Reflections of a Long Distance Nai Nai and Fish Fragrant Marinated Peppers

There are two women with whom I feel a common bond. Susana lives in Argentina, Elena in Romania. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Elena here in Ireland last year, I hope to meet Susana before the year is out. Meanwhile we occasionally exchange comments on Facebook. Even if I don’t always understand the words, written in three different languages, the sentiments shine through.
Because in recent months we three have acquired grandsons. Susana and Elena are grandmothers to Domenic and Frederic, the 7 month old twin sons of my lovely friend Solange (she who took the great photos at Taste of China at Cooks Academy).

Frederic & Domenic – or is it vice versa!

NaiNai, nonna, abuela, bunica, call us what you will, we are the long distance grannies who share the joy and the longing of getting to know our grandchildren through Skype and social media.
Elena and Susana I salute you and share your pride in your grandsons.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the past four weeks about how being a granny changes you:

  • There is a subtle shift in what matters. Suddenly climate change seems much more important, for instance, as you contemplate the world into which your grandchild will grow up.
  • You become addicted to Facebook, checking regularly in case your son or daughter has posted a new photo of the baby and because you don’t like asking for a new photo every day.
  • You trace the outline of  your grandson’s mouth on the screen of your iPad during a Skype call, marvelling at his little sounds and snuffles. You  are amused to find yourself unconsciously making the sign of the cross on his mouth when he yawns, just the way your own granny once did.
  • You save his photos in chronological order, studying them for signs of little changes that even his parents might not notice being so close to him on a daily basis. Already he’s losing that new baby look and you zoom in close to try and sense the texture of his skin, the feel of his hair.
  • You tell everyone you meet “I’m a granny now you know”, and feel sheepish immediately afterwards. You still seek out any excuse to show off his photos but know that you risk boring people.
  • You get into trouble with your son for posting a photo on Twitter or Facebook that was only meant for you (three strikes and I’m out!!)
  • You cuddle your friend’s babies, whom you also love, drinking in the sweet smell of the soft skin at the nape of their necks and imagine what you are missing.
  • You feel visceral envy of friends and relatives who live close by him and get to see him often.
  • You long to hold him.

Can hardly wait to meet you Dermot Gao O’Neill

Well in just over a week’s time I hope to do just that. This day next week Shananigans goes on tour. We travel to Beijing to meet Dermot and spend time with Shane, Shan and MaMa. From there we head to Sydney for a week to catch up with our daughter Claire and then back to Beijing for another week. You can expect tales of food and family. I might even manage to fit in a few cookery classes in between baby cuddles and perhaps, if I ask nicely, MaMa might even give me a some lessons. And in Sydney Claire is lining up a kind of impromptu cooks tour of the city and environs. The adventure continues.
Meanwhile I want you to do something for me. Make up a batch of the fish-fragrant marinade below. Lace it with vodka. Put it away in the back of the fridge and forget about it for at least 3 weeks. When I return from my travels, we will share a virtual meal of fish fragrant pork shreds, chicken shreds or aubergine – whichever takes your fancy – while I regale you with tales from afar.
The marinade is the one used by the chefs of the China Sichuan last Sunday. It is the sweet base which complements the salty and sour notes of the vinegar-based sauce you also add to this famous dish from Sichuan province. I’ve made fish fragrant chicken this week and I like to finish it off by adding a good dash of homemade chilli oil to bring out spicy notes and add a brilliant orange-red colour.
I served the dish with ShuXin tea given to me by my friend Tiedong Yang from Harbin in North Eastern China. Shu means Sichuan China and Xin means honesty and good faith. This particular blend is a jasmine tea called “Falling Snow” after the white flowers of the jasmine. Tiedong reminds me that the Chinese say that all that we eat and drink should balance so it is good to drink the light tea with the hot chicken dish to aid digestion.
As you probably know well by now, there is no fish in this dish which seems to have derived its name from the use of ingredients traditionally associated with fish cooking. For many years China Sichuan restaurant had to call it “Fried Pork Shreds in Garlic Sauce”, in case the name would put diners off.
If you can’t wait until I come back to try it, you will find an alternative version on the blog here which can be made with Lee Kum Kee Sichuan Garlic Sauce. And you will find the rest of the recipe used last Sunday at Taste of China here. Enjoy!
Fish Fragrant Chicken served with ShuXin Tea

“Fish Fragrant” Marinaded Peppers

  • 500 g bell pepper
  • 500 g sweet red pepper
  • 60 g salt
  • 25 g ginger
  • 25 g garlic
  • 1 shot of vodka     (30 to 35 ml)

Prepare and deseed peppers.  Dice the peppers, chop the ginger and garlic. Place in a clean bowl and add the salt and vodka.  Wrap with cling film and leave to stand in the fridge for at least 3 weeks. Blend roughly with a hand blender before use. The marinade will keep well in the fridge.

Fish Fragrant Pork Shreds with Shan's Bashed Cucumber

Since I started this blog I’ve been fascinated by the flavours of Sichuan cooking. It would be a mistake to think these are all about hot and spicy dishes, even if numbing Sichuan pepper is currently my favourite ingredient.
In her memoir Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper, Fuchsia Dunlop talks of learning the 23 ‘official’ complex flavours of Sichuan cooking. One of those is yu xiang wei or ‘fish fragrant flavour’ which came about as a result of the desire of chefs in that land-locked province to make more use of the flavourings used in traditional Sichuanese fish cookery. It is a unique combination of salty and spicy, sweet and sour which doesn’t drift over into the more familiar, and sometimes cloying, sweet and sour flavours of Cantonese cooking. It is heavy on garlic, ginger, spring onions and uses soy sauce and sometimes chilli bean paste for seasoning. The gorgeous dark Chinkiang vinegar and Shaoxing rice wine also make a regular appearance.
This is what the Chinese call fu he wei – engaging the palate simultaneously on several levels and is what I most LOVE about Chinese food.
When I cooked Fish Fragrant Aubergines the other night from Every Grain of Rice, I remembered that I hadn’t yet tried Fish Fragrant Pork Shreds – Yu Xiang Rou – one of the dishes Ricky the head chef made for me in the China Sichuan when I visited their kitchen. See Inside the Kitchen of the China Sichuan.

Fish Fragrant Pork Shreds Shananigans style

The owner Kevin Hui gave me their recipe for this dish and I tried it out my own version of it tonight along with Shane & Shan’s recipe for Bashed Cucumber – Pai Huang Gua. The quantity below serves 4 to 6 people. Make the bashed cucumber first and leave it in the fridge to allow the flavours to mingle.while you are preparing the pork.
Bashed Cucumber

I suspect if I had a Sichuan Master Chef standing over me tasting my dishes he would have things to say about the balance of flavours but to my developing palate this tasted just like I remember it in China Sichuan. I love the way the cornflour sauce adds sheen to the dish and the chilli bean paste, dark soy and Chinkiang vinegar give it a rich dark red colour – a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, especially when set against the contrasting bright green cucumber.
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