In praise of simplicity

The picture on the left is of my lunch yesterday, at home: pao fan 泡饭 (‘soaked’ or soupy rice) made from leftovers of brown rice with broccoli, with added green pak choy, and some spicy fermented tofu. You could say it was the most basic, skeletal epitome of the Chinese meal: a staple grain, some healthy brassica greens, a little protein (the tofu), and a strongly-flavoured relish to ‘send the rice down’ (xia fan 下饭)  (in this case the tofu again). It was just what I felt like after a few days of rather gluttonous eating over Easter: plain, cheap, healthy and nutritious but also rather nice.

The privileged among us really do live in one of the golden ages of eating. Like rich Romans of classical times, who served peacocks at their banquets, or the upper classes of Tang Dynasty Chang’an, with their predilection for Silk Road spices, we can pick and choose what we consume; we can have Sichuanese food tonight, Italian tomorrow and Japanese the day after; we can buy fresh uni, fennel pollen and verjuice; we can eat meat at every meal, or decide to become vegetarian for intellectual reasons. We can fuss over the provenance and purity of our coffee and chocolate. We can throw away vegetables that are a little wilted, or good food that we simply forgot to cook because we were out at some fancy new restaurant. Our biscuits are double-choc or triple-choc, our ice creams are threaded with extra nuggets of luxury. The world is our oyster.

Eggs, cabbage, mushrooms

Such decadence is always a privilege, and more precarious than it might seem. It’s impossible not to think of this in the midst of a raging recession, and, even more seriously, a period of mass extinctions and unstable weather. And that is perhaps why, lucky as I feel to be part of the British Established Middle Class (according to the new survey!) in this era of rich and varied eating, and satisfied as I am with the kou fu that comes with my job (kou fu 口福is a wonderful Chinese phrase that means ‘the good fortune to happen upon delicious food’), I try not to forget that eating well is a privilege, and that rice, cabbage and tofu is enough for an everyday lunch.

Potato, cabbage, broccoli, sardines

Of course the great thing about Chinese cooking is that modest, cheap meals can be so extremely delicious and satisfying. I’m a great fan of fermented tofu, which has such an electrifying flavour that it really can enliven the taste of a bowlful of plain rice and vegetables (lao gan ma 老干妈 chilli and black bean sauce and gan lan cai 橄榄菜 ‘olive vegetable’ are two other scrumptious relishes). Some pickled vegetables, a spoonful of dried shrimps (see my last blog post), a few chillies, or a single slice of streaky bacon – all these can make the plainest, cheapest foods taste amazing. And rather than meat, why not have with your rice or noodles a single egg, fried both sides and finished with a streak of soy sauce?

Fruit leather rabbit

Simnel cake

Above you’ll also find a couple of other pictures of simple lunches I’ve had in the last week or so. Both meals took about half an hour to prepare. On the upper right you can see some stir-fried spring greens with dried shrimp, with steamed eggs and stir-fried mushrooms – I cooked the mushrooms in a little duck fat I had in the fridge, with garlic and spring onions. I was pleased because a (Taiwanese) friend who had come over to fix my kitchen door, and who had politely declined an offer of lunch, was simply unable to resist the cooking smells and ended up sharing everything with me, very happily. And on the left is a meal I rustled up on a day when there didn’t seem to be any food in the house: the end of the spring cabbage I cooked for the first meal, again with a few dried shrimps, one tiny leftover head of broccoli (including the stalks, peeled and sliced) with ginger and garlic; two potatoes slivered and stir-fried with chilli and Sichuan pepper; and then a tin of sardines because I was particularly hungry! I make no apologies for the careless presentation of the dishes in the pic on the left, but this was a quick fix on a busy day, and I wanted to show it exactly as it was – basic, but delicious.

And there’s also a pic of some of the Easter feasting – namely my first Simnel cake (!), and an Easter rabbit I cut out of Iranian fruit leather at my small niece’s request (she’s obsessed with rabbits).

11 Responses to “In praise of simplicity”

  1. Brian Haddad

    You make me CRY!…um…
    In culinary /cultural terms…(I will stop there…yes…I will stop there!)
    I bet you like ANCHOVIES!
    Trying to cultivate several varieties of BIRD’S EYE CHILI in the Red Rock Region of Sedona, Arizona, USA ….(Arizona;Culturally devoid wasteland, located in prime nuclear testing zone areas of NORTH AMERICA…)…
    Seems strange but peppers were easier to grow in SEATTLE, WA. than here on MARS!
    I hear that scorpions are good on the grill….But I haven’t tried that yet….Perhaps white pepper and garlic?

  2. Fuchsia

    Hi Brian
    Yes, I do like anchovies! I usually have some anchovy paste in the fridge, to eat on buttered toast, and I like stuffing anchovies into a leg of lamb for roasting, or eating them with lazily grilled red peppers and capers.
    Good luck with your chilli experiments – and I reckon scorpions would be good with ground chilli and Sichuan pepper (though I’d like to know how to make sure their stings are denatured before eating them!)

  3. Brian Haddad

    I think I need to get a copy of your book, for some perspective.
    My stepfather is English, and I am American,( we have serious old world Saxon/Roman hangups about a great many things,yet we are seriously clueless about much) so I might have a little sense about things, which makes it more intriguing…That you went on that choice…
    That is a really cool indication of a really beautiful sort of…insanity…?….By standards of “CONVENTION”…?…as in ART…and or Science….across vast continental and cultural divisions…
    You will help make this world a better place!

  4. Brian Haddad

    I was not raised on ASIAN food..or much of any particular cuisine..well…a little Mexican and perhaps little Levant (Because my grandmother was Spanish/French from Northern Mexico and Grandpa(both on my fathers side) was from Lebanon…But my mother is of very Celtic/Germanic heritage…though many generations American,….?……
    What little I know about food I have either taught myself or bumbled/stumbled my way into….over the years…or observed others at a distance , and read, and asked questions…

  5. Brian Haddad

    IN A WAY, IT IS ALL LIKE MUSIC….fundamentally ALL the same…Just different instruments, scales,modes, chords, rhythmic divisions/syncopations….combinations..flavors, contrasts and compliments…Techniques and Technologies(and just like recent compositions/recordings…something is often …missing?…?)
    And Neurological/Biological Chemistry?….Yes…that too..

  6. Brian Haddad

    In this country, RICE, CABBAGE, and TOFU are often considered….”WAY OUT IN LEFT FIELD…THE STRATOSPHERE…WEIRD HIPPIE CUISINE…STRANGE….” in the context of a culture that will bankrupt itself both economically and did so years ago culturally,trying to be short-cut-clever about so many things….will consider rice ,cabbage and tofu extreme,yet will proclaim themselves VEGAN…proudly…because…?.. because they eat cardboard or smoke cat litter or snort beansprout eye-drops and eat pizza made with soy-rella….?…. ?!!!!!…and then hit the doc’s office because they suffer anemia?… and get prescribed Cymbalta…because they suddenly have fybromyalgia?…or CFS….or IRS…or whatever…

  7. mminuk

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Fuchsia. For supper yesterday, I made a very satisfying dish of fried rice with odds and ends found in the fridge: a handful of mange-tout peas, a couple of carrots, some cooked petit pois, spring onions, and an egg. It was delicious with a large spoonful of chili pickle on the side.

  8. Frank Hopewell-Smith

    Hi Fuchsia,

    Love this post – I often try to use up leftovers – and usually end up using them in an Asian themed way. Chilli/Garlic/Ginger could almost make cardboard taste nice (I’m not sure about the ‘mouthfeel’ though)

    I’d be really interested in making my own pao fan. Do you know any good recipes?


    p.s – on the above comments – Are you being trolled?

  9. Frank Hopewell-Smith

    Pao Fan also reminds me of something I had in a Japanese restaurant – rice in green tea with pickles. It was delicious.

  10. Mark Davis

    I’m diabetic, so don’t eat white rice more than once in a blue moon (sob) and only basmati at that. However I allow myself two lots of brown rice a week. One portion hot with whatever’s in the fridge, and the other cold added to a pretty traditional but extra-liquid ratatouille. Gorgeous. Leftover brown rice also makes a good base for a crispy-skin rice cake with other leftovers plus a herb or two and whatever takes your fancy.

  11. jason

    Pao Fan is totaly different than Japanese restaurant one – rice in green tea with pickles. I think Shanghainese Pao Fan is the best. It reminds me of my mum’s delicious home cooking.

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