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).
Hong cai tai... oh yum...
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…
A blog reader called Tom emailed me recently to say that he was enjoying cooking from my books, but:
I am trying to figure out whether there is any way to reduce sodium in these
recipes, though. Like many Americans, I have high blood pressure and am trying
to manage it through diet modification. That means really watching salt intake.
I see that my soy sauce has nearly 1600 mg of sodium per tablespoon. It tastes
fantastic, but wow! That's a huge number. And that's hardly the only source of
sodium in Sichuan and Hunan cuisine. Continue reading...
I’ve just written a guest post for the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog, which you can read here.
Rice threshing in Fujian
A study in the US is suggesting that replacing white rice with brown rice could cut the risk of diabetes – findings that might provoke some serious interest in China, given the country’s rocketing rates of the disease.
I have to admit that, although I wouldn’t serve brown rice with Chinese food at a dinner party, I often eat it as part of simple meals at home. I love the taste and texture of brown rice, for a start, and I also like parboiling the rice, and having the silky boiling liquid (米汤）as a soup, perhaps with the addition of a few spring onion slices. And egg-fried brown rice has a lot of character.
Do any of you blog readers think that Chinese people might gradually give up their insistence on white rice, and eat brown rice as a staple, just as many westerners now eat wholemeal in preference to white bread?
When cooking Chinese food, I have been in the habit of using groundnut oil, which is neutral in flavour, stable at high temperatures and relatively easily available. I’d rather, however, use the traditional Chinese cooking oils, which vary by region, but tend to be rapeseed oil in Sichuan, and camellia oil in some other southern areas, like Hunan – which is why I have been so excited to discover what seems to be a resurgence in the production of artisanal rapeseed oils at home in England. Yesterday, I spent a day experimenting with a Sichuanese chef friend in London, and we used Cotswold Gold extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil to make some homestyle Sichuanese dishes. My friend, Barshu chef Zhang Xiaozhong, confirmed that it was very like the oils traditionally used in Sichuan, and we were both very satisfied by its performance as a cooking oil. So I’ll be using more and more of it, anyway!
Incidentally, I bought the oil at the Wild Beef stall at Broadway Market run by Richard and Lizzie Vines, producers of fantastic grass-fed beef. I’ve been using their meat for a while in Chinese dishes, and I highly recommend it. Their cattle are grass-fed and traditionally reared, and the meat is delicious. Yesterday Zhang Xiaozhong and I used some of their beef shin in a Sichuanese cold meat dish – magnificent. They do mail order as well as market stalls, in case anyone’s interested…
The China Daily reports that one in ten meals in China may be made with old, recycled and potentially carcinogenic cooking oil. The State Food and Drug Administration was so disturbed by the results of a study by a food science expert at Wuhan University, He Dongping, that it has issued an emergency notice to restaurants nationwide warning them against using recycled oil. According to the newspaper, recycling oil is a lucrative business, but the resulting product contains aflatoxin – one of the nastiest of food nasties.
Has anyone heard of this practice in other parts of the world?
Last night I went to a press screening of Food Inc, Robert Kenner’s film about the corporate takeover of the American (and global) agricultural and food industries. For anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, many of the issues, and even the characters, will be familiar – Pollan and Schlosser both appear in the film – but that doesn’t make it any less chilling. Most shocking was its account of the bullying tactics used by big agro-food corporations to silence their critics, and of the cosy relationship they have with those in power. Continue reading…
I’m sure many readers of this blog will be familiar with Michael Pollan and his work – especially the eminently sensible, and absolutely timely polemic In Defence of Food. For those of you who aren’t, his basic thesis is that the growth of nutritional science has made most of use confused about what to eat, and that the answer to all our worries is simply to ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’. By ‘food’, he means real food made from recognisable ingredients, not the weird, high-tech ‘foodlike substances’ on sale in your local supermarket. He also suggests that our grandmothers knew much more about how to eat well than we did, because their brains were not addled by contradictory and often misleading nutritional advice, and because they took a similarly commonsense approach to feeding their families. I was reminded of all this by his latest piece in the New York Times. Continue reading…
One of the great things about having Chinese friends is that they really know how to look after you when you’re ill! I dropped into the restaurant for which I work as a consultant, Barshu, earlier this week with a rotten cold, and the manager, Juanzi, told me I should be eating 粥 (congee). She persuaded me to stay for half an hour while the chefs whipped some up in a pressure cooker – and so I left with a wonderful potful of sleek congee laced with slivered ginger, sliced 皮蛋 (preserved duck eggs, a.k.a. ‘Thousand-year-old eggs’), and pork ribs so tender they were falling off the bone. Oh, and two little packages of pickled vegetables to eat with the congee, and another potful of stewed Chinese honey dates 蜜棗 with crystal sugar. Yum yum.
Have any of you blog readers had similar experiences? What are your favourite Chinese comfort foods?