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
- 250 g fillet of fish
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ tsp sugar
- 1 tsp rice wine
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- 4tbs Hunan minced chilli – hu nan duo la jiao
- 2 spring onions finely chopped, white part only – cong
- 1 tsp minced ginger – jiang
- 2 tsp minced garlic – suan
- 1 tsp fermented black beans, rinsed (optional)
- 1 tbs oil
- Place the fish in the marinade.
- Mix the seasonings then coat the fish and leave for about half an hour at room temperature, turning half way through to make sure both sides absorb the flavours.
- Bring a wok or large pot of water on to boil and when boiling place the fish on a plate in a steamer (I use a bamboo steamer but a metal one will also work).
- Steam, covered, for just six minutes over a high flame.
- Heat about a tablespoon of hot oil over a high flame and, when smoking, drizzle over the steamed fish.
- Serve immediately.