Chinese Chips – French (Bean) Fries with a Chinese Twist

The last time I visited China Sichuan Restaurant in Sandyford, Dublin the owner Kevin Hui gave me a book. Now it takes a special kind of restaurateur to know his clients so well that he can surprise them with something they will treasure. For this is no ordinary cookbook. It’s “Hunan – a lifetime of secrets from Mr Peng’s Kitchen”.
Mr Peng is the owner of a restaurant called Hunan in London that opened in 1982. Many regard it as the best Chinese restaurant in London or maybe even in the world. Little is known about Mr Peng who keeps the story of his own provenance close to his heart. He has his own unique take on Chinese food with influences of Taiwan, Hunan, Cantonese, Sichuan and Guangdong  cuisine all coming through in his dishes.
At a time when most London Chinese restaurants were Cantonese, Mr Peng set out to show that there was more to Chinese food. He plied his customers with dishes they hadn’t ordered, taking a “leave it to us” approach to a whole new level, until eventually he abandoned a menu altogether. Now each guest is served a selection of small dishes, as many as 15 at a sitting, and encouraged to try out different tastes on every visit.
This is precisely the way I approach a visit to China Sichuan in Dublin. I never look at the menu any more. I just find Kevin, ask him plaintively to “feed me” and allow him and his chefs to do the rest, knowing each dish will be a feast for the eyes and the palate. Perhaps that’s why he knew I would enjoy the Hunan cookbook so much.
Mr Peng is nearly 70 now, his own life story remains untold. But food and travel journalist Qin Xie, who writes her own blog In Pursuit of Food, has captured his recipes and his kitchen wisdom in this lovely book. In it his son Michael Peng who works with him in the restaurant speaks lovingly of a man whose story is that of a stereotypical Chinese immigrant who has never lost the values of his homeland, who remains an enigma and a force of nature to be reckoned with, bolshy, maybe even arrogant and an extraordinarily hard worker and who doesn’t change his approach with the passing of the years.
I have already cooked many recipes from the book and but one in particular caught my eye. As a result of my last blog post on Sichuan Chilli Squid with Black Beans, I’ve struck up an email correspondence with Chinese American food writer Grace Young. Her books Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen are also among my favourites with her tales of her own family and the Chinese diaspora interspersed with wonderful recipes. Grace was enquiring if it is true that the Irish have french fries with their Chinese meals and I explained the post-pub Chinese takeaway of “Chicken curry, half rice, half chips”. So when I came upon the Hunan recipe for “”French Chips”, I had to give it a try.
The recipe was an immediate hit in our house – a bit naughty and not as low in fat as my usual Chinese vegetable dishes but a great treat as a side dish or part of a multi-course meal. I am going to try a similar approach with cauliflower florets, courgettes, carrots and leeks.
As I grow more confident in my own Chinese cooking under the watchful eye of my friend and Chinese teacher Wei Wei, I’m getting more intuitive with the use of ingredients, learning the feel for texture and flavour. I’m going to start encouraging my faithful readers to do the same. So here goes with Mr. Peng’s Chinese Chips.
Meanwhile, the next time I get to London, I know where I will be heading for dinner.
Chinese Chips made with Green Beans

Chinese Chips
Chinese Chips

Serves 3 – 4 as part of a multi-course meal
The secret is in Mr Peng’s batter which uses self-raising flour and vinegar to give a stiff dough and a tempura like texture.
You will need:

  • 300 to 400 green beans – about 100g per person
  • cooking oil for deep-frying (sunflower or groundnut oil)

For the batter

  • self-raising flour
  • water
  • Chinese white rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • salt

For the seasoning

  • red chilli
  • garlic
  • spring onion
  • crushed Sichuan peppercorns
  • salt


  1. First make your batter. For every 100g self-raising flour add about 200 ml water and 4 tsp vinegar (I used rice wine vinegar) and a good pinch of salt. Beat it well with an electric mixture and leave to stand for about 20 minutes until the bubbles rise to the surface. Chef Peng and Qin Xie say you need a batter that’s quite thick and gloopy. With those proportions I found my batter was a little runny but I liked the tempura like texture with the batter lightly clinging to the beans rather than giving them a heavy coat. You will need about 50g flour for every 100g beans.
  2. Wash, dry and trim your green beans and, if necessary, break into lengths about the size of chips. Irish long green runner beans are great for this dish. Avoid the very skinny imported ones as they need too much batter.
  3. Dry roast a handful of Sichuan peppercorns in a wok or frying pan and grind them in a pestle and mortar when cool (or if you’re lazy like me use a small coffee mill set to coarse grind which I only use for spices). They will keep for a few weeks in an airtight container.
  4. Peel and finely chop a couple of cloves of garlic, the white part of a spring onion and a medium heat red chilli. You can dial up or down the chilli heat to taste.


  1. Heat a few cms of oil in a wok or deep frying pan to about 180 degrees C. You want the oil to be deep enough and hot enough to deep-fry each bean. Chef Robert Jacob has taught me how to gauge this by holding my hand over the pan until I can feel the heat rising rather than by using a thermometer. Test by cooking one bean. It should take about a minute to cook.
  2. Dip the beans in the batter to coat and drop them one by one into the hot oil being careful not to splash yourself. I did this using a tongs to move each bean from the batter to the wok and a mesh strainer to remove them from the oil when cooked. I cooked the beans in three to four batches, ensuring they didn’t touch each other and the oil had a chance to come back to temperature between batches. You want them to be golden but not burnt. Drain the beans on kitchen paper.
  3. When all the beans are cooked, drain all the oil from the wok. Dry-fry the garlic, spring onion and chilli briefly to release the aromas. Toss in the green beans to heat through. Season with crushed Sichuan pepper and salt to taste and serve immediately.

Thank you Kevin Hui, Chef Peng and Xin Qie for opening up another new chapter of Chinese recipes for me.

Xinjiang Lamb with Cumin and Sichuan Pepper

It’s been a while good friends. My excuse is that I have had the Chinese branch of the family staying with me for the past three weeks and it hasn’t left much time for blogging or other social media.
My little grandson Dermot is 20 months old now and a bundle of energy and fun. Arriving home from work to his face peering out the window, his jumping up and down with delight to see his nai nai or ye ye at the door as he ventures outside to add his own “ding dong” to the bell while nattering away in his unique combination of Chinese and English, has me nearly undone with joy. He has me interspersing my few words of Chinese with his words of English as he mixes the two up with ease, learning a new phrase each day. Today it was xia yu le – “it’s raining” which he repeated with delight over and over again, rain being a rare occurrence in Beijing. Somehow this made the onset of winter more bearable. Rain or shine, every day is a pleasure when you’re not even two. Now that he’s a little boy I’ve stopped posting photos of him – he deserves his privacy after all – but I couldn’t resist this rear view of him enjoying one of his first visits to the seaside.

An October Sunday in Bray
An October Sunday in Bray, Co. Wicklow

Meanwhile Shan and I have been cooking most days, taking turns in the kitchen, working out a rota for when she, Shane and Dermot come to live with us for a time next year. On Monday evening we took a night off to visit China Sichuan in Sandyford where we let Kevin Hui take over and treat us to the flavours of his kitchen. As usual the food stunning, the flavours engaging the palate on so many levels.
One of the dishes he served us was a stir-fried lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper which was very evocative of the flavours of Shan’s native Xinjiang province in the far north-west of China. Shan is rightly fussy about her lamb dishes. It’s hard to beat the earthy flavours of the lamb reared in the mountains of Xinjiang province but she gave the version at China Sichuan the thumbs up.
Between the two of us we deconstructed the dish, identified the key ingredients and set out to recreate it at home. I’ve tried variations of Xinjiang Lamb on the blog before but I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the result. Tonight, with the memory of the China Sichuan version still fresh in my mind, I produced something that hit the spot.
The trick was to use a lean cut of lamb – canon of lamb – which needed only a very short time marinating in a mix of Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce and a little cornflour, and t0 “pass it through the oil”, a technique which involves deep-frying the marinaded lamb for just 15 seconds at a relatively low temperature of 140 degrees c to lock in the flavour and tenderness before stir-frying it with the other ingredients. Add freshly ground cumin, ground, dry roasted Sichuan peppercorns, chunks of white and red onions, pieces of dried and fresh chillies and some spring onion greens and it was easy to feel transported back to the mountains of Shan’s home province.
This technique will work equally well with beef. Don’t be tempted to overcrowd the wok with meat – the smaller the quantities, the more intense the flavour experience.
Shananigans Xinjiang Lamb with Cumin & Sichuan Pepper
Lamb with Cumin and Sichuan Pepper
Lamb with Cumin and Sichuan Pepper

Serves 2 -3 as a main dish or 4 as part of a multi-course meal

  • 400g canon of lamb or any lean lamb
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 4 dried chillies (or more to taste)
  • 2 fresh red chillies
  • 1 white onion
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground Sichuan pepper
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ tsp Chinese white rice vinegar
  • 2 spring onions (green part only)
  • Groundnut oil

For the marinade

  • 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbs shallot oil or groundnut oil
  • 1 tbs cornflour

Preparation and cooking

  1. Cut the lamb across the grain into paper thin slices. Canon of lamb, the equivalent of fillet steak, is the perfect cut for this. It needs very little marinating and works better than leg or shoulder of lamb.
  2. Mix the marinade ingredients, add to the lamb and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
  3. Finely chop the garlic and slice the onions into chunks.
  4. Chop the fresh red chillies at steep angles discarding the seeds; break the dried chillies into pieces.
  5. Slice the spring onion greens at steep angles in 3 cm lengths.
  6. Heat the oil in a seasoned wok to about 140 degrees C. Add the lamb and stir-fry gently for about 15 seconds. As soon as the pieces separate, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon, drain well and set aside. This is called jau yau or “passing through the oil” which makes the meat very moist and tender.
  7. Pour off all but 2 tbs of the oil. Heat the wok to medium, add the garlic, dried chilli and, after about 20 seconds when the flavours have been released add the onion and stir-fry for a few minutes to soften.
  8. Increase the heat to high and add the fresh chillies, cumin and ground Sichuan pepper. Stir-fry briefly until the fragrance is released.
  9. Return the lamb to the wok and stir well over high heat, seasoning with salt and a pinch of sugar to taste.
  10. When all the ingredients are sizzling and well mixed, add the spring onion greens and toss briefly. Then remove from the heat, add a half teaspoon of Chinese white rice vinegar to bring out the flavour, stir briefly and serve.


  1. If you pop the lamb in the freezer for about half an hour you will find it much easier to slice it very thinly. Allow it to return to room temperature before cooking,
  2. You can substitute beef in this recipe, sirloin, fillet or bavette of beef work well.
  3. To grind your Sichuan pepper, dry roast Sichuan peppercorns in a solid based frying pan for long enough to release the aromas but being careful not to burn and the grind them coarsely in a pestle and mortar or a coffee grinder. I have a small coffee grinder I only use for Chinese spices.
  4. You may also find ground Sichuan pepper in your local Asia market. It is sometimes called “Prickly Ash Powder”.
  5. You can use ground cumin or grind your own from dry roasted whole cumin.


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!

Saying goodbye to the Gao O'Neills… for now

One step closer to running amok
One step closer to running amok

(written on 20th January, 2014)
I’m writing this through misty eyes while Dermot potters around finding the most dangerous thing in the room to play with and Shane and Shan try to whittle down their wedding photos to those to be included in their album. Their difficulty choosing photos echoes mine as I sift  the memories of the past five magical weeks.
Tomorrow it’s officially over. Tomorrow Shane, Shan and Dermot return to China to celebrate the Chinese New Year with Shan’s family in Urumqi, the first time the Gao clan will all be together for Spring Festival for many, many moons.
Tomorrow I will gather up the scattered toys around my house and return them to their rightful owners along with the borrowed travel cot. I will straighten out Claire’s room which has recently become First Auntie’s room, then Dermot’s and will soon become Jodie’s again as my niece returns to university this week and to lodging with us. I will put the last of 14 sets of bed clothes on to wash, make up the spare room bed and the house will return to normal or what used to be normal before Dermot infused it with his cheery presence. That’s tomorrow.
But for today I just want to live in the moment with us still under one roof and to absorb some of the memories of a time that will surely become legend in our family history.
Where to start? Shane, Shan and Dermot’s arrival at Dublin Airport on 15th December – a sleepy, lost-looking little boy “making strange” and bewildered after his long journey who quickly made our house his home. An evening in Duncannon on the 20th, quiet time for my Mum with her only great grand child and a splendid dinner for the six of us at Aldridge Lodge.
Taking a shine to Joanne at Aldridge Lodge
Taking a shine to Joanne at Aldridge Lodge

The arrival of Shan’s family on the day before Christmas Eve, our house suddenly overwhelmed on a stormy night, as the group unravelled out of a people carrier with noise and baggage and laughter, most of them meeting their newest family member for the first time, and sitting down immediately to home-cooked Chinese food before taking off again to make it to Duncannon before midnight.
Welcome to Ireland Gao clan
Welcome to Ireland Gao clan

The unexpected appearance of our daughter Claire and Mike later that same evening, bringing forward their flight from Manchester for fear of being caught by the gales on Christmas Eve – a third dash to the airport in a week. More smiles and tears of joyous welcome and the unexpected opportunity to sit and chat before joining the crowd in Duncannon the next day.
Christmas Eve, chaotic, wind sweeping cartons of drinking glasses out of our hands and shattering them to tiny pieces in a Wexford car park. Peking style duck and rack of lamb served  to 18 from the Big Green Egg alongside Claire’s signature meatballs, Claire and Mike getting used to the scale of our newly extended family.
A tiny Santa on Christmas morning melting all our hearts. The rare sight of 5 Christmas stockings lined up on the fireplace, my off-spring and their families under one roof for a few brief days. Christmas Mass in Star of the Sea, Claire emotional at returning to the Church in which she married and recalling the sad and happy events since her and Mike’s special day.
Exchanging gifts with the Gaos under the tree – their first ever celebration of Christmas – followed by a walk for them at Hook Head and Duncannon beach and, later, dinner with turkey cooked to moist perfection on the Big Green Egg. Blessed by a mild, calm day between the wild storms I didn’t even get wet in the cooking.
"Ooh I like this Christmas lark"
“Ooh I like this Christmas lark”

A right Shananigans of a Christmas
A right Shananigans of a Christmas

Christmas at the seaside
Christmas Day at Hook Head and Duncannon

Getting in the Christmas spirit
Getting in the Christmas spirit

A Stephen’s Day walk to The Local at Dunbrody and Mike’s first experience of the Wren Boys, a relaxed day followed by all the last minute wedding preparations and the fun of cooking 8 pizzas on the Big Green Egg – Second Auntie proving to be a dab hand at putting the pizzas together.
The 28th of December, Shan and Shane’s wedding day  and Dermot’s Christening Day in Wexford – ah what a day. From start to finish it was special and the sun even shone for us, only the second break in the wild weather over Christmas. Too special to slip into the middle of a blogpost I gave it one of its own.
Then back to Duncannon to prepare a barbecue for 30 including Shan & Shane’s friends who had travelled from Beijing, a task made considerably easier thanks to Eunice Power, who left me salads, confit duck noodles and homemade beef burgers after the wedding, and Shan’s bridesmaid Wei Wei who turned the left over noodles into a sizzling and spicy Chinese feast.
A frenetic, frazzled morning on Monday 30th, packing up Duncannon and rushing to get Claire and Mike back to Dublin Airport and onwards to Australia. Cue tears and sad goodbyes tinged with happiness at how good the two of them are together and the precious time they had with their new godson Dermot and with Shane and Shan. Returning home slightly nervous at the prospect of 14 of us including our Chinese in-laws under one roof in Shankill for a week but rescued from cooking duties that night by my friend Ann who had made a huge beef casserole to welcome our guests back from Duncannon.
A New Year’s Eve buffet with bling, dumplings made by a super-efficient Chinese production line and a final celebratory dinner at China Sichuan and Chinese tea ceremony at home rounded off Shan’s family’s visit and we saw them off two weeks ago, delighted with their Irish holiday.
Gao Feng shares the art of making pu'er tea
Gao Feng shares the art of making pu’er tea

Goodbye Gao clan
Goodbye Gao clan

Since then it has been quieter but a very precious time with Shane, Shan and Dermot. Time to get to know his moods and moments throughout the day, loosing my rookie Nai Nai status and getting confident minding him on my own, introducing him to the ducks and swings at Stephen’s Green, watching him grow in stature and confidence, acquire his first pair of shoes and move to standing and walking with one finger support. His first steps can’t be long away.
Jammin' with Dad
Jammin’ with Dad

"Ooh Granddad what big hands you have!"
“Ooh Granddad what big hands you have!”

Today, our last full day, I took Dermot off on his own for a Nai Nai adventure. On a beautiful sunny day we walked in Phoenix Park and I introduced him to Aras An Uacthtarain, a symbol of one half of his identity. We had lunch together in the Visitor Centre and we spoke about things that matter, him in baby talk, me in words he won’t remember.
Long after Dermot has been reabsorbed into his Chinese world, long after this house has been returned to a state of order as if the tide came in and washed away the evidence of his being here, long after the border of his tiny finger prints around the coffee table is no more, I will remember this day. I will hold it close to my heart like a little precious gem, as precious as Dermot is and always will be. In the words of my current favourite children’s book “I love you to the moon… and back.”
So that’s it. A job done. A plan fulfilled to the letter. A sense of achievement tinged with sadness that it’s all over and an ache at the prospect of missing watching Dermot grow over the coming months.
Meltdown moments during  the Christmas period (or what my friends call my “choppy choppy” moments) – five (but I’m not revealing them!). Precious memories – uncountable.
Safe journey home little family. I think it’s time to plan a trip to China.
A walk in the Phoenix Park
A walk in the Phoenix Park

A Tale of Three (Irish) Restaurants

A word of warning. This is not a restaurant review. It’s just a reflection of what it’s like to visit Irish restaurants where you are made feel at home and embraced and welcomed like old friends of the family.
It’s been a quare few weeks. My Mum ended up in hospital for a week or two but has made an excellent recovery, my daughter Claire experienced various traumas at the hands of the normally excellent Australian health services but is also on the mend, I got stricken down by a bug that has had me flattened and fairly uncommunicative for over two weeks.
But this week we were reunited in Ireland, a rare coming together of three generations of the women in our family to celebrate my Mum’s birthday and mine which she and I share on 18th July and to catch up with Claire’s friend Diane who is dealing, with spirit, with her own health challenges at the moment.
Normally on these occasions I do most of the cooking at home but this time it made more sense to have our special meals out. As a result we’ve eaten in three different restaurants in the past week, all a powerful reminder that the so-called “Irish welcome” is not a myth, it’s a very special experience of being treated like guests and not just as customers.
Restaurant 1 – China Sichuan, Sandyford, Dublin
First up was China Sichuan in Sandyford, Dublin. Kevin Hui the owner has become a friend since he welcomed me inside the kitchen of the China Sichuan nearly a year ago when this blog was barely new born. It has become our “go to” place for family reunions and departures. It’s where we had our farewell dinner for Shane and his Chinese wife Shan when they were home a few months back and Shan declared it more authentically Chinese than she had ever experienced outside China.
Kevin has acquired a new chef recently, Andy Foo who has worked in Yauatcha in Soho, London which is my favourite Chinese restaurant on the planet. Andy is doing fabulous things to the menu at China Sichuan. He is refreshing old favourites like Luo Bo Gao (Chinese turnip cake) and gradually introducing new dishes including soft shell crab with roasted almonds which is sublime.
Last Tuesday night we went there with Claire and Mike and her friend Diane and simply put ourselves in the hands of Kevin to organise an impromptu tasting menu which would play to our taste for Sichuan food and our flagging appetites. Dish after dish appeared at our table, some hearty meat dishes zinging with spice, some light, steamed fish releasing the fresh flavours of the sea, vegetable and noodle dishes in heart-catching sauces, none gloopy or clawing, all bursting with flavour. All five of us were blown away by the experience. Taste buds tickled for the first time in many weeks, we left sated and oozing contentment and collapsed at home to watch Enchanted together because who doesn’t like a happy ending.

Family get together at China Sichuan

For once, living in the moment, I didn’t take many photos of the food but on 31st July you can have the chance to experience this quality of food for yourself. Chef Andy Foo has arranged a special tasting menu of 7 dishes, each paired with wines for €75 and all proceeds go direct to Laura Lynn Children’s Hospice. You can read about it on China Sichuan’s Facebook Page here. Kevin didn’t ask me to mention this but I’m doing so because it is a very special cause. Kevin is cycling Paris to Nice for the cause later this year with a group of his friends and customers.
Restaurant 2 – Samphire at the Waterside
Next up was Thursday’s visit to Samphire at the Waterside in Donobate where we were joined from Wexford by my Mum to celebrate our birthdays. So there were now six of us including Diane who we decided (not for the first time) to adopt as our second daughter for the week. Chef Tom Walsh at Samphire is another of the friends I made through the blog and Twitter as he got involved unsolicited in giving me ideas for recipes such as Braised Pork Cheeks and of course his chilli jam is now legendary. He is an emerging talent to watch.
We dined on delicious food of local provenance from the set menu and the optional extra dishes. We had the best of fresh, local seafood, vegetables and lamb beautifully presented in a glorious location as the sun set over the Irish sea after another peachy day.
Three generations at Samphire at The Waterside

Best friends forever

Consider a trip out by train some summer evening or arrange to stay over night over the autumn or winter. The nice folks at the Waterside will collect your from Donobate Station and return you there. Be warned Tom, I intend paying a visit to your kitchen some day soon.
Claire and Mike returned to the UK yesterday for a week so I decided to spend some quality time with my Mum and we had an evening of great entertainment at Michael Bublé at the O2 last night courtesy of tickets I won from the nice people at Rewarding Times.
Today Mum and I made a cross-country trek via Kildare Village to the lovely folks at A Room Outside, Caroline and Liam so that I could investigate a Big Green Egg barbecue and onwards to Duncannon. (Watch this space dear readers, the Big Green Egg is a very sophisticated version of the traditional Chinese ceramic clay pot and I’m smitten. Now I just have to convince my Mum that it’s not called a “Big Green Chicken”.)
Big Green Egg – smitten!

Restaurant 3 – Sqigl, Duncannon
I tweeted ahead yesterday as I often do to see if Sqigl could fit us in for a quick early-bird in this friendly neighbourhood restaurant above Roches Bar. Bur shock, horror, the restaurant was block-booked for the night by a local group. Not to worry, a quick consultation with the chef and Cindy came back by Twitter to say the chef would open early at 6.30 to feed me and my Mum before the group arrived.
There’s something about coming into Wexford via the Passage East – Ballyhack ferry which, at any time, catches the back of my throat but today, with my Mum at my side, after travelling the glorious green and verdant Irish countryside not yet parched yellow by the heat of the last few weeks, it was very special. It was that sweep down into Duncannon, past Star of the Sea church with the view over the harbour and the sea more blue and the tide fuller than I’ve ever seen it.
The new menu cover at Sqigl – photo by Gerry Browne

We made it to Sqigl on the dot of 6.30 as they unlocked the door specially for us. The lovely local staff served us simple, delicious prawns and scallops, followed by locally caught hake and fresh fruit pavlova. Squigl is a quality local restaurant serving fresh, flavoursome, locally sourced food. It never disappoints.
Scallops Squigl style

Perfect fresh hake at Sqigl

My Mum and I walked back up the hill to our little summer house linking arms as the sun set.
Three very different restaurants. Three friends made as a direct result of this blog and Twitter. Three places that restore my faith in Ireland, our people, our innate kindness, our hospitality and our food. And in all three places the value for money and service was excellent.
PS: The only ones missing form these few days of celebrations were Shane, Shan and Dermot. But they did send me this birthday photo greeting from Dermot, my first ever “happy birthday Nai Nai”. Say a collective “aw” people….
“Happy birthday Nai Nai”

Shananigans Chongqing Chicken

Some of my regular readers don’t eat red meat and have been asking for more recipes using chicken or fish. This Chongqing Ji Rou is especially for you Siobhan and there are more chicken recipes to come.
Chongqing is a mountainous city that lies east of the capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu. It used to be part of Sichuan Province but is now a separate municipality. It’s one of the so-called “huo lu” furnace cities, like Turpan in Xinjiang Province which I visited with Shan’s family last summer. The response of  residents to summer heat and humidity is to eat even more chillies and Sichuan pepper than their neighbours in Chengdu.
According to local lore the Chongqingers look down on the people of Chengdu for being lazy and out-of-date in their eating habits, while the inhabitants of Chengdu regard Chongqing food as coarse and crude and in need of the refining touch of Chengdu chefs. Chongqing Chicken – Chongqing Ji Rou – is a simple dish but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in colour and flavour.
I had Chongqing Chicken in the China Sichuan restaurant in Dublin a few months back and loved its authentic ma la, hot and numbing flavours. It contained diced chicken pieces seasoned with coarsely ground Sichuan pepper and mixed with chunky cashew nuts and lots of dry and fresh chilli. The large pieces of dried Chinese chilli topped the serving dish and added texture and colour. The dish packed a powerful and delicious punch – just enough chilli heat perfectly balanced by the numbing and addictive Sichuan pepper, the chicken succulent and tender.

China Sichuan’s Chongqing Chicken

Dried Chinese chillies from Sichuan, sometimes known as “facing heaven” chillies because of the way the plants grow, are a lot milder than their more fiery Thai cousins but they are not intended to be eaten. Chinese people pick them up with their chopsticks, suck any sauce that adheres to them and pile the discarded chillies shells in a neat pyramid beside their rice bowl.
I couldn’t find a recipe in any of my Chinese cookbooks so this is my attempt at recreating Chongqing Chicken at home based on what I know of the principles for creating a Sichuan stir-fry that I learnt at Hutong Cuisine in Beijing. The results were pretty close to the original and went down well in our house last night. I could probably have used a little more dark soy sauce to deepen the colour but that’s a matter of taste. I made it with chicken thighs as I prefer the flavour and texture of the meat. It’s a particularly quick and easy dish to prepare.
Shananigans’ Chonqing Ji Rou
Shananigans’ Chongqing Ji Rou


  • A good handful of cashew nuts
  • 2 chicken breasts or 4 chicken thighs
  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • 1 tbs of Shaoxing rice wine
  • A pinch of salt
  • A thumb sized piece of ginger
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp of Sichuan pepper finely chopped
  • 1 spring onion
  • I large fresh green chilli
  • A handful of Chinese dried red chillies
  • A dash of dark soy sauce
  • A dash of Chinese black vinegar
  • A pinch of sugar
  • Vegetable or groundnut oil


  1. Roast the cashew nuts on a baking tray in the oven at 180 degrees C or dry fry in a hot wok until golden. This should take no more than 10 minutes but keep an eye on them as it is easy to burn them.
  2. Meanwhile dice the chicken into small pieces (about 2 cm cubes). Mix first with salt and light soy sauce and then with the rice wine and let rest in a dish while you prepare the other ingredients.
  3. Finely dice the ginger and garlic.
  4. Finely chop the Sichuan peppercorns.
  5. Finely slice the spring onions, separating the white and green parts.
  6. Finely slice the green chilli.
  7. Break the dried chillies into pieces about 2 cms long and discard any seeds.


  1. Heat some oil in the wok to over a medium heat.
  2. Fry the minced garlic, ginger, spring onion whites and Sichuan pepper for a few moments until they soften and the fragrances are released, being careful not to burn them.
  3. Increase the heat to high and add in the marinated chicken and stir-fry over high heat until cooked (about 3  minutes).
  4. Add in the spring onions greens and green chilli and stir-fry until heated through and the fragrance is rising from the pan (you don’t want the green chilli and spring onions to lose their texture).
  5. Add the dried red chillies and cashew nuts and heat through quickly.
  6. Add a spash of dark soy sauce and Chinese vinegar to darken the colour and a pinch of sugar to taste.
  7. Serve with steamed rice.

Two different takes on Fish Fragrant Sauce – aubergine and pork

I’ve been enjoying cooking “fish fragrant” recipes since I started this blog and I have discovered several different ways of creating the salty, spicy, sweet, sour yu xiang flavour which the people of Sichuan love to use in their land-locked region to recall the flavours they associate with fish. The description often causes confusion among westerners as there is no fish or fish sauce used in these recipes.
The first time I made fish fragrant pork I used a recipe given to me by Chef Ricky when I went inside the kitchen of China Sichuan in Dublin and you can read it here. That version used chilli garlic sauce and owner Kevin Hui told me that in the early years they described it as Pork in Spicy Garlic Sauce on the menu to avoid putting off diners!

Chefs preparing fish fragrant pork at Taste of China (Photo by Solange Daini)

More recently I’ve cooked fish fragrant pork using fish fragrance marinaded peppers, as prepared by the chefs of China Sichuan at the Taste of China cookery demonstration. Before I left for China I promised to post the recipe for using this marinade and it is now below.
I know some of you have had these marinaded peppers in your fridge for at least 3 weeks now so it should be nicely flavourful. I used my now 9 week old marinade tonight, this time with chicken, and it was delicious.
Fish Fragrant Chicken with a dash of Chilli Oil

When I visited Beijing recently, I learned how to make a classic fish fragrant sauce based on pickled chillies chopped to a puree with a cleaver blade. The recipe for fish fragrant aubergine below is the one taught to me by Chefs Chun Yi and Chao at Hutong Cuisine in Beijing and is the way Chun Yi learnt to make it when she trained as a chef in Chengdu in Sichuan Province.
Hutong Cuisine fish fragrant aubergine – yu xiang qie zi
Practising Fish Fragrant Aubergines at Hutong Cuisine

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