On the right, some sliced pig’s ear served as part of a Sichuanese hors d’oeuvres.
On the left: me modelling a nice pig’s head in Yangzhou.
For the first time, to my delight, I’ve found garlic scapes in one of my local shops. They are thicker than Chinese garlic stems (suan tai 蒜薹 , suan miao 蒜苗 , suan xin 蒜芯 – they have different names in different parts of China), with much larger bulbs, but have a similar flavour. Of course I cooked them in my favourite Sichuanese way, stir-frying them with a little streaky smoked bacon. With wok-scrambled eggs and a beansprout salad, they made a glorious lunch.
These scapes come from The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, just off the coast of southern England.
It’s just a home-made lime-and-lemon jelly with plenty of sliced jellyfish and some gouqi berries for colour.
As you might expect, the jellyfish is transparent and has a jelly-like consistency, although one slightly more taut and elastic than that of the actual jelly. It’s completely tasteless, so please don’t imagine this lovely tea-time jelly has a fishy flavour to it.
Like jelly, jellyfish has a very satisfactory wobble when moved from side to side (hang a strand from the end of your spoon and see).
Has anyone else tried making a jellyfish jelly?
Here’s the recipe, as far as I can remember it:
海蜇冻 Jellyfish jelly
Two packs of ready-to-eat jellyfish (each 150g)
175g white sugar
Six gelatine leaves
One 20g piece of ginger, skin-on, slightly crushed
4 tbsp dried gouqi berries
My article on the delights of rotted amaranth stalks and other Shaoxing specialities is now on the Financial Times website here – it was originally published in their international edition. It’s one of my favourite pieces, and brings back happy memories of Shaoxing and its many gastronomic surprises. (It’s a kind of sister piece to the article about the cheese-tasting in Shaoxing for which I won my James Beard Award.) The following are a few photographs of the delicacies mentioned in the piece:
It’s a lobe of ripe, fresh durian, enclosed in a kind of cage of shredded taro, tied prettily with seaweed and then deep-fried – so your teeth crunch through the outer layer into the bewitching succulence of the fruit. Oh blimey. If you’re a fan of durian, which I have been since a midnight initiation in Singapore a few years ago by the street food guru K.F. Seetoh, you’d adore this incredible titbit, bought at the old seafood market in Taipei, which been converted into an ultra-chic supermarket and ‘stand-and-swallow’ (i.e. no seating) sushi bar. Just the memory of it is driving me slightly wild, and now I’m wishing I’d bought some of those freeze-dried durian chips at Bangkok airport on the way home… And I’m also remembering the taste of durian in flaky pastries from Vietnam, and a divine, incredible shaved durian ice cream in Hong Kong, but that’s about the limit of my durian experiences. Anyone like to share their memories of other interesting durian snacks?
You can read my piece about making cheese in Lunan County, near the Stone Forest in Yunnan Province, on the BBC website, or listen to the podcast of my voice on the same page. As you’ll see/hear, the kind of cheese they make there is a fresh, unsalted goat’s cheese that is somewhat reminiscent of Cypriot Anari. It’s delicious pan-fried and served with a dip of sugar or salt and Sichuan pepper; steamed with Yunnan ham; or stir-fried with other ingredients.
Another kind of Yunnan cheese just mentioned in passing in that piece is a speciality of the Bai people in northwestern Yunnan, especially Dali. I didn’t make it up there on my most recent trip, but came across it on the streets of Kunming. It’s a really unusual form of cheese known as ru shan 乳扇 (‘milk fans’). Continue reading…
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…
My piece about inviting some chefs in Shaoxing (known for its stinky beancurd and other smelly fermented foods) to taste a selection of fairly whiffy Neal’s Yard cheeses appears in this weekend’s Financial Times magazine. It was fascinating to be able to witness some very accomplished Chinese chefs tasting cheese for the first time in their lives, and gave me a new perspective on one of my favourite types of food.
Look at this beauty! It’s a tiny Sichuan pepper tree! It was a present from Richard S., a friend of the Oxford Food Symposium’s, who managed to track one down in a specialist nursery in the UK. He told me he’d give me one a long time ago, and here it is! The leaves have some of that bewitching pepper fragrance if you squeeze them between your fingers. I have no idea how long it will take to bear fruit, but I hope it will eventually – I have seen one fruitful Sichuan pepper tree growing in Oxford, so I know it’s possible in the English climate! At the moment it’s sitting in a pot on my sunny, south-facing windowsill, but I hope to transplant it to my parents’ garden in Oxford before too long, where it will have more room to grow.
As those of you who have read my ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ may know, I have never quite got over abandoning a tiny Sichuan pepper tree from Hanyuan at Beijing airport a few years ago. I had transported it very tenderly all the way from the mountains of Hanyuan to Beijing, but Britain was in the midst of the foot and mouth epidemic, with widespread paranoia and tight restrictions on agricultural imports, and I chickened out at the last moment and left it behind.
Yes, many of you guessed correctly, the dagger is a fishbone! To be precise, it’s a bone from the head of the Ya fish (雅鱼, a type of carp also known as 丙穴鱼), which is a speciality of the western Sichuanese town of Ya’an. (you can see a picture of the fish here). The fish, which is often made into a claypot stew, is famously tender, with few bones and delicious savoury flesh.
On the left, you can see a Ya fish, presented dramatically in a cloud of dry ice in its raw state, to be cooked in the dining room, in the pot on the left-hand side of the photograph.
My hosts that night mentioned some colourful legends about the knife in the fish’s head, and I’ve done a little research today. There seem to be a few different versions of the story. Some say that the bone was formed when the creator goddess Nu Wa 女娲，while patching up holes in the sky, let her double-edged sword fall into the waters of the river at Ya’an, far below. One tells of an evil river demon who demanded that a beautiful girl be given to him as a bride, threatening calamitous floods if the people of Ya’an failed to oblige him. A young woman volunteered to save her community by offering herself up as his wife, and she challenged the demon with a double-edged sword. All the fish in the river, so the legend goes, decided to commemorate the bravery of her sacrifice, by forming an image of the sword in their heads, and using it to suppress the river fiend.