My acupuncturist friend Simon came for lunch the other day, and one of the dishes I cooked was that old favourite mapo doufu (Pock-Marked Old Woman’s beancurd). For some reason we ended up talking about Sichuan pepper, and Simon mentioned that he had some stocks in his pharmacy. I doubted that it would be as zingy as the best stuff, so I sent him home with a sample of the pepper I use (a gift from my chef friend Yu Bo), with strict instructions to try his regular pepper first, and then try chewing a bit of mine. His comments, copied below with his permission from an email he sent me yesterday, are a good illustration of what it’s like trying fantastic Sichuan pepper for the first time!
According to this piece by Lauren Keane in the Washington Post, the Chinese government is hoping that the potato will help to provide greater food security as the country’s population peaks. Earlier this year, the article says, the government signed an agreement with the International Potato Center to jointly launch a potato research centre in Beijing.
Of course, persuading the Chinese to eat more potatoes will not be easy. Most Chinese people I’ve talked to about the importance of potatoes in, for example, the British diet, are incredulous - you mean, English people are willing to eat potatoes as 主食, a staple starch food?!!!*&@%^&*!!
I was very happy to discover today that my local Chinese supermarket stocks Sichuanese ya cai 芽菜, a speciality of the southern Sichuanese city of Yibin, and a vital ingredient in dishes like dry-fried green beans 干煸四季豆 , dan dan noodles 担担面 and dry-braised fish 干烧鲜鱼. You can use other Chinese preserves, like Tianjin preserved vegetable, as a substitute, but they are not as good as the real thing. Here, the preserve is sold in little sachets, chopped and ready to use. Apparently the shop had been selling it for some time, but I hadn’t noticed!
If any of you have tried asking for ya cai in Chinese shops, you may have found that the staff there point you in the direction of beansprouts, causing great confusion on both sides. This is because the Chinese characters for Sichuanese ya cai are exactly the same as the characters for beansprouts, and most people outside Sichuan have not heard of ya cai! Perhaps my photographs of the sachets will help you track it down. Continue reading…
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…
Chinese cuisine, Chinese restaurants, Ingredients, Restaurants / 3 Comments
There’s a piece by me in the Financial Times today, about the way Chinese and Asian food has been localised in Sydney…
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?
…who have been eating bits of endangered shark (as I think I mentioned once before). According to this piece in the Daily Telegraph, around 20,000 tonnes of spiny dogfish, a.k.a. rock salmon, is eaten in the EU, despite the fact that the species is classified as ‘vulnerable’, and ‘endangered’ in some regions. In Britain, the article says, the meat tends to go into fish and chips.
Fortunately, efforts are underfoot at at CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to restrict trade in the fish.
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Cooking, Ingredients / 7 Comments
There’s an interesting, and at times hilarious, thread on Chinese cooking tradition on Chowhound – lwong’s dryly witty comment had me laughing out loud:
‘We see that the posters here on the “Home Cooking” Forum are a very tough bunch. Especially when 1400 years for the technique of “stir fry cooking in a wok” is not considered a sufficient time to have passed the “long test of time” in terms being considered a classic cooking technique, nor the introduction of the New World foods, which would only be in the neighborhood of a mere 700 years.’
It reminded me of the fact that many of the professional Chinese cooking manuals I have encountered in my work begin their introductions with an account of the discovery of fire, the moment when human beings ceased being savages who 茹毛饮血 (literally ‘ate feathers and drank blood, i.e. ate birds and animals raw), and embarked on the path of civilisation by cooking their food. It also reminded me of the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution, supposedly replied that it was ‘too early to say’. Continue reading…