did!  It was nicely spicy, and thanks to the two bean sauces, also quite funky. Leek is not an ingredient I can recall finding in this recipe in a restaurant, but the crunch was a nice textural contrast to the soft meat and tofu.  THIS is definitely going to come back to the table in the future.

Those of you who have been keeping score at home may have noticed that there’s several ingredients in the picture at the top that we haven’t used yet.  That’s because we also made dessert! (There’s also a jar of Spicy Chili Crisp, which we didn’t use for this meal, but bought because we are trying to pretend we are hipsters.)

Dessert was actually the most complicated part of the whole process.  There was an entire second PAGE of the recipe I didn’t notice until after we started.  So what did we make? Water Chestnut Pastries with Red Date Filling.

To start, the dates come dried, so they have to be rehydrated.

Dried dates soaking in water
These things are pretty tasty, and can actually be eaten straight out of the bag.  They’re also marked “jujubes,” which is objectively fun to say. (Try it!)

Next up, water chestnuts, which I had never encountered except in canned form.  The fresh ones unsurprisingly taste better, but are also a LOT more work to peel.
Water chestnuts - unpeeled, partially peeled, and fully peeled.

I eventually settled on a method where I cut the top and bottom off, then used a vegetable peeler on the sides.  Is this the best way to do it?  Who knows? (I mean – I’m sure LOTS of people know.  Millions of Chinese home and professional cooks, for starters.  But not me.) Optimum or not, it worked, and we had a bunch of peeled water chestnuts, that we then pureed and squeezed as much moisture out of as possible.
Pureed water chestnuts

The dates ALSO get pureed, and toasted with a little oil, sugar, and salt to make a pasted.  You roll  it up into little balls.  Then you puree the water chestnut paste with sticky rice flour and roll THAT into balls. Then you wrap the chestnut balls around the date balls and… GODDAMIT WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP SNICKERING?

Balls of date and chestnut paste.



At any rate, these get deep fried, because we haven’t yet deep fried anything this week, and it’s important to keep rolling the dice on burning the apartment building down.

Deep frying pastries.

Finally, you make a syrup from the soaking water from the dates, the pressed water from the chestnuts, osmanthus blossom syrup and, looking at the recipe while writing this up, 1/4 cup of rock sugar that I am one hundred percent certain that we completely forgot to add. (also some cornstarch for thickening.)

Thing is, we didn’t need the extra sugar.  Osmanthus blossom syrup is a traditional ingredient used for flavoring Chinese pastries, and is already quite sweet.  The sauce was delicious, and the pastries dipped in it were crunchy and flavorful.  Lots of work, but these balls sure are tasty!

Pastries dipped in sauce

Sigh.  I know.  I’m twelve.  But you, dear reader, are too.

At any rate, that was the Central Highlands. Spicy and delicious!  There’s a lot more recipes in this cookbook we want to try when we’re not trying to make a full meal and can dedicate our entire attention to them. I’ll also recommend two other recipes from Serious Eats that we make on a regular basis: Gong Bao Chicken and Hot and Numbing Xi’an-Style Oven Fried Chicken Wings, both of which are excellent.

Next week, our final region from China – The Arid Lands! So probably no seafood.

International Meals – China, Part 3: The Costal Southeast

As we continue our trek through the regions of China, this week we reach the southeast, which includes Guangdong province. “Canton” is an old, botched Romanization of Guangdong, so when we talk about “Cantonese” food, this is the area we mean.  In addition to the Guangdong school, this area also includes Hong Kong and southern Fujian province, which is the origin point of a remarkably high percentage of owners of Chinese restaurants in North America.

Once again, the day was started with a trip to the Asian grocer, this time for several different kinds of greenery, as well as a beautiful glass jar of fermented bean curd.  (More on that later.)

Jar of Fermented Bean Paste

We’ve started getting in the habit of printing out our shopping list in both English and Chinese, and it makes it much simpler to communicate what it is we’re looking for.  On this run, for example, the recipe in English called for “water spinach.”  Asking a clerk for water spinach earned a blank look, but showing them a printout of “空心菜” got me a lovely bag marked with those characters as well as the Romanization “Ong Choy.”

So what’s for dinner tonight? Coastal areas have lots of seafood, of course, so we’ll be following last week’s fish dish with skewered shrimp.  On the side, we’ll have two different vegetable dishes, and a sponge cake for dessert. All of these dishes cook very quickly, (except the cake) so the hard part was trying to make them all at once and get them to the table still warm.

Let’s get to it!  First up, the shrimp.  Although it’s easy to acquire fresh seafood around here, we had a bag of frozen tiger prawns already, and waste not want not.  The prawns get a quick soak in Shaoxing wine and oil, while we make a compound butter with scallions, garlic, and fish sauce.

Compound butter and prawns

Next, the shrimp are threaded onto skewers.  In a picture perfect cooking show world, we would carefully fill the vein cavities of the shrimp with a beautiful line of compound butter.  In the real world, we just kinda smeared some on with our fingers, hoped for the best, and into the oven they went. They sure did look pretty when they came out, though.

Cooked Prawns

So while those were cooking, time to make the veggies.  The simpler of the two is Gai Lan or “Chinese Broccoli”.  If you’ve been to a dim sum restaurant and seen a token plate of green vegetables among all the dumplings and pancakes, it was probably Gai Lan.

Gai Lan

Preparation is simple – just a quick minute in boiling water and it’s ready to eat.  It’s commonly topped with oyster sauce, which we mixed with sugar, rice wine, and sesame oil, which makes a sweet, rich dressing. (We should probably have taken a picture AFTER we stirred the ingredients together, but we were hopping at this point.)

Oyster sauce dressing

Our other vegetable dish features that jar of fermented bean curd from earlier.  Ong Choy has long, thin stems which have to be cooked slightly longer than the leaves, so they got chopped up and separated into different bowls. (Note that “Bublé” sparkling water is not a traditional ingredient, and was not used in this preparation.)

Ong Choy ready for cooking

This one gets stir fried, with the ingredients going into the wok one at a time in cook time order: ginger, jalapeno pepper, stems, leaves, and bean curd.  This Fujianese bean curd has a beautiful red color, a salty, funky aroma, and a texture a lot like feta cheese. I think we used a little too much relative to the amount of green stuff – it doesn’t look like much in the picture, but a little fermented curd goes a long way.

Ong Choy with Fermented Bean Curd

So to sum up – the stir fry time for this dish was about three minutes.  The Gai Lan took about a minute to cook, and the shrimp only baked for 8.  No wonder we were hustling to try and get them all done at once!

Southwestern Coastal Meal

No complaints at all on the results, however!  The salty, spicy ong choy, and the sweet oyster sauce on the gai lan were very different, and didn’t feel redundant at all.  And shrimp full of butter and garlic is a common concept for a reason!

What’s for dessert?  Well, we picked a sponge cake recipe from Hong Kong which is probably more influenced by European colonists than more traditional Chinese sources, but with a twist I’d never encountered before – the cake is steamed, rather than baked.

Ingredients are standard cake stuff – flour, water, eggs, soy sauce, vanilla, milk, sugar…

Cake ingredients

…wait.  Soy sauce? That’s a little different, but in the end you couldn’t really taste it.

Into the wok with the cake (a phrase I have NEVER uttered before), and a ten minute steam produced a beautiful, light sponge cake.

Steamed sponge cake

Two slices later, and it looked like Pac Man, but that’s really more Japanese than Chinese.

Cake with slice missing

So that’s three Chinese regions down, and two to go!  Next up, my personal favorite, Sichuan, a cuisine we attempt regularly even when we’re NOT blogging about it, because it’s just so darn tasty.

International Meals – China, Part 2: The Yangtze River & Its Environs

This time around, we’ll be trying to make a meal of dishes representative of the eastern areas of China around the Yangtze river.  This area includes the city of Shanghai, which is a blending point for many of the historical food traditions of China. As before, we’re going to continue to be guided primarily by Carolyn Phillip’s “All Under Heaven,” so we won’t be sharing recipes taken from that cookbook.

I started the day with an early trip to “T&T” a large Asian grocery store in neighboring Richmond.  Hunting for ingredients is half the fun, and we needed things like carp and lotus roots.  When I got to the latter, I patiently waited for the lady before to carefully inspect a number of roots before picking the right ones.  When it was my turn, I felt they deserved equally as much care, but… what the heck do I know about picking lotus roots?  At any rate, this one seemed fine:

Sliced lotus root

Now the good news is, several of today’s dishes didn’t need to be served warm, so there wasn’t the usual frantic scramble to try and assemble three or four unfamiliar dishes at once.  As seen above, we peeled the lotus root, and then sliced it as thinly as possible.  (Out of a sense of self-preservation, we got rid of our mandolin before moving, so the slices weren’t terribly consistent.)

Into the boiling peanut oil with them!

Frying lotus roots

And it turns out, that, although no one could possibly have predicted this, if you slice a root vegetable thinly, deep fry it, and then put salt on it, it’s really, really good!

Our second make-ahead dish was a braised vegetable dish.  Since both this and our entrée call for green onion oil, lets make that first.  Green onion oil is just oil in which green onions have been fried and then removed, leaving the tasty onion flavor.

Frying green onions

This was used to make a simple sauce, with soy sauce and sugar, which dressed some braised bok choy.
Chopped Bok Choi

After cooking until tender, the veggies went in the fridge to soak up the sauce.

For our main entrée, we picked a sweet and sour fish dish.  However, don’t think of this like a sticky Teriyaki sauce.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but the goal here is something a bit more subtle.

Sweet and Sour sauce ingredients

Sweet and sour sauce ingredients: (clockwise from left) Green Onion Oil, Black Vinegar, Rice Wine, Peanut Oil, Rock Sugar, Chicken Stock, and Ginger.

The fish itself was carp, a common freshwater fish, but not one I had cooked with before.  Fortunately, the nice man at T&T scaled it for me.  I think I’m still picking scales out of my hair from when I scaled one myself way back for Bangladesh.

Sliced Carp

The fish gets poached, which is definitely a straightforward process – boil water, remove from heat, put fish in boiling water with ginger, cover for ten minutes.  The residual heat in the water cooks the fish, and you don’t have to do anything but mix up the sauce, cook the noodles, and realize that that pot of rice you just started isn’t FOR anything, because you’re making noodles.

The noodles in question were marked “Shanghai Stir Fry Soup Noodles,” so we’re going to assume they were region appropriate.

Fully assembled, along with some more of the fancy tea from last week, the meal looked pretty good.

Full Yangtzee area meal

Tasted pretty good, too!  The vinegar sauce was subtle and delicious, and the carp definitely responded well to not being overwhelmed.  The cold veggies weren’t bad, and we sprinkled some of the fried onions on top for crunch.  And again – lotus root chips are amazing.

But what about dessert? Our original plan had been to make a cookie recipe from the same cookbook – “Sea Moss Sandies.”  But then we fell down a rabbit hole of different kinds of sea moss, some of which are native to… Mongolia? Jamaica? And some of which aren’t sustainably grown, and all of them kept forcing me to remind myself that I wasn’t making cookies out of semi-conductors. (Say “Sea Moss Cookies” out loud to an electrical engineer, then ask them to explain that last alleged joke.)

So instead, we decided to make red bean pancakes!  We made this decision early enough in the day that we had time to do a quick run out for some glutinous rice flour and red bean paste.  The process here is fussy, but not overly complicated.  Make a batter out of flour, eggs, oil and salt, and let it cool in the fridge. When it’s ready, make a bunch of extremely thin, crepe-like pancakes.

Spread red bean paste on the pancakes, and fold them into little squares. You can MAKE the paste instead of buying it if you really want to.  But y’all have fun with that.

Red Bean PastePancakes being assembled

Then you take the folded pancakes, and bust out the fry oil for the third time today.  There was definitely a lot of oil in this meal.
Frying red bean pancakes

Finally, dust with powdered sugar and serve:
Finished Red Bean Pancake

It may not look too fancy, but these things are super delicious, and very reminiscent of similar things I’ve had at Dim Sum restaurants.

Note that since the Red Bean Pancakes were ganked from the net, and not out of the cookbook, we can share the recipe:

Shanghainese Red Bean Pancakes

So there we are – our attempt at Chinese food from the Yangtze river area.  Not as hearty as the food from last week, but subtly seasoned and delicious!  Next up, the Coastal Southeast!


International Meals – China, Part 1: The Northeast

One of the many, many challenges with a project like this, as the numerous other bloggers who’ve tried it can attest, is picking recipes.  Picking recipes, and sourcing ingredients.  Picking recipes, sourcing ingredients, and avoiding cultural insensitivity. Picking recipes, sourcing ingredients, avoiding cultural insensitivity, and an almost fanatical devotion to the…

Oh, come in again.

Seriously, though, with SMALL countries, the trick is to pick something distinctive.  What really makes Macedonia different from Albania? With BIG countries, on the other hand, well, how do you narrow it down? And today’s country probably has among the most diverse food cultures on the planet. I say today, but the headline kind of spoils it – we’re going to slice this Gordian knot by making not one, not seven, but five different Chinese meals.

Why five? Glad you, the imaginary person who reads this blog, asked!  Historically there is a taxonomy of Chinese food where it’s divided into “The Four Great Cuisines”, Shandong, Huaiyang, Sichuan, and Guangdong.  There’s another one where it’s divided into eight, adding, Hunan, Fujian, Anhui, and Zhejiang to the prior four.  However, we’ve decided to follow the model adopted by Carolyn Phillips in “All Under Heaven: Recipes From the 35 Cuisines of China”, and make 35 different meals.

Just kidding.  Phillips makes the case that the “great eight” actually leave out a lot of the country, and you’re better off making a broad set of groupings by geography and cultural influence than just picking eight provinces and saying “Those are the good ones!.”  Obviously, there are a MILLION guides we could have picked, but we picked this one. So the plan is to make a meal each from Phillips’ five broad groupings consisting of: The North and Northeast, The Yangtze River Environs, The Coastal Southeast, The Central Highlands, and The Arid Lands.  (Map in the link.)

So for THIS meal, we’re starting with the northeast, including the capital, Beijing, and the provinces bordering Russia and Korea. Our menu included an appetizer of spinach and peanuts, scallion flatbreads, and a lamb stew.

First up, shopping!  I’ve said it before, but shopping for specialty ingredients in Vancouver is AMAZING.  Although the ethnically Asian population is so high, it could be argued that Asian ingredients technically aren’t specialty items.

At any rate, ingredients required for this meal that we didn’t already have included Chinese flour (lower gluten than Western), Sweet Wheat Paste (which is confusingly frequently labeled as “Sweet Bean Paste” even when it’s still made of wheat.), and ginger juice.

Turns out you don’t buy that last one, you just squish a lot of ginger.

We also went to a super fancy tea shop and asked for a tea that would go well with lamb.  We can’t read this, but it was really good. (It’s also not from the northeast, since they don’t grow much tea there.)

Bag of tea, labelled in Chinese

So to work though the dishes from least to most complex, let’s start with our appetizer, spinach and peanuts.  Roast some peanuts, blanch some spinach, toss with dressing, done. The dressing consisted of garlic, black vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil.  It was delicious, and not as salty as the equivalent Korean salad we sometimes make with miso, because I never remember to buy doenjang.
Spinach and peanuts

Next up, the lamb.  The dish, called “Tasimi” (literally, “It’s Like Honey”) was the main entrée, but was relatively simple to prepare – the lamb is marinated in ginger juice, corn starch, soy sauce, rice wine, and black vinegar.  Once it’s ready, you flash fry it  and then toss in sugar and wheat paste.  The wheat paste is a little sweet, but mostly just a blast of concentrated umami.

The result is a hearty, lamb stew that while being a little sweet and a little sticky, is MUCH less overpowering than the goopy stuff you get at somewhere like Panda Express. Much, much tastier, too.

Lamb Stew cooking.

Finally, let’s talk about the flatbreads.  Since the process was somewhat fussy, we didn’t get as many pictures as we would have liked.  The basic dough is just Chinese flour and water.  Combined with that you make a paste of shortening (or lard), salt, flour, and toasted Sichuan peppercorns.

Toasted Sichuan peppercorns. Oh lawd, why didn’t I think of toasting these things before?  They’re even BETTER that way.

Dough made, scallions chopped, and paste, um, pasted, it’s time to make bread!  The dough is divided into several pieces, which are rolled into long strips. (no picture of this part, sorry)  You smear paste and scallion on the inside of the strip, roll it up into a rope, and then roll the rope into a bun, as seen upper right in this picture.

You then roll the bun flat and the whole thing then gets fried in oil.

Chinese flatbreas

And here’s a picture of our final spread, including the tea:

Northern Chinese Meal

The meal was really excellent.  The lamb dish was something I could easily see making again, in particular, and spinach and peanuts turns out to be a great combination. No recipes for the next few entries, because we didn’t poach them from the internet, but if you’d like to follow along at home, here’s the cookbook.

“All Under Heaven,” by Carolyn Phillips

Next up, China! Then China, China, and also China!