There was a lovely review of my latest book last week, as part of a podcast from Ithaca, New York. The review comes some way into the programme – about 45 minutes. The reviewer said it ‘completely changed a lot of my perceptions… as well as explaining how we can understand it better, not just the history but the philosophy and the cultural things that surround it… This is a really cool book, it completely explained Chinese cuisine to me.’
Archive for October, 2008
I’m ill in bed today with the rotten cold that seems to be sweeping through London. And it’s at times like these that I can’t live without my old-fashioned Chinese thermos flask. Actually I have two of them – a small one, which I use to top up a pot of Chinese tea as I work at my desk, and a large one, which is perfect not only for making Chinese tea al fresco, but also for hauling up to my bedside when I’m sick, so I can make lots of herbal tea without getting up.
Apart from being useful, these thermoses make me richly nostalgic. When I first started travelling to China, they were everywhere. I would check into a room in a remote guesthouse, weary after a bone-shaking bus-ride or a long hitch on the back of a timber truck, and a fuwuyuan would immediately bring a thermos of hot water for making tea – it felt like a welcome. Sitting with friends in their Chengdu living rooms, there would always be a thermos at hand, to top up mugfuls of jasmine tea that could last for a whole afternoon. Continue reading…
Ask any Chinese chef in England what they think of British pork, and they will almost invariably reply that it has a xing wei (腥 味 ), or ‘nasty fishy taste’. Xing wei is one of those Chinese culinary terms that has no English equivalent, although there are similar concepts in many other food traditions, including the Indian and Persian. It refers to the unpleasant, rank aspects of the flavours of meat, fish and poultry, aspects which must be dispelled or minimised in the kitchen.
If you want to be really precise, you can use more specific terms: xing wei for the ‘fishy’ taste of fish, eels and other water creatures, and also of raw meat; shan wei (膻 味 ) for ‘muttony tastes’; sao wei (臊 味 ) for foul, offally tastes like that found lingering in kidneys. Yi wei (异 味‘ ) peculiar taste or smell’) like xing wei, can be used to describe off-tastes in general. Once you have identified the off-tastes in your raw ingredients, you will want to address them: by blanching and marinating, and by the judicious use of seasonings like Shaoxing wine, ginger, spring onions and coriander. These techniques are second nature to almost all Chinese cooks.
It’s rare to find real Peking duck in London. This is not surprising, partly because the London Chinese restaurant business has traditionally been in the hands of the Cantonese, who have, after all, their own delicious take on roast duck – dark and glossy, soft-skinned, bathed in a rich spiced gravy. And making real Peking duck is a bit of a palaver – you need to wind-dry it, and then roast it to order, preferably in a wood-burning oven. It’s much easier to do as most British Chinese restaurants do and serve crispy duck with the Peking duck trimmings of thin pancakes, white spring onion or leek, cucumber and sweet fermented paste. Crispy duck can be marinated and steamed in advance, and simply deep-fried it to order.
Luckily, however, one London restaurant has now started offering its own rather excellent version of Peking duck, or Beijing duck as they more tactfully call it. It’s Min Jiang, in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. The views over Hyde Park from this restaurant are so spectacular that it would be worth going there to eat cornflakes, but instead they have a thoughtful menu of Chinese dishes that includes the pièce de résistance, a wood-fired duck served with pancakes they make themselves and the other traditional accompaniments. The duck is carved at your tableside – slices of skin first, with a dip of white sugar; then ‘half-moon’ slices of skin and flesh. The latter are rolled up with white spring onion and cucumber, or their own house trimmings of pickled Chinese cabbage and radish with crushed garlic. Later, you are offered the remains of your duck cooked in a variety of ways – the spicy minced duck with lettuce wrap and the fried noodles with duck are both very good.
So how do they score in comparison with Da Dong? Well, the sliced skin is perhaps marginally less crisp than it might be, and the cutting less accomplished, but in all other respects it is magnificent. The bird itself is fragrant and succulent, the skin rich and glossy. The own-made pancakes are a real treat. And the duck rolls with pickles, a slight variation on the Da Dong theme, are possibly even better than the traditional version. In fact, as I write this I am fantasising about my next visit…
I promise I’ll blog about something other than chillies one of these days, but in the meantime…
One of the most popular dishes on the menu at Bar Shu, the London Sichuanese restaurant for whom I work as consultant, is 辣 子 鸡 or chicken with chillies. It’s originally a dish from Geleshan in Chongqing, and it’s guaranteed to shock on first acquaintance. A small chicken is chopped up, on the bone, into tiny pieces, marinated and deep-fried. It is then stir-fried with an improbable wokful of chillies and Sichuan pepper – so many that you have to fish around in a pile of scorched, fragrant chillies to find the pieces of chicken in the finished dish. It’s not actually as hot as it looks, and the chicken has a marvellous fragrance, but staff at Bar Shu always try to warn unwary guests that they are not supposed to eat the chillies.
At the Abergavenny Food Festival a couple of weeks ago I bought some of the hottest chillies known to man – Dorset Nagas, the offspring of a Bangladeshi chilli known as Naga Morich. They are grown by Peppers by Post, a specialist chilli farm in West Dorset, run by Michael and Joy Michaud. According to Michael, these peppers register 1,000,000 Scoville Heat Units: just to put this into perspective, Scotch Bonnets, which I always thought were rather hot, reach a mere 150,000-200,000 units.
I eyed the chillies I had bought with trepidation (they come with a warning not to leave them within reach of children or other potential unwitting victims). Finally, I chopped one in half, touched my finger briefly to its cut flesh and then tasted it. It was incredible – a searing heat, accompanied by a bewitchingly fruity fragrance. I’m glad, though, I didn’t try putting an actual piece of chilli into my mouth – that would have been overwhelming.
It reminded me of something one of my classmates at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine told me: he said there was a Yunnanese chilli called the qixingjiao (seven-star chilli) which was so hot that people just trailed it in a panful of hot oil for a few seconds to give flavour to a dish, before removing it and hanging it up for use another time. I’ve never found such a chilli in China, although I did once come across some peppers called qixingjiao in a market in Hunan (these are the ones you can see in the photograph in my last blog post) – but they were obviously something different, because their heat level was disappointingly normal.
According to Michael, Bangladeshis use this chilli green, before it has reached its peak of hotness. Only English people, determined to shock their friends, buy – and occasionally cook with – the red, ripened, scorchingly hot fruits.