New York Times recipe lab (+ a note on substitutions)

Posted by Fuchsia on September 24, 2013
Cooking, Ingredients, Interviews / 11 Comments

You can see Julia Moskin and three New York Times readers chatting with me about ‘Every Grain of Rice’ here:

And the full article, focusing on Gong Bao chicken, is here.

A brief note about substitutions: Continue reading…

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The MSG controversy

Posted by Fuchsia on August 21, 2013
Chinese cuisine, Food and health, Ingredients / 14 Comments

This article ‘Breaking Bland’, by John Mahoney, is the most lucid, informative and interesting I’ve read on the whole MSG controversy. It goes into great detail about what exactly MSG is, how it is made, and how the human body interacts with glutamates.

It’s quite magnificently ironic that just as chefs at the cutting edge of Western gastronomy are becoming fascinated by MSG and umami, the Chinese are waking up to the stigma that has been attached to it for forty years and losing their taste for it, if this article in the Economic Observer, ‘China loses its taste for MSG’, is to be believed!

Even if Chinese people do request their food ‘without MSG’, it’s amazing how many chefs will continue to use so-called ‘chicken essence’ (ji jing 鸡精) anyway – and the cheap commercial ‘chicken essence’, which gives so many Chinese soups that intense umami taste and lurid yellow colour, has as its major ingredient MSG!

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Chinese vegetables grown in Kent

Posted by Fuchsia on July 20, 2013
Chinese cuisine, Ingredients / 2 Comments

You can read my piece about Farmer Mau Chiping in today’s Financial Times magazine. For years I’ve been torn between my desires to buy as much local produce as possible and to cook as much Chinese food as possible. With meat and poultry, it’s fairly easy – try red-braising pork from the Ginger Pig! But the supply of locally grown Chinese vegetables has always been limited. That’s why I was so thrilled to discover the tiny shop just opposite Pang’s Printing Press, in an alley off Macclesfield Street in London’s Chinatown. It’s a small Chinese provisioners, selling basic seasonings, noodles and so on, but also vegetables from Mau Chiping’s farm in Kent. The choy sum and gai lan are glorious, as are the mustard greens, pak choy, water spinach and occasional treats such as stem lettuce (celtuce) and Chinese garlic chives. The farm is not certified organic, but mainly Continue reading…

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Magic ingredients: Papery dried shrimp 虾皮

Posted by Fuchsia on March 25, 2013
Cooking, Ingredients, Recipe / 12 Comments

I always keep a bagful of these tiny dried shrimp, known as ‘shrimp skin’ in Chinese, in my freezer. A spoonful or two can be used to jazz up a bowlful of wontons in soup, fried rice or an omelette, and a handful transforms a cabbage into a fragrant, irresistible stir-fry. They are made from tiny, unshelled shrimps that are boiled and then sun-dried or baked dry over a gentle heat. As you might guest, they have a salty, umami taste that can lift the flavour of all kinds of savoury dishes. (Some people find their taste a bit strong and fishy, but not many, in my experience.)

I’ve included a couple of peppercorns in the photograph on the right so you can see how extremely small they are. Continue reading…

Malabar spinach in London!

Posted by Fuchsia on August 08, 2012
Cooking, Ingredients, Sichuanese cuisine / 5 Comments

The range of fresh Chinese vegetables available in London is growing all the time, and the best news is that some of them are grown locally. Among the home grown greens I’ve found recently is this Malabar spinach. It’s a favourite vegetable in Sichuan, where it is often served in clear soups or stir-fried with garlic. Its plump, rounded leaves have a delightfully slippery texture after cooking, which is why it is known as ‘cloud ear mushroom vegetable’ (mu’er cai 木耳菜) or ‘tofu vegetable’ (dou fu cai 豆腐菜 )The flavour of the leaves is reminiscent of spinach.


Chinese seaweed in Whitstable

Posted by Fuchsia on May 01, 2012
Foraging, Ingredients, Unusual delicacies / 3 Comments

We picked over Whitstable beach, finding empty winkles and oyster shells calcified into heavy white reliquaries. And then between a couple of groynes there was a great green slick of seaweed, like wet fur on the beach. I recognised it immediately as the tai cai seaweed that is a speciality of Ningbo in eastern China, or at least a close relative, and its aroma, when I squeezed a handful of fronds, confirmed it. So we gathered a bagful, and took it back to London on the train, where it perfumed the air in the carriage with its irresistible, almost white-truffly smell, rich and savoury, like the promise of umami. In my kitchen, I rinsed out the sand and seashells in many changes of water, spun it in a lettuce spinner and then hung it out to dry overnight on linen tea-towels spread over a radiator. Continue reading…


The joys of garlic

Posted by Fuchsia on January 26, 2012
Cooking, Ingredients / 16 Comments

One Chinese vegetable that I always miss when I’m in London is green garlic, which the Sichuanese call suan miao 蒜苗 and people in other parts of China call qing suan 青蒜. These leafy, pungent alliums are the most common vegetable accompaniment to twice-cooked pork 回锅肉, and are also traditionally added to mapo tofu 麻婆豆腐. In Hunan, they are often used in simple stir-fries, perhaps with some of the glorious local smoked pork 腊肉. It’s rare to find them in England, so imagine my delight to find them on sale just before the Chinese New Year! You can see them on the righthand side of the chopping board in the picture on the left. As you will notice, they look very similar to Chinese green onions (a.k.a. scallions, spring onions), but they have flat leaves, like leeks, and a hint of purple around their bulbs. In my Sichuan cookery book I recommended using baby leeks for twice-cooked pork and spring onions for mapo tofu because green garlic is so rarely available, but if you can find it, snap it up and use it instead! (it takes rather less time to cook than baby leeks, and marginally longer than spring onions). Continue reading…

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Chinese vegetables in Oxfordshire

Posted by Fuchsia on July 31, 2011
Agriculture, Chinese cuisine, Ingredients / 18 Comments

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?


Chinese food emergency helpline?

Posted by Fuchsia on February 28, 2011
Cooking, Ingredients / 18 Comments

Every so often, I have an SOS telephone call from a friend in desperate need of information about some aspect of Chinese food. Usually they are out for the evening in central London, have a sudden and overwhelming urge to have dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and want to know where to go. One friend called me  to ask me which restaurant I could suggest; a little later, seated in the restaurant I’d recommended, he called again to ask for tips on which dishes to order; and a couple of hours afterwards he called once more to give me a report on the meal!

Another time, an old college friend who lives near Washington DC left a message on my mobile phone saying that she and her husband were about to drive past a Chinese supermarket, and thought it would be a great idea to stock up on all the ingredients they’d need for a serious Sichuan and Hunan cooking session based on recipes in my books, so could I please remind her what they should buy? Luckily I picked up the message soon afterwards, so I zapped off a short list, as follows: Continue reading…

In praise of hong cai tai (and other Chinese greens)

Posted by Fuchsia on November 22, 2010
Chinese cuisine, Cooking, Food and health, Hunan, Ingredients / 16 Comments

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…

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