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.

Beer Can Chicken

What a glorious Irish summer we have been enjoying. It reminds me of the idyllic summers of my Wexford childhood or my rose-tinted memories of them anyway. Irish seaside holidays are back in fashion. Duncannon is teeming with families, small children licking 99 ice-creams, trailing sandy towels up the tiny main street, teenagers in languid groups chatting, the beach packed with cars acting as windbreaks for impromptu picnics of sandwiches, crisps and fizzy drinks, the picnics of my childhood, the new playground a hive of energetic activity as little ones “wheeeee” down the long slide, even the grown ups getting in on the act in the adult playground, the familiar sounds of the commentary from weekend GAA matches echoing down the strand on car radios as we all tune in with bated breath to the latest Wexford hurling performance.
Up the hill our little Duncannon house is an oasis of calm by comparison. It is perfect weather for barbecuing and last Sunday I organised a family get together to mark my Mum’s and my birthday the previous week. My extended family are now beginning to put in special requests for their favourites from the Big Green Egg – “any chance of those fantastic spareribs?”  (Adam Perry Lang’s Reliable Pork Spareribs) “or that beef that Jack said was the best ever?” (Adam Perry Lang’s “Get a Book” Whole Beef Brisket). Well no actually, the chef had other plans. On the menu last Sunday were

Shananigans Pulled Pork

Beer Can Chicken

Chilli Crusted Rack of Lamb

not to mention steak, burgers, sausages and lots of vegetable dishes. Tis far from chilli crusted rack of lamb they were all reared…

Pork Butt ready to cook in the early morning sunshine
Pork Butt ready to cook in the early morning sunshine

As I get more used to cooking with the Big Green Egg, the full versatility of this all in one kamado oven, smoker and grill is becoming more apparent. If I get up early enough I can have the pork butt on by 7 am cooking low and slow and later there is lots of  space to cook the beer can chicken  and to add the racks of lamb while the pork is resting, tweaking the temperature up as needed.

Happy companions
Happy companions

We cooked the pork butt to my own recipe for Shananigans Pulled Pork, a recipe with a Chinese twist created with the help of the chef in Roches Bar in Duncannon. This time I injected the pork with an apple juice and sugar mix before cooking which made it even more tender and I’ve added that variation to the original recipe.
The Pork Butt returned to the grill wrapped
The Pork Butt returned to the grill wrapped

We served it Chinese style with thin Chinese pancakes, the type used for Peking Duck, homemade hoi sin sauce from the recipe on my blog post for Peking-style Roast Duck, shredded carrots and spring onion. The sauce was a big hit with our visitors.
The rack of lamb is another Adam Perry Lang recipe – crusted with a chilli and wholegrain mustard blend and drizzled with herb oil before serving.
Racks of Lamb grilling skin down
Racks of Lamb grilling skin down

Nearly every BBQ cook has their own version of Beer Can chicken. Mine is a variation of yet another Adam Perry Lang recipe and is finger-licking good every time.  Last Sunday my guests decided that it tasted particularly good drizzled with the hoi-sin sauce.
Beer Can Chicken
Beer Can Chicken ready to serve
Beer Can Chicken ready to serve


  • 1 large free range or organic chicken
  • 1 can larger beer such as Heineken

BBQ fuel

  • Good quality charcoal lump wood
  • A handful of apple or cherry wood chips, soaked (optional)

Garlic Marinade

  • ¼ cup rapeseed oil
  • ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbs soy sauce
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion chopped

Puree in a blender. The marinade will keep in the fridge for a week.
APL’s Seven Spice Dry Rub

  • ½ cup dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup paprika
  • ¼ cup salt
  • ¼ cup chilli powder
  • ¼ cup dry mustard powder
  • 1 tbs ground black pepper
  • 2 tsps Old Bay Seasoning
  • ½ tsp ground ginger

Mix the ingredients in a jar and store for up to 6 months in the fridge. If you can’t find Old Bay Seasoning just omit or add another spice of your choice.
Cider Mop Spray

  • ½  cup apple juice – I use Crinnaghtaun but any tart apple juice will work
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tbs cider vinegar

Mix the ingredients in a spray bottle. The spray will keep in the fridge for a week.
Preparation and Cooking (Allow at least 3 hours for cooking plus marinating the chicken overnight.)

  1. Coat the chicken generously in the marinade. Place in a freezer bag or covered dish and marinate overnight in the fridge or for a few hours at room temperature. Bring to room temperature for at least one hour before cooking.
  2. Prepare your Big Green Egg for indirect cooking with the plate setter legs up and stainless steel grill and heat to about 130 degrees C. Meanwhile soak a handful of apple or cherry wood chips in water. When the Egg  is nearly at temperature, drain the wood chips and add to the charcoal. Place a drip tray on the plate setter under the grill and half fill with water.
  3. Discard half the can of beer or add it to the drip pan. Remove the chicken from the marinade and place it upright on the beer can, legs down. Sprinkle with enough of the rub to coat. Don’t worry if there’s any excess. It will fall off during cooking. Carefully place the chicken and beer can on your stainless steel grill.
  4. After about an hour, when the rub has formed a nice crust, give it a spray with the cider mop spray and then spray it at about 30 minute intervals until an insta-read thermometer in the inner thigh reads 74 degrees c. This takes around 3 hours depending on the size of the chicken at the temperature of your BGE. Don’t let the drip tray dry out. Add more water if necessary.
  5. Remove the chicken from the grill and discard the beer can. Use mitts and be careful as the beer can gets very hot during cooking. Allow the chicken to rest for 30 minutes before carving.

Tips and variations
To oil your grill  – to 1 cup of rapeseed oil add a few black peppercorns, 2 star anise a bay leaf, sprig of thyme and sprig of rosemary. Halve a red onion and stick a fork in the half with the root. Dip it in the flavoured oil and use it to brush your grill as needed during cooking.

Oiliing your grill
Oiliing your grill

Drip pan – I use and old roasting tin that fits in the BGE. You can also use a disposable roasting tin or deep pizza tray. I usually add the leftover beer to the drip pan.
If you don’t have a Big Green Egg – we have cooked this chicken successfully on indirect heat on our Outback covered gas BBQ  by heating just the middle of 3 burners and placing the chicken to one side. It can be cooked on any covered BBQ, charcoal or gas.
Rotating your chicken during cooking – some recipes recommend rotating the chicken at intervals to make sure all sides are cooking evenly. I don’t find this necessary on the BGE but it may be a useful step if you are cooking on another type of charcoal or gas barbecue.
Ways with leftovers
Sichuan Chicken Salad
Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad
Spicy Sichuan Chicken Salad

Last Monday night I needed a Sichuan fix so I used the leftover chicken in the recipe for Spicy Sichuan Salad which I had learnt how to make at Hutong Cuisine cookery school in Beijing last year. This is a very tasty summer salad and the smokey, succulent chicken works perfectly in it.
Beer Can Chicken Legs with BBQ Sauce 
Adam Perry Lang likes to halve his chicken, glaze it with diluted BBQ sauce and return it to the grill on direct heat for about 15 minutes until it is crisp and glazed. I don’t bother with this step because we love the flavour of the roasted chicken but I have glazed leftover chicken legs and wings and popped them under the grill the next day for a very tasty Monday night supper. You can use any good quality BBQ sauce or your favourite homemade recipe.

Hunan dinner at Pindian Cuisine, Wangjing

I have to hand it to my daughter-in-law Shan. She keeps pushing out the boundaries when it comes to our dining experiences in Beijing – both geographically and in terms of the food. She has been trawling through the Chinese equivalent of Groupon for deals on line and reviews by Chinese diners to find places that might appeal to my ever-broadening tastes but that also serve dinner early and have high chairs for Dermot.
Last night’s excursion took us a 20 minute taxi ride further out of the city to Wangjing, a sub-district of Chaoyang and one of those new suburbs that has sprung up on the ever expanding perimeter of Beijing since the early 1990s. It is in the north east corner of the city just inside the 5th ring road. So many Koreans live there that it is known locally as Koreatown. The name translates as “View of Beijing” but you would be hard pressed to catch a glimpse of the city through the endless rows of sky scrapers. It is an unlikely place to find Hunan food but Shan had tracked down a restaurant called Pindian there that serves an authentic version of the cuisine.
Hunan is one of the steamy inland provinces of China, not as far west as Sichuan province. Its chefs and home cooks produce very hot, spicy, bold and colourful food for a hot and fiery people, with an emphasis on sourness. Local chefs use boiling, roasting and steaming to make dishes that are hot and sour, charred and mouth-numbing, fresh and fragrant, crispy and tender. The recipe for Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork from my archives is a good example as is Hunan Style Crispy Chilli Beef.
Cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Cookbook is my bible of Hunan cooking and I get lost in the world she depicts of the birthplace of Chairman Mao and the exotic, spicy dishes created there. Ihave tried many of her recipes at home but, apart from a few recipes I learnt at Hutong Cuisine cookery school when I last visited Beijing, such as Hunan Steamed Fish, I have never tasted the food of this region while China.
I plan to get to Hunan Province some day but, like any capital city, Beijing is a melting pot of all regional cuisines and I was delighted to be getting the chance to taste the real thing here. I knew to expect it to be even  spicier than Sichuan food but without the same addiction to numbing Sichuan pepper. Apart from that I had an open mind and I have one rule when eating out with Shan – try everything put in front of me at least once without asking questions.
Pindian was on the first floor of a modern block and was a large, well-lit room with tables designed to cater for family gatherings and private dining rooms off to one side. It’s layout with Chinese lanterns and double happiness pendants dangling from the ceiling was typical of thousands of family restaurants through the city and millions throughout the world. A large fish tank filled with enormous goldfish lined one wall and was ideal for distracting Dermot. Our table was at a window overlooking the suburban street as workers made their way home from the city.
The Groupon deal Shan had found included a set menu to which she added two other dishes so that Dermot would have something less spicy to eat.
To start with we were served a jug of warm and rather sweet corn juice and glasses of warm water and we ordered some Yangjing beers to go with them.
The first plate to arrive at our table was gan guo niu wa – a dish made with bullfrog and served sizzling at our table. Shan was surprised I had never eaten frog before, not even frogs legs in France. The meat was very tender with a consistency a little like chicken but lots of small bones to be dealt with. It was scattered with chillies, spring onions and peanuts. The flavour and cooking style was similar to the “drying pot” potato we had at our Peking Duck restaurant, XiHeYaYuan on Saturday night
The dish of wide flat rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese cabbage that was served next was a lovely light accompaniment to this and the other dishes that followed.
Sizzling beef with green chillies was lip-tingling hot and the star of the night. The chillies – hang jiao – used are spicy hot but full of flavour.
Shan had ordered dried radish with smoked pork which is a regional specialty but what was served involved equally tasty dried green beans. I loved this dish. The smoked pork is bought part cooked, thinly sliced and tossed with the dried vegetable, mashed whole garlic, ginger, chillies and spring onion. And the good news is that Shan has ordered some of this smoked pork on line so that we can try out a variation of this dish at home.
Steamed whole fish came in a soy sauce and facing me with doleful eyes. I fear I will never get fond of the appearance of whole fish but the flavour was good. It was served splayed so that you could remove all the flesh from the bones without ever having to turn it over as that would be unlucky – it symbolises a fishing boat turning over in water.
A free range chicken was chopped into pieces and cooked in a rich broth flavoured with ginger, spring onion and other spices. In northern China it is typical to remove the meat from the soup with your chopsticks and eat it boiled rice before drinking the broth at the end of the meal as a soup. It was delicious.
A plate of little deep-fried buns rounded off the meal. I wasn’t sure whether they would be sweet or savoury when I bit into them – one of the hazards of eating out in China. In fact they were like sweet little donuts.
With the Groupon deal the total cost of the meal for the four of us was 242RMB or about €28. By any standards this was excellent value.
And now, if asked about Hunan food, I can say “I’m partial to a bit of bullfrog myself”.

Gong Bao Chicken

One of the many things I love about a trip to Beijing is the chance to attend a few cookery classes, pick up new recipes and tips and improve techniques under the watchful eye of a professional Chinese chef. This recipe for Gong Bao chicken from my recent visit is so good that I feel like taking to the streets with a placard and megaphone to encourage everyone to try it. It has to be one the tastiest and best value winter warmers around and perfect for the coming cold snap. But first a bit of the back story on the recipe. Continue reading Gong Bao Chicken

When two met one over a summer BBQ and Duck Spring Rolls

We’ve a little thing going on my four month old grandson and I. We dance around the bedroom to the same song, “Tiny Dancer”, each day of this his brief visit home. He joins in the fun as I sing along out of tune.
We converse. I tell him what I think is important, how I feel about him, what it’s like to have him snuggle against me and chew my shoulder with his teething gums, how I will never forget these moments. He stretches his legs, bounces on my lap and answers with intense concentration, with burbles and giggles and smiles as he struggles to articulate … He seems to understand….
I thought of that tonight as I listened to the writer John Banville in conversation with Olivia O’Leary. What distinguishes humans from animals, he said, is the ability to use words, the capacity to create sentences. I wonder what sentence Dermot will speak first and in what language…
We had our own little Gathering last Sunday, one of those days from which memories are carved.
We were joined for a BBQ in our garden by my Italian friend Solange, her Argentinian husband Agustin and their identical twins, just 10 months old.
The last time we adults had all been together was for Christmas 2011 when Shan came to visit us for the first time. That was very special as Claire and her Welsh husband Mike were also able to be with us from Australia for part of the time, an event described by one wit on Twitter as a cross between the Davos Convention and an international rugby tournament.
This time we were feeling the absence of Claire and Mike but the sun was beating down from a cloudless sky, and it was still a day to savour.
While she has attempted to teach me Italian, I have kept company with Solange through her journey into motherhood and she has supported me as I adapted to being a long distance granny, sharing hugs from her little boys. It felt important to introduce these three little people to one another with the hope that some day “i cugini” might become friends.

When two meet one

Well “introduce” might be pushing it a bit but they all got to eye one another up with varying degrees of interest while one set of parents remembered what it was like to cuddle a snuggly little person and the others imagined a day when their little man would be taking off on all fours at a rapid pace to explore a small urban jungle.
Between us we had at least 6 languages – English, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and Irish  – and 5 nationalities, but the 3 little boys all hold Irish passports and are set to be multilingual citizens of the 21st century.
Ni hao Fred and Oli, or is it Oli and Fred…

Ciao Dermot!

Go n’eiridh an t’ádh libh Shane & Shan

In all the circumstances it seemed appropriate to have a barbecue that was a bit Irish, a bit Chinese and a bit Italian so a big thank you to Rozanne Stevens for the inspiration in her new Relish BBQ book.
From it I chose:

  • an Italianish main course of Norman’s butterflied leg of lamb with lively salsa
  • an Asian mushroom, pak choi and potato salad and
  • a Chinesish dessert of lychee jam jar cheese cake.

All were a resounding success.
For starters I recreated an Irish take on a Chinese classic – confit duck spring rolls from Chef Tom Walsh of Samphire at the Waterside in Donobate who gave me this recipe for a post I did for Taste of China during this year’s Chinese New Year Festival. Tom was one of the nominees for chef of the year in the Dublin regional finals of the Restaurant Association of Ireland Awards this week. Pay his restaurant a visit and enjoy his great food.
Tom Chef’s Confit Duck Spring Rolls

Solange’s photo of our duck spring rolls

1. Confit Duck Legs:

  • 2 duck legs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 jars of duck fat or goose fat
  • A few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme
  • A few whole cloves garlic
  • 2 star anise


  1. Allow the duck legs to dry out at room temperature and season well with salt and pepper.
  2. Place in a small oven proof dish along with the rosemary, thyme, garlic and star anise.
  3. Melt the duck or goose fat and pour over the duck legs making sure they are covered completely. (Top up with light olive oil or sunflower oil if necessary.)
  4. Cover with foil and confit slowly in the oven at low temperature until the duck meat is falling away from the bone – at least 1 ½ hours at 130 degrees C, or you can cook at 110/120 degrees C for several hours.

2. Duck Spring Rolls:

  • 2  confit duck legs (as above)
  • 1 carrot cut into thin julienne strips
  • 1 red onion thinly sliced
  • 100g bean sprouts
  • 1 tbs oyster sauce
  • 1 clove garlic (crushed)
  • 20g pickled ginger*
  • 25g chopped coriander
  • 25g chopped chervil
  • 6 sheets of spring roll pastry 10’’ square
  • 1 egg white
  • Sunflower oil for deep-frying
  • Chilli jam* to serve
  • Corander and/or chervil to garnish

*See below

  1. Shred the confit duck leg and mix with all the other prepared ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning to taste.
  2. Take  1 ½ sheets of pastry for each spring roll.
  3. Placing a full sheet down and a half on top, from one corner, fill the doubled-side, near the centre with some duck mix.
  4. Starting at the doubled corner, roll to half way then fold in the sides and continue rolling to the end.
  5. Brush some egg white on the far corner to stick the pastry together.
  6. Fill a wok about a third full with sunflower oil and heat until a cube of bread turns golden in a few seconds. Deep fry the springrolls until golden.
  7. Slice each spring roll in two on the diagonal and serve with the chilli jam garnished with coriander and/ or chervil.

3. Pickled Ginger:
You can buy pickled ginger but I love Tom’s homemade version which keeps for weeks in the fridge.

  • 200g fresh ginger
  • 250g white wine vinegar
  • 125g still mineral water
  • 125g sugar
  • 2 star anise
  • 4 cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Good sprig of thyme


  1. Weigh all the ingredients, except the ginger into a saucepan.
  2. Bring to the boil all and leave to chill.
  3. Peel and slice the ginger and steep in the chilled pickle.
  4. Store in a sealed container in the fridge.

 4. Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam

Tom Chef’s Chilli Jam

Since Tom gave me this recipe, I have served it as a dip with everything from crisps to barbecued chicken wings and my guests rave about it. Bottled chilli jam will never again cross our threshold. It keeps indefinitely in a Kilner jar in the fridge. It is very simple to make, just take a little care to cook it slowly so that  it doesn’t burn.

  • 6-8 red chilli peppers chopped roughly
  • 300g castor sugar
  • 300g white rice wine vinegar (ordinary white wine vinegar will do)


  1. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and  cook gently to reduce to a syrupy, jam-like consistency being careful not to burn.
  2. Blend with a stick blender.
  3. Store in a sealed container in the fridge.

5. Homemade Chilli Oil

Hutong Cuisine Homemade Chilli Oil

And while I’m on a roll, here’s another store cupboard condiment that transcends western and Chinese flavours and is great for barbecues. I picked up this recipe at cookery class in Hutong Cuisine in Beijing. It is simple to prepare and, once savoured, you will never want a shop bought version again. In recent weeks I’ve brushed this over prawns and crab claws and sizzled them on the BBQ, painted it on to fish fillets to be baked in the oven and drizzled it over Italian pizza, even though it was originally just intended to accompany this Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad.

  • 200g rapeseed oil (or sunflower oil, groundnut oil or vegetable oil)
  • 2 pieces star anise
  • 2 thumbnail size pieces of cinnamon (preferably the wider Chinese type)
  • 1 tsp of Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 large cardamom pod, crushed to release seeds (preferably the large black Chinese cardamom pods)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 tsp Pixian broad bean paste (Lee Kum Kee Toban Djan chilli bean sauce, which is readily available in Ireland can be used instead)
  • 2 slices of ginger
  • 1 spring onion, white part only, cut in two
  • 4 tbs crushed chillies
  • 2 tsp sesame seeds


  1. Heat the oil in a wok over low heat and add all the ingredients except the chillies and sesame seeds. Stir slowly over gentle heat for at least 8 to 10 minutes until the spices have begun to turn brown in colour, released their fragrance and infused the oil.
  2. Sieve the oil and discard the spices. By this time it should have turned into a gorgeous warm red colour. Return it to the wok with the crushed chillies and sesame seeds. Stir over a very low heat until the chilli has turned light brown in colour.
  3. When cool, pour the oil into a glass container and keep over night before use. Store unused oil indefinitely in an airtight jar.

Yes when Chinese meets Irish meets Italian, who knows what fun things can happen.
Grazie Solange, Agus, Oli e Fredi per la giornata indimenticabile 🙂

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

Continue reading Two different takes on Fish Fragrant Sauce – aubergine and pork

Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad with Home Made Chilli Oil

I figure I’d better give you my lovely readers a few new recipes soon or you will begin to think that this is less of a food blog and more “The Ramblings of a Besotted Nai Nai”. So to start with here are two I practised at Hutong Cuisine in Beijing – Sichuan spicy chicken salad and homemade chilli oil.
I learned such a lot from the lovely Chunyi and Chao at Hutong Cuisine. Their cookery school has a cosy, personalised feel as if you were in your Granny’s kitchen – if your Granny was Chinese and lived in a courtyard house in a hutong that is! Claire and Mike also attended a class there and were equally impressed.

The team at Hutong Cuisine

Once I got over jetlag I relished getting back into the kitchen at home at the end of a busy day although I miss using a gas hob and the ease with which you can tell on sight whether you have the “fire heat” correct. I had discovered that the single biggest mistake I was making in my Chinese cooking was the assumption that “high heat = good” and I have been over-using the boost function on my induction hob as a result. In nearly every new recipe I learnt, the trick in releasing flavour lay in cooking the oil over moderate or gentle heat. Already this has begun to transform the results.
Take home made chilli oil for instance – la jiao. Many Sichuan recipes call for a tablespoon or two of chilli oil with sediment and a dash of it can enliven milder Cantonese dishes. Up to now I’ve been making do with bottled chilli oil from the Asia market but not any more. The recipe below can be prepared and cooked very easily and bottled to use when required. Once tasted there is no going back to a shop bought Chinese version. So when I had a sudden longing for a Friday evening Sichuan kick and a fix of Dan Dan noodles, it was as good a time as any to make up a batch so that I could use some in the sauce.
Home Made Chilli Oil la jiao

I used a good quality organic Irish rapeseed oil to make this as I love its flavour and I guessed its rich golden colour would become a beautiful shade of red as it became infused with the spices and seasonings. Crushed chillies, picked up on my expedition to Jiang Tai market with qing jia mu, added flecks of colour, texture and sediment to the oil. (At cookery class we used vegetable oil and ground chilli powder). This oil will keep indefinitely in an airtight jar.
Ingredients: Continue reading Sichuan Spicy Chicken Salad with Home Made Chilli Oil

The patient art of Chinese cooking – Shananigans Chez Bloor

When we were in Beijing last week we attended two stir-fry/ wok classes at Hutong Cuisine, apart from the noodle and dumpling classes I wrote about recently. While the format of these standard morning classes is broadly similar, the content varies daily. You learn 3 to 4 dishes, in each session – say 3 Canton and 1 Sichuan or 3 Sichuan and 1 Canton. We were really lucky and had the classes to ourselves on both occasions because other groups had booked in for separate private sessions which is also an option.
You start by prepping all the ingredients while Chun Yi or Chao explain the dishes and ingredients and teach you knife skills. After a few classes, I could feel myself getting more proficient and comfortable with the cleaver and marveling at its precision. Once all the preparation is out of the way, your chef demonstrates, cooking each dish in turn, and you follow by cooking it yourself under his or her watchful eye. And then you get to eat the results for lunch.  In the process you learn about balancing dishes in a Chinese meal and practical ways of preparing and serving several dishes at one meal – hot and cold, slower and faster cooked.
When your chef lines up the results, you quickly discover what a difference the heat of your wok, the fineness of your cutting or the pounding of your chilli paste can make to the finished result.
For the Sichuan class we learned from Chao:

  • How to make home-made chilli oil –  la jiao – I will be making a batch of this as soon as I get home and never again will I be using shop-bought stuff;
  • Sichuan spicy chicken salad – la wei ji si – reminiscent of bang bang chicken, a cold dish, perfect to accompany other hot dishes, drizzled with the chilli oil;
  • Braised tofu with broadbean chilli paste – jia chang doufu – a simpler, home-style version of the more famous mapo doufu. I’ve become a big fan of tofu on this trip and now I also know how to tell when it’s fresh;
  • Steamed prawn with minced garlic – suan rhong zheng xia – a Cantonese dish this and one of Chao’s favourites, delicious to look at and eat;
  • Stir-fried seasonal vegetables, made with spinach in our case, so simple Chao refused to write down the recipe, forcing us to learn to cook with our instincts and eyes.

Serving our own lunch at Hutong Cuisine

In the Cantonese lesson we learned:

  • Braised pork rib with soy sauce and sugar – hong shao rou– simple to make and as delicious as more complex twice-cooked pork dishes;
  • Black pepper beef – hei jiao niu liu – less spicy than my Sichuan and Hunan versions;
  • Stir fried lettuce with garlic and soy sauce – suan rong sheng cai – we used a type of iceberg lettuce for this and also made a version with oyster sauce; I preferred the garlic version;
  • And finally for the day my old favourite, fish-fragrant aubergine – yu xiang qie zi – made with a paste of pickled chillies that gives the dish a gorgeous red coloured oil if you get it right.

Chef’s had the best colour

I learned so much about Chinese cooking in just 5 days and the biggest lesson was about the importance of patience and gentleness in the approach – take your time with your dough, wait that little bit extra for it to rise, be precise in cutting your ingredients, don’t fling your ingredients into or around your wok (or, er up the wall of the kitchen), observe, take note, use all your senses to judge when the oil is hot enough, the paste smooth enough, the underside of the tofu cooked, go lightly when adding seasonings, taste and adjust.
Oh and never waste – food is precious and every ingredients and left-over scrap has its use. Treat food with respect.
For 270 rmb (or about €33) these morning classes are fantastic value and a great introduction to Chinese cooking whether you are a novice or a wannabe expert. It’s also a wonderful way to spend a chilly spring morning absorbed in the atmosphere of a hutong in Beijing.

Here in Sydney this week, it was time to attempt to put what I had learnt into practice. Claire and Mike and their friends have been teasing me about my new found blogger and Chinese food “expert” status so they put it up to me to cook up a Chinese feast in their new home in Clovelly. Tongue firmly in cheek, I put together the menu below.
I set to work, shopping for Chinese ingredients and utensils in the well-stocked Asian market near where Claire works in Blacktown and availed of the fabulous fish, meat and vegetables easily found in this semi-tropical climate. I’ve never seen longer spring onions in my life!
A long evening of dicing, slicing and cooking followed and, over the course of many hours, seven hungry and adventurous diners became increasingly less hungry until they were almost groaning at the sight of another dish.
This was my first time to attempt to produce a Chinese meal on this scale and as a result I can add to the list of lessons I’ve learned (the hard way):
Rule 1: Don’t over-cater – limit the total number of dishes and the portion size. A dish for each diner, plus one is sufficient and each portion size should be roughly one decent sized single serving – I fell into the trap of preparing each dish as if it was to serve four or five people – much too much food.

Spicy chicken salad with a drizzle of homemade chilli oil

Rule 2: Pay attention to the order in which you serve dishes. I made the very obvious mistake of cooking in the order that was convenient for me, the chef, rather than what made sense for the diners. So I served the gorgeous, expensive fish dish last when my diners were too stuffed to fully appreciate it. The order in the menu above is how I should have sequenced the dishes but I could have omitted the tofu and “earth three fresh” dishes and substituted, at most, a simple stir-fried vegetable.
Nick and Mike look dubious about the fish!

Rule 3: Think carefully about the nature of the dishes you are serving – I made the error of having three that involved deep-frying in the wok and, in the case of “earth, three, fresh”, separately cooking potatoes, aubergines and bell peppers. That, coupled with large portion sizes which meant I had to do 2 separate batches of beef for instance, really slowed me down. And the braised tofu required an extra 10 minutes cooking time which I had forgotten about. There was far too much work involved and it eliminated any prospect of me sitting down with the rest of the guests. On the other hand the cold chicken dish, steamed prawns and braised pork (which required an hour and a half slow cooking) could be prepared well in advance and were really delicious. Those dishes, combined with a few simpler stir-fries would have given me a lot more time with our guests.
Steamed prawns looking good!

Rule 4: Remember all the other rules I learned in cookery classes in Beijing – patience, precision, careful preparation – when a recipe says “plunge the mushrooms into boiling water for 10 seconds”, it means that and not 60 seconds while you flaff around the kitchen looking for the strainer which you’ve put down… somewhere… that’s a recipe for soggy mushrooms 🙂
Rule 5: Get to know your cooker and wok so that you can control the heat accurately. This comes with practice and the cheap wok from the Asian supermarket conducts heat much better with Claire’s gas hob than the heavier one I’m used to using on an induction hob at home.
Rule 6: Remember cooking Chinese food should always be fun so keep your sense of humour and don’t lose your cool, even when you tip the contents of a wok over the kitchen floor mid-service… I didn’t (lose my cool that is…)
Sous chef to the rescue!

All that being said, our diners were gracious enough to say they enjoyed the meal but then they might just have been extra nice to someone who is now a dab hand with a cleaver! It was great fun, lots learnt and I will do an even better job for them the next time I’m in Sydney. And I will post the most successful of the recipes, including the fantastic home made chilli oil when I get back.
PS Nai Nai moment coming up…
I will find it very hard to leave Claire and Mike and Sydney and the glorious weather behind on Sunday but there is the small matter of getting back to this little man in Beijing…
“Wait…. I’ve got an idea…”


Visit to a wet food market in Beijing

I’m writing this post in the back garden of my daughter Claire’s new home in Clovelly in the suburbs of Sydney. It’s 28 degrees C and I’ve just come back from a walk with her to Bronte beach where a dip in the crashing surf was an antidote to jet lag and might help me stay awake for another few hours. Here in the garden all is bright sunlight, and contrasting shade. There is traffic noise too and the occasional sound of a hovering coastguard helicopter watching out for swimmers in trouble or for sharks. But the traffic noise is muted by the rustle of a light breeze through the trees and the crisp freshness of the early Autumn air is a marked contrast to the undercurrent of pollution always present in Beijing, even on a clear day. What different lives my two children lead and each so happy with their lot.
It’s hard to believe that just over 24 hours ago I was still in Beijing, caught up in the the noise and bustle of that massive city. Over the course of a few visits, I’ve come to love that city despite the air pollution, blaring traffic and constant sound track of buildings under construction, partly because it never takes long to escape into a quiet hutong where the modern Beijing seems a world away but also because of the friendliness of the people with their passion for food and their attachment to age-old traditions that they maintain despite the rapid pace of development.
Step up to a food market inside one of the hutong and it is as if little has changed in the past 50 years – a tangle of bicycles outside, elderly women buying just what they need for the day, women and men bargaining with butchers, vegetable sellers, fish merchants, and spice merchants, a group of men squatting down to play cards or mahjong… a jumble of noise and vibrant colour.
Because we had booked several cooking classes with Hutong Cuisine, we were offered a complimentary tour of a nearby wet market to get a better understanding of the ingredients that we were using in our classes. This was a great opportunity to be accompanied to a local market by Chao, our teacher and chef, as he made his purchases and helped us make sense of the vast array of produce on display.
One of the things that appeals to me about Hutong Cuisine is that it is as much a family home as a cookery school. Owner and chef Zhou Chunyi moved to Beijing from Canton about 8 years ago, having trained as a chef in Canton and in a Sichuan cookery school in Chengdu. She was joined a few years later by her brother, Chef Chao. Together with their sister, they make up the small, close-knit team who run the cookery school. They live in their courtyard house in the Deng Cao hutong so attending the school is very much like learning in a family kitchen, complete with a friendly and welcoming dog in the courtyard outside. In the summer, some classes take place outside in the courtyard, while in the winter and early spring, they are held indoors in the warm and welcoming kitchen.
We hit lucky and for two of our four classes and for the market tour we had Chef Chao to ourselves, while another larger group worked alongside us or in the next room. For the other two classes we were in small groups of 4 to 6 people. The way it worked out provided a great opportunity for me to ask lots of questions and get plenty of hands-on practice.
On the morning of our market tour, we were up at 6 am to beat the Beijing rush hour traffic. We knocked on Chao’s door in the quiet hutong about half an hour earlier than expected. He set to work immediately to explain to us the different types of soy sauce, wine and vinegar we had been using:

  • how to determine the quality of soy sauce by its protein content (amino acid nitrogen) – over 0.8 mg/ 100ml  is superior grade; Lee Kum Kee is his favourite brand and he also likes Pearl River Bridge; Amoy is also good but as it’s from Shanghai it’s sweeter; and of course, as you already know, light soy is for flavour and dark for colour and usually used in smaller quantities;
  • how the best vinegars have a total acid content above 6.0g/ 100 ml – look out for Donghu brand Shanxi aged vinegar and Hengshun Zhenjiang (chinkiang) vinegar; the latter is from near Shanghai where they like their food lighter;
  • how shaoxin wine has alcohol content of around 15% with the younger wine used for cooking only; look out for Pagoda brand. But look out for cheap, gnarly alcohol for it’s often disguised under generic brand names and is certain to put you in an inpatient treatment w/ Legacy.

Then we set off to the market, basket on the back of Chao’s push bike, weaving our way through the hutong. I just wished I could bottle the experience. The best I can do is try to capture the riot of colour in photos.

With Chao’s help I purchased all the unusual spices I need for the beef soup we made earlier in the week to go with the hand-pulled noodles as well as a supply of Sichuan peppers and pickled chillies. When I get back to Ireland I’m going to run a competition on the blog with the prize going to the person who comes closest to identifying, from photos, all the spice ingredients for that beef soup so watch this space.
Thank you Chef Chao and Hutong Cuisine Cooking School for a most enjoyable start to our day of cooking.
See – optional extra market tours, usually priced at 100 rmb (about €12) per person.
PS I’m missing baby Dermot, Shane, Shan and MaMa but only for just over a week when we get to spend a little more time with them in Beijing before returning home to Ireland. Meanwhile I’m loving being with Claire & Mike in Sydney and will have more stories from Beijing and Sydney soon.

The Art of Pulling Noodles – Hutong Cuisine Cookery School

Two days in Beijing and my clothes already smell of a heady concoction of unusual spices. That’s what comes of spending a good chunk of those two days in the kitchen.
Yesterday it was the turn of Hutong Cuisine and a class aimed at teaching us how to make Shaanxi hand pulled noodles, described on their website as “a difficult class where you roll up your sleeves to knead, drag, pull…” This was not an understatement.
But first there was time for breakfast in Feast the swish restaurant of our hotel East which serves possibly the best breakfast buffet in Beijing not to mention excellent coffee.

Feast at East

I couldn’t help thinking that if there were several million more of the electric cars like the one parked outside our door, Beijing pollution might not be quite so bad.
I wonder how long the charge lasts in Beijing traffic?

Of course a little quality NaiNai time had to be had before I headed for the kitchen. Oh how I love that newly minted baby smell.
Good morning Dermot!

Then fortified by an early lunch from MaMa, or Quin Jia Mu as I must learn to call her as my female in-law, we set off by taxi to find Hutong Cuisine. (I had discovered in Urumqi last summer that it is impossible to get past a half an hour with Shan’s Mum without being fed but it is always delicious and interesting – this time it was simple stir fried bai cai – baby pak choi to us – with mushrooms.)
We found the entrance to Hutong Cuisine in Deng Cao Hutong off Dongsi South St and were welcomed by a friendly dog who wriggled his way under the door to meet us. The lovely Chun Yi who runs the school led us in through the Quing Dynasty courtyard to the cosy kitchen where we were joined by the other participants in the class and her brother who would teach us how to make the noodles. Making noodles of this type is usually regarded as a man’s job because of the physical exertion involved.
Cookery school Chinese style

First for the easy bit – the making of the beef soup stock in which the noodles would subsequently be cooked. I will post the recipe for this soon because it is a lovely versatile stock and I can see myself adapting it for stockpot and other uses. Essentially it was made with a large beef leg bone, some added neck or belly beef, spring onion, garlic and ginger and lots of added spices, all simmered for several hours.
There were a few spices included in it that were new to me and may be hard to get in Ireland. Chun Yi explained that some are used because they are believed to have medicinal properties rather than for flavour. See if you can spot the mountain yam, long pepper, shan nai, bai zhi, sha ren or dou kou below – even MaMa and Shan couldn’t identify all of them!
Some interesting soup spices

Then came the fun bit, the making of the hand-pulled noodles. Tai ma fan – too much hassle, said MaMa when she heard how we had spent our afternoon. These are normally only made in restaurants by masters of the craft and rarely, if ever, at home. They are made with high gluten wheat flour and water, salt to give stiffness and the magic ingredient peng hui, the ash of a type of grass which grows in north west China which the people of that area discovered makes the dough supple and elastic. The main ingredient in the ash is Potassium Carbonate K2CO3 and it’s hard to get even here in Beijing.
As I’ve always loved making yeast bread, kneading the dough until smooth and leaving it to rest was easy peasy and I was beginning to feel quietly confident as Chef used the breathing space to teach us the hand movements we would need to roll, stretch and twist the dough. Now I mean to say, I’ve done aerobics and pilates, I even lift weights from time to time, this couldn’t be too difficult could it…? Well at least now I understand why Chun Yi asked Shane how old his parents were and whether we would be able for the class…
Let’s just say making hand-pulled noodles could be the ultimate cure for granny bingo wings. It’s all in the wrist movement and once or twice I nearly got it but not quite. Chef had to rescue my efforts several times and re-roll the dough, adding water when it got too dry. When you do get a rhythm going it is strangely soothing and satisfying, bringing me back to using hula hoops or skipping ropes as a child. There is also a gorgeous sensation when you feel the gluten stretching in your hands (and not breaking!).
Once your thin dough strips become even, you use only the middle part of the roll and pull them into very long thin strips. This bit is great fun and easy compared to all that rolling, stretching and twisting. Then you rush with them to your pot of strained stock, cook them for about one minute and serve them as below. Phew. Take a bow if you get that far!
The easy bit!

This looks manageable doesn’t it?

Chef rolls the dough

Stretch it out nice and long…

I think she’s got it!

Let’s twist…

Let’s twist again…

There you have it..

Derry could be proud of his efforts

To serve:
Once cooked, for as many hours as you have to play around with, the beef stock is strained into a saucepan and simmered. Beef  left over from the stock is shredded and placed in a bowl along with some daikon radish which has been thinly sliced and blanched for a minute, shredded leek, chopped coriander and home-made chilli oil to taste.
The noodles are cooked briefly in the simmering, strained stock, drained and added to the individual serving bowls and then some of the soup is poured over. To meet the exacting standards for balance in Chinese cooking, the soup should be clear, the radish adds white colour, the leek and coriander green and the chilli oil a dash of red.
Eat and enjoy, that’s if you have the energy after all that hand-pulling of noodles!! (or you could cheat and add a packet of your favourite quick-cook noodles to the soup but shhh… don’t tell Chun Yi I said that!)
Thank you Hutong Cuisine Cooking School for a great afternoon.
See – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.