My grandson is 7 months old today and I’ve found a good reason to visit Beijing in late October. Not that I need much of an excuse with him growing bigger by the day and a yearning to be with him that is almost a physical ache at times. The other day, as I passed though St. Stephen’s Green in the fading evening light, I spotted a woman of about my own age making cooing sounds at her tiny grandchild, their faces close together, while her daughter looked on with a smile. I felt a rush of envy and empathy as I remembered pushing Dermot past the same spot in a buggy in June, on his brief visit home, proud of my new found status as Nai Nai.
So my ticket is booked, I will stay with Shane, Shan, MaMa and Dermot in their new apartment and attend an event called the Beijing Forum while I’m there. I will get to know Dermot all over again and marvel at how he has grown and how his unique and bubbly personality has revealed itself in the months since I last got to hold him. I can understand how cosseted boy-children in China come to be known as “little emperors” but I’m hopeful that the level-headed rearing provided by Shan, Shane and MaMa will mean that he will avoid the risks associated with that particular label.
If I’m lucky, in between working and Nai Nai duties, I will sneak in another cookery class at Black Sesame Kitchen. I attended a couple of classes there when I visited Beijing to meet Dermot for the first time in March this year. One featured Imperial Chinese Cooking – the complex and sophisticated dishes that were produced within the walls of the Forbidden City, food deemed fit for an emperor. I wrote about the experience here.
Beijing doesn’t have its own clearly identifiable cuisine – it is a melting pot of cuisines from several of the regions of China – but it is influenced most by lu cai, the great regional cuisine of the North, the food of emperors and courtiers, refined, rich and expensive, and by the sweet, soy dark braises of the regional cuisine of the East – huai yang cai. In that north eastern climate, vegetables were in limited supply in years gone by, especially during the winter months, so the emphasis was on enhancing the flavour and texture of food through taking care with the size and shape of limited ingredients, tenderising the meat, adding rich sauces and using dried ingredients when fresh were unavailable. In the cooler north, leeks are still used as a substitute for spring onions to make up the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and onion.
Imperial cuisine lacks the fiery punch of the food from Sichuan and Hunan provinces or the lightness of touch of Yunnan or Canton food from further south, but the techniques I learned that day amazed me with their ability to lock in flavour with a limited number of fairly straightforward ingredients.
With Beijing on my mind, I set about recreating one of the Imperial dishes at home last weekend. The pine nut and beef stir fry below is not a difficult recipe but it is a little time-consuming to prepare. I imagine the Imperial Kitchen had any number of chefs delighted to have the honour of preparing the Emperor’s dinner, even if he was a tiny child. If, like me, you are on your own in the kitchen, make this dish on an evening when you are in the mood for the rhythmic pleasure of the precise dicing and slicing involved – the ingredients are all cut into 1 cm cubes – and for the taking the time to “velvet” the beef.
“Velveting” the beef is an interesting technique. It involves adding a little salt to the meat, then gradually mixing in nearly half its weight in water with your hand until it is fully absorbed and finally mixing in cornflour and egg white. This step takes quite a bit of time. Do it patiently and don’t attempt it when you are in a rush. It wont work. This I know…
The process of “velveting” tenderises the meat which is then deep fried at a low temperature (120C) to lock in the flavour and moisture and leave the beef soft rather than crisp. The result is a delicate, tender texture which absorbs the flavours of the sauce when mixed with the fast-fried vegetables. I find flank or bavette steak ideal for this dish but you could substitute sirloin or fillet if it is unavailable.
I had not expected this dish to taste nearly as good as it did. In fact it has that umami quality that leaves you wanting to pick at the leftovers until every last morsel is devoured and, in my case, to jump on a plane to Beijing.
Try it and enjoy.
Pine Nut and Beef Stirfry – Songren Niurou Mi
- 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 500g flank steak/bavette of beef
- ¾ tsp salt
- 200 ml water
- 2 heaped tbs cornflour
- 1 egg white
- 1 small green pepper
- 1 small red pepper
- 3 tsp each minced garlic, ginger and leek
- 3 tbs oyster sauce
- 90 ml water or stock made with the water drained from the shiitake mushrooms
- 1 ½ tbs light soy
- 3 tsp dark soy sauce
- 1 ½ tsp sugar
- ½ tsp white pepper
- 1/2 tsp chicken bouillon
- ¼ tsp salt
- 3 heaped tsp cornflour mixed to a paste with water
- 3 tbs deep-fried pine kernels*
- Groundnut, sunflower or rapeseed oil for frying and deep-frying
- Soak the shiitake mushrooms in hot water for about 20 minutes to reconstitute.
- Dice the beef into 1 cm cubes and “velvet” by adding salt, then beating the water in with your hand a little at a time.
- Once the water is fully absorbed, add the cornflour to coat all the pieces of meat thoroughly. Finally add the egg white and coat the meat thoroughly.
- Dice the red and green pepper into 1 cm cubes. Remove the stalks from the reconstituted shiitake mushrooms and dice into 1 cm cubes. Finely mince the leek, garlic and ginger.
- Add enough oil to a large wok for deep frying and heat to just 120C. Spread the beef into the oil, separating the cubes with choptsticks or a ladle and cook for about 1 minute until cooked through. Remove the beef from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- Empty all but a tablespoon or two of oil from the wok and, over a medium high heat, add the leek, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce and stir vigorously for 10 seconds.
- Turn up the heat to high, add the peppers and shiitake mushrooms and stir-fry for 20 seconds.
- Add the cooked beef and toss for 20 seconds.
- Add in the pine kernels, reserving some for garnish
- Add the water/stock, soy sauces, sugar, pepper and chicken bouillon and let bubble for 20 seconds.
- Ladle in a tablespoon at a time of the cornflour mixture, mixing after each addition until the sauce is thick and glossy.
- Serve immediately, garnished with the remaining pine kernels and with steamed rice.
To deep-fry the pine kernels, put a few cups of oil in a wok, add in the pine kernels, then slowly bring the temperature up to low and then, over the next few minutes to medium low. Keep stirring for about 3 minutes until the pine kernels have turned a light golden colour, then remove with a slotted strainer and drain on kitchen paper. They will continue to cook for a few moments when you take them out of the oil so take them out when they are slightly lighter than done. Alternatively roast the pine kernels in a low oven for about 20 minutes. They will keep in an airtight container for a few days.