I’m very happy to report that I’ll be leading a gastronomic tour of China from October 13-24 this year, in conjunction with WildChina, a specialist travel company based in Beijing. We’ll be eating our way around Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Shanghai, as well as visiting amazing sites such as the Terracotta Army and the Great Wall. I’ll be arranging menus and explaining the food. Should be fun! Please go to the WildChina website for more details
Agriculture, Chinese cuisine, Chinese restaurants, Food and health / 2 Comments
This is the signboard for a little restaurant/takeaway in the backstreets of Jianshui, in southern Yunnan Province. It says ‘The sisters’ fast food shop’. You might imagine that they’d be selling fried chicken and chips, but ‘fast food’ in this case meant a ravishing selection of dishes freshly made from ingredients they’d bought that morning in the street market just around the corner.
Of course I couldn’t resist stopping by for a quick bite, and ended up with a delicious and healthy bowlful of spicy tofu, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cucumber salad, stir-fried lotus stems,pickled taro stems with a little minced pork (these were stupendous), and rice jelly with Chinese chives, all served with steamed rice. I sat at a table outside in the sun, opposite the small son of one of the sisters, who had just popped back from school in his lunchbreak.
The market itself consisted of a couple of streets where peasant farmers from the surrounding countryside were selling their own produce, gathered that morning: lettuce stems and radishes, spinach and potatoes, garlic stems and peasprouts, mint and garland chrysanthemum leaves… It was a vibrant reminder of what freshness really means (and of the sad un-freshness of much of the produce sold in supermarkets).
An August Saturday night in a flat in Wapping, East London… and I was privileged to share the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had outside China. A Shanghainese friend emailed me some time ago to say that his mother would be visiting from China and cooking dinner, and would I like to come? Now, anyone who has lived in China could tell you that the best home-cooked food can be better than anything you can taste in a restaurant, but this was extraordinary. My friend’s mother had flown over from Shanghai with a suitcase full of dried vegetables and seasonings. When we arrived at the flat, the table was already covered in little dishes of Shanghainese appetisers: sour-and-hot Chinese cabbage, green soybeans with ‘snow vegetable’, fried sea moss and peanuts, home-made pickles, wheat gluten with shiitake mushrooms (烤麸), pig’s tongue steeped in fermented rice liquor… an incredible array. So the five of us began to eat, and every few minutes my friend’s mother would emerge from the kitchen with another dish: pieces of deep-fried grouper with a vinegar dip; stir-fried prawns; steamed pork belly with Shaoxing dried vegetables; sea bream in a sweet-and-sour sauce; stir-fried spinach… And everything, just everything, was utterly delicious, expressing the essential nature (本味) of the ingredients, perfectly balanced and perfectly cooked. After we’d enjoyed the main dishes, there were noodles in spring onion oil, pot-sticker dumplings and a delicate soup. I counted 23 dishes in all, which would be a large number in a restaurant, let alone in a private home. And aside from the food, the company was delightful, and we drank beautiful wines, and, as a digestif, a fine Taiwanese tea. As I assured my hosts would be the case, I have remembered that dinner ever since almost as a dream…
A glorious morning yesterday at the Worton Organic Garden and Farm near my parents’ house in Oxford. I brought back purple sprouting broccoli, basil, multicoloured tomatoes of many different shapes, and, most excitingly of all, a couple of freshly harvested, locally grown Chinese vegetables! It turned out they were growing the prickly Chinese variety of cucumber for its exquisite flavour (it’s much less watery than a typical European cucumber) and soybeans. They also had a row of Chinese chives 韭菜 in their hothouse – not enough, they said, for commercial use, but growing enthusiastically. The budded chives stems 韭菜花 are particularly good stir-fried with a few slivers of marinated pork; the chives themselves in dumpling stuffings or made into omelettes or scrambled eggs.
I boiled the soybeans, green and tender in their bristly pods, and we ate them before lunch, with a sprinkling of seasalt. The cucumber will find its way into a spiced Sichuanese salad 炝黄瓜 very soon.
I did ask owners of the farm if they’d considered growing wo sun 莴笋(known in English as celtuce or stem lettuce), which is one of the most versatile and subtly delicious of southern Chinese vegetables, but unfortunately they said it didn’t much take to the English climate, and that their attempts to nurture it had fizzled out.
Later in the year, they tell me, there will be plenty of pak choy and gai lan… I can’t wait.
Do any of you blog readers grow your own Chinese vegetables? If so, which ones?
The Browser have just published an interview with me about five books on Chinese food.
“Hmm, this black garlic is delicious.”
“Actually it’s made from the single-cloved garlic of Sichuan.”
“Is that like the wild elephant garlic of Iran?”
Such is the conversation when you invite the cookery writer Anissa Helou over for a quiet Sunday night supper. I’d promised her something very casual, but ended up thinking about the menu all weekend, of course. This is what we had:
A sweet, treacly black garlic clove each: these were a gift from the Sichuanese chef Yu Bo.
Smacked cucumber with a Sichuanese chilli-oil dressing.
You can hear me talking about the versatility of the Chinese kitchen cleaver (菜刀) in last week’s edition of The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4.
Using a cleaver is addictive, because it is so ruthlessly efficient. It is also a contagious habit, as my mother and certain of my friends (as well as some readers of my books?) would be able to tell you.
The photograph on the right is reproduced with kind permission of Martin Leeburn.
Chinese cuisine, Cooking, Food and health, Hunan, Ingredients / 16 Comments
I’m back in Changsha, where I lived for a few months while researching my Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, for the first time in five years. It’s wonderful to see some old friends, including Peng Tieh-cheng, the son of legendary Hunanese chef Peng Chang-kuei (of General Tso’s chicken fame). He’s in Changsha for the same Hunan food conference as me, and I hadn’t seen him for about six years. Peng Tieh-cheng tells me his father, who is now 93, is in good health, and still popping into their main restaurant in Taipei every day.
I’ve had some rather lovely meals in the last 24 hours, and one of the highlights of all of them has been the simplest of dishes: stir-fried red rape shoots (hong cai tai 红菜苔), served at lunch with a little dried chilli, and at dinner with slivered ginger. Only the tenderest tips of the shoots are used, and the thicker parts may actually be peeled of their skin. Stir-fried, they have an exquisite flavour and mouthfeel, sweet and juicy, with a hint of dark sleek bitterness in the leaves. Hong cai tai have a similar appeal to asparagus, although I think they are even more delicious. When they are in season, they are served at almost every meal. Continue reading…
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Cooking, Events, Uncategorized / No Comments
The knife clinic, held last Thursday, was great fun. Delicious canapes by Daylesford Organic, great demos by Marianne Lumb and Corin Mellor. And I did a bit of Chinese chopping, including spring onion ‘fish-eyes’, ‘flowers’ and ‘horse ears’, ‘ox-tongue’ slices made from Asian radish, and ‘eyebrows’ and ‘phoenix tails’ cut from pig’s kidneys.
Illustration on left by Sebastian Wilkinson
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Development, Environment, Events, People / No Comments
I’m just back from a week in Turin for my first Slow Food Salone Del Gusto and Terra Madre. The Salone Del Gusto centres on a vast ‘Slow Food’ trade fair: two enormous halls filled with vendors of Italian delicacies, and (more interesting), a slightly smaller international hall where you can find extraordinary and wonderful foodstuffs, including ancient varieties of almonds from Uzbekistan, Yak’s milk cheese from the Tibetan Plateau, and dried mulberries and mulberry halva from the Pamir mountains. The simultaneous and adjacent Terra Madre is a gathering of some six thousand delegates from 161 countries, all of whom are in some way involved in sustainable local food production.
Funnily enough, I was a member of the Chinese delegation. Continue reading…