I’ve started Chinese lessons. Once a week Wei Wei, who was Shan’s bridesmaid, comes to my house. We spend a few hours poring over her notes while I try to get my head and tongue around Chinese phrases, echoing the sounds and tones familiar in Beijing. My dream is to surprise Shan’s Ma Ma, my qing jia mu, with a text message in Mandarin characters and by addressing her in Chinese the next time we meet. I’ve a long, long way to go.
The language lesson finished, Wei Wei and I roll up our sleeves, get out the cleaver, chopping board and wok and she teaches me a new recipe. To start with she is helping me to recreate some of the dishes I came across on my last visit to Beijing. It’s fun, the hours fly by and I am learning at all sorts of levels.
Wei Wei writes her own blog MyChineseKitchen.com and is an accomplished Chinese cook. Her Mum and Dad taught her basic techniques from a very young age in her home town of Tianjin and she has wielded a cleaver for as long as she can remember. Next week her parents are coming to visit her and her husband Oisin in Ireland for the very first time, no doubt bearing a suitcase full of ingredients like Shan’s family did at Christmas.
Last weekend our friends Brenda and Jimmy were coming to Sunday dinner. I wanted to serve a meal like Shan and her Ma Ma would cook, a selection of dishes for sharing, some spicy, some light. Gan guo tu dou pian was on my mind – a potato dish that I had tasted in our favourite Chinese Duck Restaurant XiHeYaYuan in Beijing and which I wrote about here. Gan guo translates loosely as “dry wok”. It is a style of cooking that comes from Hunan Province where the food is rich and spicy and in restaurants in China it is served in a little cast iron pot at your table over an open burner. As well as gan guo made with slices of fried potato and smoked Hunan pork, I had also enjoyed gan gou niu wa, made with bull frog, at our Hunan dinner at Pindian in Wangjng.
As luck would have it, Wei Wei also loves the dish which she and Oisin used to have every time they visited a local Hunan restaurant they called “The Cheap Place” in Beijing . She has come up with her own recipe for gan guo potatoes which tastes exactly as I remember it in Beijing and she has set out the steps for making it in detail here on her own blog. We used her recipe for my first cookery lesson and as we worked she taught me the Chinese words for the ingredients and helped me improve my knife skills and cooking techniques.
The next day I made the dish again working without a recipe, using the instincts Wei Wei had helped me develop to balance the flavours. My proportions were a little different to Wei Wei’s so here is what I did.
Hunan Spiced Potato – Gan Guo Tu Duo Pian
(Serves 4 as a side dish or 2 as a main course)
- 3 firm medium potatoes
- 4 slices of Hunan smoked pork or pancetta or smoked streaky rashers, rind removed
- 1 red chilli
- 1 green chilli
- a small thumb of ginger
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 leek
- ½ an onion(red or white)
- 1 stick celery
- 1 spring onion
- cooking oil
- coriander to garnish (optional)
For the sauce
- 1 tbs hot bean sauce
- 2 tbs light soy sauce
- ¼ tbs dark soy sauce
- 1 tbs shaoxing rice wine
- 2 tsps sugar
- salt to taste
- Wash and peel the potatoes and slice them about ½ cm thick. Wash the potato slices twice in cold water to rinse out the starch and pat them dry.
- Slice the pork or bacon into thin pieces a littler smaller than the potatoes slices.
- De-seed and thinly slice the chillies; slice the ginger, peel and slice the garlic.
- Slice the leek, onion, celery and spring onion into julienne strips.
- Mix all the sauce ingredients and set aside.
- Heat sufficient oil in a wok to about 140 degrees to fry the potato slices in batches until golden, setting them aside to dry on a dish lined with kitchen roll.
- Empty all but just over a tablespoon of oil from the wok. Over a medium-high heat stir-fry the chilli, garlic and ginger for a few moments to release their aromas being careful not to burn them. Add the pork slices and stir-fry until they turn colour.
- Add the leek, onion, celery and spring onion and stir-fry briefly before adding the sauce and mixing well.
- Fold in the cooked potato slices and keep stirring until the sauce has almost evaporated, being careful not to break up the potato slices. Season with salt to taste. Serve immediately, garnished with coriander if using.
I had some of the very special cured pork from Hunan Province which Shan used in her home-style dinner. It has an amazing umami flavour and adds an extra jolt of authenticity to the taste. But any good quality cured or smoked pork or bacon can be used, even Italian pancetta.
This was just one of the dishes I served at dinner last Sunday. Here is the full menu:
Sichuan Dry-fried Green Beans, Vegetarian Style
Broccoli Stir-fried with Garlic
Bai Cai with Ginger, Dried mushrooms and Oyster sauce
Gan Guo Tu Duo Pian
We slow-cooked the Beer Can Chicken to moist perfection on the Big Green Egg. APL’s recipe has enough Asian flavours going on to make it a good foil for Chinese vegetable dishes.
I had picked up some interesting Chinese leaves from the Asia Market with long green stems and delicately flavoured leaves. Wei We said they were a type of Chinese cabbage – bai cai . Shan had given me some wonderful speckled dried mushrooms which are called xiang gu because of their excellent flavour.
Rehydrate a few dried mushrooms in hot water for half an hour, then slice them thickly and stir-fry them with a few slices of ginger and spring onion (no garlic) until soft before adding the bai cai until it wilts down. Add a dash of oyster sauce, season with salt and the earthy flavour of the mushrooms combined with the delicate cabbage will transport you to MaMa’s kitchen in Beijing.
I worked the way Shan had taught me in Beijing, preparing all the ingredients well in advance and lining them up in separate dishes, cooking the lightest vegetable dishes first and then, a quick wipe of the wok and on to the next one so that I was able to get each bowl to the table in quick succession and join in the conversation.
Dessert was a random find from Twitter – a recipe from Catherine Fulvio’s blog to which I added a few raspberries. This was a great success and has now been included in my limited repertoire of sweet treats. We loved the crunchy, no-bake base, which was made from amaretti biscuits, and the tang of passion fruit, yoghurt and orange zest in the filling.
Now it’s time to start planning my next visit to China in two weeks time. Nai Nai hugs coming up…