Sticky Indonesian Pork Stir-fry

Every time we travel to China we return a few pounds lighter despite eating our way through most of the trip with a typical dinner including five or six different dishes.  We also feel physically better after a few weeks of Chinese food and, although we try many unusual ingredients, we have never once experienced a bad stomach during our travels there.
I’m convinced that the reason we feel so good on the food is that there is a much higher ratio of vegetables to meat or fish in the dishes. Rice or noodles are served with each meal but almost as an afterthought to mop up any remaining sauces. Groundnut or vegetable oil is used for cooking. There is virtually no dairy in the diet and only the occasional pinch of added sugar.
Chinese cooks don’t count calories or use recipes. They use their senses – sight, taste, smell, texture – and a lot of heart in their cooking. They know instinctively if a dish is healthy by the range of colours on the plate. They tend to eat until they are about 70% full and you never leave a Chinese table with that leaden feeling of  having too much meat in your stomach. Yet may find a few Chinese who prefer Vegetarian Meal that something with meat.
Building on our Chinese experience,  I have been trying to have two days a week, over recent months, where we eat very lightly, a variation of the 5:2 fast diet which we are following as much for its health benefits as to lose a bit of weight. My daughter Claire in Australia introduced me to The Ultimate 5:2 Recipe Book by Kate Harrison. This is a great little book, with recipes that pack a punch of flavour, are satisfying to eat and a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
There are at least 11 recipes in the book that I return to again and again and, in many cases, the only concession to a “diet” in the recipe is the use of  Fry-light one-cal spray instead of groundnut oil. I’ve discovered to my surprise that this spray works really well in a wok and for roasting vegetables in the oven and now it is often my first choice for cooking. Apart from that, the balance and range of ingredients in the recipes is very similar to the type of main course dish Shan or her MaMa would rustle up at home in Beijing using whatever ingredients are to hand.
The recipe below is one of our favourites and an easy one to prepare on a weekday evening after a busy day’s work. It is described as Indonesian but it’s flavours are very similar to those of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. For those who care about these things the calories per serving are just 204. Try it out and feel free to vary the vegetables or substitute chicken or tofu for the pork.
Sticky Indonesian Pork Stir-fry

5:2 Indonesian Pork Stir-fry
5:2 Indonesian Pork Stir-fry

Serves 4
Preparation time: 20 minutes plus 30 minutes marinating
Cooking time: 10 minutes

  • 400g lean pork steak diced into small cubes
  • 2 tbs ketjap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • juice of half lime plus remainder in wedges to serve
  • 1 clove garlic finely chopped
  • thumb of root ginger finely chopped
  • one-cal cooking spray or groundnut oil
  • 1 red and 1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and cut into wedges
  • 1 red chilli, thinly sliced
  • 4 spring onions, thinly sliced
  • 225g tin of bamboo shoots, drained
  • 8 baby pak choi, leaves separated or two pak choi, roughly chopped
  • chopped fresh coriander to garnish (optional)


  1. Mix the ketjap manis, soy sauce, lime juice, garlic and ginger in a bowl. Add the pork, mix well and marinate for 30 minutes.
  2. Spray a wok with a little one-cal cooking spray or heat about 1 tbs oil. Remove the pork  from the marinade and cook for about 3 minutes until browned all over.
  3. Add the peppers, chilli and spring onions and the remainder of the marinade. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes until the pork is cooked through.
  4. Add the bamboo shoots and pak choi and heat through for 1 – 2 minutes until the pak choi has wilted. Add a splash of boiling water to help steam the vegetables if you feel the wok is getting too dry.
  5. Stir through the coriander, if using and, if you wish, serve with steamed rice (calories not included!).

Longevity Village and a Grill Mates BBQ on the outskirts of Beijing

It’s Friday night and I have been watching Des Bishop on the Late Late Show, clips from his “Breaking China” series a welcome reminder of our time in Beijing.
Truth is I am homesick for my home from home. And this time it’s not just Shane, Shan, Dermot and his squdigy hugs that I’m missing. I’m feeling the loss of place and pace – the group of nai nai in the lobby of Shane’s 25 floor apartment block greeting me with warm smiles and a chorus of “ni ha0 nai nai Teng Teng” as they noticed me on my own seven months after they last saw me; the manic traffic and crochety taxi-drivers; the guy careering along on a rickshaw with a full suite of furniture on the back; the unexpected greenness of the city at this time of year, tall trees shading the streets and softening the skyline of endless high-rise buildings; the extraordinary ease with which you can find a quiet space in a park or by a lake in a city of 21 million people. And of course the food.
Yes I can understand why Des Bishop is staying on in China. Beijing and its people have a habit of  getting under your skin and into your soul.
My thoughts stray back to this night last week. My qing jia mu, Shan’s Mama, arrived back from her holidays in a whirl of energy and good humour.  She and a friend had spent a month in the village of Bama in Guangxi Province in the south of China. Bama is known as “longevity village” and Mama and her friend had rented a simple room there for about 400 RMB (€50) for the month.
She wanted to see us before we returned to Ireland so she took a train from Nanning, the capital of Guangxi. It took 31 hours and 28 minutes to reach Beijing South Station and she hadn’t had a sleeper or even a seat for the journey. Then she took several buses to cross the city.  She arrived looking rested and refreshed. She had travelled light, with only a small back pack for her belongings and  a bag of luscious, ripe mangoes from near the border with Vietnam, oozing golden juices. Dressed simply in a black tunic and cut off pants, with her hair cropped short by her own hand and her skin lightly tanned, she looked way younger than her years.
Bama Yao Autonomous County is an extraordinary place. It’s inhabitants are lean and fit and rarely suffer from ill-health. At last count there were 580 villagers over the age of 90 with the eldest aged 113. Their longevity is attributed to many factors – the breathtakingly clean air and water, the particular magnetic field of the earth where traditionally they went barefoot, their diet of mainly fruit and vegetables with only small amounts of meat, all eaten in moderation: the hemp or cannabis soup that is used locally; the way they shin up and down the steep hills of this very beautiful place.
Mama’s perceptions were interesting –  she says the villagers do eat meat but in small quantities – fatty local pork which may help to lubricate their joints. They work hard at all ages. Every generation has their own chores and it’s not uncommon to see elders hard at work well into their nineties. She agrees that the hilly terrain keeps them mobile and nimble on their feet. A local saying goes “if not climb for one day you feel unfulfilled; if for two days, you feel anxious; for three days, you feel your body run sour”. They all have slim figures, she says, and as for the cannabis oil – it just makes you sleepy. Despite fears by some observers that the place is being overrun by tourists and will lose the very qualities that have made it such a healthy place, Mama says she didn’t see one westerner during her month there. She herself is a testament to the health-giving properties of the place. It seems literally to have renewed her.
The following day we all took off, including Mama, to a small village on the north eastern fringes of Beijing where Elvis, an American friend of Shane’s had organised a BBQ in the courtyard of a small hutongTwo families live in the four rooms that surround the traditional-style courtyard and, in return for a contribution to the rent, they allow Elvis organise his get togethers there on summer weekends. These “Grill Mates” events are a long-standing tradition. Elvis, has lived in Beijing for over 15 years and has been cooking on a grill for even longer so his reputation as a barbecue chef is well established .
Word of an upcoming Grill Mates spreads rapidly via We Chat among their wide circle and the crowd is a happy mix of Chinese, American, Canadian, Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh friends and relatives. There are babies about too. Elvis and his wife Dongue have a little boy, William, just six weeks older than Dermot. A little blond boy of seven months old, half English, half Scottish and the four month old baby son of Shan’s close friend Wei are the youngest guests. There is a multilingual older boy too conversing effortlessly with the daughter of the house. The toddlers find a whole new use for a pool table while the adults release their inner musician, discovering drum kits to play with and a guitar.
Everyone who attends contributes a small amount to cover the costs. The table is replenished regularly with bowls of pasta salad and coleslaw and the beer and wine flows freely. Elvis works away at the grill producing platter after platter of chicken pieces and slow-cooked pork while the man of the house leans over a traditional chuan’r grill and sizzles the lamb skewers with chilli and cumin so that they taste just like the street-food in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province.  A large tray of sausage rolls appears, brought it seems by one of the few people in Beijing to make authentic British sausages. And finally, Elvis’ signature dish and excuse for many corny jokes – beer butt chicken – is ready to be devoured as the flesh melts away from the bones.
As the convivial conversation swirls around me in many accents of English and Chinese and the little ones get giddy with heady freedom in a contained space I begin to feel sad. Well happy-sad, the kind of rueful musings that come with recognising that the world your children inhabit with ease is so vastly different from the one in which they were raised; the kind of teariness that comes with the realisation that the holiday is about to come to an end and that the next time we will spend time with Dermot he will have changed again as he does so rapidly from baby, to toddler, to small boy; the kind of rush of emotion that makes you wish you could change everything but knowing that you wouldn’t change one iota, even if you could.
We all strive to live in the moment but sometimes it is easier to fully appreciate these special moments, created by the magic chemistry of good friends and families together, with the perspective of half a world of distance and a little time elapsed. As I sit here now a week on I can watch it all unfold in my minds eye without the overlay of anticipated partings and enjoy it once again.
Thank you Elvis and Dongue for your hospitality. Oh and by the way, you can expect to see a recipe for Beer Butt chicken on the Big Green Egg any week now on the blog.
Some random snapshots of the day are below.


Sichuan Dinner at Yuxiang Kitchen

Thank you for your patience kind readers as I indulge myself with a post a day for the nine days of my #NaiNaiVisit to Beijing. The trip is drawing to a close and normal slow-moving service with a post every week or two will resume shortly. But whatever about the rest of you, I’m hoping this series of posts will fix in my mind a special and gentle time with our grandson whose personality becomes more apparent with each passing day but who is still small enough to be always within sight when we are out and about – if we can keep up with him that is.

It’s been something of a toddler’s tour of Beijing as a result of his tender age. We haven’t made repeat visits to any of the major sights and we haven’t ventured far outside Beijing. There is a limit to how long a 15 month old can be kept entertained in the back of a taxi with no rear seat belts or baby seats.

Where he has been great is at tolerating our almost daily outings for lunch or dinner and joining in proceedings with gusto. It’s fun watching his reaction to foods he is tasting for the first time. We have kept the spicier foods away from him but he loves to try whatever we are having when we let him.

On Friday night we made a return visit to Yuxiang Kitchen Yuxiangrenjia – at Lido Square, the Sichuan Restaurant that inspired me to start the blog in the first place and which I first wrote about here. There are now 14 branches of Yuxiang Kitchen in Beijing and six in Shanghai but this branch is just 10 minutes down the road from Shane & Shan’s apartment so it is our local.

At 6.30 pm on a Friday evening the place was teeming with young families, work groups and a party of Chinese tourists in celebratory banquet mode. Sichuan spices assailed our senses as we crossed the threshold. The noise levels were ferocious, the pace of service was brisk but none of this distracted Dermot from relishing his first encounter with Sichuan Green Beans. He dug in to the beans like a pro and also gobbled up jiaozi made with pork and Chinese chives and shrimp spring rolls. That’s my grandson 🙂

The food was even better than I remembered it from our first visit nearly two years ago. Apart from the dishes Dermot shared we also had

A cold noodle dish with chicken slices

Deep fried radish and shrimp cake

Spiced mu ‘er – a cold dish of cloud-eared fungus

A mushroom and octopus dish made with baby octopus, dried tea tree mushrooms and another type of long mushroom

Crispy duck breast

Chicken with fresh green and red chillies, garlic, ginger and bunches of fresh green Sichuan peppercorns that brought “mouth numbing” to a whole new level


Chilli beef made with long fresh green chillies (the milder ones), dried red chillies, black beans (dou chi), ginger, garlic onions, coriander stalks and leaves and Sichuan pepper.

This time we didn’t order the fish heads in boiling oil.

This was accessible food that packed a powerful Sichuan punch. It may not be quite as authentic as our hotpot meal the other night but I will be a very happy amateur Chinese cook if I can figure out how to replicate those beef and chicken dishes at home.

As Shan says we “eat like soldiers” when Dermot is with us, not prolonging our conversation or lingering past his bed time. As we left, sated and mouths on fire, I was still ogling the dishes being served up to other diners and planning what to eat on my next visit.

The total cost of our meal for four including beers and tea was 526 rmb or €63.

As a postscript, Shan was amused and bemused to discover that when I googled Yuxiang Kitchen to try and find their website, one of the first things to pop up is a photo of her and Shane that I took there on the night in July 2009 when they revealed to us she was pregnant with Dermot, such is the power of the internet to capture moments for posterity.


A Taste of Yunnan Province at Feng Huang Zhu Restaurant Beijing

The English wooden sign on the door simply says Yun Nan Restaurant Bar but Shan tells me the Chinese characters read Feng Huang Zhu – which translates as Phoenix Bamboo. It is an unprepossessing place from the outside, one of the many little hutong houses just around the corner from Drum and Bell Towers and a short walk from Hou Hai lake.
I love this area of Beijing. It is touristy but oozing with character and if I blot out the tackier souvenir shops, the traffic jams of tourist rickshaws and the swarm of Chinese tourists with matching check caps following their guide I can easily imagine myself as a child forty years ago chasing down the alleyways on bicycles as described by YiYun Li in Kinder than Solitude. It also is home to my favourite coffee shop in Beijing, the tiny sitting room that is Excuse Cafe on Bell Tower Square.
Pushing in the door at lunchtime on a sunny May day, we entered an oasis of tranquillity from the raucous street outside. A rippling water feature adorns the entrance hall complete with waterfalls, a turtle and fish which enthralled Dermot. A simple dining room is laid out with stools and wooden tables. Lanterns, hanging lamps and Yunnan artwork transported us to that southern province of China near the border with Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Only one other table was taken at that hour of the day so the owners focussed on giving us the best of service.
This was another of Shan’s Groupon finds. She knew Yunnan was my second favourite cuisine even though I haven’t yet visited Dali or elsewhere in the province. But we did have a great Yunnan meal at Dali Courtyard in Beijing two years ago which I wrote about here.
The beautiful province of Yunnan has the largest diversity of plant life in China. Its is closer in style to Thai and Vietnamese cooking than to the food of other parts of China.  The food is hot and spicy with a focus on natural produce, like beautiful wild mushrooms foraged from the mountains and unique varieties of plants plucked from the countryside. Herbs are used in abundance especially lemon grass, coriander and mint. Sauces are lighter in consistency and because the quality of the raw ingredients is so good there is less emphasis on coatings – the meat, fish and vegetables are allowed to be the stars of the show.
When Shane first came to China seven years ago he spent time in Dali and almost settled there. He mused today that if he had his life might have taken a very different path. Oh the unknowing choices we make as we go through life.
Shan’s deal entitled us to a set menu. The owner looked dubiously at the three lao wei (foreigners) she was with and warned her some of the dishes were very spicy. She replied “bring it on”.
What followed was an extraordinary feast for the senses, especially the eyes and the tastebuds. The dishes he served us were:
Cold set jelly made from peas and drizzled with a spicy sauce
A garlicky mint leaf salad
Yunnan chilli beef laced with chillies – this is a recipe I have to track down
Stir-fried bitter green leaves – these didn’t taste bitter to me, just light and delicate
Cold rice noodles with shredded vegetables
Black three mince – a warm minced pork dish with preserved vegetables
Chicken stewed with whole small chillies, whole cloves garlic, cardamon, star anise and other spices I couldn’t recognise – another dish of stunning flavour
Tofu baked in banana leaf with spices and chilli
A barbecued whole fish stuffed with coriander and lemon grass and scattered with spring onion and chilli – I far prefer fish served this way. The skin had a crunchy texture and the flesh had absorbed the flavour from the herbs neutralising any muddy odours. It had been barbecued on a banana leaf which added to the aromatic flavours.
Bowls of rice.
We washed down this superb meal with glasses of warm water as it was too early in the day for beer. Each element of the meal was a success and the dishes all complemented one another. Dermot loved the pea jelly, fish and rice noodles and the owners fed him wedges of satsuma for dessert.
The total cost of the entire meal for four adults was 199 rmb or about €24 right in the centre of Beijing.
We walked the perimeter of Hou Hai lake afterwards, enjoying the peace once we escaped the busy tourist strip and noticing families enjoying a way of life that hasn’t changed much in 100 years despite the city growing upwards and outwards around it. And as we walked I hatched a dream to learn enough Mandarin to visit Yunnan and take some cooking lessons there. I will do it too… someday.

Sichuan Fish Hotpot at San Zhi Er, Beijing

Every now and again I have a meal in China that pushes me outside my comfort zone. I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Many travellers to China find the food challenging at times, the myriad tastes and textures that Chinese people find interesting because of their “mouth feel”, the range of body parts considered edible and the appeal of bony things from which they like to suck the flesh.
But I consider myself well used to the food at this stage, at least when it comes to eating in Beijing and I’m usually relatively unfazed by what is put in front of me. Yet inevitably, on one day on each visit, there’s a moment that screams at me “give me steak and chips…”
Yesterday was that day. Shan knows Sichuan is my favourite Chinese cuisine so with another one of her Groupon type deals she tracked down a Sichuan seafood hotpot restaurant called San Zhi Er. (Three Ears). This is one of a popular chain of Sichuan hotpot restaurants in Chengdu in Sichuan Province and elsewhere in China. There are two outlets in Beijing.
If you’ve been following the blog for a while you will know that Sichuan Province is deep in the centre of China. “Don’t be afraid of chilli heat” is a local saying so expect ma la mouth-numbing hot and spicy food. Typical dishes that I have cooked for the blog include fish-fragrant pork and aubergine, MaPo Dofu (tofu), Dan Dan noodles and twice-cooked pork. Boiled fish is in chilli oil is also a regional specialty. Sichuan peppercorns add the distinctive mouth-numbing character to the food which once tasted is not forgotten.
We arrived at San Zhi Er around 5 pm just as the restaurant was opening for dinner. We had walked through sticky afternoon heat from the Blue Zoo – the Ocean Aquarium near Worker’s Stadium. We lifted Dermot’s buggy up two flights of stairs and into the large dining room with rows of booths, each with its own hotpot burner sunk into the middle of the table, a hook on the panel outside for aprons to stop you making a mess of yourself while cooking and eating and a trolley for the ingredients to be added to your hotpot.
Dermot was cranky from the heat, lack of a nap and a head cold and not very enthusiastic about being confined to a high chair that was too big for him and oh so tempting to escape from. Believe you me a busy hot pot restaurant with trolleys laden with fish, meat and vegetables that he just longed to push about, waiters carrying steaming bowls of hotpot to the tables and a button at each table to switch on the burners is not an ideal environment for an adventurous 15 month old boy. But as always in China the friendly waiters never baulked at a toddler running amok. They got down on their hunkers to chat to him and he, charming as always with strangers, repayed their kindness with shy smiles, giggles and high fives.
As we took it in turns to attempt to corral him I surveyed my surroundings. Over in one corner the staff were lined up and, in sing song voices, reciting their motivational mantra about good service before the customers arrived. As each new guest came to the reception desk, a call of welcome was relayed up the stairs to one waiter after an other and carried all the way back to the kitchen.
In a cordoned off area a buffet of fresh fruit was laid out including honeydew melon, watermelon and orange slices. Along side it were dishes of condiments and sauces to make up your own preferred dipping sauce for your hot pot. I chose douban jiang chilli paste mixed with sesame paste, sichuan pepper oil, fried garlic, spring onions and a little soy – a taste combination reminiscent of the topping on dan dan noodles. Black vinegar is another option for the base and you can make your sauce as mild or spicy as you like.
Back at the table some starters arrived – the first was Husband and Wife Beef Slices – Fuqi Fei Pian – this was made in the traditional way with thinly sliced beef and beef lung treated with vinegar and seasoned with chili oil. As so often with Chinese dishes, there is a romantic story told of its origin. Guo Zhaohua and his wife sold their beef slices by trundling along with a small cart on the street. No one could resist the spicy smell and people liked the food so much they gave it the name Husband and Wife Lung Slices. I’ve had this dish in China Sichuan, Dublin made with just the sliced beef so I knew what delicious flavours to expect. The texture of the lung was new to me but not unpleasant. There were also sesame pancakes rolled into buns, bashed cucumber and slices of spicy pear.
Two dishes of hotpot stock came to our table – a spicy Sichuan stock flavoured with douban jiang, star anise and chillies and a milder white soup flavoured with tomatoes. They already contained chunks of river fish on the bone with the skin still on which had been cooked in the stock. To be honest I’m not all that keen on boiled or steamed river fish in China. To me it always tastes muddy and I found picking the flesh out with chopsticks from the bones and skin a bit of an ordeal.
Once we had eaten as much as we could of the fish, other items were brought along to be cooked by us in the hotpot. They included thinly sliced beef streaked with fat, triangular wedges of tofu, hard boiled quail’s eggs, pressed fish paste, enoki mushrooms, chunks of wo sun (the asparagus like vegetable from Shan’s home-cooked dinner), various green leafy vegetables – spinach, Chinese cabbage and the like – duck blood set in a red jelly that turned brown and into a consistency more like liver when cooked and finally tripe.
I could handle all of it apart from the tripe. I convinced myself that the duck’s blood wasn’t that far removed from the concept of Irish black pudding. I picked away at the fish and inhaled the rush of Sichuan spice from the steaming stock. But the greyish black tripe with a surface like a tongue gone wrong… nah… I couldn’t hack it despite its inoffensive taste… and I defy anyone to get a pretty picture of it.
So I have to admit to myself that while I love the kick of Sichuan spices, I have a way to go before I can manage the more far out ingredients that I am likely to encounter if I ever immerse myself in Sichuan Province.
All the same, if you ever find yourself in Beijing or Chengdu and want to try a genuine Sichuan hotpot, I would recommend San Zhi Er just don’t be afraid of the chilli heat or some of the other strange ingredients that might arrive at your table.
The total cost of our meal was 320 rmb or about €38 for four people including four beers and lots of glasses of warm water.
The Blue Zoo is also well worth a visit, especially if you are visiting Beijing with young children. They will enjoy the performing seal show. We were the only westerners in attendance yesterday and a source of fascination to the local grandparents and parents. They all want to know where Dermot comes from as he seems exotic to them. The walk through tunnels under the “sea” included sharks and real life “mermaids” (but mercifully not in the same tank) as well as some stunningly beautiful but deadly poisonous Lion Fish.
So it was a case of two ways with fish yesterday and I’ve included some photos of the living kind to take the bare look off that tripe!

Shan's Home-style Chinese Dinner

This is how the blog began – with Shan teaching me how to cook authentic Chinese dishes at home. Looking back at my very first post in July 2012, it all seems such a long time ago. At first it was a way of getting to know my daughter-in-law to be as well as a gaining a deeper understanding of her culture. Since then this blog has developed in all sorts of unexpected ways. While Shan got diverted by her pregnancy with our first grandchild and the early months of being a mother, I went on to explore Chinese cuisine in cookery books, restaurants and any classes I could find.
There’s nothing like watching a Chinese home cook in action though and last night (Tuesday) it was back to basics and to Shan cooking in her tiny, dimly lit Beijing kitchen, rustling up a meal to rival any we have eaten so far on the trip, while I took notes and snapped amateur photos on my iPhone.
Here is what she cooked in the order she cooked it:
Duck soup made with the carcass of the duck we had in XiHeYaYuan on Saturday night, flavoured with dried bamboo, dried tea tree mushrooms and dried seaweed (kelp). Nothing ever gets wasted in a Chinese kitchen and the same is true of eating out in restaurants. It is quite normal and acceptable to take home any leftovers and put them to good use.
A thick asparagus-like vegetable called wo sun sliced and stir-fried with the same kind of smoked pork served at our Hunan meal at Pindian on Monday night. Wo sun also featured in the XiHeYaYuan menu. It has a lovely translucent colour and delicate texture when cooked and absorbs the flavours of other elements of the dish. Hunan specialities such as the smoked pork can be hard to find even in Beijing. Shan is great at tracking down regional ingredients on line and having them delivered by courier from distant parts of China.
Stir-fried broccoli with garlic. This is one of my favourite side dishes back home as Shan had shown me how to prepare it over Christmas. It is a simple dish that adds colour and texture to a meal.
Long green chillies – la jiao – fried with slow-cooked pork shoulder left over from a joint given to Shan by her friend Wei. These chillies look like green versions of sweet long red peppers but they have a mild chilli taste less fiery than their smaller green cousins.
Xinjiang stir-fried rice noodles with celery, red and yellow peppers, cooked egg and some of the same left over pork. This is a typical dish from Shan’s home province. You can make it with what ever vegetables and left over meat you have to hand and spice it up to taste with Sichuan pepper, chilli oil and other seasonings.
Boiled rice.
Shan cooked everything on just three gas rings with one stockpot for the soup, a saucepan to boil the noodles, blanch the broccoli and wo sun and one wok. I took note of everything she did because needless to say there were no written recipes involved. I will do my best to recreate them and post the recipes when I get back home.
While she worked and I watched she chatted about her approach. As all good Chinese cooks do, she prepared all of her ingredients in advance, lining them up so that she could cook fast at the end. Her soup was on the go from early in the day but she only added salt for the last half hour of cooking. She cooked the lightest stir-fried dishes first and the rice-noodle dish last so as to avoid the need to clean the wok. Her approach to seasoning was entirely intuitive – taste and correct, taste and correct judging the spiciness of the green chillies for instance which can vary with every batch.
Shan was at pains to point out that there was nothing special about this meal. It is typical of the number and variety of dishes any home cook would prepare for four people, working with what is is season and using up any leftovers to hand.
We served all the dishes at the table at the same time and we ate them in sequence in our rice bowls as is the Chinese way, finishing with the soup. We washed it all down with a cheeky little Tall Horse Shiraz, cheap, cheerful, robust enough to complement the spicy food and a nice reminder of our giraffe encounters at Beijing Zoo on Monday.
Take a bow Shan and thank you for being my teacher.

Hunan dinner at Pindian Cuisine, Wangjing

I have to hand it to my daughter-in-law Shan. She keeps pushing out the boundaries when it comes to our dining experiences in Beijing – both geographically and in terms of the food. She has been trawling through the Chinese equivalent of Groupon for deals on line and reviews by Chinese diners to find places that might appeal to my ever-broadening tastes but that also serve dinner early and have high chairs for Dermot.
Last night’s excursion took us a 20 minute taxi ride further out of the city to Wangjing, a sub-district of Chaoyang and one of those new suburbs that has sprung up on the ever expanding perimeter of Beijing since the early 1990s. It is in the north east corner of the city just inside the 5th ring road. So many Koreans live there that it is known locally as Koreatown. The name translates as “View of Beijing” but you would be hard pressed to catch a glimpse of the city through the endless rows of sky scrapers. It is an unlikely place to find Hunan food but Shan had tracked down a restaurant called Pindian there that serves an authentic version of the cuisine.
Hunan is one of the steamy inland provinces of China, not as far west as Sichuan province. Its chefs and home cooks produce very hot, spicy, bold and colourful food for a hot and fiery people, with an emphasis on sourness. Local chefs use boiling, roasting and steaming to make dishes that are hot and sour, charred and mouth-numbing, fresh and fragrant, crispy and tender. The recipe for Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork from my archives is a good example as is Hunan Style Crispy Chilli Beef.
Cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Cookbook is my bible of Hunan cooking and I get lost in the world she depicts of the birthplace of Chairman Mao and the exotic, spicy dishes created there. Ihave tried many of her recipes at home but, apart from a few recipes I learnt at Hutong Cuisine cookery school when I last visited Beijing, such as Hunan Steamed Fish, I have never tasted the food of this region while China.
I plan to get to Hunan Province some day but, like any capital city, Beijing is a melting pot of all regional cuisines and I was delighted to be getting the chance to taste the real thing here. I knew to expect it to be even  spicier than Sichuan food but without the same addiction to numbing Sichuan pepper. Apart from that I had an open mind and I have one rule when eating out with Shan – try everything put in front of me at least once without asking questions.
Pindian was on the first floor of a modern block and was a large, well-lit room with tables designed to cater for family gatherings and private dining rooms off to one side. It’s layout with Chinese lanterns and double happiness pendants dangling from the ceiling was typical of thousands of family restaurants through the city and millions throughout the world. A large fish tank filled with enormous goldfish lined one wall and was ideal for distracting Dermot. Our table was at a window overlooking the suburban street as workers made their way home from the city.
The Groupon deal Shan had found included a set menu to which she added two other dishes so that Dermot would have something less spicy to eat.
To start with we were served a jug of warm and rather sweet corn juice and glasses of warm water and we ordered some Yangjing beers to go with them.
The first plate to arrive at our table was gan guo niu wa – a dish made with bullfrog and served sizzling at our table. Shan was surprised I had never eaten frog before, not even frogs legs in France. The meat was very tender with a consistency a little like chicken but lots of small bones to be dealt with. It was scattered with chillies, spring onions and peanuts. The flavour and cooking style was similar to the “drying pot” potato we had at our Peking Duck restaurant, XiHeYaYuan on Saturday night
The dish of wide flat rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese cabbage that was served next was a lovely light accompaniment to this and the other dishes that followed.
Sizzling beef with green chillies was lip-tingling hot and the star of the night. The chillies – hang jiao – used are spicy hot but full of flavour.
Shan had ordered dried radish with smoked pork which is a regional specialty but what was served involved equally tasty dried green beans. I loved this dish. The smoked pork is bought part cooked, thinly sliced and tossed with the dried vegetable, mashed whole garlic, ginger, chillies and spring onion. And the good news is that Shan has ordered some of this smoked pork on line so that we can try out a variation of this dish at home.
Steamed whole fish came in a soy sauce and facing me with doleful eyes. I fear I will never get fond of the appearance of whole fish but the flavour was good. It was served splayed so that you could remove all the flesh from the bones without ever having to turn it over as that would be unlucky – it symbolises a fishing boat turning over in water.
A free range chicken was chopped into pieces and cooked in a rich broth flavoured with ginger, spring onion and other spices. In northern China it is typical to remove the meat from the soup with your chopsticks and eat it boiled rice before drinking the broth at the end of the meal as a soup. It was delicious.
A plate of little deep-fried buns rounded off the meal. I wasn’t sure whether they would be sweet or savoury when I bit into them – one of the hazards of eating out in China. In fact they were like sweet little donuts.
With the Groupon deal the total cost of the meal for the four of us was 242RMB or about €28. By any standards this was excellent value.
And now, if asked about Hunan food, I can say “I’m partial to a bit of bullfrog myself”.

Beijing Zoo

I remember my own first trip to Dublin Zoo, petting the donkey at the Children’s Corner and posing at the Wishing Seat in a little pink coat to have my photo taken. I can’t have been more than four years old.
When Shane and Claire were young we had a family membership and we used to visit often. On Shane’s first visit, at about the age Dermot is now, he had blonde hair, chubby cheeks reddened from teething and spent much of his time dozing in his buggy. His second visit was to see Ming Ming the Giant Panda on loan from Beijing Zoo. Maybe something seeped into his subconscious that day that led him to China years later and to calling his business Enter the Panda.
When Dermot was in Dublin in January I took him on for a walk in Phoenix Park and I was sorely tempted to introduce him to the Zoo but I resisted, knowing his parents would want to share that moment. Today he turned 15 months old and Shane and Shan decided to repay my restraint by taking us to Beijing Zoo.
We were joined by Shan’s cousin Jing Jing, who had come to Ireland for their wedding, and her two year old son Xiao Jiu. (An aside here – Xiao Jiu means “Little Nine” and he is so called because nine is the largest number and signifies longevity. He was born in the Year of the Rabbit and the Chinese have a saying “as short as a rabbit’s tail”. His pet name is intended to bring good fortune and counteract the risk of a short life because of his birth year. Dermot’s pet name is Teng Teng which symbolises the wavy motion of a dragon’s leap as he was born at the tail end of the Year of the Dragon). Jing Jing greeted me with hugs, smiles and delight at meeting again so soon. She is one of my favourites in our new extended Chinese family.
Beijing Zoo is located in the west of the city close to the northwest corner of the 2nd Ring Road beside the Beijing Zoo Station on Line 4 of the Subway. We stepped through its gates from a wide and noisy city street lined with skyscrapers into a leafy oasis of calm – another one of those unexpected green lungs in this city full of surprises. The Zoo covers about 220 acres and has over 450 species of animals. It is laid out like formal Chinese gardens with dense groves of willow and bamboo trees, a river, streams and grassy stretches making it a pleasant, well-shaded spot to spend a sunny day. On a Monday the place was not too crowded and all the visitors seemed to be Chinese apart from us, parents and grandparents with young children.
It has been a zoo in some shape or form since 1906 but by the end of the second world war had only 13 monkeys and one old, blind emu in residence. It’s renewal was interrupted again by the Cultural Revolution but it has developed again rapidly in recent years and is now home to several rare and endangered species  including of course the Great Panda.
For the most part the animal enclosures look well kept and the animals content with their lot. One polar bear looked rather depressed turning in circles but may just have been waiting his turn for the swimming pool next door where another was turning tricks with a metal oil drum and using it to create a makeshift shower. Indeed some of the toys for the animals to play on seemed a bit bizarre to our western eyes but the monkeys were very partial to their rocking deer.
The star attraction, the Giant Pandas, were all having their morning nap when we passed through their enclosure prompting Shane to consider renaming his company “Enter the Giraffe” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Still we got to see lions and tigers and bears as well as giraffes, zebras, rhinos and monkeys. Dermot was just old enough to appreciate them, staring in wide-eyed amazement at their size and their antics. He was especially taken with the fast moving young cheetahs and the many multicoloured ducks and birds including flamingoes and cranes. We even discovered a bird named for Gao Shan – a Himalayan Griffon to be precise. Watching the ducks and swans kept him happiest of all and I liked to think he remembered feeding the ducks with me in Stephen’s Green in January.
There are plenty of cafes inside the grounds and we found one improbably named the Australian Style Cafe – this seemed to be because it had a few boomerangs on its walls. Still it served decent coffee and edible Chinese takeaway which we ate outside in the afternoon sun.
Beijing Zoo is definitely worth a visit. Jing Jing has an annual family pass which covers it and other Beijing attractions. Shane and Shan plan to follow suit, in keeping with family tradition.


Japanese style dinner at Taikiku Beijing

Day 2 of #NaiNaiVisit and I’m fighting off jet-lag, falling asleep at odd moments in the middle of the day, drifting off on the sofa as soon as we get back from dinner and awake writing blog posts at 2.30 am. Between naps I brushed up on my culinary Chinese from Sybaritica. I love John’s posts from the far reaches of Northern Canada. I’ve learnt a lot about Chinese food from him and his Culinary Chinese blog posts are an invaluable aid to eating out here.
For breakfast today we had jiam bing – a Bejing pancake folded and layered with spices which Shan picked up from the local shop for a few kuai, the equivalent of about 6oc. Later we took a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood here in Upper East Beijing. It’s easy to forget you are in a city of 21 million people in these tree-lined streets and, on a sunny Spring Sunday, the local park could be any suburban park in the world, the sheen of greenness not yet parched by the summer sun and trees lining the skyline wherever you look.

A walk in the park with YeYe
A walk in the park with YeYe and NaiNai

We had a quick lunch in Element Fresh near the Lido Centre. My ex-patriate son sometimes has a longing for an English/Irish/American breakfast but the quality and value is patchy in these parts. I stuck with Asian options. The Lido Centre is where we had the Chinese meal that led me to starting the blog with this post. More recently the Lido Hotel has become notorious for being the temporary home to the Chinese relatives of those on board the doomed flight MH370. They have left now, their questions about the fate of their relatives unanswered, and the security detail has gone too.
Shan’s heat-seeking ability to find interesting restaurants led us to Taikiku for an early dinner – a Japanese fusion restaurant in Dongfang Donglu about 30 minutes walk from us in the Chaoyang District. I can only find one English language review on line in That’s Beijing.
We were joined by Shane and Shan’s friend Carl, himself an occasional restaurant reviewer, and led across slate steps past a striking water feature to our private wood-panelled dining room where two Korean style BBQs were sunk into the dining table with seating for the six of us including Dermot in a high chair.
Shan ordered in Chinese and the staff entered the orders on iPads which transmitted them straight to the kitchen. The option we went for was “all you can eat” from the a la carte menu, with a few of the more expensive items being out of bounds. The owner imports his own Waygu beef from Australia and the restaurant has earned a reputation locally for the quality of its meats and sashimi.
The dishes came in waves so fast that I found it hard to note them all. They included:
Vietnamese spring roll with avocado and shrimp, Waygu beef sashimi, sashimi of tuna and scallops and later sea urchin, all of first grade quality, two salads – one of avocado and asparagus, the other of organic vegetables, a stir-fried vegetable dish and a kimchee hot pot brimful of seafood and soba noodles.
Waygu Sashimi
Waygu Sashimi at Taikiku

A selection of side dishes at Taikiku
A selection of side dishes at Taikiku

On the BBQ at the table Shan and I cooked whole fresh shrimp, platters of Waygu Beef, beef tongue, oysters and – a first for me – pork intestines chewy, slightly aromatic and tasty. The Waygu beef came thinly sliced so that you could cook it in a few moments or in long strands that you could cut into bite size pieces with a scissors before cooking. The cuts we had were short-rib and dragon cut (inside skirt).
On the BBQ at Taikiku
On the BBQ at Taikiku

Dermot’s favourite dish was grilled eel although he was partial to the noodles from the kimchee hot pot too.
Dermot nibbled the eel before I got a photo!
Dermot nibbled the eel before I got a photo!

All of this came washed down with seemingly endless quantities of sake, green tea and Japanese beer. Despite the quantity of food it was all very light and easy to digest because we had no starchy dishes such as rice or potatoes.
The bill for all five of us was 1262 RMB or about €145. There was no charge for Dermot as he is under three and, bless him, he is remarkably patient at adult dinners once you allow him join in the food and the conversation and explore a bit at the end.
Joining in the fun
Joining in the fun

As a footnote I had my first experience of a Japanese toilet there this evening with heated seats, jets that can be directed at the touch of the button to various parts of the anatomy with controlled pressure and a built in dryer – a far cry from some of my more traditional Chinese toilet experiences but that’s a whole other blogpost.

While Shane and Shane took Dermot home to bed by taxi, we walked home through the balmy suburban streets and I soaked up the atmosphere of neon lit restaurants, Sunday evening bustle and men fishing by flashlight on the banks of a murky canal. Because I had being studying Sybaritca’s blog post on the Mandarin characters for Beijing, I seemed to see them wherever I looked in the names of restaurants and hotels. Bei Jing – Northern Capital – a city that works its way under your skin and into your heart.
So many ways to say Beijing
So many ways to say Beijing


A Tale of Two Ducks and dinner at XiHeYaYuan, Beijing

There is a wild wind blowing in Beijing. It’s rattling the windows of Shane and Shan’s 21st floor apartment. And if you watch closely you can see the other block sway. It’s making an adventure of the walk to the neigbourhood restaurant, requiring me to keep a vice like grip on the handles of Dermot’s buggy to avoid him and me being bowled over by its force and catching underneath the hood to spin it back sharply, exposing him to the majestic strength of the elements on the city street.
The wind merely adds to the obstacle course that’s involved in venturing out with a toddler along the sidewalks of this manic city. Footpaths disappear into a heap of rubble forcing you out onto the busy thoroughfare. “Green for go” pedestrian crossings give only the vaguest indication that you might have right of way. Taxis change lanes erratically veering onto the footpaths at a whim to drop off their passengers. Drivers slam open their doors or take off at speed without casting a backward glance to check for unsuspecting pedestrians. A man manouevres a  motorised tricycle laden with market produce down the cycle lane while smoking a cigarette and talking on his mobile phone.
And that’s just on our road – Jiang Tai Xi Lu – in the north east of Beijing
Unfazed by all this, Dermot is loving his evening jaunt to the local Peking Duck restaurant XiHeYaYuan at the Indigo Shopping Mall. He is absorbing the sights and sounds of his native city and enjoying the force of the gale on his face, as he tries to play “peep oh” with the windbreak on his buggy.
He was equally unfazed by our arrival this morning, greeting us with laughter and bao bao (hugs), careering around the apartment to show us his new found skills and deciding that suitcases on wheels are far more fun than any toys or books they contain.
Inside the Indigo Shopping Mall all is calm and piped music soothes the windswept as newly middle class Beijingers explore this westernised wonderland before choosing one of the stylish restaurants around the glass dome-covered courtyard for their evening meal.
XiHeYaYuan is one of those restaurants and has become our restaurant of choice for the first or last night of our visits since it opened last March. I reviewed it on the blog last April. It may be a modern, chain restaurant but it knows how to serve a perfect roast duck as well as a host of Sichuan inspired specialities.

Our hosts
Our hosts

The Drinks List!
The Drinks List!

A whole Peking Duck carved at our table
A whole Peking Duck carved at our table

"Now what shall I choose?"
“Now what shall I choose?”

Once again we let Shan do the ordering. We polish off the duck while she chooses 8 dishes in all including rice and noodles.
In keeping with Chinese tradition, there are two cold dishes – Sichuan spicy noodles and a cold vegetable – wo sun, spiced with jalapeno peppers, which Shan says is a member of the asparagus family but I don’t recognise it.
Some of the dishes are familiar – dan dan noodles, Sichuan fried green beans cut small the way Shan prepares them and a lattice of pork-filled pot-sticker dumplings with black vinegar dipping sauce.
Two of the dishes are new to me – a “Drying Pot” dish of potato slices with onions – gan guo tu dou pian, chillies and thinly sliced pork belly in an aromatic sauce cooking away over a burner at our table. Edamame beans, speckled with mince and tasty but not spicy. The names don’t always have a direct translation and I will be searching my Fuchsia Dunlop cookery books when I get home in an effort recreate them.
Sichuan delights
An array of Sichuan delights

Pot-sticker Dumplings
Pot-sticker Dumplings

Licking the plate clean
“Sure I had to lick my plate clean!”

There is lots of food on the table but because it is mostly vegetarian with just traces of pork and beef we don’t feel over full at the end. It certainly satisfies my need for a Sichuan kickstart to the holiday though. And the total cost of the meal for the four of us and Dermot? 504 rmb or just €60.
After the meal Dermot and I go walk about, or at least he potters around the courtyard as I trail after him. He is charming every one he encounters, flirting with pretty young Chinese women, making friends and swapping bao bao hugs with a little boy who calls him “younger brother” and looking back once in a while to check that I am still there and that he has permission to venture just a little bit further.
As we trundle home once again through the evening traffic, night falls and a perfect crescent moon hangs over this city of contrasts – the wind has earned its keep. It has blown away the smog to give us a rare star-lit sky.
I check my in-box when I get in to find that Claire and Mike have cooked Peking Duck in Sydney so that they will feel closer to us and their godson.  She didn’t know we were also having duck tonight – food connecting our family across the continents once again.
Claire's splendid Peking Duck
Claire’s splendid Peking Duck

Very authentic looking Claire!
Very authentic looking Claire!