Stir-fried Sugar Snap Peas with Garlic

Sugar Snap Peas with garlic
Sugar Snap Peas with garlic

This side-dish is so simple that it hardly deserves a blog post all of its own but it is one of those recipes that is very handy to have in your repertoire when you want to rustle up something fast to serve alongside spicier dishes or even with a traditional Sunday roast.
It is one of the many “home style” dishes that my Chinese teacher Wei Wei has taught me since we started combined Chinese and cooking lessons some weeks ago. After a bit of a break over the summer we are back in action now and she has also started adding new recipes to her own blog Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen.
No special Chinese seasonings are used in this dish. The secret to the flavour lies in adding half the garlic before stir-frying the peas and the other half at the end. Wei Wei normally makes this with mange tout peas which she plunges in boiling water for about a minute before cutting them. By happy accident I had picked up sugar snap peas by mistake and I loved the crunchy texture and the way the seeds pick up the flavour of the garlic and the oil. They take a little longer to cook. Broccoli can also be cooked in this way and my daughter in-law Shan often serves broccoli with garlic as a side dish.
The night Wei Wei showed me this recipe she also taught me how to make her version of Kung Pao Chicken which is utterly addictive. The results of my efforts are pictured below. The combination of the spicy chicken dish with crunchy peanuts or cashew nuts and the more delicately flavoured peas is a real winner served with steamed rice.
Wei Wei's Kung Pao Chicken
Wei Wei’s Kung Pao Chicken

I have previously blogged a recipe for Gong Bao Chicken, as it is known in Sichuan Province, which I learnt at Hutong Cuisine Cookery School but I also love Wei Wei’s recipe which is here on her blog. While the Hutong Cuisine version is spicier, the combination of tomato paste (tomato puree) and hot bean sauce in Wei Wei’s recipe softens and rounds out the flavour of the dish. Where she refers to prickly ash in the recipe that’s the same as sichuan pepper corn. I tend to use cashew nuts instead of peanuts but both work.
Try both recipes and see what you think and accompany them stir-fried sugar snap peas. Enjoy!
Stir-fried Sugar Snap Peas with garlic

  • 2 packets of sugar snap peas (about 320g in total)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbs cooking oil
  • A drizzle of sesame oil (optional)

Preparation and cooking

  1. Peel and finely dice the garlic.
  2. Steam or blanch the sugar snap peas for about 2 minutes at most, then drain. You want them to retain their crunchy texture.
  3. Once they are cool enough to handle, cut the sugar snap peas into two to three sections at steep angles.
  4. Heat a wok. Add about a tablespoon of cooking oil. When the oil is hot add half the garlic being careful not to burn it. As soon as the garlic releases its aroma, add the sugar snap peas. Stir-fry for a few minutes until just beginning to blister but don’t allow them to burn.
  5. Add the salt and the rest of the garlic and stir-fry for about another minute. Remove from the heat and taste to check seasoning. Add a small drizzle of sesame oil if you wish.

Sardinia – Living Like a Local in Alghero

When Shane was a teenager he had a t-shirt with the slogan “Be a traveller not a tourist” which neatly summed up his and my attitude to travelling. I’ve often pondered the distinction between the two.
A typical Italian sea-side holiday at a beach-front holiday apartment or hotel with days spent lounging on a lettino under an ombrellone is not for me although thousands upon thousands of Italian tourists love nothing more than to spend their time that way, returning year in year out to the same patch of sand, claiming their space early in the morning and barely moving until the last rays of sun disappear from the sky.
One significant difference between the Chinese and Italians is that the Italians love their tan. As the summer wears on not just i ragazzi but men and women of all ages, even the nonni and nonne, turn an ever deeper shade of mahogany. The Chinese on the other hand, who guard their paleness as a sign of wealth, will simply ask as Des Bishop put it “why you want to look poor?”.
I haven’t the patience for day long sun-bathing but I love Italian sea-side towns, especially if I can get under the skin of them and pretend to myself that I am living like a local – well like a local that eats out most nights at any rate. Each place has a character all of its own and some are surprisingly beautiful. Alghero is one such town. The old town is a warren of narrow cobble-stone streets lined with honey-coloured buildings, home to shops selling trinkets, coral and beachwear, and small piazzas,  all shaded  by old ramparts from the sun and the breeze off the sea. It retains a distinctive Catalan feel and is often described by residents of Barcelona and by locals as Barcellonetta ‘little Barcelona’. 

The modern part of the town stretches back into the plain beyond, bustling with local commerce.Past the pretty port and marina,  a lido is strung out along the bay connecting stretches of beach with their serried rows of umbrellas and beach bars, while on the other side of the coast road hotels and holiday apartments unravel their guests, billowing across the pedestrian crossings with towels, beach chairs and their picnics for the day.

If you walk far enough along the lido the character changes. Here pine woods line the sea-front and you have to clamber up and over dunes to little coves. Eventually, after about 6 km, you come to Fertilia, a little port village with a sleepy atmosphere and some nice restaurants on the street leading down to the harbour.

Where to stay
In August accommodation is at a premium in Alghero but through Niamh Shield’s blog Eat Like a Girl  I came across  House Trip who specialise in short-term lettings, many of them in residential areas. This was my first time to use the website and I was impressed with the quality of the service and the range of accommodation options on offer from whole houses to studio apartments. Through their site I found Apartment Dhalia in a small residential apartment block in Via Cellini, about 8 minutes walk from the beach and 10 minutes walk from the old town.
When we arrived from our three days of hill-walking on the east coast of the island (see the last blog post) I knew what to expect – a basic one bed-room apartment with a small balcony overlooking the common courtyard, not luxurious but adequate for a four night stay. What I did not expect was the amount of effort Fabio the owner would put in to making us feel at home. All the little things that you need for a short stay were provided – washing liquid for the washing machine; olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in the kitchen; kitchen roll, refusacks, washing up liquid, soap; tea towels, beach towels, hairdryer – you name it, he had thought of it. There were even a few cold beers in the fridge along with bottles of water. He pointed out the location of the large supermarket three minutes walk away, the places where we could find free parking on the street outside and the direction to the beach and town. And that was it. I was ready for small town italian life.
What to do
For the next four days we pottered happily around the town, our hire car never moving from its original parking spot. The little alimentari two doors from our apartment stocked everything we needed for an impromptu breakfast or lunch – prosciutto crudo, salami di sardo, ricotta, local breads and fresh fruit. In the mornings we wandered down to the old town or out along the lido, enjoying a cappuccino e corneto in a cafe in one of the sunny piazzas, paying a visit to the local mercato to admire the scary swordfish and the array of mediterranean vegetables or walking out of town in either direction as far as the footpaths would allow.
One day we arrived at Fertilia around lunch time and had an excellent lunch in Ristorante Acquario.

This was my first taste of fregola a local pasta like large couscous, dotted with prawns, courgettes and speck. Sautè frutti di mare of mussels and clams tasted straight from the sea.
The afternoons were for relaxing at the apartment or along the seafront where you could commandeer a sea-facing iron bench on the lido if you didn’t want to get sand in your book. I finished one afternoon with a mojito at a beach-side bar as the sun began to drop in the sky and waited for il tramonto.

A mojito at sunset
Il tramonto – a mojito at sunset

There’s a grittiness about the back streets as you return home in the evening, litter blowing in the sea breeze and cluttering the gutters with flyers and wrapping papers. That’s something that the local authorities need to tackle but meanwhile it adds to the realism of the place.
Where to eat
Evenings were for dinner out in one of the many local restaurants. Like all holiday towns Alghero has its fair share of tourist traps and I had been warned off the more touristy restaurants on the Ramparts by a waiter in Dublin whose father hails from the town. But with careful research I found four places that I visited and can recommend. As often happens in Italy the menus are very similar from restaurant to restaurant – I nearly turned into a sea bream – orato – by the end of the week. The difference lies in the care the chef gives to the preparation of simple ingredients, the friendliness of the owner and waiting staff and the ambience of the place.
The four places we tried for dinner were:
La Lepanto – a stylish restaurant with an array of fresh sea-food and live lobster on display. It is pricier than some of the more casual places in town but worth it for the quality and presentation of the fish. Sashimi grade tuna was excellent and the platter of local affettati was first class.

Al Vecchio Mulino – this place was recommended to me by my Italian waiter friend. It is a lovely setting in two parallel dining rooms hewn like barrels from the rock. The staff are warm and most of the clientele were locals eating huge pizzas. We had a prawn cocktail and gnocchi al sardo as a first course and shared a whole sea bream, accompanied by perfect chips and grilled mediterranean vegetables. There are many good reason to return here, not least the great value pizzas.
Osteria Barcellonetta – you can’t reserve tables at this little place so we got there at 7 pm to avoid the queues that were forming outside by the time we left. Yet another example of simple cucina tipica, my fish of the day turned out to be sea bream again but cooked in wine and olives this time. This was also where I tasted seadas for the first time – a light, filo-like pastry filled with ricotta and drenched in honey.

Bar Ristorante Dietro il Caracere – this was a real find. Just five minutes down the road from our apartment, on a quiet street away from the old town, I noticed tables sprawling onto the footpath from a small cafe bar and the owner Gianni chatting with diners who seemed to be mostly locals. We went there for dinner on our last night and tried two pasta dishes – a perfect spaghetti carbonara and trofie – a twisted pasta – with swordfish followed by a platter of exquisitely flavoured, grilled local fish and the perfect Creme Catalana. The cost was about €60 for two including wine, making it one of the best value meals we had. Don’t expect luxury here and be tolerant of the local traffic but you can be sure of a warm welcome from Gianni. This unpretentious little spot will be top of my list for the next visit.

Four days in Alghero can seem like a lot longer as you lose yourself in the pace of italian sea-side life. And yet it is barely a 3 hour direct flight from Dublin to an airport that you can clear through in less than 30 minutes and then just a 20 minute bus ride to the town. With a “summer” season that runs from April through to October, it is a perfect destination for a short italian break, no car hire needed and lots of hotels and apartment options to choose from.
By the end of the week in Sardinia I had slipped into my “I could live in Italy” mood. As I watched the excitement of young children enjoying the Ferragosta fireworks, I was dreaming of coming back to Alghero but this time with Shane, Shan and Dermot in tow.

Sardinia – From the Mountains to the Sea

The ability to use long haul travel to visit  family in China and Australia is a privilege but it is also tiring and takes its toll. At least once a year I get the urge to do something closer to home, to hop on a plane that will get me to my destination in a few hours, no jet-lag to contend with, no lost days of recovering from exhaustion, just a week to unwind, away from it all, to while away the days with long walks, good books, great food and local wines. And when I get into that frame of mind there is one country that lures me like no other – Italy.
Ah Italy, so much variety of culture and food and landscape in such a concentrated land mass; not so much a country as a series of distinctive regions, rather like a China in microcosm the notion of “Italy” and “Italian” being almost as hard to grasp as “China” and “Chinese”.
So as the dog days of August approached and a free week opened up in the schedule it was time to get out the maps and start googling to find where in Italy to explore this year, somewhere we could combine walking in the hills, an Italian sea side resort and living like locals, all in just seven days without a lot of driving in between – Sardinia.
Sardinia – Sardegna – an island with a character all of its own; Italian but remote from the mainland with its own history, personality, landscape and culture. My daughter Claire and I had spent a week there about 10 years ago lounging on the beach at Alghero but the rest of the island was a mystery to me. This time I was drawn towards the Golfo di Orosei in the east where it is possible to book organised walking holidays in the Spring and Autumn but not in the middle of August. It takes a certain kind of Irish daftness to want to hill walk in 35 degree heat.
And so a plan took shape – three nights near the east coast of the island where physical exertion would surely clear our heads, four back in Alghero to relax.
We left behind torrential rain in Dublin early on a Sunday morning, our glorious Irish summer beginning to show the first hints of autumnal chill. Less than three hours later we descended to the island over sea of the deepest cobalt blue to land at Aeroporto di Fertilia, also known as Alghero Airport, just 15 minutes drive away from the city of Alghero in the north west of the island. It is a tiny and efficient airport and, within 30 minutes, we had picked up our rental car and were on the road. Our destination was Hotel Su Gologone, nestled in the foothills of the Supramonte about 25 km from the sea at Cala Gonone.
When I saw the number of cars in the hotel car park on our arrival on Sunday afternoon, I worried for a moment that it wouldn’t be the peaceful hideaway I had hoped for. I needn’t have fretted. It is truly beautiful place with buildings backed into the rock face over several levels linked in a manner that resembles a small Sardinian village. The design creates an atmosphere of quiet intimacy despite the fact that there are 99 rooms in all. Ours was up at the very top and, by luck, was a mini-suite with a separate sitting area and a balcony looking out over the mountains. There are no lifts and walking from the reception area up to our room involved well over 100 steps of stairs – I know. I counted them.
There is a little bar at the main entrance and, from the cosy reception area, steps lead down to the brightly coloured main restaurant which has views out over the swimming pool to the hills beyond. A narrow street passes through a courtyard by an open fireplace where meats are barbecued at all times of the day, whole sides of pork lined up on spits, whole chickens and rabbits. Around the corner under a gazebo, tables are clustered on a wooden deck and, on a buffet table, cold dishes are protected with netted covers that remind me of my granny’s kitchen. The billowing veils of the gazebo are misted with water to keep the space cool while lunch is served during the day.
Steps and pathways, way-marked by hand-painted rocks, wind up to the bedrooms and to other hidden nooks and crannies – the Focacceria where bread is made in the traditional way and the Terrazzo dei Sogni (terrace of dreams) where you can watch the sun set over the hills. There’s a wine cellar – both a cantina and a vineria where you can taste wine – an art and craft shop, an orto (kitchen garden) and la bottega dell’olio where local olive oil can be purchased.
All the more usual hotel facilities such as a gym, Jacuzzi, mini-golf, tennis with tennis racquets and spa are available but hidden from view so as not to disturb the village like atmosphere. You could easily come here and not leave the complex for the duration of your stay and I noticed a number of families with young children who seemed to do just that. Around every corner, inside the buildings and out, there are little spaces where you can curl up with a book in a lazy arm chair or on a balcony bench to while away an hour or two with a good book or simply take in the view.
The most striking thing of all about Su Gologone is that it is a living art gallery and museum of Sardinian artefacts. Every corridor and outdoor space is used to reveal some aspect of Sardinian history or art. As a result it is a riot of vibrant Mediterranean colours and feast for the eyes against the backdrop of the brooding Supramonte and the deep blue sky.
The food is very good too featuring one of the best buffet breakfasts I’ve come across in Italy and a simple but tasty menu at night with the emphasis on local affettati, pastas and roasted meats. On most nights there is also an alternative meal in one of the other locations on site – a dinner cooked over the fireplace at the l’angolo dell’arrosto or a selection of local focacce.

It would have been tempting not to venture out for the three days we spent there but I had come with hill-walking on my mind so on Monday we headed for the coast twenty five minutes drive away past the beautiful man-made Lago Del Cedrino, via switchback roads, the hill-top town of Dorgali and a tunnel bored through the mountain to Cala Gonone. We parked up the hill at the southern end of Cala Gonone and walked a few kilometres up the road to Cala Fuili to pick up the walking trail that took us up and down steep paths, clambering over rocks at times, high into the hills above the crystalline waters of Golfo di Orosei and eventually down to Cala Luna, a crescent shaped beach of the whitest sand that is otherwise only accessible by sea.

A word of warning – this walk is described in the guide at the hotel as “percorso facile” – an easy walk. If you have wonky knees like me it is not all that easy! You need to set out in walking boots and, on a hot day, bring at least two litres of water. I was glad I had brought my trekking sticks but still managed to acquire a few scratches and bruises en route. It took us a good bit longer than the two hours suggested but the effort is worth it for the views, the exhilaration and the bliss of arriving to a cold drink at the little bar down on the beach at Cala Luna. We took a ferry back to Cala Gonone in the late afternoon sunshine to get a different perspective on the coast line and retraced our steps along the beach to pick up our car.
On our third day we decided to stay closer to the hotel and take a break from driving. Just 400m down the road from the hotel there is a lovely, peaceful spot, “La Sorgente” – the source of the river Su Gologone which has been dammed to form the lake at Cedrino. It is a mystical place of deep, crystal clear waters the depth of which is not yet known although it has been explored to 138 metres. From there, trekking trails lead off into the hills around and a guide to these is available from the little bar and souvenir shop at the source. We took a fairly easy but steep stretch up hill to get views over the river and the lake before returning to laze by the pool.

On that, our third and last night, we had dinner in Agriturismo Guttidhai a few kilometers down the road – a simple, rustic set menu of tasty local “cucina tipica” which offers a good value alternative to dining at the hotel every evening.
One word of advice on getting to that part of the island from the airport at Alghero – I allowed Google Maps to choose a route and it got us there in two hours and twenty minutes by climbing high into the mountains and descending, via hairpin bends, through the little towns of Bottida and Esporlatu and on via Nuoro and Oliena to our destination. This gave us a great sense of the rugged and sparsely populated highlands of northern Sardina but it was not the most relaxing start to the holiday. On the return journey to Alghero we took the SS129 across to Macomer and then headed north on the SS131. This route, which hugs the valleys and follows one of the European “E” routes used by road hauliers was less scenic but made for an easier drive while taking about the same length of time.
Although I am sure there are great Agriturismo options in the area of Golfo di Orosei, Hotel Su Gologone is a real find. The staff are welcoming, friendly and very helpful. The only minor downside is that wi-fi is limited to the reception area and requires a (free) code from reception that lasts for a maximum of two hours on a single device. The fact that wifi only works near reception adds to the feeling of getting away from it all but the need to get a code each time is a minor irritant which could probably be avoided with the installation of a few good routers. The mobile phone signal in this mountainous area is also weak.
The area around the hotel is a hill-walker’s dream. The hotel management have organised nine different excursions in the area, some by jeep, some on foot, which can be arranged once at least four guests are interested. But experienced trekkers will have no problem making their own plans from options of varying levels of difficulty and duration. The locals boast that “summer” lasts for seven months in Sardinia, from April to October. It would be lovely to go there for a long weekend in late Spring or early Autumn and use it as a base for several long walks in the area.
Post Script and a heartfelt thank you
On the day of our tough walk from Cala Gonone to Cala Luna we had one of those panicky moments that can sometimes happen if you head out into the hills not properly prepared for the terrain and weather. After two hours of walking, we had descended a steep track in the forest only to find we were climbing again, away from the coast with the sea diminishing in the distance. For a few minutes we thought we had missed markers on the path and gone astray. We were too far into the walk to go all the way back to the start and we were nearly out of water. Calling mountain rescue began to seem like a good if embarrassing option. We began to re-trace our steps to see if we could get our bearings.
As luck would have it, within a few minutes, we encountered a cheerful young French couple, fit as fiddles who were bouncing along the path in sneakers and confident that it was correct because they had spotted a marker that we had missed. We communicated through my very rusty French and their almost non-existent Italian. As we let them go on ahead of us, Derry called after them to ask if they had any spare water. The girl insisted on giving us a nearly full ¼ litre bottle of water and, with a friendly gallic shrug indicating that she could share her partner’s half empty bottle, bounded on her way. Thus spared from dehydration and more confident of our direction we resumed our walk to discover that the next hill we crested would bring us within sight of Cala Luna and a final scramble down to the sea.
We never did find the couple, on the beach or ferry at Cala Luna, to thank them properly. So if they or a friend should ever stumble on this blog post I want them to know that their random act of kindness made the day of two weary walkers and we won’t forget them. Merci beaucoups.

Two years on… a blog post about Blogging

Chillin' in Alghero, Sardina
Chillin’ in Alghero, Sardina

As I write I am sitting on the balcony of a little apartment in a residential part of Alghero in Sardinia. The sounds of families at their evening meals echo around the courtyard below, the clatter of cutlery and tables being set, towels being beaten off balconies and hung out to dry, the bells of several churches pealing the Angelus in a strange kind of harmony, the more distant sound of mopeds and traffic and children playing football in a playground. The tantalising smell of pork sizzling on a grill wafts through an open window.
It is August down time. I’ve just spent several days without access to wifi  or a mobile phone signal and I’ve been reflecting on how I accidentally became a blogger and why I might continue.
It’s just over two years since I started writing this blog. The inspiration, apart from a growing fascination with Chinese food and culture, was the news that my son Shane and his wife Shan were expecting a baby in Beijing who was bound to cement our Irish and Chinese families together. At the same time my daughter Claire and her Welsh husband Mike were settling in Australia. Our lives were set to get that bit more interesting, complicated and global.
Since then the blog and life has evolved in ways I hadn’t expected. The gleam of a dream that was #BabyShananigans is now our 18 month old grandson Dermot, a cheeky, cheerful, engaging life force all of his own who has managed to captivate all of our hearts. Shane and Shan held their Irish wedding and Dermot’s Christening in Wexford last December attended by our own and Shan’s extended family, most of whom who had not ventured outside China before. Meanwhile Claire and Mike have got Australian citizenship and found a beautiful home near Sydney.
We have all become citizens of the world with long-haul travel now part of our life blood, some part of us always looking forward to the next trip and recalling longingly the last, getting used to communicating by FaceTime, marvelling at each improvement in signal quality and broadband speed and how, despite my fears, you really can build a relationship with a toddler over thousands of miles of distance.
And my “encore” career with a variety of projects that keeps growing, now includes an attempt to set up an Ireland China Institute within the Institute for International and European Affairs. China and its people have crept under my skin alongside a growing admiration for its food, culture and language.
My project to learn from Shan how to cook authentic Chinese dishes has gradually morphed into a broader, haphazard exploration of Chinese cuisine, occasional cookery demonstrations with my friend Robert Jacob and baby steps towards learning the language. Shan’s friend and bridesmaid Wei Wei, who writes her own blog My Chinese Kitchen is now my teacher of both the language and Chinese cooking here in Dublin.
Just over a year ago I acquired a Big Green Egg because it resembled a traditional Chinese clay oven and might solve my dilemma of how to cater for Christmas dinner and Twelve Days of Christmas for Shan’s extended Chinese family. This “not just a barbecue” smoker, roaster, grill, pizza oven, kamado oven all in one unleashed a creative surge and I’ve discovered even more about the joy of experimenting with recipes and preparing ingredients  – long slow cooking and pizzas on my Egg, fast stir-fries in my wok and sometimes a combination of both. I’ve even tried a Chinese take on pizzas.
I continue to write about travel in Italy, China and Australia, often wishing that I could write mid-experience but knowing I must put such thoughts to one side so that I can live the moment and not just be an observer. Sometimes that means I’ve a series of half drafted blog posts and little time to complete them. But the very act of recalling the experience later to write about it helps cement the memories in my mind.
Italy was my first love long before China snuck under my skin but I’ve got used to the idea that I have no hope of Italian relatives now that I have Chinese and Welsh ones. Instead I have surreptitiously “adopted” my friend and Italian teacher Solange and her Irish twin sons who have a gorgeous mix of  Argentinian and Romanian blood in them too. They are my Italian “family” in more ways than one and the resonance between Chinese, Irish and Italian families are strong.
Once in a while I will review a restaurant. I could happily spend a lot of my time reviewing the fruits of my favourite hobby – finding interesting places to eat out – but there are others who do that much better than me and I rapidly run out of superlatives. Still, when I find a gem or a local treasure, I cant resist writing about it.
And from time to time I write about family or rather what it is like to be a long distance granny and the mother to two children that live on the opposite side of the world. Sometimes those pieces feel like the best bits of writing I do, straight from the heart, written in one sitting, effortlessly. There is always a risk that writing like that will paint an artificial picture of an idyllic family life. That’s not the case of course. Every family has it’s share of tragedies, traumas and day to day tensions. But for me these pieces are a release valve for the overwhelming experience of becoming a grandparent, a love for which nothing – not even being a parent – quite prepares you, and also for the realisation that your relationship with your children can deepen and strengthen as they become adults, even when they live on the other side of the world.
So to mark the second anniversary of the blog I did a bit of reorganising of its contents to make the posts you are interested in easier to find. Most of the feedback I get on the comes via Twitter and I know, for instance, that some of you who follow Shananigans never cook any of the recipes but enjoy the underlying stories, the glimpses of Chinese family life and the tales of travel to exotic places. Blog posts that are mainly about family, travel or food reviews now have their own categories.
Other readers have their favourite Chinese recipes that they cook again and again. These are now grouped, by main ingredient, in the “Recipes” section of the blog which is sub-divided into Chinese recipes, those for the Big Green Egg and Irish or fusion recipes that don’t fit neatly into either of the other categories. I’ve put in a “Menu Plans” section too because I’m always looking for ideas for how to put various recipes together into a manageable meal.
There is a growing band of BBQ enthusiasts here in Ireland and abroad who go straight for the latest Big Green Egg recipe which is why I have grouped those together. Indeed those of us who purchased our Eggs from A Room Outside in Limerick are rapidly forming our own little support group sharing tips and recipes and fun. Barbecuing is not just for the boys!
Recently I added a list of my favourite blogs to the home page, blogs that I follow and return to again and again because I love the way they are written and they suck me into the writer’s world. I will add to this slowly over time.
I have sometimes thought of taking a hiatus in blogging, a pause to regroup as life gets so busy. But then a germ of an idea pops into my head and I feel the need to write there and then. So my posts have become a little more sporadic but still emerge, as if with a mind of their own, about three or four times each month. Right now I have half written posts about Hong Kong, Sardinia, Big Green Egg essentials, some new recipes from Wei Wei and a few new recipes of my own. Any day now I will finish some of them off.
Over the last two years I have made many new friends through the blog, friends who I feel I know very well through their reaction to what I write even though in some cases we haven’t even met. Thank you for your responses and encouragement that meet the need of every writer, even us amateurs, to be heard and to feel that sometimes a small something of what we write has a ripple effect out into the lives of others and an echoing resonance that connects us all around the world.

Tofu stuffed with pork and mushrooms – niang dou fu – 酿豆腐

We plan to spend this coming Christmas and New Year in Australia with Claire, Mike, Shane, Shan, Dermot and Shan’s MaMa for a very special Shananigans reunion. For Shan, her MaMa and Dermot it will be their first visit to Australia and the excitement about Christmas in the sun and escaping the bitter cold of a Beijing winter is already mounting. I suspect we each have our own mental picture of Dermot’s first encounter with the beach and the sea. No doubt the reality will be a little different but hopefully just as much fun.
It will be MaMa’s second trip outside China in her lifetime. Last Christmas she was here in Ireland with her extended family for Shane and Shan’s wedding. This time there will be fewer people speaking Chinese around her and my goal is to be able to make her feel welcome and by being able to exchange even a few sentences with her in her own language.
And so I have resumed my Chinese lessons with Wei Wei. It is a painfully slow process for me – individual words for foodstuffs and the like come easily. Stringing together whole sentences, and making them sound intelligible to a Chinese ear, is a much greater challenge. But Wei Wei is a patient and thorough teacher and my weekly reward for two hours of her valiant attempts to drum some new phrases into my head is that she introduces me to a new recipe. I prepare the recipe with her and then, a few days later, I try and reproduce it on my own while the balance of flavours are still in my head.
Last week I asked Wei Weil for a recipe using tofu. I had cooked with tofu once before -the traditional Sichuan dish Ma Po Dou Fu was one of the first recipes I tried on the blog – but I hadn’t come across stuffed tofu. Wei Wei’s recipe blew me away with the tastes and textures exploding from a few simple ingredients. It is a rustic, home-style dish with the tofu absorbing the robust flavours of the tangy sauce. It is light and healthy but surprisingly filling and ideal for those avoiding wheat. Indeed it is said that the nomadic Hakka people of central and southern China developed the recipe as a substitute for jiaozi (dumplings) when they were short of wheat. While niang duo fu is good enough to eat on its own, it is equally delicious served over a bed of steamed rice.
Wei Wei has her own blog – Wei Wei’s Chinese Kitchen which you will find at There you will find many more of her recipes with detailed photos of each stage of preparation and cooking. One day I hope she starts her own cookery school and restaurant.
The recipe below is Wei Wei’s own unique variation of the Hakka classic. You will find her detailed instructions on how to make it here.
Niang Dou Fu

Niang Dou Fu
Niang Dou Fu


  • 500g block of firm Chinese tofu
  • Cooking oil
  • 1 red chilli

For the stuffing

  • 200g minced pork
  • 1 large or two to three small dried Chinese mushroom
  • 1 thumb of ginger
  • 2 spring onions
  • 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • ½ tsp ground Sichuan pepper powder
  • ½ tsp Chinese Five Spice powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

For the sauce

  • 1 ½ tbs light soy sauce
  • 1 ½ tbs oyster sauce
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 heaped tsp sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp cornflour dissolved in a small amount of water
  • ¾ cup of water


  1. Soak the dried mushroom in warm water for an hour or longer then finely chop, discarding the stalk.
  2. Finely chop the ginger and spring onion, setting half aside for the sauce.
  3. Finely slice the chilli.
  4. Mix the pork, mushroom, half the spring onion and ginger, rice wine, light soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, five spice powder and salt together. Add the egg and, using chopsticks, mix in one direction only until the mix resembles a stiff batter. Beat in a teaspoon of sesame oil, mixing in the same direction.
  5. Cut the tofu into cubes about 4 cm square. Using a teaspoon, make  a deep hole in the tallest side of each tofu cube, being careful not to cut through the base – you are trying to create as much space as possible for your pork stuffing. You can reserve the left over tofu for another use.
  6. Fill each hole with the pork stuffing, packing it as tightly as possible so that it comes just to the top of the cube. If you have stuffing left over you can form it into little meat balls.
  7. Mix up the sauce ingredients and set to one side. You can taste test the sauce and if necessary add a little more sugar to get the balance to your taste.


  1. Heat a wide, flat bottomed frying pan over a high heat with enough cooking oil to thinly coat the base of the pan. When the oil is hot place the tofu cubes in the pan, stuffing side down. Cook them for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the underside is golden brown. The easiest way to check this is to lift one cube gently with a spatula and, when you are satisfied that the pork filling is beginning to turn golden brown, you can flip all of them over stuffing side up. At this stage you can add any left-over meat balls to the pan, turning them frequently until cooked on all sides.
    Frying off the tofu cubes
    Frying off the tofu cubes
  2. Continue cooking until the base of each cube is golden brown and then quickly brown the remaining sides. Carefully remove the tofu cubes from the plan and set them aside on a plate lined with kitchen paper to drain.
  3. Wipe out the pan, add a table spoon of cooking oil and, over a high heat, add the remaining ginger, spring onion and chilli and stir-fry for a few moments to release their aromas.  Give your sauce a quick stir and add it to the pan stirring constantly.
    Chilli, ginger, spring onion
    Chilli, ginger, spring onion
  4. When the sauce bubbles and begins to thicken, gently add back the tofu cubes, stuffing side up, along with any meat balls. The sauce should come about a third of the way up the tofu cubes.
  5. Cover the pan with a lid and simmer for three to five minutes until the tofu cubes have absorbed some of the sauce. Serve over boiled rice and relish the delicious, comforting flavours.
Tofu cubes simmering in sauce
Tofu cubes simmering in sauce