Chinese kitchen essentials

I first posted this list the day Shananigans was a month old but I learn something new every week so I update it regularly.
I love getting feedback from friends, tweeps and readers who have been trying out Shaningans recipes at home and finding out for yourselves how easy, good value and nutritious they can be.
Don’t forget that all the recipes we’ve tried so far in Beijing, Sydney and Dublin are in the archives and I’ve tried to make them a bit easier to find by categorising them by principal ingredient. While some need a few unusual or exotic ingredients, not all do and not all are terrifyingly spicy. As time goes by, and I work around the different regions of China, you will learn along with me which regions favour the spicier food and which produce dishes that are more accessible to the western palate. And I suspect, like me, you will become more adventurous in your tastes as you go along. While the chilli heat of the recipes may vary, one thing you will discover is that Chinese food is never boring or bland.
You will also find in the archives tales of our travels in China, of good food experiences in Ireland and elsewhere and of the fun we are having connecting our family in China, Oz and Ireland through food.
A few questions have come up over the past few weeks about cookbooks, ingredients and the basic kit you need to cook Chinese foods so here is a brief recap.


Since I started on this journey I’ve made new “friends” with food writers that have inspired and challenged me. All of these books are available from good book shops such as Hodges Figgis in Dublin or from Amazon.
Gok Wan was my first “discovery” (I know, I was late to that party!) and his Gok Cooks Chinese, which I came upon in the Wexford Book Centre has become a firm favourite. His recipes are straightforward and easy to follow and it’s worth watching the TV series on which the cookbook is based on the Channel 4 Player or keep an eye out for repeats. Thanks to Gok I’ve gained the confidence to make Dim Sum as well as a host of other lovely family dishes. His influences are mainly Cantonese so his food isn’t overly spicy.
Next up in order of discovery is the visually stunning and evocative BBC2 series “Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure“. Ken Hom and Ching He Huang’s journey through Chinese regional cuisine mirrors my own dreams of exploration and some of my experiences. The book that accompanies the series is as much a travelogue and social history as a cook book and captures their insights and discoveries as they travel through China. For both of them it is something of a voyage of rediscovery into their Chinese heritage. Some of the recipes are a bit more complex but it is a beautifully produced book to have on your bookshelf or kitchen table.
It was the addictive, spicy food of Sichuan province that started me on this food journey on my first night in Beijing last June when it blew my mind as well as my taste buds. It was inevitable that within a week of returning I would stumble upon Fuchsia Dunlop whose Sichuan Cookery is the definitive guide to that region. I’ve already tried her Ma Po Dou Fu and Dan Dan Noodles with near perfect results. I have made recipes such as Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork from her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook on Hunan Cuisine. Her most recent and accessible cookbook on simple Chinese food, Every Grain of Rice, is rapidly becoming one of my favourites and the one I reach for when I want to rustle up something quick and easy for a weekday dinner.
But Fuchsia is more than a chef, she is a wonderful food and travel writer. Her memoir Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is an enthralling journey through a Chinese landscape that I can only glimpse the aftermath of in 2012, told with wit, humour, keen observation and an objective honesty about the China she encountered tempered with a love of its people and food. I loved every moment of it and read it with a tinge of regret that I can never have her experience of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, so rapidly is the Chinese landscape and cityscape developing.
My journey through the regions led me to The Food of China – a journey for food lovers first published around 2001 which is a great, colourful introduction to the landscape of chinese food with manageable recipes and not a celebrity chef in sight. The Cantonese recipe Lemon Chicken came from this book.
And finally I have to spare an affectionate thought for my first ever Chinese “cookbook” more a recipe leaflet really, produced by Sharwoods when they first introduced a range of Chinese foodstuffs and prepared sauces to Ireland in what must have been the late 1970s. I will forever have a soft spot for that booklet which hooked me into Chinese cooking and using chopsticks when it was relatively unheard of in Ireland. And do you know the recipes still work – I might just reproduce one of them one of these days… I bet you some of you have this hidden away on your bookshelf somewhere. Go on. Check.
Store cupboard ingredients
I took a tip from Gok Wan from his first episode. I invested in two cheap wicker baskets in which I store all my Chinese ingredients and I keep them separate from all my other store cupboard ingredients (stored under the butcher block in my case) so that they are always easy to find. They even travel with me in the back of the car to Duncannon at weekends.
I buy ingredients as I need them for specific recipes. Once you make the initial investment, replacements are relatively infrequent and not very expensive. I keep a list in notes on my iPhone when bottles or packets run low and stock up on them whenever I visit the Asia Market or a good store.
A lot of these ingredients are  available in supermarkets in ranges such as Sharwoods, still on the go all these years later. Speciality food stores and good local greengrocers are also good sources of many of these ingredients. Brands such as Lee Kum Kee, Blue Dragon and Pearl River Bridge are also readily available.
I’ve tracked down all of the ingredients in the Asia Market in Drury St. or Oriental Emporium in Jervis St., both in Dublin city centre, or in the Tony’s Asia Market in Bray, Co. Wicklow (opposite the Royal Hotel). Tony in Bray is particularly helpful at finding products in his densely packed shop and will go looking for them for you if they are not in stock.
Many of these ingredients are also available in good supermarkets or speciality food shops such as Roy Fox Gourmet Foods in Donnybrook. Niall at Get Fresh Rathfarnham has at least 90% of the items in stock and is working on sourcing the rest. Kate’s Farm Shop in Wexford also has a good range of oriental ingredients and spices.

Where I have found a brand that I like I have included it in brackets below but in most cases there are alternatives.

In my ever expanding “sauce/ jar” basket I have:

  • Light soy sauce (Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Dark soy sauce  (Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Shaoxing cooking wine* – sherry or white wine can be used as a substitute but Shaoxing is cheaper and has a more authentic flavour
  • Chinese black vinegar – Chinkiang Vinegar (Gold Plum)* or any good Chinese black vinegar. Watch out for aged black vinegar – Balsamic vinegar can be used as a substitute but the flavour is different
  • White rice vinegar (Blue Dragon)
  • Sesame oil (Lee Kum Kee)*
  • Chilli oil (Lee Kum Kee) but home made is nicer – see this post*
  • Oyster sauce (Panda)
  • Fish sauce (Squid)
  • Maggi sauce*
  • Hoisin sauce – home made is best – see this post
  • Sesame paste
  • Sichuan chilli paste made with broad beans – douban djan (Lee Kum Kee Chilli Toban Djan chilli bean sauce is a good substitute)*
  • Laoganma chilli bean sauce*
  • Yellow bean sauce
  • Tianjin preserved vegetables (Yongnian Mengde Food Co. Ltd.)*
  • Ground nut oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil (rapeseed oil, now readily available in Ireland, is typically used in Sichuan cooking).

In my “spices/dry-goods/cans” basket I have:

  • Sichuan peppercorns – a vital ingredients. See below and try Green Cuisine or Bart’s Spices if you can’t get the good stuff.
  • Fermented black beans (Pearl River Bridge)*
  • Water chestnuts
  • Anchovies
  • Dried Chinese shitake mushrooms
  • Large whole chillies or chilli pieces – the milder or Sichuan type, not the small, fiendishly hot Thai ones – you will find these in Asian markets described as Chinese long chillies*
  • Chilli flakes
  • Ground Chilli
  • Dried shrimps*
  • Star anise
  • Cinnamon or cassia bark* – the Chinese substitute this for cinnamon
  • Chinese white pepper (ordinary white pepper will do but if in an Asian market pick up some Chinese )
  • Dried noodles and egg noodles (I find these easier to get in good quality in a supermarket. I particularly like Blue Dragon wholewheat noodles and their medium egg noodles)
  • Cornflour
  • Potato flour*
  • Rice flour*
  • Rice – thai jasmine rice
  • Fine sea salt – sea salt flakes do not dissolve fast enough when stir-frying
  • White pepper – there is a special Chinese type which is very aromatic but ordinary white pepper will do – Chinese cooks consider flecks of black pepper unsightly.

*all available in Asisan supermarkets
I acquired a few exotic ingredients when I was making Gok Wan’s dim sum including some very camp dried lotus leaves that open up to look like enormous fans and ridiculously expensive dried scallops which will last me a lifetime but you don’t need these unless you are going to do his sticky rice parcels and even then you can improvise.
A few items are hard to come by in the quality available in Beijing – Sichuan peppers and Sichuan dried chillies in particular. A lot of the Asian Markets here are Cantonese owned and do not seem to import direct from Sichuan. Restaurants like The China Sichuan import their own. The Green Cuisine range includes Sichuan pepper and cassia bark among other exotic spices Bart’s Spices is another good quality range. I recently found them in the Harvey Nichols in Dundrum. They can be expensive in small quantities so I bring home a supply whenever I am over in Beijing.
It’s impossible to get through a weekend of Chinese cooking without the holy trinity of fresh ingredients:

  • Spring onions
  • Ginger
  • Garlic.

and I also usually need some fresh red and green chillies. The garlic keeps but I usually buy a “hand” of ginger, a bunch or two of spring onions (Irish if at all possible) and a few red chillies each Saturday. I’m constantly searching for fresh Irish vegetables for use in the recipes and try to always use what is in season. Irish pak choi is readily available.

Your Chinese kitchen

My favourite place to buy kitchen equipment is Sweeney O’Rourke, Pearse St. Dublin which has been  supplying the catering trade in ireland for over 30 years. Prices are reasonable, the staff are very helpful and you can even have your knives sharpened for about €1.50 each. I have found nearly everything I need for Chinese cooking there including my latest stainless steel cleaver which is better suited for fine work than the cleaver I originally bought which I use for chopping meat.
What few things you cant get at Sweeney O’Rourke you will pick up at the Asia Market or the Oriental Emporium. Many items are also available in the kitchen shops of Brown Thomas or other large Department stores and in specialist kitchen shops.
It’s not for nothing that countless generations of Chinese have cooked sumptuous meals in tiny kitchens in claustrophobic spaces with only a hob and the space for a chopping board. I was amazed at how small the kitchens are, even in modern Chinese apartments and an oven or grill is still a rarity. So, apart from one or two rings on which to cook, all you really need is:

  • A wok or two or three – one that requires seasoning before use and takes on the “patina” of the food cooked in it over time gives a much more authentic flavour. Go for a type that suits your hob – I have an induction hob which limits me a bit but I find the “boost” function on an induction hob is fantastic for fast stir-fry cooking. Woks are available in Sweeney O’Rourke, the Asian Market, Oriental Emporium, Ikea and most kitchen stores. They are inexpensive. I have two – a larger one for deep-frying and steaming and a medium one capable of handling a stir-fry for two to three people. My favourite, multi-purpose wok is this one from Ikea which has great capacity and cost €43
  • A ladle, shovel and strainer – these are cheap and great fun. They make you feel like a real Chinese cook. The strainer is great for working with deep-frying in the wok.
  • A chopping board, preferably round as the Chinese consider that more auspicious, or use plastic boards colour-coded for food safety
  • A cleaver – mine still scares me and I haven’t got the hang of it. Now that I’ve attended a Knife Skills Course, I’ve reverted to a Chef’s knife for dicing garlic and ginger. I have ambitions though. I aspire to being able to use two simultaneously to mince meat like they do at the markets in China! (update in November 2013 – I now own 5 cleavers and use them all the time!!)
  • A set of stacking bamboo steamers in various sizes with lids for each stack. Make sure at least one is big enough to take a dinner plate and one small enough for pancakes. Cooking with steamers is a revelation and so healthy.

Indispensable Chinese kit

This final bit of kit is far from being an essential but is my favourite – a genuine Shabu Shabu hotpot which I bought on line from the lovely Sophie in Table Top Cookware who had no difficulty arranging it’s delivery to Ireland.
Shabu Shabu Hotpot

And finally… a film

This is not a book, ingredient or implement but if you can get hold of it it will complete your love for Chinese food and culture.
Ang Lee’s film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is an absolute treasure for anyone who wants to understand the importance of food and family in China and the opening scene is pure food porn.
Unfortunately it never seems to have gone on general release here in Ireland but it is available from Amazon. Just make sure it’s “region free” before you buy.

Home-Style Lemon Chicken with Earth Three Fresh

I feel I should begin this post with “well that didn’t go so well…” You know that moment in the kitchen when you realise you have taken on too many dishes simultaneously. You’ve got yourself addled trying to follow 3 recipes at the one time – one in draft on your lap top plugged in and charging at the other end of the room. There are too many pots jostling on the hob. You’ve lost track of which ingredients are for which dish and those dried chillies you bought today aren’t the mild chilli pieces you have at home that you can pile on certain dishes but fiery monsters from Mexico that have you leaping around the kitchen yelping for water. And to top it all you throw your carefully hoarded supply of Sichuan pepper, which Shan brought from China, into the bin, confusing it with the much milder variety you bought in Dublin which has nothing like the same punch. Note to self – time to learn the mandarin for Sichuan pepper.
It’s days like this that sap your confidence in the kitchen and make you wonder who are you kidding that you can become a competent cook of Chinese food, never mind tell other people about it. The net result of yesterday’s efforts is that my attempt at replicating the fantastic Chongqing Chicken I had in China Sichuan was edible but nothing like the real thing. Back to the drawing board one on that one.
On the other hand the Lemon Chicken dish largely based on the recipe in “The Food of China – a Journey for Food Lovers” was delicious.

A great choice for your Chinese cookbook shelf

The book was recommended to me by Joanne Cronin (Stitch and Bear; @dudara) who has owned it since first came out in 2001. It arrived to me in a package from Amazon on Friday and it’s one of those gorgeous publications that you want to read from cover to cover – a great starter guide to food journeys in China.
Lemon chicken is a staple Cantonese dish but this version is light and delicious and not a bit like the gloopy sauce you might get in a Chinese takeaway. I must “‘fess up”. My variation on the recipe is because I got so hassled last night that I left out one complete step in the cooking process but somehow it worked so I’m describing it exactly as I made it.
Home-Style Lemon Chicken (Ning Meng Ji)

This dish goes particularly well with Shan’s Earth Three Fresh (Di San Xian). Neither dish is spicy and the pale lemony chicken complements perfectly the bright colours and flavours of the peppers, golden potato wedges and aubergine. The balance of nutrients felt good too.
My version of Di San Xian

Continue reading Home-Style Lemon Chicken with Earth Three Fresh

Shan's Earth Three Fresh Vegetable Dish

I love the evocative name of this dish which is a very common dish in restaurants in China, especially in the Northeast of China. It is easy to cook and best eaten with rice. It is so named because the 3 main ingredients are fresh vegetables – peppers, potato and aubergine.
Shane says Shan’s first attempt to cook this dish was delicious and he sent us this photo of her efforts.

Continue reading Shan's Earth Three Fresh Vegetable Dish

"If the heart is bright the wonderful will appear" – of shards, temples and the cycle of life

Of shards…

There’s a shop in in Beijing just down the road from Shane & Shan’s apartment called the Shard Box Store.  It is crammed with little boxes in rosewood and silver, inlaid with shards of antique porcelain, handmade silver bracelets set with porcelain fragments and necklaces and earrings in white jade and gemstones. I spoke to Mr. Hu the son of the founder of the store, a darling of a man with reasonably good English who would have chatted a quiet Tuesday morning away.

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) keeping antique porcelain at home was illegal and owning such “bourgeois” items could mean the death penalty. So many collectors just broke their porcelain and threw it away. Tens of thousand of pieces of priceless porcelain were destroyed. Just after the Revolution ended Mr. Hu’s father, quite literally, began picking up the pieces with a dream of bringing them to life again. He collected broken pieces of antique porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasty and began to fashion them into boxes. Around 1983 the first Shard Box was created and now his shop is more than a collection of antique porcelain, it’s a collection of Chinese history. An untold story lies in each unique piece.

From the Shard Box Shop

The peach tree design on the shard box on the right above symbolises the gift of long life and is traditionally given by a daughter to her mother. I gave it to my mother on return from Beijing as she was celebrating a “significant” birthday.
The juxtaposition of old and new is everywhere in Beijing. The previous day, after a trip down to the south east of central Beijing on the pristine subway, we spent the morning at the Temple of Heaven.
Beijing Subway Station

Riding the Subway

Just a few steps away from the roar of traffic and the bustling urban streetscape lies this vast park laid out in obsessively straight lines and with all the grandeur that befits a place designed for the emperors who visited there during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties to pray for a good harvest.
Where once there were Emperors now there are Bureaucrats – sign on a Government building near Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven is striking in its scale and symmetry with its octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven and the wonderful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the glorious dark blue roof tiles representing the heavens. We entered from the south gate so that we got the perspective that would have greeted arriving emperors as they processed from “earth” to “heaven”, albeit with some noisy tour groups in our line of vision – no ordinary mortals were allowed in while the Emperors passed through. We left through the shaded arcade where successive generations of Chinese continue to play cards, mahjong, dance and sing in the early afternoon.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

Detail of roof tiles

For all its grandeur I couldn’t quite get enthused about the concept of the Emperor as the Son of Heaven administering earthly matters on behalf of the heavens.  No essence of spirituality lingers in the place. And yet the idea of a ceremony performed on the Earthly Mount at the winter solstice, which had to be absolutely perfect in its execution lest it be a bad omen for the coming year, resonated with our own Newgrange.
Instead it was the Lama Temple that captured my heart. This Tibetan Buddhist monastery, one of the largest in China is an achingly beautiful and soothing spot in the heart of the city. We wandered into it late in the afternoon from the nerve-jangling traffic outside, just as the tourists drifted away and those that remained were pilgrims burning incense to the Buddhas – the Buddhas of the present, past and future in the Hall of Harmony and Peace and the tall Maitreya Buddha in the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses. There was something seductive, peaceful and spiritual in the dimming light as the golden Buddhas, some happy and playful, some serene, kept watch over their devotees and I found myself praying to the Buddhist ancestors of our unborn grandchild whose existence we had just learned of the previous day.
Lama Temple looms serenely over evening traffic

Pilgrims pray at Lama Temple in the fading evening light

Evoking the smell of incense

The mysterious beauty of the Buddha

No smoking indeed!

So serene…

Afterwards we wandered across several blocks of the city to meet Shane and his Enter the Panda business partner Dave before dinner. We walked past enormous shopping plazas and the Beijing Bentley store wondering what vehicles the kids playing outside would grow up to use.
Beijing Bentley
Bentleys, bikes or smart cars for these Beijing kids?

Dave took us to all to a Macau Hotpot restaurant for dinner. Hotpot is yet another great Chinese tradition – food for sharing, you just choose the stock poured into your own individual cooking pot bubbling at your table and decide what meat, fish, vegetables and seasonings you want to plunge into it. Intrinsically healthy it was light and tasty and a perfect way to meet the other half of Enter the Panda and his lovely girlfriend.
Table laden down for Macau Hotpot – those blue things are the dreaded preserved eggs!

… and the cycle of life….
Just before we arrived in Beijing , Shane and Shan started a window garden to grow their own chillies. He sent me these photos yesterday. Even the Beijing smog cannot inhibit new growth.
Chinese basil reaching for the light

Shane and Shan’s first crop of chillies

Last Saturday, the day the article on Shananigans appeared in the Irish Times Food File, coincided with the second anniversary of Shane and Shan’s first meeting. Shan’s anniversary gift to Shane was the first scan of their unborn child, the first of a new generation in our family.

“If the heart is bright, the wonderful will appear” – inscription over the Future Buddha in Lama Temple 


  • The Shard Box Store I visited is at No. 2 Jiangtai Rd., Chaoyang District, Beijing
  • Temple of Heaven is close to the subway stop at Tiantandongmen
  • Lama Temple is close to the subway stop at Yonghegong

Variations of Shan's Xinjiang Lamb Spaghetti on three continents and Winter Vegetable Stir-fry

Hmm… I detect a touch of competition arising in my family across three continents…
I prepared Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti with lamb last week and it turned out like this:

Xinjiang Spaghetti with Lamb

Shane made his vegetarian version in Beijing yesterday using aubergines (without spaghetti or lamb!) with the results shown in the picture below and he accompanied it with an egg dish Xi Hong Shi Chao Ji Dan

Shane’s Xinjiang Aubergines

Not to be outdone, Claire also cooked the lamb dish and accompanied it with a vegetable stir-fry.
“To ensure I’m keeping up with the family in the kitchen I cooked Xinjiang spaghetti this evening, yummy!” she says.
Claire’s dish looked like this in preparation:
Preparing Xinjiang Lamb

And this is her finished product:
Claire’s Xinjiang Lamb

Claire says “I also cooked a Chinese winter veg stir-fry with five spice which was also yummy but I couldn’t get a pretty photo!”

Bear in mind that it’s winter where Claire is in Sydney, Australia. Claire’s recipe for winter vegetable stir fry came from her newest, favourite cookbook-  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – River Cottage Veg Everyday Cookbook. She made it without the Brussels sprouts because she couldn’t get them in Australia!

Winter Veg Stir-fry with Chinese five-spice
Continue reading Variations of Shan's Xinjiang Lamb Spaghetti on three continents and Winter Vegetable Stir-fry

Sichuan Ma Po Dou Fu

I love the literal translation of this name – Pock-marked Mother Chen’s beancurd.  It was named after the smallpox-scarred wife of a Qing Dynasty restauranteur who prepared it for labourers on the way to the city markets carrying their loads of oil. Just don’t ask me when exactly she lived between 1644 and 1911.
I got used to calling Tofu “Dou Fu” while I was in China where it was a regular feature on menus and I was fascinated by its ability to take on different textures and flavours.This particular dish is traditionally served in a bowl with a good layer of chilli oil on top rather than on a plate and is eaten with a spoon. You can cut back on the oil if the idea of all those extra calories is putting you off.
I had a vegetarian variation of Ma Po Tofu inside the kitchen of the China Sichuan recently where it included yellow bean paste and Gok Wan includes a version wrapped in omelette in Gok Cooks Chinese.  But the recipe below is the traditional one taught in the Sichuan provincial cooking school and included by  Fuchsia Dunlop in her Sichuan Cookery book and I decided to stick closely to that for my own first attempt at making it at home.

Ma Po Dou Fu

This dish is yet another example of where a little meat goes a long way in Chinese dishes. Ken Hom explained that very well in the third episode of BBC Two’s Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure where a small chicken is “stretched” as we would say in Ireland to feed a small vilage. If you have a population of over 1.3 billion to feed a small amount of animal protein per person has to be supplemented with other ingredients to make tasty and nutritious meals. This leads to a very different balance between meat and other ingredients than we tend to be used to here in Ireland and one that I came to find healthier and easier to digest.
While we might balk at some of the more exotic ingredients used as sources of protein in Chinese cooking, I found when I visited Shan’s family in Xinjiang Province that their biggest concern about coming to visit us in Ireland is being faced with indigestible (to them) plates of steak!
By the way if you are keen to learn more about cooking Sichuan food, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery book is a must for your cook book library.
Sichuan Cookery

Continue reading Sichuan Ma Po Dou Fu

Easy week night suppers – Chilli Egg and Tomato and some Gok Wan specials

I had asked Shane to prepare his version of Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti with Lamb which I tried out last week and this is what I got instead:
Xinjiang Spaghetti with Lamb (without the spaghetti or lamb)
Shane says:
“Shan was in the mood for a veggie dish, so I cooked up my version of her Xinjiang Spaghetti dish. Veggies only, with eggplant (aubergines), chilli peppers, onion and garlic. Tossed with tomato and soy sauce. Served with rice.
Also threw together chilli egg and tomato (Xi Hong Shi Chao Ji Dan).

Xinjiang Aubergines & Chilli Egg and Tomato

I was interested in the Chilli Egg and Tomato dish so I asked him for the recipe. He says
“Easy enough really. Another staple dish in Chinese cuisine.” So here goes
Xi Hong Shi Chao Ji Dan Continue reading Easy week night suppers – Chilli Egg and Tomato and some Gok Wan specials

Sichuan Seafood "Duncannon" Style

Fuchsia Dunlop describes Sichuan food, Chuan Cai as the spice girl of Chinese cuisine “bold and lipsticked with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods.” Too true. Even the Chinese warn you against the chilli heat of Sichuan cooking “Ni pa bu pa la?” “Are you afraid of chilli heat?” but once you get it in the right balance it’s addictive and milder alternatives seem bland. Since I returned from China I’ve been hoping to re-create those taste sensations at home.

Sichuan mixed seafood “Duncannon style”

Drumroll everybody… this is my first time ever to create a dish without a recipe. It’s based on the Seafood Typhoon Style prepared for me Inside the Kitchen of the China Sichuan. One of the things I’m determined to do as I learn to cook Chinese food is to use the best of Irish ingredients along with authentic Chinese spices and flavourings. I’m convinced there’s a marriage made in heaven to be had here. After a morning spent yesterday at Cavistons of Glasthule, thanks to @mumofinvention, learning how to prepare crab and lobster with Peter Caviston, seafood was on my mind as I made my way south to Wexford.
Arriving in Duncannon yesterday evening

Seafood is not readily available in the land-locked province of Sichuan which explains the popularity of Fish-fragrant flavours there – see recipe for Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds. But fish is abundant here in Wexford in the south east of Ireland where I was born and where I spend many weekends in the little fishing village of Duncannon. I recently tracked down, through Twitter, a relatively new fish shop in nearby Arthurstown called Fish Ahoy. They are on Facebook and on Twitter @Fishahoy1. That means that it’s now possible to get fresh fish from Bernie by arrangement on a Sunday morning if a new boat load comes into Dunmore East or Duncannon late on the Saturday night. So I made this dish with the zingy fresh fish that had come in with the last catch of the day yesterday rather than the combination of sole. monkfish, prawns and scallop used in China Sichuan.
Fish as fresh as it gets from Fish Ahoy

So here goes with Sichuan (Chuan Cai) Seafood “Duncannon” Style. It doesn’t pretend to be an authentic Sichuan recipe but it captures the flavours all the same,

Chuan Cai Seafood “Duncannon” Style
Now don’t be expecting very precise amounts of ingredients – I’m new at this lark after all – just play around to suit your personal taste. Continue reading Sichuan Seafood "Duncannon" Style

China Sichuan's Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds

I’ve been feeling very chuffed and excited today to see in print in Food File in the Irish Times magazine. A big thank you to Marie Claire Digby for her review and to Aoife of Babaduck (@babaduck71) fame for having the thought to send me the screen grab below.

Food File, Irish Times Magazine, !8th August 2012

I’ve started reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper – a fantastic insight into her discovery of China and its cuisine. Fuchsia was the first westerner to train as a chef at China’s Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She writes beautifully and she describes vividly her first encounter with Thousand Year Old Eggs – preserved duck eggs in her case. “They leered up at me like the eyeballs of some nightmarish monster, dark and threatening.” She made me giggle because I had a very similar reaction to them and like her I had resolved to dive into the China experience this time and to eat whatever was put in front of me without question. And so I did. I swallowed every single preserved egg I encountered on my trip and felt they deserved their Chinglish title of “perservered eggs” See post on Upper East Beijing and Yuxiang Kitchen.
Fuchsia’s memoir is a testament to how much has changed since the early 1990s, not just in China but in world-wide communications. Imagine if Fuchsia had a blog and Twitter at her disposal on that first visit to Chengdu where, in reality, she was almost completely cut off from the outside world. My own 21st century China odyssey seems very tame by comparison. And yet the superficial modernisation of China can be deceptive. The “otherness” of the culture can jump out and catch you unawares.
It took me a while to figure out that “Fish-Fragrant Flavour” dishes in Sichuan cuisine have no fish in them. These You Xiang Wei Xing dishes are based on the seasonings traditionally used in fish cookery – what Fuchsia describes as salty, sweet, spicy and sour notes, heavy on garlic, ginger and spring onions and using soy sauce and sometimes chilli bean paste for seasoning.
Yu Xiang Rou – Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds is one of the dishes Ricky the head chef made for me in the China Sichuan when I visited their kitchen recently. See Inside the Kitchen of the China Sichuan. Kevin Hui kindly gave me their recipe for this dish which is one of their favourites. It’s pretty straightforward and I look forward to trying it at home (which I subsequently did and you can see my results here.)
Ingredients: Continue reading China Sichuan's Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds

Inside the Kitchen of the China Sichuan, Dublin

My first experience of Chinese food was at The Universal in Wicklow St, Dublin. As a 17 year old just out of school and “up from the country” there was a heady excitement about spending Saturday morning in the Dandelion market followed by a 10 shilling lunch of chicken and sweetcorn soup, chicken curry with fried rice and pineapple fritters with ice-cream. Oh the sophistication. I can still taste those thick gloopy slices of onion and chicken in their curry sauce. Later I graduated to Wong’s and to this day a Chinese meal doesn’t seem quite right without a few After Eights with the bill. I hankered for them in Beijing.
Sometime in the early 80s, when Claire and Shane were small children, I started cooking Chinese food at home using recipes and sauces from Sharwoods – yellow bean, black bean, hoi sin, sweet and sour, hot chilli. Our first dinner guests sent us a thank you note (people used to do that in those days) asking if we had a bevy of Chinese staff working away in the kitchen. Little did I know where this was heading…

My first Chinese cookbook

A few years ago I re-discovered the China Sichuan – – when food critic Tom Doorley reviewed it in its new location in Ballymoss Rd., Sandyford Industrial Estate, Dublin and I was lured there by the scent of tea-smoked duck and drawn back by the fiery taste of sichuan peppers, a far cry from the Cantonese food of my early Chinese food experiences.
China Sichuan, Sandyford Dublin

Yesterday Kevin Hui allowed me into his kitchen to watch his head chef Ricky prepare 4 dishes that I should be able to reproduce at home. Well that’s the theory anyway.
China Sichuan is a good example of the challenge top end Chinese restaurants face in the current climate – stick to traditional versions of, in this case, Sichuan cuisine and run the risk that the food will be perceived as too heavy and oily for current tastes; or give the dishes a fresh modern take with the danger of alienating loyal customers and Chinese chefs who like to do things the old way. I encountered the same tensions in China but was bowled over by an emerging lighter, experimental cuisine that still respects traditional ingredients. China Sichuan strives to get the balance right using quality Irish meats and importing specialist spices. I just hope they keep on experimenting.
Sichuan Grilled Chicken
The first dish they showed me is one of the Head Chef’s new dishes – chicken thigh off the bone, marinated for a few hours in chilli bean paste, chilli powder, sichuan pepper (dry-fried and ground) and grilled for about 20 minutes on a medium heat. Simple, light and delicious served with a hot chilli and garlic sauce. It is still work in progress and doesn’t even have a name yet.
Sichuan grilled chicken

Seafood “Typhoon” Style
The second dish was the one that plunged me back into the heart of China and the Sichuan flavours I had come to love. Similar sized pieces of sole, scallops, prawns and monkfish were scored, dipped in egg white and potato flour and very quickly deep fried in a wok while Choi Sum (Chinese spinach) was plunged into boiling water for a minute in the wok next to it.
Most of the oil was discarded from the wok and a paste of minced ginger and garlic added, followed by fresh chilli and spring onions cut at steep angles into “horse ear” slices, dried chilli, Sichuan pepper and fermented black beans which had been soaked in water for a few minutes. The fish was added back in for a few moments to warm through and some chilli oil and Maggi sauce were added to finish it off. This dish made me almost want to cry with pleasure so evocative were the flavours of my recent trip to China. The name “Typhoon” is a literal translation of a modern Sichuan cooking style.
Deep-frying the fish in a wok

Seafood “Typhoon” Style

Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds in Garlic and Ginger Sauce
Third up was Yu Xiang Rou – Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds in Garlic Sauce. Kevin gave me the recipe for this and I will post it in the next day or two. Using fillet of pork, it is probably one of the more famous dishes from Sichuan. Nary a fish or even fish sauce gets near it but in this land locked province it uses ingredients and spices normally associated with the preparation of seafood.
Yu Xiang Rou – Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds

Ma Po Tofu
I loved tofu dishes when I was in China, the extraordinary ability of the bean curd to absorb the flavours of spices and oils. Ma Po Tofu is a Sichuan classic and Kevin recommended I source an original recipe for it from Fuchsia Dunlop author of Every Grain of Rice and Revolutionary China Cookbook among others. Kevin was the second person to mention Fuchsia Dunlop to me recently. Food blogger Joanne Cronin (@dudara; also said she was a must-read for my growing Chinese bookshelf.
Ma Po Tofu uses diced tofu soaked in water and heated through in a mixture of yellow bean paste, chilli bean paste, dried chilli, Sichuan pepper and Chicken broth. I’m sure I’ve left out ingredients here – spring onions, a pinch of sugar, a dash of sesame oil and chilli oil perhaps – but I promise to track down a complete recipe.
Ma Po Tofu

Fried Green Beans
As we were finishing up, I mentioned the difficulty I had re-creating the fried green beans from Shan’s recipe for fried green beans so the chef grabbed a handful of beans and showed me how to do it. I was beside myself with excitement when I discovered that the secret to those crinkly edges on the beans is that you deep-fry the un-cooked beans for a few minutes in the hot oil until the skin bubbles, then drain them, discard most of the oil and fry off your ginger and garlic paste, Sichuan peppers, pieces of dried chilli and salt.The chefs believe the inner seeds of the green beans will cause you food poisoning if not fully cooked and they do not like steaming the beans as this draws out too much water and loses the texture of the vegetable.
Today’s version was a vegetarian one using Sichuan pickled vegetables but a similar approach will work with minced pork as in Shan’s recipe.
Draining the deep-fried green beans

Now this is what I had been missing!
“Proper” Sichuan Fried Green Beans

A few random insights
One of the great pleasures of my visit to China Sichuan was to watch the deftness with which the chefs used their woks, the flick of the wrist with the ladles, the back of the deep ladle used to constantly keep food on the move, the versatility of the woks – within moments changing from a deep fat fryer to a steamer to a pan of boiling water to a shallow fryer, the lightening speed of cooking, the instinct for a pinch of this, a dash of that to get the balance just right. I know sugar, salt, sesame oil, chilli oil, soy sauce, chicken powder featured in many of the dishes as well as the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and spring onions but I wasn’t fast enough to catch them all. I just marvelled at the ease of the chefs and their effortless familiarity with their station and tried to visualise this relatively small space on a busy Saturday night with every dish freshly cooked in minutes.
So this is how you use a ladle

I learnt that chicken thigh is more tender and tasty than chicken breast and that sichuan pepper can be dry-roasted and ground down to provide a more subtle seasoning. Apart from some cook books I’ve added a few items to my shopping list – Maggi Sauce, Chilli Paste, Sichuan Vinegar and Sichuan Garlic Sauce as well as a proper Chinese strainer.
I am also contemplating, with some glee, setting Shane and Shan the challenge of re-creating the first 4 dishes, in their own style, in Beijing.
So a big thank you to Kevin Hui, to Head Chef Ricky and his team and to Alan the waiter who interpreted between Mandarin and English for the afternoon.
With Head Chef Ricky at China Sichuan

And a special thank you to Pat O’Reilly of Alexis Bar and Grill, Dun Laoghaire (@alexisdublin; who made this all possible by picking up on my Twitter plea for a chance to learn from the professionals and connected me up with Kevin.
Of course all this has left me even more determined to learn how to wield that cleaver and use that wok properly. Cookery lessons anyone? 😉