Three Cup Chicken – San Bei Ji

It’s been almost two years since I’ve written a blog post. Where did that time go? I have my excuses. With Shane and Shan relocating from China to Ireland, weekends have been dominated by spending time with Dermot, now aged 4, and his little brother Conan just 9 months old. It’s hard to find time to blog when two little ones are careering around the house, even if Dermot is a willing sous chef and loves to help his Nai Nai cook. Yes, beyond my wildest imaginings, Dermot loves to hop up on a step beside me or his Mum and have jobs to do. It’s not just Chinese food he loves, it’s the magic of making pasta from scratch, the fun of identifying different herbs and spices, the pleasure of seasoning a dish from a height and maybe, sometimes, there might even be dessert…
Meanwhile in Australia Caitlyn is 22 months old and her baby brother is due to arrive around her second birthday. To her I’m “Granny” at the end of a FaceTime connection or for short joyous visits here in Dublin or in Sydney. Being a long distant grandparent never gets easy but it has it’s wonderful moments.
And then there was the “grand projet” – after over 30 years of trying to cook in a cramped kitchen space we finally bit the bullet last June and extended the back of the house to create the kitchen of my dreams. So after 5 months of living in “a squash and a squeeze” while the building works were underway, I now have my island, a gas wok burner, a walk in pantry and a lovely light airy space in which to rediscover my cooking mojo. It’s also a wonderful communal space where several of us can prep and cook food side by side or where Shane and Shan and other family members can gather on stools to chat over a glass or two while I cook. Sometimes I just hand over the cooking to them and wait happily for it to be served.

Calm before cooking up a storm

I had almost given up on writing but for the occasional nudge on line or in person from those friends who still dip into this blog from time to time and enjoy the recipes. You know who you are. Thank you for your patience. And then over the Chinese New Year I attended a masterclass in Chinese cooking by Kwanghi Chan and Mei Chin of in Cooks Academy and I was bitten by the bug once again.
So below is a recipe for Three Cup Chicken that I served as part of Dermot’s 4th birthday meal earlier this month. I first tasted a variation of this dish in a wonderful Chinese restaurant in Sydney and since then I’ve been trying to track down an authentic recipe.
I asked my daughter-in-law Shan to trace the origins of the dish. The oldest and slightly gruesome version of the story links the recipe to Ningdu in Jiangxi Province and relates to a Chinese national hero, Wen Tianxiang, a general in the late Song Dynasty (960AD – 1279AD). According to the story, General Wen was captured and imprisoned due to his efforts in fighting against the Mongolian invasion. An old lady came to visit General Wen when she learnt he was about to be executed, and she only brought a clay pot, a chicken and a jar of rice wine with her. One of the prison guards was impressed by her compassion and let her visit the General. In prison, she set up a small fire and cooked the chicken with the 3 cups of rice wine in the clay pot with low heat for two hours. Later General Wen was beheaded.
When the prison guard retired and returned to his hometown Ningdu, he cooked the chicken dish on each anniversary of General Wen’s passing, however he changed the recipe from 3 cups of rice wine to 1 cup of wine, 1 cup of lard and 1 cup of soy sauce. The dish became famous over they years and was nominated as one of the main dishes during the 2008 Beijing Olympic banquet.
Nowadays there are many variations of the recipe and the most modern include some or all of the following ingredients – rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil (instead of lard), sugar, ginger, garlic, spring onions, dried chilli and thai sweet basil. Over the years the Taiwanese seem to have made the recipe their own and I suspect it was they who introduced basil into the recipe.
I found a few recipes on line and adapted them to produce a Shananigan’s version for Dermot’s birthday dinner. It may not be authentic but it follows the wonderful Chinese tradition of adapting recipes to the ingredients at hand. One of the great joys of this recipe is that it can be cooked a little more slowly than stir-fry dishes and let simmer gently while you get on with preparing the rest of the meal. It’s not a particularly spicy dish so it suits young palates and the dried chilli can be reduced or eliminated to taste. It’s a very easy supper dish that’s packed with flavour despite its few ingredients.
I used boned out chicken thigh and leg as I prefer the flavour, moisture and tenderness of the leg meat but you could use breast meat (which I find can be dry). As I couldn’t get hold of thai basil that weekend, I used ordinary basil. The whole garlic cloves add a delicious sweetness to the dish. I don’t normally cook with sesame oil – I just use it for seasoning as it has a low burn point – but if you don’t let the heat get too high it gives a subtle nutty flavour to this dish which I loved.
Three Cup Chicken – San Bei Ji
Three Cup Chicken

Serves two as a main course or four as part of a multi-course meal

  • 450g boned out chicken thighs, skinned and chopped into bite size chunks
  • 3 tbs toasted sesame oil
  • A thumb sized chunk of ginger, peeled and cut into thin slices
  • 12 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
  • 4 spring onions, trimmed and cut into 2 cm pieces
  • 3 or 4 dried chilli peppers crumbled
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • ½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
  • ¼ cup light soy sauce
  • a bunch of Thai sweet basil or fresh basil leaves.


  1. Heat a wok over medium/ high heat and add the sesame oil. Allow it to reach the point where it shimmers but doesn’t smoke.
  2. Add the ginger, garlic, spring onions and chilli pepper and stir-fry for about 2 minutes until the aromas are released.
  3. Push these ingredients to the side of the wok and add the chicken pieces, allowing them to sit and sear on one side for a minute before stir frying for 5 or 6 minutes until the chicken pieces are browned and just beginning to crisp on the edge.
  4. Add the sugar, rice wine and soy sauce, stir to combine and bring to simmering point where the sauce is just beginning to bubble.
  5. Lower the heat and simmer gently for about 15 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened.
  6. Turn off the heat. Tear in the basil and stir it into the dish. Serve with rice.

A letter to my granddaughter

[When I travelled to China a little over two years ago to meet my grandson Dermot Gao O’Neill for the first time, I wrote him a letter before I met him in person. Now I am making a similar journey via Dubai to Sydney to meet my first grand daughter Caitlyn who was born to my daughter Claire and her husband Mike on 7th April. It feels really important to say these things to her before I am overwhelmed by the scent of her and the feel of her in my arms. So from the distorted reality that is air travel and with the benefit of Emirates On Air wi-fi, here goes. Maybe someday you will read it to her Claire and maybe some day she will read it herself.]

A tough winter's day at the beach for Claire and Ciatlyn
A tough winter’s day at the “office” for Claire and Caitlyn

Dear Caitlyn Alice, daughter of my daughter, my very own Katy Bee,
The tracking map on my A380 says the time to our destination in Sydney is 7 hrs 34 minutes so in about 10 hours time I hope to meet you for the first time. Every day for the past 4 and a half weeks I have studied your photos, a new one most days, trying to guess at your emerging personality. I look at photos taken of Dermot when he was your tender age and see in him the glimpses of the fun-loving two year old he has grown into with buckets of personality and charm.
Am I right in thinking you will be a girl with attitude? A slightly quizzical way of looking at life, taking it seriously but taking it all in? Do I already detect an independence of spirit despite this being the most dependent time of your life? I hope so Caitlyn because being a girl is not easy, not even when you are born in the 21st century to a loving family with a strong Mum and Dad who will do everything they can to prepare you for your life ahead.
You come from a long line of strong women Katy, just take a look at your mother whom you’ve spent every waking moment with since you were born and whose moods and moments you must have got to know in the 9 months you spent in her womb as she grappled with tough challenges at work and strode the hills with us in Tasmania last December, walking for 6 hours with you in her belly making your presence felt. Look at your maternal great grandmother, my own Mum, who is still enjoying life to the full, relishing travel and still learning something new every day.
You are named for your great grandmother Alice, your grandad’s Mum. Now there was a strong woman if ever there was one, a woman of ferocious intelligence who reared 10 children in Ireland when times were much tougher than they are now. She would like that you are her namesake I think and have things she would have wanted to say to you given half a chance. But Alice is also the name of my Mum’s Mum, my beloved Nan who I remember for her glorious mix of fun and silliness and her relationship with her gaggle of sisters. I spent a lot of time with my Nan who was young enough to pass for my mother when she collected me from school and it only seems like yesterday that I was just old enough to run down the road from my school to her bungalow in Wexford and feast on “jelly and cornflour” before heading home to my Mam, Dad and brothers for dinner. And of course your other granny, your Nain, an accomplished woman in her own right, will be able to teach you all about your Welsh legacy.
I’ve never had a sister Katy, I’ve never had the easy bond of friendship with other girls that I see between my sisters in law, your granddad’s sisters. I only had one daughter, your Mum. Perhaps that is why I thrived in a so-called man’s world and why my relationship with my Mum and your Mum are so important to me. Perhaps that’s why I feel so in awe and almost trepidation as I count down the hours and minutes until we meet. Will we two get the chance to have a special granny granddaughter relationship? Will we manage to conquer the distance between us in space, time and life experiences to build something wonderful that will stand the test of time just like my memories of my own two grannies are strong nearly 60 years later.
Believe me there are so many things I will want to share with you as you grow, so many warnings I will want to give, so many times I will want to say “stand up, get out there and be strong”, “hold on to your sense of yourself”, “don’t loose your essential self”, “don’t let the battering ram of life’s experience divert you from the course you choose for yourself”. And I will say “just look at your own mother – her spirit and resilience, her sense of fun and adventure, her core of values and strong sense of responsibility and respect for others”. And on the days when you two clash, as you inevitably will, but only for a short while, think of the little girl I remember tentatively taking her first scared steps into the tame sea off the Irish coast when not much older than Dermot is now who I watched in awe swim for several miles in the shark-infested waters off the New South Wales Coast. For your mother wont always be right, just nearly always.
Australian, Welsh, Irish. You are of me but not of me Caitlyn Alice. You have been born into a far more equal society than I first knew. And yet I’m not convinced how deep those societal changes go. You will still face all the baggage that society imposes on girls, the expectations and risks that all young women face, the inevitable guilt you will feel as you juggle your gender and your need to nurture and care with your desire to achieve just like the boys. So here’s my first tip – practice on the cat. Because if you can tame the tiger within him and win his affection it wont be a bad start in winning friends and influencing people.
May you always be beautiful but may your beauty come from within so that you remind us to avoid the girly labels and also see whatever cheeky, cheerful or serious side of you emerges. Wear pink if you like it but also purples and reds and blues and whatever strong colours take your fancy. And grey, we already think grey suits you. Read lots and lots of books. Get to know your heritage – three nations now – through songs and stories. Read “boy” stories as well as “girl” stories and identify with the lead character in both. And make up your own stories – re-write the traditional fairly tales and nursery rhymes if the girls in them sound too pliable to you or there are too many wicked witches for your liking, Your Mum was walking miles from the age of two, the age your cousin Dermot is now. The buggy relinquished “I’ll do it myself” was her favourite phrase. Get out there and walk those beautiful beaches and mountains of New South Wales for you are privileged that your Mum has given birth to you in such a beautiful place.
Form your own belief system as you grow. It wont be identical to your Mum or Dad’s or mine, or your half-Chinese cousin now growing up in Ireland. But it will be shaped by all those influences including the powerful ethical core in your Mum and Dad. Have a mind of your own but one that listens to the wisdom of the elders and never takes for granted the strides women have made in less than 100 years towards greater freedom. And never forget the many baby girls born at the same time as you who wont be lucky enough to experience such freedom.
Make a point of loving life, the good times and the bad. Relish each new experience, Get the joy out of the small things starting now, that strange whirly thing over your cot, that furry fella that likes to snuggle near your toes and invade your space, the sound of your mother’s voice, the look of pure love on your father’s face – because that’s a whole other story. Father – daughter relationships are a special kind of magic. Embrace the enthusiasm for life and the zest that I can vouch for being handed down by the four generations of women on my side alone because I can still remember sitting on the arm of my own great grandmother’s chair brushing her hair and her excitement at her first trips in a motor car when she was already in her 80s.
Stay safe little one, for the world is a scary place especially for girls. So never let the sense of adventure I hope you will have get in the way of a grounded common sense that keeps you on guard for hidden dangers.
And finally Katy Bee, busy bee that you will inevitably be, leave just a teeny weeny bit of space in your busy life to get to know me, even if we have to do it mostly by FaceTime at first. It will mean a lot to us both some day. That’s all I can guarantee.
With all the love a heart can muster
Your Granny Julie
10 May 2015

Comfort Food for a New Mama – Granary Baps

Congratulations Claire and Mike
My own Mum’s gift bag for Katy

It’s a girl! No not the gorgeous little princess born this weekend on the other side of the Irish sea but our very own Caitlyn Alice Bloor, our Katy, who arrived in a hurry four weeks ago today making an unexpected entrance into our world. Her early arrival in the suburbs of Sydney deprived her Mum, my daughter Claire, of pre-natal maternity leave and some much needed sleep but spared me three weeks of fretting, jumping at every phone call and wondering if every silence longer than 24 hours meant that something was stirring.
It’s a surreal experience when your daughter, your first born has her first born and a daughter of her own on the other side of the world. It brings up every memory of those early tentative days of motherhood, the nervousness and the joy, the exhaustion, the fretting and the wonder. More than 35 years dissolve into a rush of vivid memories of those first six weeks. Suddenly dislocated from the world of work into the foreign and at times lonely territory of being a beginner again with no script to work from, no “how to” guide that really prepares you for the challenge no matter how much you have longed for it, no matter how competent you have been in your professional career, no matter how supportive your partner. The powerful rush of love that sometimes comes like a thud to the heart and sometimes sneaks up on you over days or weeks until this little person feels as if she has always been there and you know she will never again be far from your thoughts.
Distance makes it all the more surreal, especially when this little girl has quite literally peopled your dreams for so long so that you felt you knew her before she was born, even before she was conceived and were so utterly certain she would be a girl that you feared how you might react if you were proved wrong. And yet you don’t know her. You’ve studied her photos, several a week, noticing that she is already beginning to lose the sleepy, new baby look. You’ve tried to make “conversation” with her on FaceTime realising that she can’t yet focus on your face on a screen but watching the way she tilts her head towards your voice, hoping she will recognise that voice when you get to hold her at last. And in some ways you are still more focussed on your daughter and all the new experiences she is going through than on this little person who is not yet quite real to you because you haven’t felt her slight weight against your shoulder or smelt her milky breath or the scent of the soft folds at the nape of her neck.
And so for the second time in a little over two years you pack your bags to traipse across the world to meet a new grandchild. You are a little bit wiser and more confident now that you’ve  learned how to get to know a toddler grandson through FaceTime and intermittent holidays in a way that has provided the basis for you and Dermot being devoted to each other now that he is living just down the road. You are a little bit less of the rookie NaiNai and ready to be a Glammy Granny to a little girl. But still you are filled with nervous anticipation about how you will form a relationship with her.
Lucky for Katy...
Lucky for Katy…

Grandad is a Master Packer
Grandad is a Master Packer

Into your bags go a suitcase of gifts for Katy. Family and friends are unable to resist the urge to press a bit of pink or strong, vibrant colours, into your hands – “just a little something, it won’t take up much space”. And then there are the books because every child needs books and their parents need them to lull themselves and their baby to sleep long before she can understand the words.
Katy herself hasn’t had her big reveal yet. Her parents have her cocooned in a social media free zone, keen to keep her digital footprint to a minimum in these early weeks. Maybe if I ask really nicely they will let me share a photo when I finally get to meet her in person.
We arrive in Sydney at the start of next week just in time to take a little of the pressure off Claire and Mike, at least in the kitchen. I will travel armed with a folder of laminated recipes, some from the blog, some from Shan, some from favourite cookbooks. Since Dermot and I started baking together every weekend, I’ve been revisiting some of Claire and Shane’s childhood favourites – the taste memories of school lunches and the kitchen scents of batch-cooking weekends. I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of working with yeast and these yeasty granary baps made with a mix of spelt flour and barley and rye granary flour taste every bit as good as they did 30 years ago. I visualise myself serving them up to Claire for lunch filled with good things while she curls up on the sofa feeding Katy, passing on to her through Claire the nourishment and the traditions from one generation to the next in that most essential of ways, the making and breaking of bread.
Granary Baps

Makes 16

  • 450g granary flour
  • 450g spelt light or wholemeal flour (or a mixture of both)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 4 tsps fast acting dried yeast
  • 300 ml warm water
  • 300 ml warm milk
  • 2 tbs malt extract
  • 2 tbs sunflower oil
  • Spelt wholemeal flour for dusting


  1. Mix the flours, salt and yeast together in a bowl.
  2. Add the warm milk, war water, malt extract and oil to the flour and mix to a soft dough.
  3. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead for five minutes until smooth and elastic. Place it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with damp tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place such as the hot press for about 1½ hours until it has doubled in size.
  4. Turn the risen dough onto a floured surface, punch it down. Knead it again for a few minutes and divide it into 16 pieces. Knead each piece into a ball then roll it into a 10 cm round and place on a floured baking sheet leaving plenty of space between them.
  5. Cover each baking sheet with a light cloth and put in a warm, draught free place or back in the hot press to rise for about 30 minutes until they have doubled in size.
  6. Meanwhile heat a fan oven to 220 degrees C. Dust the tops of the risen baps with a little flour. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until they sound hollow when tapped underneath. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Playing the Waiting (and Cooking) Game – Vietnamese Beef Curry

Ready and waiting
Ready and waiting

It’s a waiting game now, waiting for grandchild number two to arrive in Australia as Claire spends her last few days in the office and prepares for what she hopes will be a few weeks of rest and calm before the onslaught of her baby’s arrival. We don’t know if its a boy child or a girl child, nor do we care. I just long for her to hold this much longed for baby safely in her arms.
I’ve never felt the distance between us so keenly; not during her first J1 Visa trip to the USA when I cried to her the night before she left (much to her amusement) over my lingering guilt at missing her first ballet display; not when leaving her behind in a dodgy apartment in London which we she shared with strangers and we had helped her clear of the detritus of other’s lives with many trips to the local tiphead; not when gulping back tears and fears after we waved her and Mike off on their round the world trip of a lifetime; nor wondering what she was doing or where she was at a given moment somewhere in the remote reaches of India or Cambodia or Vietnam; not when saying goodbye to her and Mike after our first visit to them in Sydney content that they had truly found each other in their quest for adventure in their lives and relieved that they would stay in one place for awhile, a place I could visualise in my mind’s eye, even if it was on the other side of the world; and certainly not when, six years later, celebrating their Australian citizenship from afar with pleasure and pride in the lives they have made there and that rueful awareness that our lives will be forever full of joyous reunions and tearful partings.
Nothing compares to this, this waiting game – the memories flooding in of her own arrival in this world; the visceral need to be there with her in spirit as she encounters motherhood for the first time; the vivid recall of driving home from The Coombe Maternity Hospital with her tiny, beautiful, swaddled and oh so dependent in a moses basket on the back seat of a mini and mine, mine, mine – mine to love, to worry about, to marvel at, to have an extraordinary mother daughter bond with for the rest of my life. Mine and yet not mine, very much her own person. About a year ago she sent me Tina Fey’s beautiful poem “A Mother’s Prayer for her Child” and I read it often these days, halting at the line “for Childhood is short – a Tiger Flower blooming Magenta for one day. And adulthood is long…” Be safe Claire and Bump and Mike. And Bump… now we just want to meet you and get to know you.
Somehow spending more time with grandchild number one – Dermot – is making the waiting and the distance both easier and harder. Easier because the fun of being with him several times a week is a joy completely unlike my recollections of early parenthood when the worries, insecurities and juggling of home and work life overlaid the unbridled pleasure of watching them grow and learn. If I could have scripted Dermot like a character in a novel when I started to write this blog nearly three years ago he would have had a love of food and cooking.  But I dismissed that a wishful Nai Nai thinking, half expecting him to be the kind of child who would be picky about his food (like his Dad was!) and not in the least bit interested in goings on in the kitchen.
And yet… nature and nurture will out in strange ways and here he is, not long turned two, liking nothing more than pulling his little step to stand beside me at the butcher block and make cookies or help prepare dinner. Well ok cars and buses and trucks and bikes and aeroplanes and anything with wheels are this budding little master chef’s other preoccupations. But we’ve taken to having Nai Nai play dates once a week which consist of him “helping” me cook or bake. So far we’ve made ginger biscuits, flapjacks, prepared meat for the big green egg and filled turkish stuffed peppers. And at home with his Mum and Dad he has made bread from scratch and pizzas and cookies. For a little guy that rarely sits still for an instant when awake, his concentration in the kitchen and the precision of his movements and his glorious are a marvel to behold. He rushes to the door in glorious, garbled excitement to tell him Mama and Dada in his own unique Chinglish what he has just made. He even enjoys washing up, making sure every piece is thoroughly rinsed and clean before it it placed in the drainer. Ah well, what child doesn’t love the chance to play with water with adult approval. Let’s call it productive play rather than child labour!
While he busied himself with washing up our baking trays yesterday, I put together this fast beef curry for his Mum and Dad and Derry who were battling April showers on their way home from the city centre. My Twitter friend Siobhan sent me the recipe which she learnt recently on a visit to Gioan Cookery School in Hoi An, Vietnam. These days I’m constantly looking for new ideas to tickle Shan’s Asian tastebuds with echoes of her Chinese home but something a bit different going on with the warming spices of India and Thailand and the lemon grass tang of Vietnam. This quick and easy week night recipe certainly hit the spot on a wild and windy first day of April. Siobhan tells me that it tastes even better on day two – ours didn’t last long enough for me to find out. Thank you for sharing Siobhan and Claire I look forward to cooking it for you soon on a winter’s day in Sydney.
Gioan Vietnamese Beef Curry
Beef curry in the wok
Beef curry in the wok

Serves 2 to 3 as a main course or 4 as part of a multi-course meal

  • 200g fillet beef
  • ½ – 1 large onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 4 – 6 large mushrooms
  • 1 – 2 tbs cooked green peas
  • 400 ml boiling water
  • Cooking oil

For the marinade

  • 2 large tomatoes, skinned and finely diced
  • 1 stem lemon grass crushed
  • 2 tsps vegetable stock powder
  • 2 tsps condensed milk
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsps curry powder or paste
  • 1 tsp turmeric latte blend
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp chilli paste
  • 2 tsp cornflour


  1. Slice the beef very thinly across the grain (you will find it easier to do this if it is chilled or lightly frozen) and mix it with the marinade ingredients.
  2. Set the marinaded beef to one side for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Chop the onion into large chunks, thinly slice the carrot, slice each mushroom into thick slices.
  4. Heat a tablespoon or two of cooking oil in a medium hot wok. Add the onion, carrot and mushroom and stir-fry for about one minute until softened.
  5. Increase the heat, add the marinated beef and stir-fry for about one minute until the beef changes colour.
  6. Add the boiling water and peas and allow to cook for about 2 minutes over a high heat until the sauce thickens and reduces slightly.
  7. Serve with boiled rice.

The finished dish
The finished dish

Notes and options

  1. Siobhan prefers to make this recipe with thinly sliced chicken fillet which is equally delicious.
  2. Her recipe specified the smaller quantity of vegetables. I doubled the amount to cater for Chinese and our tastes. Go with your instincts, just don’t overcrowd your wok. Mushrooms are optional.
  3. Tinned tomatoes or tomato puree or paste can be substituted for fresh tomatoes in the marinade.
  4. I used Thai red chilli paste and organic vegetable stock. Use what ever you have in your store cupboard. I will also try this recipe with coconut milk instead of condensed milk to see what impact that has on the Thai/ Vietnamese flavours and to cater for dairy free preferences.

Pulled Pork Spring Rolls

My daughter in law Gao Shan and I have a good thing going on now that she’s my neighbour down the road in Bray. At least once a week she cooks a meal for us in her house and at least once a week I cook for her, Shane and Dermot. While I experiment with new banneton baskets and shawarmas, she cooks wonderful Chinese meals for us and increasingly tries her hand at preparing western dishes. Meanwhile Dermot wanders around under all our feet, “helping” and giving his two year old views on hao chi – good food. He is already a determined carnivore and has become fascinated with my Big Green Egg, helping me sprinkle rub on cuts of meat, salivating as we check at regular intervals to see how the internal temperature is coming on and proclaiming that the Egg is “hot”. He loves his “big egg”.
Last Friday night Shan served us a fabulous dinner of a starter of grilled prawns with mushrooms followed by a main course of spatchcocked quail to celebrate our wedding anniversary. I have never attempted to cook quail – I’m a bit squeamish about the finicky work of preparing them – but Shan found information on line that taught her how to do it and the result was delicious. I wondered what to do for a reprise.

Shan's spatchcocked quail
Shan’s spatchcocked quail

The glorious weather over the weekend encouraged me to fire up the Big Green Egg again and try out my Chinese take on pulled pork on her. Although pulled pork had taken off among the ex-pat community in Beijing before they left, this was the first time Shane and Shan had tried pulled pork cooked at home and served with Chinese pancakes, apple sauce and hoi sin sauce. They and Dermot gave it an overwhelming seal of approval. Dermot seems to have decided that apple sauce is his new favourite thing.

I’ve finally cracked the secret of cooking pulled pork – low and slow for about 9 hours and the time it takes is so worthwhile. You will find my recipe for Duncannon pulled pork and the story behind it here in the blog archives. Yesterday I didn’t bother with injecting the meat but the five spice rub and spritzing it frequently with the apple juice and cider vinegar spray infused the pork with plenty of melting flavour.  A €12 shoulder of pork cooked like this goes a long, long way.
We were wondering what we could do with the leftovers and Shan suggested that I could use them in a variation on my recipe for duck spring rolls. So that is just what I did. Although tired after a long day at work, I enjoyed the calming ritual of preparing the ingredients. The result was Monday night flavour bombs that got this weeks cooking off to a good start.
Now my next trick is to teach Dermot and his Mum how to make ginger biscuits although Shan is ahead of me on that one having made her first ever batch of cookies this weekend. Competitive? Me? Never… 🙂
Pulled Pork Spring Rolls

(Makes about eight spring rolls serving eight as a starter or four as a tasty weekday supper.)
2015-03-23 20.47.35

  • About 200 – 300 g of shredded pulled pork – simply bulk out the mix with more of the shredded vegetables if you have less pork)
  • 1 large carrot cut into thin julienne strips
  • 1 large red onion thinly sliced
  • 150g bean sprouts, washed and patted dry
  • 2 tbs oyster sauce
  • 2 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 30g pickled sushi ginger, finely chopped
  • A lage handful of chopped coriander plus additional coriander to garnish
  • Salt and pepper to season
  • 12 sheets of spring roll pastry 215 mm/10’’ square*
  • Sunflower oil for deep-frying
  • Sweet chilli jam to serve

*available in the freezer section of your local Asian market
2015-03-23 20.50.23

  1. Shred the pork shoulder or cut it into thin matchsticks and mix with all the other prepared ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning to taste.
  2. Take  1 ½ sheets of pastry for each spring roll. Place a full sheet down and a half on top from one corner.
  3. Fill the doubled-side, near the centre with some pork mix. Starting at the doubled corner, roll to half way then fold in the sides and continue rolling to the end.
  4. Brush some water on the far corner to stick the pastry together if necessary.
  5. Fill a wok about a third full with sunflower oil and heat until a cube of bread turns golden in a few seconds. Deep fry the spring rolls two at a time until golden.
  6. Slice each spring roll in two on the diagonal and serve with chilli jam and garnished with coriander.


Shan's Yunnan Barbecued Lemongrass Fish – 云南香茅烤鱼

My daughter Claire sent me a random morning thought from Sydney earlier this week. It read “Most people’s first word of the year is ‘happy'” – a cheerful notion evoking images of clinking glasses and reminding me of our celebration of the arrival of 2015 in Australia and, more recently, of Shane, Shan and Dermot’s first Chinese New Year in Ireland.
On those rare occasions when I’m in Australia at the start of a New Year I have my own special way of marking it. I head to the Royal Botanic Gardens before I return home to find the “I wish” statue. There can hardly be a more beautifully located botanic gardens on this earth, perched as they are over Sydney Harbour and providing a still place, a peaceful escape from the noise and searing summer heat of the city and a breathing lung at its heart. The simple sculpture I go in search of is by Czechoslovakian artist Arthur Fleischman and has been in the gardens since 1946 where it marks the site of the first Wishing Tree.

I wish...
I wish…

The first time I stumbled on my wishing girl was on a visit to Sydney in 1999. That was long before I had a daughter living in Australia or a son in China and I doubted I would have an opportunity to return to Australia in my life time. But something about the simple sense of yearning the statue conveyed struck me like a powerful memory of the future and I tried to capture it in a tiny photo that has sat ever since on my window ledge in Duncannon.
Since then, as my children’s lives took their own twists and turns, my wishing girl has become a symbol for me of the conflicted emotions of longing for home and missing those we leave behind in an adopted country. I’ve returned to Sydney several times and each time I seek her out, touch her cool stone and pause in the still shade that surround her to reflect on what is important in my life right then. This January my prayers were many and heartfelt… that Claire will have a safe delivery of a healthy baby in April and enjoy the happiness of motherhood… that Shane, Shan and Dermot will settle into their new life in Ireland despite missing the family and friends they leave behind in China… and for well-being for other friends and family important to me.
Fast-forward to early March and Claire’s baby is due just seven weeks from today. The waiting, wishing and hoping have become an urgent knot in the pit of my stomach. At the same time I’m adapting to the joy of having SS&D living just down the road and the ordinary, extraordinary pleasures of grand-parenting. It’s time to start writing the blog more regularly and to capture the moods and moments of a special time.
One of my best memories of our Christmas/ New Year trip to Australia is of ringing in 2015 at Culburra Beach on the South Coast of New South Wales while celebrating our son-in-law Mike’s birthday which falls on new Year’s Eve. We had decamped down there to two beach houses overlooking the ocean where dolphins cavort in the evening sun – our house was called “Sea La Vie” while Shane, Shan, her MaMa and Dermot were down the road in “Time to Unwind”. Various friends of Claire and Mike, couples with young children, had taken other apartments nearby and the combined New Year and  birthday celebrations were held on our deck.
For a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend a New Year’s Eve with all of us together including Shan’s MaMa, it seemed fitting to import some Chinese new year traditions into our celebrations. So Shan and MaMa took charge and put together a Chinese inspired barbecue which featured platters of Chinese pot-sticker dumplings, lamb chuan’r kebabs flavoured with cumin and chilli and Yunnan style, barbecued whole barramundi fish. The boys manned the barbecues in true Aussie style.
Dumplings symbolise good luck, fortune and family togetherness.  They are served as the first meal of the New Year and before members of a family depart on a journey to remind them that family wraps itself around you wherever you are. This time MaMa made up two kinds of filling – traditional pork and cabbage and beef with carrot. – She, Shan and Shane wrapped the dumplings at their house and brought them along in tray loads for me to cook pot-sticker style just before serving. You will find lots of similar dumpling recipes on the blog starting with the link here.
MaMa’s delicious lamb kebabs combined the excellent flavour of Australian lamb with the the spices of her home town in Urumqi – the diced lamb was marinated in onion and tomato and scattered with cumin and chilli before serving. We will try them out on the Big Green Egg soon.
My contribution to proceedings was to make the desserts.  The birthday cake, a special request from Mike, was a chocolate cheese cake. I used this recipe by Nigella Lawson and also made a back up Chocolate Ripple Cheesecake from a Mary Berry recipe and a large summer berry pavlova.
But it was Shan’s barbecued fish which was the highlight of the meal. As Shan says:
“Having a whole fish at the Chinese New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day is very important. It has an auspicious meaning that sharing a whole fish with one’s family will bring luck and fortune to the whole family for the coming new year. This is because Chinese word for fish ‘yu‘ has the same pronunciation as the word ‘abundance’. It is important to have the whole fish including the head and tail which means a good year from start to end. Superstition really but it is so common that people don’t even think about it, it is just a ‘must have’ dish for new year or any big family reunion events.” Another part of the tradition is that the whole fish is never turned over on the plate once served because of the negative association with the turning over of a fishing boat and flipped fortunes.

Shan calls her fish recipe  Yunnan Xiang Mao Kao Yu. Yunnan is a province in the very South West of China which shares a border with Burma,Vietnam and Laos, hence you see lemon grass, a common ingredient in South East Asian countries in this dish. Xiang Mao is the Chinese word for lemongrass, Kao means barbecue or grill, Yu is fish.
Now that spring is in the air here in Ireland and it’s time to dust off your barbecue or Big Green Egg, I thought you might like to experiment with Shan’s recipe. It doesn’t have detailed measurements for its ingredients. Chinese cooks don’t work that way so Shan has written down below the principles of what she did and the rough amounts of ingredients she used. Feel free to play around with it until you get the balance of flavours that suits your preference and liking for chilli heat.
Belated happy Chinese New Year from myself and Shan – xin nian kuai le – 新年快乐
Shan’s Yunnan Barbecued Lemongrass Fish – Yunnan Xiangmao2 Kao Yu – 云南香茅烤鱼
Serves 3 – 4 as part pf a multi-course meal
Hungry Hands
Hungry Hands


  • A whole sea fish with a body length of 25 to 30 cm (body length excludes head and tail), gutted and scales removed but leave the head and tail intact – you can ask your fish monger to do this bit for you.

For the stuffing

  • 3 sticks of lemon grass
  • 2 packets of coriander
  • 1 big chunk of ginger (3 thumb fingers size)
  • 4 spring onions
  • ½ of a bulb of garlic
  • 2 green chillies (depending on the spiciness of the chilli and your personal preference, use less or more)
  • Salt

The above measurements are indicative, the aim is that you have enough mix to stuff the whole fish, in its body and slits on both sides.
For cooking

  • 2 banana leaves large enough to wrap the whole fish neatly, preferably in two layers.


  1. Wash the fish clean then cut slits at 3 cm intervals  on both sides – this is for stuffing the seasoning mix into slits so the whole fish body absorbs the flavour, if you are testing with a small thin bodied fish, then this procedure is not necessary.
  2. Peel away the tough outer layer of the lemon grass, trim your spring onions and peel your garlic. Then finely chop all the stuffing ingredients and mix in a bowl, add salt. You will have to taste the mix, the flavour you are aiming for is robust, wild flavour dominated by coriander, lemon grass, garlic and ginger, spiciness is personal preference. And it should tastes almost a bit too salty.
  3. Stuff the mix inside of the fish’s body and into the slits on both side of its body; you want the stuffing to pack the fish well. Wrap tightly with banana leave and tie up the parcel with thin slice of lemon grass (preferred) or cotton thread.
  4. Leave the fish to marinate for 20 mins; flip it when after 10 minutes so pressure from its weight will marinate both sides evenly.

Cooking and serving

  1. Heat your barbecue or Big Green Egg to high on direct heat.
  2. Put your fish on the open fire grill for about 5 mins on each side, depending on the heat of your barbecue. The indicator for ‘done’ is that the fish’s body has collapsed on both sides hence looking much more flatter than before and the banana leaves are burnt but still protecting the fish.
  3. Serve it on a platter and allow your guests to unwrap the fish and help themselves, oohing and aahing as the perfume of the stuffing escapes from the package.

Fresh water fish can also be used in this recipe but it usually has a muddy taste and more bones. In Australia we used Barramundi fish. A whole salmon could also be used.
Shan would suggest making the mix slightly less salty if you are using sea fish, as they tend to taste a tiny bit saltier the fresh water fish. Add black pepper into the mix if you are a pepper lover!

What's bred in the bone – Shan's Tingling Fragrant Chicken – 麻香鸡

When I was young one of our favourite Sunday drives was from our home in Wexford town to Hook Head. My three brothers and I would pile into the back of the car, all elbows and knees and arguments about who would have to sit “in the middle”. Released from the car we would race around the headland and clamber over the rocks as the fierce water surged, going as close to the edge as we dared while the gentle light house stood guard over us. There was no Hook Lighthouse cafe then but if we were good we might stop for an ice-cream in Slea Head on the way home.
As a child Hook Head mesmerised me, the awesome power of the sea, the still place in the shelter of the lighthouse, the steady flashing of the light visible from afar, the slippery flat rocks that felt secure and scary at the same time. It was the wildest and most remote place in my young life, a marked contrast to the calmer beauty of Curracloe and Ballinesker beaches. And the lighthouse – that beacon of hope and security, that sweeping light that scanned the moody sea with yearning and wander lust – I could watch it for hours.
So in 1999 a much older and better-travelled me took just 15 minutes to decide to purchase, on pure impulse, a little holiday home in Duncannon with a view of the sea and a direct line of sight to the lighthouse, a house I had not even been inside. And now that light beats out its rhythm on my dormer windows and I can sit in the kitchen and gaze out at it on a moonlit night when I am down there at weekends. There’s something about it that stills my soul.
My son Shane inherited my love of lighthouses. Like me he searches them out wherever he is in the world and in the 15 years he has been visiting Duncannon, Hook has become his special place. He brought Shan there on her first visit to Ireland. It’s where they took Dermot to mark Shane’s first Father’s Day. On Christmas Day 2013 they took Shan’s visiting Chinese family down to the Hook for a bracing pre-dinner walk. We nearly lost a few of them to the elements such was their fascination with the place, coming as they do from Urumqi, the most inland regional capital in China.
And now it’s Dermot’s turn. Just turned two and recently arrived from Beijing to live in Ireland he remembers it from earlier visits. “Deng ta 灯塔” he calls over and over as he tries to explain its magic to me in his own unique combination of Chinese, English and “Dermish”. “Deng ta” he yells if he sees any photo or painting it, recognising not just any lighthouse but his very own light house. He loves to visit it, hates to leave and wants to return the very next day. When his MaMa had shown him how he could see the light from his Duncannon bedroom window he got sad when day light came and the light was “aw gon”. Back in the city streets of Dublin he searches for lighthouse like shapes in street lamps and buildings and talks about it incessantly.
Yesterday I walked him around our house as he pointed out all the extended family he now recognises – MaMa, DaDa, YeYe, NaiNai, Claire, Mikey, Tai Tai, Jodie, hesitating only when he came to the photo of my Dad. I realised with a jolt how much my Dad would have loved getting to know this little man who loves lighthouses and cars in almost equal measure. What’s bred in the bone…
He is a near neighbour now is our Dermot, living just 5 minutes drive down the road from us in Bray. I still can’t get used to the joy of the proximity, the endless possibilities to plan little outings, the goodbyes that are no longer a wrench from the heart, the sleepovers – he had his first with us this week, the babble and chatter in two languages (or is it three) – as ordinary a grandparent relationship as it gets but for me, after two years of FaceTime and airport partings, extraordinary.
Cooking is bred in my daughter in law Shan’s bones and an unexpected bonus of their arrival to live in Ireland is impromptu invites to dinner in their new home where she puts together meals that set our tastebuds alight and transport us back to Beijing. I suspect Dermot may inherit that from her too. Already one of his favourite things to do is to leaf through my Chinese cookery books licking his lips at examples of hao chi – tasty food – and telling me the names of the main ingredients.
Shan never needs a cookbook of course. She just comes up with the dishes by instinct with whatever ingredients are to hand. Last night she served us a lip-tingling Sichuan style chicken dish that was so good that I got her to write down the recipe before she forgot it. Here it is.
Shan’s Tingling Fragrant Chicken – 麻香鸡

Shan's tingling, fragrant chicken
Shan’s tingling, fragrant chicken

Serves two as a main course or 4 as part of a multi-course meal

  • 400g skinless and boneless chicken thighs
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 green pepper
  • ½ a carrot
  • ¼ of an onion
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • Small chunk of ginger
  • 1 fresh chilli
  • 2 tsp Sichuan peppercorn
  • ½ of one star anise
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • A few dried chillies
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • Salt
  • Sunflower oil


  1. Dice the chicken thigh into small cubes about 1 to 2 cm on each side.
  2. De-seed the red and green pepper, peel the carrots into to similar square flat pieces.
  3. Peel the onion, garlic, ginger and cut into thin slices.
  4. Thinly slice the fresh chilli.
  5. Line up your other ingredients.


  1. Heat 4 tbs of sunflower oil in a wok over moderate to high heat. Put 1 tsp of Sichuan peppercorn and star anise and the ginger into the wok while the oil is getting hotter, adding the onions in when the scent of Sichuan peppercorn is oozing out. Stir fry for a minute then add the diced chicken thigh meat and  cook until the chicken is well done. Then take the chicken out of the oil and rest it on kitchen paper. Drain your wok and wipe clean.
  2. Heat 2 tbs of fresh sunflower oil in the wok, adding 1 tsp of Sichuan peppercorn, ½ tsp of cumin seeds and dried chillies while the oil is heating up. When the scent of Sichuan peppercorn and chillies starts to ooze, add garlic slices and stir fry for a bit, then add the carrots (don’t wait until the garlic has burned!) After the carrots have had a few moments to soften, add in the peppers and the fresh chillies.
  3. Add 1 tsp of dark soy sauce and stir for few seconds then return the chicken to the wok. Stir-fry for 2 minutes to mix the flavours, then add 2 tsp of sugar and stir for another 2 minutes.
  4. Add a little over ½ tsp of salt, adjusting the seasoning to suit your preference. Then stir-fry for another minute or two depending on your preference for how well the peppers are cooked – we like ours crunchy – and serve immediately with steamed rice and a stir-fried vegetable such as broccoli with garlic.

You can use chicken breast meat if thigh is not available and groundnut oil instead of sunflower oil. You can use all fresh or all dried chillies, whatever you have handy and adjust the chilli heat to taste.
Thank you Shan for the recipe, the inspiration and getting me blog-writing again, Shane for the photos of Hook Head taken last Monday and Dermot well just for being Dermot.

Visiting Sydney with a Small Boy – it's all happening at Taronga Zoo

I love the way little people define their world. It reminds me of how we used to say our night prayers when we were small, listing off like a mantra all those we loved. I was listening to Dermot tonight as he chatted away happily to himself in a sing-song voice in the next room, reciting “MaMa, DaDa, Claire, Mikey, NaiNai, YeYe, NaiNai… and then, after a pause,  huati (slide), che (car), huo che (train), haishui (the sea), before repeating the list of names again and eventually drifting off to sleep, content in the boundaries of his little life.
He had an exciting day today – a trip to the beautiful Taronga Zoo in Sydney which involved a bus ride to Circular Quay, a ferry across Sydney harbour, a cable car to the zoo’s main entrance and, later, a train ride across town to dinner in The Chef’s Gallery, a Chinese restaurant near Darling Harbour. But that wasn’t enough to wear him out before bedtime so we had to end the day as he had begun it with his other NaiNai, with a visit to the local playground up the road here in Randwick before returning home with a dirty face, a cheeky grin and a few more bruises from slides and football.
Sydney is a wonderful city for children and as I gaze at my daughter Claire’s growing belly I envy that new life inside her and the childhood Claire and Mike can hope to provide for him or her in this beautiful, child-friendly place.
Over the two weeks we have been here, I’ve watched Dermot change from being a shy little boy, used to spending most of his time in a 21st floor Beijing apartment, to one who can’t wait to get out the door each morning and on to the next adventure. I’ve watched him begin to connect with other children, making eyes at the pretty six year old girl in the playground this evening until she eventually joined him on the see-saw and trying to get involved in an impromptu game of football.
We’ve fed ducks in Centennial Park, paddled at Clovelly Beach, had a Christmas morning picnic at Bronte Beach, visited the Sydney Aquarium, attended barbecues in Claire and Mike’s friends’ back gardens and walked the windswept promenade at Bondi, and all that apart from five days down the New South Wales Coast at Culburra Beach.

Some unlikely looking Santas on Christmas Day at Bronte Beach
Some unlikely looking Santas on Christmas Day at Bronte

And unlikely looking Supermen with their YeYes too
And an unlikely looking Superman with his YeYe!

Getting around Sydney with young children is relatively easy – the buses, ferries, trains and even the Taronga Zoo sky-train are designed to be accessible and locals will go out of their way to make sure that space is made available for a child in a buggy.
Spotted in the window of a Sydney Bus
Spotted in the window of a Sydney Bus

Children lead an outdoor life here, well protected from the sun with high factor suncreams and body suits or snuggled in children’s tents on the beach for their afternoon naps. Running buggies are a common sight and birthday parties start as early as 10 am in the cool shade of Centennial Parklands.
Feeding the Ducks in Centennial Park
Feeding the Ducks in Centennial Park

Many restaurants are geared up for toddlers with high chairs and kids menus. The Chef’s Gallery provided Dermot with his own bowl, Chinese spoon and mug today, complete with illustrations of a monkey. The major attractions are expensive but you can get better value at Sydney Aquarium by buying tickets on line in advance and the best value way to get to Taronga Zoo is to buy an all-inclusive ferry, sky-train and zoo entrance ticket at Wharf 2 on Circular Quay. In general children under four are free and of course the beaches and parks are free for all to use and equipped with dedicated spots to set up your barbie for breakfast or lunch.
If I was to do just one thing with children here it would be bring them to Taronga Zoo. It has to be one of the most beautifully laid out zoos in the world with stunning views over Sydney Harbour. As you rise above it in the Sky Train to the entrance at the very top you get a bird’s eye view of the elephant enclosures and the big cats. The tall giraffes have the best views of all looking out onto Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Happy Giraffes
Happy Giraffes

The Australian walkabout takes you past kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and many other native species I had never heard of although Claire has encountered some of them in the wild. In keeping with the ethos of the zoo, the kangaroos and wallabies aren’t even fenced in, it’s just the daily visitors that have to stick to the paths. It’s obvious that the guides and keepers love their jobs and the animals in their charge. The gorillas are disdainful, the meerkats cute, the platypus delightful and the Tasmanian Devils not as angry looking as I expected. There is a great programme of talks and close-up encounters too. Needless to say Dermot was as excited by the che – the sky cars passing overhead – as he was by any of the animals.
A cable car with a view of Sydney Harbour
“Wow YeYe!”

Arriving at the zoo by ferry is an added bonus. I am constantly smitten by the sheer, exhilarating beauty of Sydney Harbour and I can think of no nicer daily commute.
Happy days on Sydney Harbour
Happy days on Sydney Harbour

"Hi NaiNai!"
“Hi NaiNai!”

For an authentic taste of China in Sydney, I can also strongly recommend The Chef’s Gallery – we visited the one near Sydney’s Chinatown but there are several branches around the city. The Three Cup Chicken, Sichuan Green Beans and Red Braised Pork Belly were among the best we’ve tasted. The noodle master swinging his rope of noodles in the open kitchen made MaMa feel right at home.
Shane and Shan’s time here is drawing to a close and they return to the icy Beijing winter in a few days before relocating to Ireland at the end of the month. We will miss them until we meet again. They will be sad to leave Sydney and us too no doubt and MaMa will miss them and Dermot very much when they leave Beijing. As for Dermot, who knows what goes on in that little head of his as he processes all the change and new experiences. I just hope some subliminal memory of his time here in Sydney will stay with him for life.
"Do More of What Makes You Happy!"
Claire and Mike’s fridge door – “Do More of What Makes You Happy!”


Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns – a taste of Asian Fusion

It was the Friday night before Christmas, the fire glowing in the grate, the Late Late Show on in the background. An ordinary pre-Christmas Friday night, except that for us it was not. It was to be our last night in front of the fire this Christmas, unless you count barbecues. The following day we set out for Sydney to visit our daughter Claire and her husband Mike and to meet up with our son Shane, Shan, Dermot and Shan’s MaMa who had arrived there a week ahead of us from Beijing.
Instead of attending to the last of the packing, I was pulling together a folder of recipes I could cook on the barbecue or in the wok while I was in Australia. I started this blogpost that night and haven’t had a moment to finish it since. Sometimes living life to the full eats into the time for blogging.
A dish that I cook often is Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns. I got the recipe from Chi Asian Takeaway in Galway when I was researching recipes for the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival Website in 2013. It is a light, fresh-tasting, vegetable rich dish that reminds me of the kind of Asian fusion dishes I’ve sampled in Sydney so I brought the recipe with me.
Fast forward a fortnight and here we are in the steamy heat of a suburban, summer Randwick evening. Christmas day is already a happy memory. We spent five days over the New Year holiday at Culburra beach in southern New South Wales. Now we are back in the Sydney suburbs and, as an antidote to the copious quantities of barbecued meat we’ve eaten in recent days, we had an Asian feast this evening of prawns, di san xiang (earth three fresh), stir-fried Chinese cabbage with chilli and ma po dou fu. Shan cooked the three Chinese dishes and you will find links to recipes for them above. I made a big platter of the prawn dish. Shan’s MaMa declared the meal hao chi – good food.
I’ve many tales to tell of our adventures in the southern hemisphere and of our Australian, Chinese, Irish celebration of Christmas and the new year. Now that I am back in a wifi zone I am hoping to catch up with a few blog posts in coming days.
Meanwhile I hope you enjoy the recipe below as much as we did and happy new year to all my lovely readers. I hope you continue to enjoy the blog in 2015.
Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns

Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns
Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns

Serves 2 as a main course or 3 – 4 as part of a multi-course meal

  • 18 large prawns, peeled, de-veined and slit from head to tail
  • Two slices of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • ½ onion, peeled and finely sliced
  • 1 – 2 red chillies finely sliced
  • a stalk of lemon grass, white part only, finely chopped
  • ½ red pepper, finely sliced
  • 8 mange tout
  • 10 green beans, halved
  • 8 cherry tomatoes
  • 8 kaffir lime leaves
  • groundnut or sunflower oil

For the sauce

  • 2 tbs Sri Racha hot chilli sauce
  • 2 tbs tomato sauce
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 8 tbs water
  • 1 tsp cornflour
  • pinch of sesame seeds

To garnish

  • A few sprigs of fresh coriander
  • A handful of roasted cashew nuts

Preparation and cooking 

  1. Mix the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
  2. Heat up a wok and add a few tablespoons cooking oil. Once the oil gets very hot remove it from the heat source. Add the chopped ginger, onions, chillies and lemon grass and quickly stir them in the hot oil.
  3. Return the wok to the heat and add the red pepper, mange tout, green beans, cherry tomatoes, kaffir lime leaves and prawns. Continue to toss in the wok.
  4. As the prawns begin to firm up and turn pink, give the sauce a quick stir and add it to the wok, all the time stirring and tossing. Once the sauce has thickened turn off the heat.
  5. The dish is ready once the prawns are cooked and nicely pink. The whole process usually takes less than 5 minutes. Garnish with fresh coriander and roasted cashews and serve immediately with steamed rice.

Ringing the changes with some simple Chinese stir-fries

Around about this time last year I was preparing for a very unusual twelve days of Christmas as we awaited the arrival of my daughter in law Shan’s family from Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, China to celebrate her and Shane’s wedding and Dermot’s christening at the end of December. My daughter Claire and her husband Mike came home from Australia to join us, making last Christmas a special time and, with the benefit of hindsight, hectic, exhausting and great fun in almost equal measures.
This Christmas will be different but no less special. This year we gather in Claire and Mike’s new home in the suburbs of Sydney with Shane, Shan, her MaMa and Dermot, to celebrate Dermot’s second Christmas.
As we head into 2015 the waiting takes on a different tinge. Claire and Mike are expecting their first baby in April and Shane, Shan and Dermot are coming to live in Ireland at the end of January. There, I put all that in one sentence but the bare words don’t do justice to the repressed excitement I feel at the prospect of those events.
This weekend we got our first proper glimpse of Claire and Mike’s baby in the making and it only seems like yesterday that we were looking at similar scans of little Dermot.
This weekend too, by complete chance and good luck, Shane and Shan found a lovely place to live, within walking distance of our house and Bray seafront. It means that instead of coming to stay with us for some indeterminate period, they can set up their own home straight away and settle into a new life here, swapping this….

The "view" from Shane's 21st floor Beijing apartment last Saturday
The “view” from a 21st floor Beijing apartment last Saturday

For this…
The outlook near Bray last Saturday
The outlook near Bray on the same day

It seems as if the stars are in alignment for my offspring just now and a positive force is at work in all their lives.
Thinking about Claire and Mike’s baby and my grandson coming to live nearby,  I found myself re-reading older entries on the blog – my first letter to Dermot and Shane’s post about the day they moved apartment – and getting teary-eyed in the process. Time moves like an arrow as Shane says. Dermot has brought much joy and fun into our lives over the past two years despite the distance and I have to pinch myself to make real the thought that I will be able to see him much more often. This time around, with Claire’s child, I am more prepared for the overwhelming emotion a grandchild provokes but also more confident that it is possible to build a relationship with that little person long distance.
With all that is going on it is all the more special to have Shan’s MaMa with us in Australia, knowing that she will have to take on the role of long distance nainai soon. I have been trying my best to learn a few words of Chinese so that she and I can  work side by side in Claire’s kitchen rustling up stir-fried vegetables to go with the protein rich “barbies” prepared by the guys to celebrate Christmas Aussie style while Claire sits back with her feet up and Shan looks after Dermot. Well that’s the mental picture I have anyway.
Which brings me, in avery roundabout way, to today’s recipes for stir-fried vegetables. When Shan and her family were with us last year, nothing went to waste in our house. Left over salad leaves were turned into stir-fries or added to fried rice or noodles. Vegetables were blanched and tossed in the wok with a few simple seasonings. It was Shan who introduced me to stir-frying lettuce. Any bag of mixed leaves that I had forgotten to serve with a steak ended up in the wok. Left-over broccoli or other vegetables got fried off with a little garlic and maybe a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil along the lines of my friend and teacher Wei Wei’s recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Garlic.
The Chinese love to cook lettuce so I wasn’t a bit surprised to come upon a recipe for stir-fried iceberg lettuce in Grace Young’s cookbook The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. It makes perfect sense to me that Chinese immigrants to America would take the humble iceberg lettuce and treat it the way they would bai cai or other Chinese greens.
You will find Grace’s full recipe here on or in her book which you can get on Kindle or from But at its simplest this recipe involves frying off some sliced or chopped garlic in a wok in a little hot oil, wilting in a head of iceberg lettuce leaves and adding a some light soy sauce, sesame oil, Shaoxing rice wine and a pinch of sugar, salt and pepper. I also like to toss in some crumbled dried chilli peppers with the garlic. It really is that easy so play around with it to get the balance of flavours you like best and use up whatever left over leaves you have in the fridge.
Stir-fried lettuce with chilli and garlic
Stir-fried lettuce with chilli and garlic

Meanwhile back in my house my Chinese lessons  with Wei Wei continue and she has also been teaching me how to cook simple side dishes of vegetables that can add colour and flavour to a meal. One such dish is her mushroom and pepper stir-fry. I’m sure she will post detailed instructions and pictures soon on her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen but here is the basic idea.
Stir-fried Mushrooms and Peppers – 甜椒炒蘑菇 – tian jiao chao mo gu
Stir-fried Mushrooms and Peppers
Stir-fried Mushrooms and Peppers


  • 250g mushrooms
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 spring onion
  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • salt
  • cooking oil


  1. Wash or wipe the mushrooms, blanch in boiling water and drain. (This step is necessary is so that the mushrooms will cook as fast as the peppers).
  2. Slice the blanched mushrooms and cut the peppers into wedges. Cut the spring onion into sections.
  3. Heat the wok, add 2 tbs cooking oil and when the oil is hot add the spring onion, stir-frying briefly until the flavour is released.
  4. Add in the peppers and stir-fry briskly for about two minutes until they begin to char and. Add the mushroom slices and mix well. They will only need a minute or so to cook.
  5. Season with soy sauce, sugar and salt to taste and serve immediately.

I look forward to Shananigans taking a Christmas detour to the southern hemisphere and to keeping you posted on some more culinary adventures.