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.
‘Seasonal greens’ are often served as an afterthought at Chinese meals, but I think they are one of the glories of Chinese cuisine. In Sichuan, I adore purple amaranth 苋菜 stir-fried with garlic, served in its bright pink juices, and water spinach 空心菜 wokked with chilli and Sichuan pepper; in Shanghai alfalfa sprouts stir-fried with strong grain spirits 草头; in Hangzhou tender young greens blanched and then served in a delicate stock; in Hong Kong Chinese broccoli 芥蓝 blanched and then sizzled with garlic and rice wine. Cooked well, with a little salt, oil and garlic or ginger, and perhaps a dash of wine and/or stock, they can have an almost buttery deliciousness. And of course they’re very healthy as well.
I wonder if any of you are as addicted to leafy greens as me. In London, I often eat leafy green vegetables, Western or Chinese, and I really miss them if days go by without my fix. Sometimes I’ll cook them in a Western manner, but more often I’ll reach for my wok or steamer, and cook them in one of the many Chinese ways I’ve learnt, because they are so damn good, and also quick and easy.
Any of you like to share your thoughts and cooking tips for your favourite Chinese greens?