Archive for January, 2009

Braving the shark

Posted by Fuchsia on January 30, 2009
Unusual delicacies / 9 Comments

A journalist friend of mine passed through London last week on his way back from Iceland, with all kinds of goodies, including a sheep’s head, horse meat and some cured puffin. Most excitingly, he brought back a little of that most infamous Icelandic delicacy, rotted shark. As anyone who’s read my recent memoir will know, I don’t have many food taboos, and I was longing to see if this stinky stuff would defeat me. I really expected it to: I had visions of some slimy, putrescent gunge that I’d only be able to taste with closed eyes and pinched nostrils.

To my amazement, however, it was fine, and not shocking at all. It came in small cubes, with a heady, high, exhilarating smell reminiscent of ripe roquefort and Chinese preserved duck eggs. It was no worse than the aroma of durian fruit or cheese, and actually rather bracing. Smell aside, the rotted flesh looked like any cured fish, waxy and slightly translucent. In the mouth, it had an oily, chewy texture, like a cross between real cold-smoked salmon and biltong.

Oh dear, if I can eat even this without blanching, where on earth am I to go for a real gastronomic challenge?! Any suggestions?

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Goji berries, a.k.a. gouqizi or Chinese wolfberries

Posted by Fuchsia on January 20, 2009
Ingredients, Unusual delicacies / 1 Comment

I’m quoted in Wednesday’s Boston Globe, on the culinary uses of trendy ‘superfood’ goji berries, otherwise known as 枸  杞  子  , gouqizi, or Chinese wolfberries.

The picture on the right is of the berries in an eight-treasure rice (babaofan), which I came across in Liuyang, Hunan:

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Cosmetic surgery

Posted by Fuchsia on January 18, 2009
Cooking, Ingredients / 4 Comments

Last night I cooked a 60th birthday party dinner for my uncle and his family. As you might guess, it was mainly Sichuanese, although I did include a few dishes from other Chinese regions, such as a Cantonese steamed sea bass.

As usual, I asked the fishmonger to leave the head, tail and fins of the sea bass intact, and simply to remove its guts and gills. As he’s always done this properly before, I didn’t think to check. But when I was ready to marinate the fish (in a little salt and Shaoxing wine, with some crushed ginger and spring onions in its belly), I was dismayed to find that, while leaving the head, he had mutilated the tail, and sliced off the fins! Somehow he had destroyed the beauty and the balance of the fish, as I’m sure you’ll agree when you look at the following picture:

One of the things I like about cooking is the beauty of ingredients: a red pepper, a lemon and a dark purple aubergine on a plate together; the delicate laddered crispness of a fresh bamboo shoot; the pewtery gleam of a fish in my hands. And this fish – it just looked wrong, although I knew that it would taste as delicious as ever.

I wondered if, after steaming, the final scattering of slivered ginger and spring onion, the hot oil and the soy sauce would cover up its stumpy tail – but realised it would still look lopsided. I considered cutting a false tail from coloured paper or cardboard, but didn’t like the thought of its becoming soggy and leaking nasty dyes into the sauce.

Finally, I came up with a solution: a tail and fins cut from the skin of an aubergine (eggplant)! I shaved a thick curve of skin from a spare aubergine with my cleaver, and then cut it into shape. I steamed the pieces alongside the sea bass, and reassembled it on the serving dish before I added the finishing ingredients. It worked fantastically! I didn’t manage to take a decent picture of the final dish, but here is one of the raw fish, aesthetically enhanced:

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Ingredients for Chinese cookery

Posted by Fuchsia on January 14, 2009
Books, Chinese cuisine, Ingredients / 21 Comments

I’ve received quite a few emails from visitors to this site telling me that in the later printings of Sichuan Cookery (published in the US as Land of Plenty), I promise to post information about suppliers on this website. I’m embarrassed to say that I had completely forgotten about this, but I can see that it would be useful for anyone trying my recipes. So I’ll try to start on this fairly soon. I’ll only be able to list suppliers for Londoners at the moment, but perhaps if I post details of some favourite brands, those of you living outside London will be able to find them in your own, local Chinese supermarkets. And of course any of you can contribute to the post by leaving comments.

Please be patient, and apologies for not having posted the relevant information before!

Bar Shu temporary closure

Posted by Fuchsia on January 07, 2009
Chinese restaurants / 5 Comments

The New Year has seen an unhappy accident at Bar Shu, the Sichuanese restaurant in London for which I act as consultant. On Saturday 3rd January, a fire started in the extractor fans above the stoves, and spread throughout the ventilation system. Fortunately this happened early in the day, when the kitchen was almost empty and there were no customers in the restaurant, and no one was hurt. The damage, however, has been extensive, and the restaurant has been forced to close temporarily. Given the intense heat of the stoves during busy service times, it seems ironic that the fire started when one of the chefs was simply frying eggs for staff breakfasts.

It’s not clear exactly when the restaurant will be able to reopen – we are waiting for the insurance company to investigate the site, and then the damage needs to be fixed – but three months seems likely.

We are all incredibly sad about this event, and painfully aware that the closure will leave a gaping hole in London’s restaurant scene. We hope that regular customers will be able to survive for a little while without their usual fix of Gong Bao prawns, dry-fried beans or chicken with chillies. Sichuan food addicts might be relieved to know that they can find some of the characteristic flavours of the region in the more casual surroundings of Baozi Inn in Newport Place, the smaller sibling of Bar Shu. And we are currently working on the menu for the third restaurant, which will open sometime this Spring…

Do watch this space for news of Bar Shu, and of the new place.

Those fishy flavours…

Posted by Fuchsia on January 06, 2009
Chinese cuisine, Recipe, Sichuanese cuisine / No Comments

In October, I posted something on this blog about unsavoury flavours in Chinese cuisine (‘Stinky to sublime’, 17 October 2008). And last week a New York Times journalist who was researching an article about science and superstition in the kitchen emailed me to talk about them. This is the piece he wrote; it was published alongside one of the recipes from my Sichuanese cookery book. The recipe, for a whole fish braised in chilli bean sauce, has a particular resonance for me, because it is the first Sichuanese dish I ever attempted to cook! This was some time before I went to live in  Chengdu, and I made it from a recipe in Yan-kit So’s Classic Chinese Cookbook. Little did I know how important this kind of cooking would become in my life…

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