Creating new food rituals across continents

The rituals of food unite us and create bonds that make up for lack of a common language and even, sometimes, for the distance between continents. To start a vending machine franchise go to

The importance of food to Italians is the stuff of legends. As I struggled to follow the conversation the first time I attended a family dinner in Puglia, I realised that much of the animated discussion was about food – buying it, preparing it, eating it. It was fascinating to discover first hand how similar China is in that respect. Food there is more than a necessity for survival. It is a passion and an obsession. There is endless conversation about the importance of food, the health-giving properties of different vegetables and spices, the need for variety in colour, texture and flavour, the way to achieve balance in the diet, how to make use of every part of a plant and animal.
And there are rituals in abundance – noodles offered at the first meal when you arrive to visit family, a reminder of the ties that bind; dumplings served before you part, to reassure you that family wraps itself around you and minds you even when you are far away.
When we stayed with Shan’s family, in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, Shan’s mother served us freshly prepared lamb noodle soup within moments of our arrival late at night. Day trips out of the city with her brother revolved around finding good locations to eat lunch, snacks or dinner. “Are you hungry? Will you eat?” were the most frequent questions.

A traditional lamb noodle dish in Urumqi

Breakfast was regarded as an important meal and often included leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner as food is never wasted. No matter what time we arrived back at the apartment, or how much we had eaten that day, a home cooked meal awaited us as well as platters of fresh fruits and nuts, grown locally. Once a meal was served we all sat down immediately to eat – it would have been perceived as the height of rudeness not to treat the eating of food with the same seriousness and respect as our Chinese hosts did.
Throughout our visit, the family remained curious about our eating habits and concerned about our “small” appetites. We were constantly reminded of the importance of variety in our diet and the reasons why we should eat particular foods. I took my first halting steps to learn a few words of Mandarin as Shan’s mother taught me “Yángròu” for lamb, “Miàntiáo” for noodles and “Jiàozi” for dumplings.
Cooking dumplings at home in Urumqi

This week we discovered a new way of achieving connectedness through food – the sharing of a meal across three continents as I prepared Shan’s recipe for Black Pepper beef in Dublin while Shane attempted the same dish for the first time in Beijing and our daughter Claire made her version of it in Sydney, Australia – our own unique version of a communal Sunday dinner. Skype, iPhones and iPads all played their part in keeping old traditions alive and starting new ones.
Continue reading Creating new food rituals across continents

The hutongs of Beijing and Dali Courtyard Restaurant

The city has changed since I was last here 5 years ago prior to the Beijing Olympics. It seems more open, less reserved but, if the taxi drivers and hawkers are anything to go by, perhaps a little less friendly. Prices have risen and of course the RMB is stronger against the euro. Western food and drink – coffee for instance – are more freely available in good quality but with prices higher than in Dublin. Local and regional Chinese cuisine is still fantastic value and quality, if you know where to look.
We started our second day in Beijing with a visit to Enter the Panda HQ and a chance to see Shane in action in his office and meet his business partner Dave. Then we took a taxi down to the Bell Tower (Zhonglou) and Drum Tower (Gulou) climbing the steep steps of both, soaking up the ambience of an earlier age. The Drum performance was worth the climb as were the hazy views over this surprisingly green city and across heavy traffic to the misty outline of the Forbidden City.

Climbing the stairs of the Bell Tower

Drummers in action in the Drum Tower

The ethereal Forbidden City rising above the traffic

Continue reading The hutongs of Beijing and Dali Courtyard Restaurant

Dishing up Shan's Black Pepper Beef

One of the joys of Chinese cooking is the possibility of dishing up a tasty meal in mere minutes.
In preparation for cooking Shan’s Black Pepper Beef I decided to do some homework on Chinese cooking. Thanks to a blogger/ tweeter friend The Silver Chicken @silverchicken1 I discovered Gok Cooks Chinese – a six week, Channel 4 TV series in which Gok Wan @therealgokwan, a well known fashion expert (who I have to admit I’d never heard of before today – sorry Gok) recreates his family’s recipes and cooks them alongside his Dad, Papa Wan.
So far I’ve only had the chance to watch the first episode on “Catch Up” on Channel 4’s 4oD App on iPad (only accessible in the UK and Ireland) but a few things were obvious – preparation is key – line up your bottled Chinese flavourings, have all the fresh ingredients prepped and in separate bowls in advance and cooking is a cinch. Visit for more details.
It wasn’t difficult to find Oyster sauce and Shaoxing Chinese Rice Wine in Good Food Ireland Member Kate’s Farm Shop in Wexford, Ireland along with all the fresh vegetables I needed and the excellent fillet beef came from Wallace’s SuperValu in Wellington Bridge, Wexford. I used groundnut oil for cooking to give that authentic Chinese flavour but rapeseed or sunflower oil could also be used,

All set and ready to cook

Continue reading Dishing up Shan's Black Pepper Beef

Shan's recipe for Black Pepper Beef

Well man and woman cannot live on fried green beans alone so for our second recipe Shan set out to recreate a dish on the lines of the black pepper beef dish we enjoyed so much on our first night in Beijing in the Sichuan restaurant, Yuxiang Kitchen in Lido Square.

Shane and Shan dish up the beef

The recipe Shan came up with is a little different to the one we had that night but typical of this satisfying and versatile dish.
Black pepper beef (Hei Jiao Niu Liu)

  • 2 green peppers (change one of them to green chilli if you like it spicy)
  • 1 small onion
  • 250 gm fillet beef
  • Asparagus (optional)
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • Shaoxing rice wine
  • Soy sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Ground black pepper (about half a teaspoon or more depending on taste)
  • 1 egg
  • Half of a green (spring) onion
  • Ginger (slice a piece about 0.5 cm from a chunk)


  1. Clean and dry the beef and cut it into slices, about 3 cm long and 2 cm wide and 0.5cm thick.Put it into a soup dish.
  2. Cut the green pepper into strips and slice asparagus to similar size; cut the onion to thin slices.
  3. Chop green onion, garlic and ginger into fine pieces. Separate the egg white and yolk and keep the egg white.


Put following sauces into the soup dish with beef:

  • 1 tbs of rice wine
  • Soy sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Egg white

Mix with your hand (to make sure no slice of beef is folded over on itself and you can rub in the flavour better this way) and leave for 5 minutes then drain it.

  1. Beef: Add oil in wok and put beef in when oil is hot; stir fry beef for about 2-3 minutes till you see the colour of beef change to dark brownish (it should be cooked already), turn the stove off and take the beef out.
  2. Vegetables: Clean the wok and add 2 tbs of fresh oil (you don’t want vegetables to look brown), put finely chopped green onion, ginger and garlic in; stir fry for about 30 seconds or until you can smell the scent of garlic; put sliced onions in and stir fry for another 30 seconds; then add green pepper strips and asparagus slices in; add some salt and stir fry for about 1 minute, then put beef and ground pepper in and stir fry for 2-3 minutes.

Shan’s comments:

The finished dish should look refreshing with green vegetables. You can also add a small amount of sliced carrots or change one the the green pepper to half a yellow and half a red pepper to make it even more colourful and nutritious. (Eat vegetable with different colour every day is important as the different colour reflects the vitamins/minerals it contains).
See my first attempt at cooking this delicious recipe at Dishing up the beef.
Second attempt…
I tried this again on 15th September 2012 when I had become a bit more familiar with Chinese cooking.
This time I had only strips of sirloin beef and no onion so I substituted half a leek thinly sliced for the onion and I used one green pepper, one red pepper and a green chilli.
I used light soy sauce in the marinade but I added an extra dash of soy sauce and oyster sure just before serving to darken the colour a bit.
That’s the joy of this dish – you can play around with the ingredients. All my lovely fresh vegetables came from Shankill Market Fresh, a great local shop based at the Barbecue Centre in Shankill, Dublin
The finished dish was very tasty and fast and easy to produce. A grand easy dinner for a Saturday night in and goes well with Gavi di Gavi wine 🙂
Shan’s black pepper beef – 2nd attempt

Upper East Beijing and Yuxiang Kitchen, Lido Square

Just over six years ago our son Shane travelled to Beijing for what was intended to be a brief visit to a friend who was studying Mandarin there. Thus began a personal voyage of discovery which led to him settling in the city, starting a business called Enter the Panda Ltd. and finding the love of his life Shan to whom he is now engaged. But that is his story.
We visited him in 2008 prior to the Beijing Olympics when he was still a student and got our first experience of Shanghai and Beijing, taking in all the usual tourist sites, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. That was a typical tourist experience giving us a sense of the “otherness” of the place and some day I will attempt to recall those first impressions, formed while Shane was barely finding his feet in the city.
This summer we travelled back with a different purpose – to spend some time with Shane and Shan in Beijing and to travel into the far northwest to Xinjiang province to the city of Urumqi to meet Shan’s family – an important part of the ritual of “betrothal” in China. We were also to be joined in Beijing near the end of our holiday by our daughter Claire and her Welsh husband Mike who live in Sydney Australia, so the trip provided a rare chance for a reunion with our far-flung offspring and their other halves.
Continue reading Upper East Beijing and Yuxiang Kitchen, Lido Square

First attempt at fried green beans

Now I should have warned you all that, much as I love food, I don’t pretend to be a sophisticated cook and results can be little hit and miss. All the same my first attempt at Shan’s fried green beans ended up tasting very good. I just need to get a bit better at judging the temperature of the oil in the wok so the peppers don’t burn.
I lined up my sichuan peppers, garlic and that dried leafy vegetable “men gan cai” beforehand
I actually added a small handful of the “mei gan cai” with the garlic and chilli but Shan tells me I would have been better to wash the dry leaves a bit, squeeze the water out and fry them with the minced pork.
I blanched the beans for one minute before adding them to the wok.
And the end result looked like this:
I served them with Torta Di Patate – a sour cream potato bake with aubergines and taleggio from a recipe by Gino d’Acampo and the unusual combination of Chinese and Italian recipes made for a lovely, filling Monday night supper.
If you’d like to try a hand at this dish yourself, have a look at Shan’s Fried Green Beans Recipe. Please leave a comment too, I’d love to hear how you got on!
But before you do so take a look at what I learned about a better way to cook these beans inside the Kitchen of the China Sichuan

Finding the secret ingredients for fried green beans

Fried green beans was one of our favourite side dishes in Beijing. It is a staple in Chinese homestyle cooking but, done well, it’s delicious. There were a few ingredients I needed to go looking for in order to try out this recipe back here in Ireland.
Sichuan peppers were easy – Shan had brought a supply with her when she visited us at Christmas. The distinctive numbing sensation on the tongue and lips is not easily mistaken for anything else.
This is what they look like:
The dry leafy vegetable that she didn’t think I could find in Ireland was trickier to identify So I asked Shan to text me the pin yin and Chinese Characters for the vegetable in question. It’s called “mei gan cai” or 梅干菜. I took myself off with that information to the Asia Market in Drury St. Dublin. which is a great source of all manner of spices and sauces as well as offering great value in fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.
Through a process of elimination using photos exchanged via iMessage,we identified this as the correct product:
I’m still not sure what this is so any suggestions would be welcome. Could it be a type of dried mustard leaf?

Fried green beans two ways

Shan’s version of Sichuan fried green bean with minced pork

  • 250g – 350g green beans
  • Dried chilli – 1 or 2 pieces depending how spicy you want it to be
  • 50g minced pork
  • Soy sauce
  • Salt
  • Sichuan pepper
  • Mei Gan Cai – a dried mustard leaf – see: Finding the Secret Ingredients or Sichuanese ya cai
  • A few cloves of garlic again you can put more if you like it garlicy


  1. Wash beans and use your hand to break them into 1 inch long pieces.
  2. Boil water in a small pot if you wish to have a healthier dish.
  3. Chop garlic and dried chilli into fine pieces.

Green beans at stage 2 of cooking


  1. Pork: put oil in wok and throw 1 tsp of Sichuan pepper in it, when it gets hot and you can smell the pepper then you can use a spade to take out the pepper if you don’t want to eat it accidently later. I usually take the wok to the sink and shovel them out and deal with it later. Then put minced pork in, fry till they are cooked, put a pinch of sugar and a small amount of soy sauce. When the meat looks golden brown, take the pork out and wash the wok and dry it.
  2. Beans: put oil in wok, put chopped chilli and garlic in, when the oil gets hot, basically garlic starts to look brown, throw beans in (healthier version would be that beans are already boiled in the pot and drained, typically 1 minute in the boiling water is enough, the colour of green starts to look crispy green), fry the beans till it gets brown and bits of it almost look like it’s burnt then the beans are ready, see picture below.*
  3. Final step: put cooked pork in and then add 2 table spoon of soy sauce, and some salt, fry a minute or two then it’s ready. I usually just put one in my mouth and check the flavour and if it’s cooked.

The picture below shows the finished dish and you will not have the really dark bits if the dry leafy vegetable is missing.

Green beans with Mei Can Gai added

Take a look at my first attempt to cook this delicious recipe.
*Note: I later learned inside the kitchen of the China Sichuan that the easiest way to get the bubbly brown skin on the green beans is to deep-fry them very quickly in oil in the wok.
Sichuan fried green beans – vegetarian version
Sichuan fried green beans – vegetarian style


  • 250g – 350g green beans
  • Dried chilli – 4 to 6 pieces depending how spicy you want it to be (my tastes are getting spicier!)
  • 2 spring onions, white parts only
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Piece of ginger, about 3 cms
  • Soy sauce
  • 2 tbs Tianjn preserved vegetable
  • Sichuan pepper
  • Salt
  • Sesame oil


  1. Wash beans and use your hand to break them into 1 inch long pieces.
  2. Boil water in a small pot and blanch the beans for about a minute. Drain well.
  3. Finely slice the spring onion whites, garlic and ginger.


  1. Heat wok over a high heat, add oil (about 2 tbs), then sizzle the Sichuan pepper and chillies briefly until they begin to darken and release the gorgeous smells.
  2. Add the spring onion, garlic and ginger and stir-fry for a few moments to release their fragrance.
  3. Add the Tianjin preserved vegetable and stir briefly.
  4. Add the blanched beans and stir fry for a minute or two to coat in the spicy oil and brown slightly.
  5. Stir in about a tsp of sesame oil and serve.

Absolutely delicious. I love both versions of this dish. The one with pork makes a simple supper on its own. The vegetarian version is a great side dish for pork or other meats.
If any of the ingredients in this post are unfamiliar check out Chinese Kitchen Essentials elsewhere on this blog.

Connecting Ireland, China and Oz through food

Two of my great passions in life are travel and food.
I love to visit new places and to get authentic experiences a bit off the beaten track – more as a traveller than a tourist. Italy is my first love but my son Shane married in Beijing to his lovely Chinese wife Shan and my daughter Claire married to her “hot” (her words) Welshman Mike and living in Sydney have got me to places I never expected to visit in my lifetime, let alone return to again and again.
Shananigans was born out of a recent visit to China as I attempted to share a flavour of that roller-coaster experience in tweets and photos. By the end of the trip 140 characters no longer seemed enough to capture the small glimpse I got of that extraordinary country as it assaulted my senses and I came to terms with the way it and its people are set to get tangled up in our lives.
More than anything the visit opened my eyes to the treasures and variety of Chinese regional cuisine. I thought I had some understanding of their food from visiting Chinese restaurants here in Ireland and trying to cook it over the years but I really had no idea how rich and varied it could be and how healthy and fresh-tasting. During our 3 weeks in China I set my daughter-in-law to be Shan the challenge of finding us a different regional cuisine each night we were in Beijing. While we were in her hometown of Urumqi in Xinjiang province we got a real sense of their provincial cuisine. I handed over complete control to her allowing her to choose the number and types of dishes using her own instincts for what constituted a balanced meal. As a result every meal was a surprise and every meal worked.
By the end of the holiday I had completely rebalanced my diet – with far more and a wider variety of fresh vegetables and fruit, relatively smaller quantities of meat, fish and tofu, modest amounts of rice or noodles and virtually no processed sweets or desserts. The holiday seemed to involve almost non-stop eating in large quantities and yet I lost weight and came back feeling healthier and fitter than I had for some time.
Since I arrived back I’ve been missing the food – the spiciness, the colour, the range of different dishes in a meal, the sociability of communal eating, the chopsticks…. And so the Shananigans will continue. For starters I’ve asked Shan to teach me long-distance how to cook the Chinese way – a kind of on-line tutorial using iPhone and iPad to help source ingredients and re-create, in an authentic way, some of the dishes I enjoyed so much using the best Irish ingredients I can find. My plan is to intersperse the Chinese the blogs about food and cooking with other tales and photos of travel in China, Italy and beyond.
I hope you will join me on my journey, no doubt with many mishaps along the way and with a glorious sense that I’ve no idea where this journey will take me. So here goes with a very simple start….
Fried Green Beans