Category Archives: China

Oh, the places you’ve been

Have a look at the spiciest meal I have ever had. The rabbit (the dish in the foreground) was nothing in comparison to the spicy chicken dish, which was the first food that ever brought tears to my eyes.  It’s amazing what you find in your cupboards when you’re moving: in this case, a CD full of photos a friend from my REU in Beijing put together for all of us after we returned home.

It has been, oh, more than five years since that trip, but as I explained here, it was probably responsible for my current  obsession with food.  Despite my father’s adventurous (and usually experimental) talents in the kitchen, it wasn’t until I traveled all the way to Beijing that I started realizing that I had not yet stepped outside of the boundaries of my comfortable culinary existence.

I guess this is one of the reasons I’m enjoying Fushia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fins and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.  I find familiarity in her initial explorations of Sichuan cuisine, and share her fascination with the unfamiliar flavors and textures that she encounters along the way.  I’m only about halfway through the book, but it already has me googling “Mandarin lessons, Sydney” and wondering if it’ll be easier to find cooking classes that I can actually afford to attend in a bigger city.  Obviously, I should wait to review the book properly, when I’m finished, but for now, all I can say is that her story has me thinking about adventures that I would probably have written off as too expensive, or silly, just a few years ago.  Now? I can’t wait to try something new, learn some new languages, explore a new cuisine… Oh, and plan some trips.

Yes, there will be trips — there is no doubt about that.

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Loooong

Long beans in ginger sauce

I’m incredibly uninspired today, mostly because I spent all day trying to be a computer geek and install a linux virtual machine. Who needs 276 updates ever? Ok — except Windows.  But there’s a recipe, of course, to go with my boredom-fueled post, featuring this baby right here:
Impressive

No, I’m not growing green beans on top of my lab (though it’d be an awesome place for a garden). These are “yard-long beans”, which taste kind of like green beans, but without the sweet aftertaste. And while I’d love to spin some tale about how you MUST try these now, I’m not convinced myself — it would be an utter lie. Not even so much because of the flavor, but because these guys seemed to go from squeaky to mushy in no predictable fashion. They are kind of cool looking, though — like Rapunzel beans. Luckily, this recipe WILL work for normal green beans or haricots verts. So if you need a little somethin’ to dress up your veggies, give it a try.  If only because you too can then photograph your food growing colder by the second, as you line up your camera and try your best to bring out your inner “artiste.”

ooh, artsy

Or you could just eat up.

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beijing, part 3

Shrimp dish

Isn’t it pretty? This recipe — the third part of this very short series — is delicious, vibrant, and somehow, fitting for the start of spring. I even planted my own Chinese chives this week, with hopes that they would get an early start this spring. The chives are a perfect match for these gorgeous shrimp: the chives’ subtle hint of flavor only serves to enhance the richness of the shrimp’s pink flesh. It reminded me of how serious people were about fresh seafood in Beijing. They wanted it brought to their table, live and thrashing, before the preparation could begin.

Shrimp prep

This dish is dead easy to make. The most labor-intensive part of the whole process was shelling the shrimp, but since I save my shrimp shells for stock, it was worth the hassle.

As an aside, there’s something rather fulfilling about using as much of any ingredient as you possibly can. If you roast a chicken, save the bones. If you cut into a leek, keep the green parts. As for fish? Buy them whole, and save the heads and bones. Store the bits and pieces in a big container or two in the freezer, and when you have the time and inclination to make stock (fish, chicken, vegetable, beef, or pork), transfer the ingredients to a large pot, cover with water, add a few seasonings, simmer for a couple of hours, and strain. Your effort will pay off; that I can promise you. You’ll have amazing stock at hand, in the freezer, for that next gorgeous dish you hope to try. Oh, and paying the extra money for the organic/ free-range/local ingredients won’t hurt quite so much.

Next time: I’ve been dying to play with this.

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beijing, part 2

Mushrooms - Final

I promised you a couple of crowd pleasers, and this dish is definitely one of them. Provided, of course, that you like mushrooms. The recipe I want to share with you today features no less than four different types, though really, I urge you to experiment with them all. Mushrooms are fascinating, occasionally exotic, and just a bit dangerous if you dare to pick them yourself (please don’t, unless you know what you’re doing). And their best feature — at least for this dish? They absorb all sorts of crazy things, if you give them a chance. Like bacon fat. Beautiful, smoky, gorgeous (antibiotic free, humanely produced) bacon fat.

Mushrooms

Back in high school, I spent a summer working at the UCSB Medicinal Plant Garden, digging holes and learning about the unbelievably complex makeup of each species we helped raise. Fungi were one of the more memorable parts of the curriculum. They really are quite fascinating creatures — scavengers of the plant world, beneficial or devastating depending on their individual evolutionary path. The edible ones tend to be full of vitamins and protein, depending on the variety, and are savory and complex — the very essence of umami. They’re made up of all sorts of good amino acids, including glutamic acid, which (as Harold McGee points out) makes them nature’s own MSG.

Rehydrating

But I’m getting sidetracked. My point? Umami is an important — no, essential — aspect of Chinese cuisine. Mushrooms — shitake, oyster, and various other varieties — are often used to contribute a rich, meaty flavor to a given dish. This recipe — featuring nature’s perfect umami creation and smoky, golden bacon — simply takes advantage of the best properties of both ingredients. And it gives you the opportunity to experiment a little, too.

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beijing 2004

Mise

So — have you guessed yet? The photo in the last post is pi dan — preserved duck eggs, otherwise known as thousand-year-old eggs. They’re basically duck eggs that have been left in a paste of quicklime, salt, and ash, among other things, for a few months, until their shell takes on a grayish, speckled hue and their interior starts to resemble a fossilized specimen, straight from ancient stone.

I had preserved duck eggs for the first time in Beijing, about four years ago now. It was strange, gelatinous, black, and foreign, and was one of the many appetizers the Peking University students who accompanied us ordered at one of our first meals. It was an attempt — no, a dare — to get the clueless Americans (our group of six, closeted physics nerds all) to try some of the more unique features of the local cuisine. And it was one of the few items that stuck in my mind, a symbol of how intriguingly out of place I felt in Beijing.

Melon

I was there for a month of research, and my job was to get a taste of the local culture and figure out an algorithm for predicting the stock market. I was working in econophysics — my idea of a bit of a joke, really, but the research wasn’t why I was there. Really, I wanted to see what it was like to suddenly be immersed in a culture so different from my own that I couldn’t help but figure out exactly how far out of my comfort zone I could go.

Food was a big part of that process — and one of my main memories from Beijing. The chopsticks and savory dishes for breakfast. The Peking duck, proudly carved and displayed at the table. My first persimmon, fresh, sweet, and a little bit dangerous somehow, as if the water we couldn’t drink from the tap had somehow filled it with a poisonous, delectable nectar. The first time the waiter brought the fish we ordered, alive and struggling in its net, to our table. The beautiful fruit, flower, and herb tea, refilled from kettles with spouts so long and aim so careful that I couldn’t help but hold my breath as the waiter poured, so sure was I that I’d disturb his concentration. And the waitress at the place we became locals at on campus, who laughed at us for ordering the “simple” dishes — the ones everyone made at home.

Bitter Melon and Garlic Chives

So, while others draw their inspiration from Paris markets and tiny little restaurant finds in remote parts of Europe, I see China as the trip that pushed me to think about food as more than sustenance, more than a creative little project I could take on at the end of a long day. It was there that I learned that the taste of a particular regional dish — its story, its origin, the people who were involved in its creation — could tell me far more about a particular culture than any museum ever could. Perhaps taste became the medium through which I learned, as the only thing I could really communicate to those involved in each meal’s creation was thank you, coupled with a bit of charades and some friendly misunderstandings. But the lesson has served me well everywhere I’ve been thereafter.

I’m not an expert on Chinese cuisine, and really, I’ll never claim to be. I have a long way to go before I even manage novice status, as each province has its own unique food culture. One of these days, I’d love to go back, armed with the little bits that I’ve learned, and see more of the vast country I called home for one short month. But for now, I dabble a little, here and there, seeking out new ingredients at the local Chinese market (there are a few excellent ones in the neighborhood), looking for cookbooks that allow me to travel vicariously, beyond the little swath of land I actually managed to explore.

What I hope to share today is almost directly from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, by Fuchsia Dunlop, with a few translations of my own for the American home cook. Truth be told, this is the first Chinese cookbook that I had a few major successes from, and is the one I eventually purchased for my home collection. It focuses on the Hunan province, which is South of Beijing, and somewhat removed from what I actually experienced, but the author does an excellent job of explaining the techniques you’ll need to master in order to make each dish, and has some fascinating stories to share about her own journey through the Hunan province. I highly recommend it, despite the slightly gimmicky Mao-focused design, and hope to give you a taste of some of the ingredients and dishes I’ve been interested in lately.

All

So, I’ll spare any further commentary about nostalgic, most likely overly rose-colored pictures of my time in Beijing. Instead, I present the first of three recipes (all of which are pictured directly above this paragraph). This one is the most unusual, and is probably the least likely to win universal praise. But it’s the most fascinating, mostly because I never expected the flavors to work together the way they did.

Bitter melon — the green, wrinkly thing pictured in the first and second photos above — is, to put it kindly, an acquired taste. It is bitter and raw, if improperly cooked. If properly cooked? It’s bitter, though tolerable. But paired with a small sliver of preserved duck egg? Strange, black, smelly old duck egg, tasting of gelatinous amber nothing and the most impossibly rich, yolky taste you will ever encounter? Magnificent.

At least, if you’re me. Then again, my dad and grandfather had to go out and kill the black widows when I was a kid, designated spider-killing stick in hand, afraid that I would try to put those in my mouth along with everything else (oh, I was a precocious taster, even at age three). So you be the judge. Give them a try, in small doses — if you dare. And remember, the dishes I plan on featuring next are more likely to please a crowd, so if this one’s a bit weird (which even I admit is true), all you have to do is wait.

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Filed under bitter melon, China, Chinese chives, main, preserved duck egg, stories