Shananigans Crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken

I haven’t been creating many new Chinese recipes recently. That’s partly a reaction to all the cooking I did over the Twelve Days of Shananigans Christmas.  But I have also been pining a little for my family returned to China and Australia and I have been busy with work.
Things are getting back to normal now in our three Shananigans households. Shan, Dermot and her Mama will return from Urumqi to Beijing tomorrow night to be reunited with Shane. He has used the time they stayed on with her family in Xinjiang Province to catch up on work and watch lots of films but he has had enough of the semi-batchelor life for now and is looking forward to their hugs and company.
Meanwhile in Sydney, Claire and Mike have become home owners for the first time. Australian citizens, now owning a house there – I guess their Australian adventure is set to last.

A place to call home
A place to call home

There is something about your first-born child buying a house that makes you acutely aware that she is all grown up – a responsible adult with a mortgage, many impressive spreadsheets compiled by Mike to cover all the budgetary implications and a life of her own on the other side of the world. I am so delighted for the two of them as they set out on this next stage of their lives together. Two young emigrants from Ireland and Wales who made good.
I fell in love with their Federation house in Randwick in the suburbs of Sydney as soon as I set eyes on the photos. It is a happy place that must store its share of good memories deep in its walls. In my imagination I can already glimpse the memories still waiting to be made there like shadows dancing around the still empty rooms, rooms waiting for their photos, their souvenirs, their infectious energy. All going well this is where we will celebrate Christmas 2014 with Shane, Shan and Dermot.
I love the natural light in the house which flows past bedrooms and a living/ dining room to a large kitchen and a patio out the back. And I am green with envy of the six burner gas hob in her kitchen. Claire tells me that  I can get lots of practice on it in December. That was enough to set me thinking about what I would cook for them all.
The recipe that gets most hits on the blog is Shananigans Crispy Chilli Beef. I know that lots of readers substitute chicken for beef in this dish and several have wondered if it would be possible to make a version of it without chillies. Well here is a variation based on a traditional Beijing recipe for sweet and sour pork. This is not the cloying sauce you might associate with chinese takeaways. Instead black vinegar, sugar and light soy sauce provide the delicate, tangy balance. No chillies need apply.
As for Claire and Mike, much as I miss them, how can I be anything but happy for the life they have built on the other side of the world. Claire sent me this Sunday morning photo earlier today as they celebrated their house purchase with an early swim at Icebergs near Bondi Beach. She captioned it simply “gratitude”.

Shananigans Crispy Sweet and Sour Chicken
Crispy chicken steaming from the wok
Crispy chicken steaming from the wok


  • 300g chicken breasts or chicken thighs, off the bone
  • 1 egg white, beaten
  • Good pinch of salt
  • About 3 tbs potato flour or cornflour
  • A pinch of baking powder
  • Oil for deep frying – use good quality sunflower or groundnut oil
  • 2 carrots cut into thin matchsticks and blanched for 1 minute
  • 2 heads little gem lettuce, root removed and leaves torn into shreds (optional)
  • 2 tsp garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp leek or the white part of spring onions, finely chopped

For the sauce:

  • 65 g caster sugar
  • 120 ml of Chinese black vinegar or Chinkiang vinegar
  • 2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 80 ml water
  • 2 tsp cornflour mixed with a little water
  • Roasted black and white sesame seeds  and the green part of spring onions, sliced to garnish (optional)


  1. Cut the chicken into slices against the grain and then into thin shreds.
  2. Dip in the egg white and mix with your hand, leaving it to rest for a few minutes.
  3. Mix the potato flour with salt and baking powder.
  4. Drain off any excess egg white and dip the chicken strips in the flour mix, shaking off any excess.
  5. Mix the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and water in a small jug and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar.


  1. Fill a wok quarter full with oil and heat to 140 degrees.
  2. Add the chicken, using your fingers to separate the pieces as they go down in the wok. Let them sit for about 30 seconds until the batter hardens, then use a ladle or chopsticks to separate the strands. Cook the chicken for 3 – 4 minutes, stirring to keep the strands separate, until the chicken is crispy and golden.
  3. Remove with a mesh strainer or slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Drain off most of the oil from the wok
  4. Reheat the remaining oil over medium/ high heat and cook the carrot for 1½ minutes before removing and draining on kitchen paper. Add the little gem lettuce and stir-fry for a few minutes until wilted and set aside with the carrots.
  5. Add another small amount of oil to the wok if necessary and re-heat over a medium heat.  Add the leek or spring onion and garlic. Stir-fry for about 5 seconds to release the aromas.
  6. Increase the heat to high, add the sauce mix and stir for 20 seconds or until the sauce bubbles. Add the cornflour and water mix and stir thoroughly.
  7. Add back the chicken, carrots and lettuce and toss to coat and heat through. Add a dash of sesame oil for shine, garnish with sesame seeds and the green part of spring onions sliced at an angle. Serve with steamed rice.


  1. You can substitute pak choi, green beans or sugar snap peas for the lettuce. If using the beans or peas blanch them first. You can also substitute beef or pork for the chicken.
  2. Check the seasoning when you add the sauce and balance to your taste with a little more soy sauce, sugar or vinegar if necessary.
  3. You will find Chinkiang vinegar in the Asia Market, any Asian supermarket and some good greengrocers. At a pinch you could substitute balsamic vinegar but the flavour will be different. Check out my post on Chinese Kitchen Essentials for a handy check list of Chinese ingredients.

Spring Festival Pizza – Confit Duck with Chilli Jam, Pickled Peppers and Goats Cheese

Confit Duck Pizza
Confit Duck Pizza

It’s snowing outside here in Shankill – well just a flurry but it is real snow. In Urumqi it’s -19 degrees C, too cold for Dermot to venture out but Shan tells me he loves to play with the texture of a snowball gathered from the window ledge and stares in intense concentration as it dissolves in his warm fingers. Shane is already back working in Beijing where it is a mere -7. The Spring Festival is drawing to a close this weekend and China is grinding back to it’s normal winter rhythm.
I’ve had many Chinese meals over the past two weeks including the superb New Year’s Banquet at China Sichuan Dublin where we celebrated both the Chinese New Year and, in his absence, Dermot’s first birthday on 5th February. But I had this notion that I wanted to create a Chinese Pizza to mark the arrival of the Year of the Horse, one that I could cook on the Big Green Egg.
I love making pizza dough and normally use the recipe in this post for the base but, thanks to my Italian friend Solange, I’ve recently discovered Pizza da Piero by the Artisan Pizza company whose products are hand made in Rathmines. These thin, light bases short-circuit the work of preparing a pizza, especially on a stormy Monday night when the rain is teeming down outside. They come in resealable packs of three and cook in about 10 minutes to crisp perfection.
I had decided to build my topping around confit duck and I had consulted Twitter about what else to include in it. I got lots of interesting suggestions and my favourite came from Tom Walsh, head chef at Samphire@theWaterside. And so Confit Duck Pizza with Chilli Jam, Sweet Pickled Peppers, Goats Cheese and Rocket was born.
For ease of reference, I’ve set out all the steps in the recipe below. But in practice I make this pizza the day after I’ve cooked a batch of confit duck legs. I roast some off in the oven that day and serve them with puy lentils or duck fat roast potatoes and pickled red cabbage. I save the rest to make confit duck hash and pizzas.
Tom Chef’s chilli jam and sweet pickled peppers can also be made well in advance and these days I always have some of each in the fridge in kilner jars. You will find you can put them to all sorts of uses in Asian and western dishes.
With these ingredients to hand it takes just moments to make up the pizza and you can relax while your oven heats to temperature. In my case the most challenging bit of preparing the pizza was the dash outside to the Big Green Egg in the lashing rain. But then I delegated that… and proved, once again, that the Big Green Egg can cope with any extremes of weather, even if I can’t!
Confit Duck Pizza with Chilli Jam , Sweet Pickled Peppers, Goats Cheese and Rocket
(makes 3 pizzas)

  • 3 Pizza da Piero bases
  • 2 confit duck legs
  • Tom Chef”s Chilli Jam
  • Tom Chef’s sweet pickled peppers
  • 1 log of soft goat’s cheese
  • a large red onion thinly sliced
  • 3 large handfuls of rocket


  1. If using a Big Green Egg, place your pizza stone on stainless steel grill over the plate setter legs up and heat to about 220 degrees c. Alternatively heat your oven to 250 degrees c.
  2. Shred your duck legs including some of the crispy skin.
  3. Spread a thin layer of chilli jam on each base.
  4. Scatter over pickled peppers, confit duck and sliced onion.
  5. Break up some goats cheese and dot over the top of the pizza.
  6. Bake for 7 to 12 minutes depending on your oven temperature until the base is crispy and the goats cheese just melting.
  7. Scatter with rocket and serve.

Confit Duck Legs

  • 6 duck legs
  • Enough duck fat to cover the duck legs when melted (about 4 jars)
  • About 6 cloves garlic
  • about 4 Star anise
  • Some springs of rosemary and thyme
  • A few bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper


  1. Dry out the duck legs at room temperature. Tuck the cloves of garlic, star anise, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves around them, season with salt and pepper and cover with melted duck fat.
  2. Slow-roast them in the oven at 120 to 130 degrees for 3 to 4 hours until the meat is melting off the bone. Allow them to cool until the duck fat has set.
  3. When ready to use, gently prise the duck legs out of the fat, saving the infused fat for glorious duck roast potatoes. Reheated the confit duck legs in the oven for about 15 minutes by starting them at 170 degrees C and crisping off the skin at 230 degrees C.

Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam

  • 6-8 red chilli peppers chopped roughly
  • 300g castor sugar
  • 300g white wine vinegar


  1. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and  cook gently to reduce to a syrupy, jam-like consistency being careful not to burn.
  2. Blend with a stick blender.
  3. Store in a sealed container in the fridge.

Tom Chef’s Sweet Pickled Peppers

  • 4 to 6 long pointy red peppers
  • 400g white wine vinegar
  • 400g castor sugar
  • 6 star anise
  • a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil


  1. Slice the peppers into thin strips.
  2. Pace the vinegar, sugar and star anise in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, add the pepper strips.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool slowly.
  3. When cool add a drizzle of olive oil to taste and store in a sealed container in the fridge.

The birthday boy

Dermot's first birthday
Dermot aged one year

On Dermot’s first birthday he fulfilled the Chinese tradition of choosing his “destiny” from an array of objects – a ritual  remarkably similar to the Romanian one we witnessed for twins Oli and Fredi at their first birthday party and which I wrote about in Images and Flavours of Tuscany last August.
What does my future hold, I wonder
What does my future hold, I wonder?

From the array of items on display, Dermot first chose a golden pig (wealth), a statue (power) and then a jade bracelet.  So much for literary pursuits (sigh). Ah sure go on Dermot… at this stage of your young life, you may as well aim to rule the world.

Dumpling Pop-Up on the Eve of the Year of the Horse

Pan-fried Jiaozi
Pan-fried Jiaozi – Photo: Solange Daini

It’s the Year of the Horse , the Wood Horse to be precise. According to China Sichuan it will be a time of fast victories and unexpected adventure, a great year for travel when energy is high and productivity is rewarded, a year when decisive action brings victory. You have to act fast in a Horse year but be careful not to gallop. My daughter in law Shan is a “Horse”. This will be an auspicious year for her, she will wear something red every day to bring good luck.
This year I was more conscious than ever of the importance of the Spring Festival to Chinese people wherever they are in the world. On January 30th, New Year’s Eve, Shane, Shan and Dermot were back in China, enjoying dumplings with the Gao clan in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. Claire was celebrating her birthday in Sydney and eating jiaozi at Din Tai Fung. I was preparing dumplings in Dublin Business School. Three continents – one world.
I was feeling the absence of my off-spring on the other side of the world on the day when all Chinese people, wherever they are, mark the importance of family. A random email from Anne who lectures in marketing at Dublin Business School had diverted me from melancholy thoughts. Would I make dumplings for her class of 2o students who are volunteering for the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, she wondered, as the college wanted to mark the Spring Festival.
Now I love making dumplings but I’m still only learning and wasn’t confident about my ability to do a live demonstration. So I asked my friend Wei Wei to help. Wei Wei lives here in Ireland with her Irish husband Oisin. She was Shan’s bridesmaid at their wedding in December.  She has her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen and has been cooking since she was a young girl in Tianjin.
We got together  in my house the night before and prepared some jiaozi and fillings. I loved working alongside her and hearing her stories of growing up in China and how her family celebrate the New Year. Last year she had spent the holiday with them and, like me, she was missing her family. You can read her blog post about Chinese New Year here. Wei Wei is a natural, intuitive cook and I learned a lot just from watching her work.
At 11:00 on New Year’s Eve morning we set up our pop-up stall in the Common Room in Dublin Business School in Castle House in Dublin. In a weird coincidence, this was the same open-plan space where I had my first desk as a very young civil servant in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners back in the early 1970s. The memories came flooding back. How strangely the years turn.
It was Fresher’s Week and the group of marketing students quickly morphed into a much larger crowd of hungry young people who caught the aroma of jiaozi cooking. Our little stall was overrun. Mao Restaurant supplied platters of spring rolls and other appetisers to keep the hunger at bay. Some of the students rolled up their sleeves and set to helping us meet the demand. The Chinese girls among them proved to be a dab hand with the cleaver but we also had help from Vietnamese, Irish and other students willing to learn how to roll out and fill the dumpling wrappers.
My photographer friend Solange Daini was on hand to capture the atmosphere. A small selection of her photos is below  – click on them to see the full image.
By 3 pm Wei Wei and I had prepared hundreds of dumplings, boiled, pan-fried and pot-sticker style. We used five fillings in all. Wei Wei had prepared her special “Three Treasures” filling of egg, prawns and Chinese chives and another of beef, carrot and onion. I made Shan’s First Auntie’s recipe – Da Gu’s ‘ pork, Chinese cabbage and star anise – as well as my two favourite  Black Sesame Kitchen Fillings – vegetarian tofu, carrot, shitake and lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper. You will find another of  Wei Wei’s dumpling recipes here as well as her special dipping sauce.
Our last customer was one of the lecturers who had heard rumours filtering through the college of strange goings on in the students Common Room… and free food.
We were tired at the end of the day but I felt a real sense of satisfaction at being part of a global Chinese celebration of family, friendship and good food. It was a fitting way to enter the Year of the Horse.
Thank you Wei Wei, Solange, Anne and the students of Dublin Business School.
The Spring Festival continues for two weeks and you will find recipes every day on the Taste of China section of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website.
Chun jie kuai le – happy Spring Festival.
Ma dao chong dong – wishing you success in the Year of the Horse.