I’ve been enjoying cooking “fish fragrant” recipes since I started this blog and I have discovered several different ways of creating the salty, spicy, sweet, sour yu xiang flavour which the people of Sichuan love to use in their land-locked region to recall the flavours they associate with fish. The description often causes confusion among westerners as there is no fish or fish sauce used in these recipes.
The first time I made fish fragrant pork I used a recipe given to me by Chef Ricky when I went inside the kitchen of China Sichuan in Dublin and you can read it here. That version used chilli garlic sauce and owner Kevin Hui told me that in the early years they described it as Pork in Spicy Garlic Sauce on the menu to avoid putting off diners!
More recently I’ve cooked fish fragrant pork using fish fragrance marinaded peppers, as prepared by the chefs of China Sichuan at the Taste of China cookery demonstration. Before I left for China I promised to post the recipe for using this marinade and it is now below.
I know some of you have had these marinaded peppers in your fridge for at least 3 weeks now so it should be nicely flavourful. I used my now 9 week old marinade tonight, this time with chicken, and it was delicious.
When I visited Beijing recently, I learned how to make a classic fish fragrant sauce based on pickled chillies chopped to a puree with a cleaver blade. The recipe for fish fragrant aubergine below is the one taught to me by Chefs Chun Yi and Chao at Hutong Cuisine in Beijing and is the way Chun Yi learnt to make it when she trained as a chef in Chengdu in Sichuan Province. Hutong Cuisine fish fragrant aubergine – yu xiang qie zi
“Nine times boiling will make nine kinds of changes, that depends on the fire controlling. Sometimes use high heat in cooking, sometimes use gentle. Clearing the fishy, foul and smell of mutton, the key is to control temperature. Only mastering the law of using fire, can we turn the stinky sweetly fragrant. We usually use these five seasonings, sweet, sour, bitterness, spicy and salty, but when and how many should we put are so delicate and subtly, and it cannot be described. Just like archery on the horse, you must master the skills with facility, Just as the naturally combining of yin and yang, and the natural transformation of seasonings, so that the cooking skill to do boil long but unbeaten, ripe but not mushy, sour but not stimulating, salty but not astringent mouth, spicy but not stimulating, mild but not tasteless, fat but not greasy.
Master Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals – Original Taste Chapters”
Thus begins the menu at our favourite Peking Duck restaurant, XiHeYaYuan. It’s a quote from a classic Chinese text compiled around 239 BC during the Qin Dynasty and yet it sums up neatly what I learned about Chinese cooking in Beijing in 2013.
I was reminded of our meal there when one of my followers and Twitter friends, Majella, asked for suggestions for restaurants for her first visit to Beijng. Like all major cities, eating out in Beijing can be daunting for the uninitiated. The usual difficulty of finding the really good restaurants where the locals eat is compounded by the language barrier and the fact that most restaurant names and menus are in Mandarin script. On our very first visit over 6 years ago, when Shane had lived there only a short time, we tended to fall back on expensive hotel restaurants or cheap and cheerful spots frequented by him and his student friends. These days we are lucky to have his wife Shan as our interpreter and guide with local knowledge.
With all the great food cooked by Shan’s Mum at home and a new baby in the house, she and Shane don’t eat out very often these days. But no visit to Beijing would feel right without having Peking Duck which is rarely cooked at home as kitchens don’t have ovens. So we did manage to lure them out for one excellent meal at this neighbourhood restaurant.
XiHeYaYuan is a chain of restaurants specialising in Peking duck but they also serve regional specialties from Sichuan, Hunan and other provinces.
We went to the new branch that has opened in the Indigo complex attached to East Hotel. This Swire complex is another of the swish shopping malls popping up all over the city. This one is still so shiny new that more outlets open every day, many of them international chains. A whole upper floor is devoted to baby shops, including a Mothercare due to open shortly, and another to women’s clothes. The top level includes a food mall for Chinese fast food, the inevitable McDonalds and access to a super iMax cinema complex, all a barometer of the growing consumerism and changing tastes of the burgeoning Chinese middle classes. And yet it exists right beside the traditional Jiangtai wet market I visited with Shan’s Mum
XiHeYaYuan is in an outdoor courtyard alongside a number of other restaurants, cafes and bars. Its interior is ornately furnished with rich furnishings and fabrics so that it resembles the inside of an old courtyard house.
The menu is in Chinese but features photos of the dishes and some rather entertaining attempts at translating their names into English.
It was great to have Shan back in action choosing dishes for us – this is what led to me starting the blog after all. She has a fantastic instinct for judging the balance in a meal. To start we had six or seven dishes to share between five of us:
Mixed clam and garlic in wasabi vinegar dressing
Fried pork with water chestnut
Spicy three delicacies
Stuffed pancake rolls
Sauteed celery and lily with egg tofu
A black fungus dressed with sesame oil
Something described as “Caterpillar fungus flowers and green bean with sesame oil.”
Shan commented that for a restaurant that pays such attention to detail and presentation they might have been wise to have someone vet their menu translations but for me the occasional “Chinglish” was part of the charm. She knows me well and several of the dishes had the numbing Sichuan kick that has become more addictive for me than caffeine. I would love to be able to recreate the crispy salt and chilli pork dish and the “Spicy three delicacies” dish of aubergine, clam and pork neck.
The centrepiece of the meal was the “Four-phase” duck carved at our table. All the duck served at the restaurant is raised alongside the Yanqi lake. “Four-phase” refers to the way in which it is meant to be eaten using the condiments on the lazy susan at your table.
First the crispy skin should be dipped in the garlic sugar and blueberry sauce. Shan and I found the blueberry sauce a little too sweet for our taste but it’s an intriguing combination. The duck meat with crispy skin is eaten in the normal way with cucumber, spring onion and plum sauce in plain or spinach flavoured pancakes. Then the lean breast meat is eaten in the pancakes with the pureed garlic and carrot strips. Meanwhile the carcass of the duck is taken away and either deep-fried or made into a soup. Shan opted to have it deep-fried and think of the nicest Kentucky fried chicken you’ve ever had with the bones crunchy enough to eat and you get the idea.
The total cost of the meal for 5 including several beers was about €70. The whole duck, served as described cost 258 rmb or about €28. I’ve had Peking Duck before in Beijing and this was on par or better than the best of it. It rivals Da Dong which is the one that features most often in guidebooks and is considerably better value than many of the restaurants geared to foreign tourists. It’s definitely worth seeking out a branch near you if you get the chance to visit Beijing. There are about 6 branches in all.
By the way, if you are visiting Beijing and need easy access to the airport and the business districts in the north east of the city, I strongly recommend East, near the 4th ring road, as a base. It is a beautiful modern hotel which opened just a few months ago not far from the 798 Art District. It has a bright and airy design and designed with the needs of the business traveller in mind. There is fast free wifi throughout the hotel and rooms feature everything an Apple addict like me could need with, several USB charging points, electric sockets that don’t require adaptors, classy Sony TVs and Bose sound systems and an iTouch in each room which even tells you what’s available from room service – Wagyu burger anyone? Well it will only cost you about €14.
Room rates are very reasonable for a capital city and by Beijing standards, perhaps reflecting the greater distance from the tourist heart of the city. It’s well worth booking on a bed and breakfast basis as the buffet breakfast in the main restaurant Feast is as good as it gets and will set you up for the day. There is also an excellent bar “Xian” with live music and a Japanese restaurant Hagaki which I have yet to try but gets good recommendations. A casual coffee spot, well-equipped gym, swimming pool and business lounge complete the offering.
This is a hotel with style, great art work and a lovely informal but polished service ethos. The staff, dressed casually in sweat shirts and hoodies for the most part, are the friendliest I have encountered in China or anywhere else for that matter.
For first time visitors to Beijing, good Chinese chain restaurants offer an opportunity to have reliable and authentic Chinese regional food at reaonable prices. Others to watch out for are:
Yuxiang Kitchen where we dined on our very first night in Beijing last year which is one of a chain of Sichuan restaurants. You can read about our experience here.
Din Tai Fung where Claire had the amazing XiaoLongBao soup dumplings in Shanghai recently, now has at least two outlets in Beijing. Go there early for dim sum. You will even get instructions on how to eat them.
Hotpot is another “must do” while in Beijing but it works better if you have at least 6 people to share the fun of the experience.
Yunnan Cusine is one of my favourites. It is lighter than Sichuan and Hunan as the region is closer in style and geography to Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. A great place to try Yunnan food in Beijing is at Dali Courtyard down near Nanluoguxiang and Drum and Bell Tower. A set menu is served to every table. It doesn’t change but is consistently good. You can read about my visit to the hutong of Beijing and Dali Courtyard last summer here.
If like my friend Majella you are going to Beijing anytime soon and want a few more insider tips, please do get in touch.
There’s beginning to be a rhythm to Sunday mornings since I came back from China. With the arrival of summer time, it’s the best time of the week to catch Claire and Shane on Skype. Today one is returning from a Sunday afternoon swim in Icebergs at Bondi in temperatures of 28 degrees, the other is out catching some fresh air in his local Beijing park in the early Spring sunshine. Hurry up Shane as Sunday morning is also the time for my weekly glimpse of Dermot, noting the changes I cant pick up in photos, watching him react to the sound of our voices and focus on an iPad screen with interest and hoping he still remembers us.
While I wait for my Skype “slot”, I reflect on the week gone past, revisit notes, photos and memories of China and Australia and write.
Today I’m thinking about the way the chefs in a Chinese kitchen sing out cong, jiang, suan – spring onion, ginger, garlic – like a rhythmic hymn throughout the day, so fundamental are these three ingredients to many Chinese dishes.
When I grew up in Wexford in the 1960s, we used to call salad “lettuce and leeks”. I was embarrassed when I got to Dublin in the early 70s to discover that I was officially a “culchie” and what I knew as “leeks” were actually scallions or spring onions. Leeks were a different thing entirely and a vegetable I had not come across before. (Yes, our vegetable selection was that limited in those years. The most exotic vegetables I knew were carrots, parsnips and cabbage.)
I was amused to discover that in Beijing the terms leeks and spring onions are also used interchangeably. That’s because, until transport systems improved, the colder north had a very limited range and supply of vegetables for most of the year and finely chopped leek works as a good substitute for the more seasonal spring onions used further south – a very handy discovery if, like me, you find spring onions hard to keep fresh at this time of the year. The frugal Chinese will always use the cheapest substitute readily available.
One of the recipes I learnt at Hutong Cuisine which uses this trinity of cong, jiang, suan is duo jiao zheng yu, a simple, healthy way of steaming fish with an added kick from pickled chillies. In Hunan the dish is made with enormous fish heads from a river fish such as bighead carp – yong yu – because these are regarded as a delicacy and the tastiest part of the fish with lots of interesting textures. In her Revolutionary Cookbook, that bible of Hunan Cuisine, Fuchsia Dunlop talks about how this dish was all the rage in Changsha when she lived there. Waiters would emerge from kitchens bearing enormous steaming platters of fish heads flecked with scarlet chilli, black bean and spring onion.
Our cookery teacher in Beijing, Chunyi who trained in Chengdu in Sichuan province, despairs of westerners who throw the fish heads away but she did allow us to make the dish at cookery class with a river fish fillet.
The magic ingredient is chopped salted chillies – duo la jiao – which has a hot, sour, salty taste and a beautiful red colour. I brought some back from Beijing but the good news is that the same brand is available in the Asia Market for just a few euro.
Last weekend we were in Duncannon on one of those rare pet spring Saturdays. We detoured from an 11 km walk to pick up some fish, fresh from the sea, at Fish Ahoy in Arthurstown. Late in the day beautiful, firm cod fillet and haddock was what they had left. I tried the recipe below on the cod and loved the way it enhanced rather than smothered the flavour of the fish. I served it with Sichuan fried green beans and salt and pepper cauliflower.
I baked the fresh haddock fillets on Monday brushed with homemade chilli oil and served them scattered with a little ginger and spring onion. Simple and delicious.
The Hunan steamed fish recipe below is from Hutong Cuisine. Fuchsia Dunlop’s version of this dish is on page 167 of Revolutionary Cookbook and uses whole lemon sole, gutted. Steamed fish with minced chilli – duo jiao zheng yu
I figure I’d better give you my lovely readers a few new recipes soon or you will begin to think that this is less of a food blog and more “The Ramblings of a Besotted Nai Nai”. So to start with here are two I practised at Hutong Cuisine in Beijing – Sichuan spicy chicken salad and homemade chilli oil.
I learned such a lot from the lovely Chunyi and Chao at Hutong Cuisine. Their cookery school has a cosy, personalised feel as if you were in your Granny’s kitchen – if your Granny was Chinese and lived in a courtyard house in a hutong that is! Claire and Mike also attended a class there and were equally impressed.
Once I got over jetlag I relished getting back into the kitchen at home at the end of a busy day although I miss using a gas hob and the ease with which you can tell on sight whether you have the “fire heat” correct. I had discovered that the single biggest mistake I was making in my Chinese cooking was the assumption that “high heat = good” and I have been over-using the boost function on my induction hob as a result. In nearly every new recipe I learnt, the trick in releasing flavour lay in cooking the oil over moderate or gentle heat. Already this has begun to transform the results.
Take home made chilli oil for instance – la jiao. Many Sichuan recipes call for a tablespoon or two of chilli oil with sediment and a dash of it can enliven milder Cantonese dishes. Up to now I’ve been making do with bottled chilli oil from the Asia market but not any more. The recipe below can be prepared and cooked very easily and bottled to use when required. Once tasted there is no going back to a shop bought Chinese version. So when I had a sudden longing for a Friday evening Sichuan kick and a fix of Dan Dan noodles, it was as good a time as any to make up a batch so that I could use some in the sauce. Home Made Chilli Oil –la jiao
I used a good quality organic Irish rapeseed oil to make this as I love its flavour and I guessed its rich golden colour would become a beautiful shade of red as it became infused with the spices and seasonings. Crushed chillies, picked up on my expedition to Jiang Tai market with qing jia mu, added flecks of colour, texture and sediment to the oil. (At cookery class we used vegetable oil and ground chilli powder). This oil will keep indefinitely in an airtight jar. Ingredients:Continue reading Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad with Home Made Chilli Oil
When I talk to women about leadership I quote Dee Hock who said, sometime late in the last century, that the problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind but how to get the old ones out.
I was reminded of that over the past few weeks when I was on what a friend of mine calls a “learning spree” absorbing new information about cooking Chinese food and working hard to weed out the bad habits I had fallen into while trying to teach myself from cookbooks. It was such a privilege to learn from Chun Yi and Chao in Hutong Cuisine and from Chef Zhang and the team in Black Sesame Kitchen and I look forward to integrating new ingredients and techniques into the kitchen back home.
I’m writing this post on the flight home from Beijing, in between reading Jen Lin-Liu’s “Serve the People” – Jen is the founder of Black Sesame Kitchen where I attended cooking classes on Cooking with Colour and Imperial Dishes – and Sheryl Sandbergh’s “Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead” – multi-tasking as always, that’s women for you. A quote from Chairman Wang, Jen’s mentor, caught my eye “These are the things that make me happy,” she says – “What does it mean to be wealthy? To be able to eat, drink and move about. That is my definition of wealth.”
I thought about how lucky I am to be able to do just that, especially when, in my case, “moving about” means moving across three continents if I want to spend time with my children and their families.
I’ve been learning about other things apart from food on this trip – about what it is like to be a woman, a daughter, a mammy and a granny in the 21st century. I’ve had the privilege over these past three weeks of spending time with three wonderful women – my daughter Claire, my daughter-in-law Shan and my qing jia mu – Shan’s Mum.
I have talked to my daughter and daughter-in-law about how they cope with the world of work, the pressures that assail young women who are contemplating or have just started a family and how much and how little has changed since I started on the same road more than 30 years ago. The challenge of balancing the demands of home, work and family are still there.
I’ve developed strong ties of affection with Shan’s Mum. We still have only a handful of words in common (although her English is progressing faster than my Mandarin). But that didn’t stop us making a trek to the local Lotte Market and Jiang Tai wet market in search of utensils and ingredients. Armed only with a shopping list in pinyin, to which she carefully added the Chinese characters, and Google Translate on the iPad for emergencies, we had a very successful shopping expedition.
There is only a year’s difference in our ages but our life’s experiences are worlds apart. From her I’m learning about Chinese frugality and the pleasure of a bargain – in the supermarket she dismissed rows of utensils, which to me looked like excellent value, as being “tai gui le”, “too expensive” and instead drove a hard bargain in a small hardware store at the market and got me the hoard below for less than €5.
Choosing vegetables and meat was an exercise in negotiation skills and careful scrutiny of the offered goods. Each potato was turned over and selected individually. Cuts of chicken were inspected. Spices were carefully weighed.
When I purchased a very good cleaver at cookery school, she was shocked at the price I had paid (100 rmb, about €12), she could have got me one for 40 or 50 rmb. But then I’m learning that the first thing a Chinese person asks you when you’ve made a new purchase is how much it cost “duo xiao qian?”, inevitably to tell you you’ve paid tai gui le. That’s of course after they have asked you “have you eaten yet?”
Shane says that since MaMa came to live with them their grocery bill has plummeted. I’m not surprised. Each day she produces tasty and nutritious meals – her famous Xinjiang da pan ji – big plate chicken with wide flat noodles served to Claire and Mike as soon as they arrived yesterday, beef stew with a Sichuan kick (Shane’s favourite, I think because it reminds him of his granny’s stew), pork rib stew – often with side dishes such as stir-fried cabbage with chillies, black fungus or bitter melon. And of course there are the home-made jiao zi dumplings and finally, a family favourite pancakes with eggs and cabbage, chao bing. As soon as you arrive in the door she puts out a platter of fresh fruit – pineapple, dragon fruit, apple slices. Food and pots of tea are always on the go.
My qing jia mu is also great fun, easy-going and has a bubbly sense of humour. I love it when she breaks her sides with laughing about some shared private joke with Shane. She has not always had an easy life and has worked hard inside and outside the home from a very young age – Shan has told me some of her back story – and I look forward learning more of it and to getting to know her even better as the years go by and her English, and perhaps my Mandarin, improve.
She is generous to a fault. She trekked the market alone yesterday to find me long kuai zi – chopsticks – for cooking and a particular pickled chilli used in Hunan cooking. She sent me home armed with dragon fruit and Chinese treats for my own Mum and a Beijing pancake for me so that I can recreate chao bing at home.
And then there was learning to know my grandson Dermot.
Saying goodbye after this trip was never going to be easy, especially to Dermot. I’ve got used to connecting with Claire and Shane on an almost daily basis by Skype, text, phone, Facebook and even Twitter. But with Dermot so much of the relationship at this stage is the feel of the weight of him as he dozes on my shoulder, his new baby scent, the way he grips my finger in his tiny hand, his fascination with the world around him and the way he can hold your gaze for minutes as he experiments with a tentative smile. I will miss all that and the way he will change over the next two months before his feet get to touch Irish soil for a visit.
As I’m writing, I’m also listening to music on my iPod to drown out airplane noises. It’s a random “Genius” mix and up pops Tir Na n’Og’s “Dance of Years” with the line “The baby sleeps, his hands are still”. That’s what I notice most about Dermot (apart from his huge eyes), when he’s awake his hands are never still. He has the most expressive hands I’ve ever seen.
Saying goodbye was made easier because we had a precious 24 hours with the family united in Beijing. We finished up with a farewell Easter Sunday morning breakfast in Feast at East where we had been staying just down the road from Shane and Shan. Breakfast was great fun with loads of photo opportunities and I enjoyed my qing jia mu’s evident pleasure in getting good value from the excellent breakfast buffet. The Chinese know how to attack a buffet with relish.
Dermot, our own little Teng Teng, seemed completely enthralled with his new surroundings. At nearly 8 weeks of age, his approach to the outside world is one of rapt attention and wide-eyed wonder. It was a joy to have that last hour with him awake and alert and to watch Claire fall in love with him the way I did – you think you know what it is to love a baby before you meet him but the physical bonding process really is like tumbling into love.
Just before we left for the airport, we asked if one of the restaurant staff would take a group photo of all 8 of us. A super-charged emotional moment was eased when it turned out that the photographer, Assistant Director of Restaurants and Bars at East, Leo Liu, had lived in Ireland for 6 years, working for part of that time in Ely Wine Bar and studying for a Masters in Tourism in University of Limerick. That helps explain the excellent service standards in Feast. His broad Dublin accent when he spoke English made me feel as if I was already home.
So I left Beijing a bit teary and choked up but content in the knowledge that I had left my grandson behind in the company of three strong and very special women and a Daddy who adores him. I’m very proud too of the way Shane has adapted to fatherhood and I’m confident that he will be the kind of “real partner” in child-rearing that Sheryl Sandbergh talks about.
The next special moment to look forward to is to Dermot’s visit to Dublin in June and to introducing her first great grandchild to that other strong woman in my life, my own Mum who I know has been following our adventures closely on her iPad. Hi Mum 🙂
Meanwhile I will leave you with this simple recipe as taught to me by qing jia mu: Stir fried cabbage and shredded pancakes – Chao Bing Continue reading On learning, goodbyes and Chao Bing