Christmas is coming and 0ur culinary adventures have been continuing on three continents.
Claire has an annual ritual of watching Love Actually in December, no matter where she is in the world and what the temperature is outside. For her it marks the true start of the Christmas season. On Friday night she watched it with friends and served them her most elaborate Chinese meal yet. She prepared five fabulous Chinese dishes from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice including her first attempt at using tofu and her first buckwheat noodles dish. I’m very proud of my daughter’s growing culinary expertise and maybe she will even write it up for the blog (big hint Claire!!). I just wish I could watch Love Actually with her.
Meanwhile Shane and Shan were out to dinner with his good friend Steve who was visiting Beijing for a few days. They went to Jing Zun restaurant which specialises in Peking Duck and where we had a lovely meal with them and with Mike and Claire early in July. They didn’t sit outside this time though as the temperature is dropping as low as -12C in Beijing these nights.
We also had friends to dinner on Sunday and I cooked up my own Chineseish feast with a lot of help from friendly chefs on Twitter. These same friends had participated in my dim sum experiment a few months back and this time I wanted to be able to sit down and enjoy the meal with them. So the menu went like this:
Thin Apple Pie with Pecan Carmel Sauce and Vanilla Ice cream
Here is how I went about an Irish take on the classic Peking Duck Pancakes. These have five essential ingredients:
Thin wheat flour pancakes
Cooking a whole duck Peking style is quite an undertaking and one I haven’t got around to yet but I have discovered that P.M. O’Loughlin Foods in the Barbecue Centre in Shankill, County Dublin can supply a box of really tasty duck legs from Monaghan, frozen and vacuum packed in pairs. Twenty packs of duck legs cost €60 and I split the box with friends. These are a very handy freezer staple for €1.50 a duck leg and a convenient way of preparing the shredded duck meat.
As for the pancakes, Ive had one disastrous attempt at making my own with flour, hot water and a little oil (the phrase “lumps of lead” spring to mind), so I picked up a freezer pack in the Asia Market which are reliably skinny. But the treatment below gives these shop bought pancakes an extra lift.
I was going to do a traditional Peking sauce but a recipe from Ken Hom in Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure caught my eye. In it he used a sauce with Sichuan flavours inspired by Beijing Chef Da Dong who is widely regarded as one of the best chefs in China for his skill in re-interpreting regional Chinese dishes. Da Dong prepares shredded pig’s ears in a sauce similar to the one below. Note to self – must ask Shane to take us to Da Dong’s restaurant the next time we are in Beijing. Shredded Duck Pancakes with Sichuan Flavours
Serves 4 – 6 Ingredients:
4 duck legs
Salt and white pepper
For the sauce:
1 tbs dark soy sauce
2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar
2 tbs Lee Kum Kee chilli bean sauce (Toban Djan)
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp roasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns
About 24 wheat flour pancakes
A little white rice wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar
A bunch of spring onions
Preparation: Duck legs
Preheat your oven to 200C.
If your duck legs have been frozen, ensure they are fully thawed and dry them out, uncovered, at room temperature for about an hour, then give them a final pat dry with kitchen paper.
Score the skin of the duck legs in a cross hatch pattern, season well with salt and white pepper and place in the oven in a roasting tin, skin side up.
Roast for about one hour or until the skin is crisp and golden and the fat has run off (you can save the fat for making delicious roast potatoes) and place on a wire rack to cool.
When cool, finely shred the meat and most of the duck skin and set aside in a serving dish. (Thank you Derry for excellent shredding skills.)
Assemble the pancakes in pairs by brushing a pancake on one side lightly with sesame oil and placing another on top of it.
Preheat a large flat, non-stick frying pan until smoking hot and then reduce to medium.
Place a pair of pancakes onto the dry pan and turn them over with a spatula as soon as brown spots begin to form on the underside. Repeat on the other side then remove from the pan and gently peel apart and fold the pancakes, cooked side in, onto a plate.
Repeat the process until all the pairs of pancakes are cooked and stacked. Cover them with a damp tea towel, ready to be steamed briefly before serving.
Mix all the sauce ingredients together in a bowl and divide into small dipping bowls, one for each diner.
De-seed the cucumber and julienne it. Place on a rectangular serving dish and drizzle with a little white rice wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar. Try to do this about 30 minutes ahead of time so that the flavours mingle.
Julienne the spring onions and serve on a separate rectangular dish.
Just before serving place the wheat flour pancakes in a small bamboo steamer over a wok or pot of boiling water and steam for 4 – 5 minutes at most. If you have stacking bamboo steamers you can also reheat the shredded duck at the same time.
Alternatively you can re-heat both briefly in a microwave or steam oven.
Serve the pancakes and the duck on a platters to share.
Your guests can help themselves at the table. Just spread a little of the sauce on a pancake with the back of a spoon, place some shredded duck on top, followed by some spring onions and cucumber. Fold and eat. These taste moreish and were a very big hit with our friends – definitely set to be a household favourite.
I don’t usually feel compelled to write two blog posts in one evening but a number of things came together over the last few days which have my mind whirring with the endless possibilities of Chinese cuisine. Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure
The second episode of BBC2’s Exploring China – A Culinary Adventure with Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang plunged me back into the “feel” of the China I experienced – the passion for colour, texture and taste, the array of dishes, the attention to perfection in technique and authenticity, the extraordinary, numbing sensation of sichuan pepper on the tongue, the mothers and “nãinai” (grannies), especially the grannies, so devoted to preparing the meal for everyone else that they are usually the last to eat and often eat alone. Shan told me she never saw her beloved Granny sit down to eat with the family and yet this woman, with her bound feet, was the powerhouse of her family.
This 2nd episode of Exploring China was set in Chengdu the capital of Sichuan Province and the images of ever-expanding and developing China, while the old traditions linger, evoked my own experience of Urumqi in the far north-west in Xinjiang Province, a city which now has a population of over 4 million people.
Gok Wan’s Dim Sum
Meanwhile I set out yesterday to see if it was possible to create genuine dim sum at home using Gok Wan’s recipes from his Channel 4 Gok Cooks Chinese series. So I prepared:
Prawn and Scallop Moneybag Dumplings
Chilli and Salt Squid
Steamed Rice Parcels with Chinese Mushrooms wrapped in lotus leaves
Chicken and Leek Potsickers
Pork and Prawn Potstickers
Steamed Beef and Coriander Balls
Steamed Pork Ribs
The short answer is that it IS possible, provided you don’t mind being on your feet from 11 am to 6 pm and enjoy the pleasure of playing around with endless small quantities of ingredients, making up tiny, delicious parcels of delights and have VERY patient friends who can tolerate their Sunday dinner coming at them in a haphazard way – but that’s what happens in China after all.
For me the real kick of yesterday was discovering the sensuous pleasure of cooking with a bamboo steamer, the speed with which pork ribs and minced beef meatballs cook and absorb flavours with no oil added, the scent of the steaming wood and the sizzle of water added to sticky dumplings, their bases already crisped, which turned out exactly like the real thing served at home by Shan’s family in Urumqi.
I loved making the prawn and money bag dumplings and tying them up with chive “lasoos”.
Once our guests arrived it was impossible to cook, serve, be hospitable and take photos at the same time but I can honestly say that the part-fried and part-steamed dumplings turned out just as I remembered them from Urumqi.
We finished the meal with chilled watermelon dipped in lime and raspberry coulis from the Exploring China cookbook – simple and palate-cleansing. Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti
Then I woke this morning to a new recipe from Shan in my inbox. This time it was for Xinjiang spaghetti with lamb, one of my favourite recipes from Urumqi and another reminder of the common ground between Italian and Chinese cooking. As luck would have it I had 2 small lean side-loin lamb chops in the fridge and it was easy to pick up Chinese Celery and Hu Jiao Fen pepper in the Asia Market.
The white pepper seems slightly more aromatic than ordinary white pepper but I suspect the latter would be a good substitute.
The Chinese celery has a lovely crunchy texture and more flavour than ordinary Irish celery.
I notice I tend to use a bit more meat in her recipes than Shan recommends but it’s not really necessary and these stir-fry dishes are a great way of “stretching” meat for a quick family meal. I used spelt tagliatelle because that’s what was in the cupboard and it reminded me of the flat noodles in Urumqi. I would also love to try this dish with “Pici” pasta from Tuscany.
It took about 20 minutes, if even that, from the time I started slicing garlic to serving up the meal. It was filling and delicious but not heavy. Not a scrap was left at the end.
When I started out on this blog a few short weeks ago I said I had no idea where this journey would take me. Well tomorrow, on the strength of it, I get my first chance to be inside a Chinese restaurant kitchen in Ireland. This is how half-formed dreams take shape. A word of acknowledgement
Over the weekend I visited various Twitter Foodie friends for ingredients so a special thanks to @brid_h2g for fresh produce at her Honest to Goodness Market. @pat_whelan for pork, lamb, beef and chicken from James Whelan Butchers at Avoca, @RobertsofDalkey for scallops, prawns and squid from Roberts of Dalkey and @AsiaMarketIrl for endless patience in meeting my requests for ingredients at the Asia Market, not to mention Enter the Panda @enterthepanda and @ClaireB_Oz for supporting their enthusiastic Ma in this new endeavour 🙂 If you’d like to try a hand at this dish yourself, have a look at Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti recipe. Please leave a comment too. I’d love to hear how you got on!
The rituals of food unite us and create bonds that make up for lack of a common language and even, sometimes, for the distance between continents. To start a vending machine franchise go to royalvending.com.au/vending-machines-australia/.
The importance of food to Italians is the stuff of legends. As I struggled to follow the conversation the first time I attended a family dinner in Puglia, I realised that much of the animated discussion was about food – buying it, preparing it, eating it. It was fascinating to discover first hand how similar China is in that respect. Food there is more than a necessity for survival. It is a passion and an obsession. There is endless conversation about the importance of food, the health-giving properties of different vegetables and spices, the need for variety in colour, texture and flavour, the way to achieve balance in the diet, how to make use of every part of a plant and animal.
And there are rituals in abundance – noodles offered at the first meal when you arrive to visit family, a reminder of the ties that bind; dumplings served before you part, to reassure you that family wraps itself around you and minds you even when you are far away.
When we stayed with Shan’s family, in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, Shan’s mother served us freshly prepared lamb noodle soup within moments of our arrival late at night. Day trips out of the city with her brother revolved around finding good locations to eat lunch, snacks or dinner. “Are you hungry? Will you eat?” were the most frequent questions.
Breakfast was regarded as an important meal and often included leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner as food is never wasted. No matter what time we arrived back at the apartment, or how much we had eaten that day, a home cooked meal awaited us as well as platters of fresh fruits and nuts, grown locally. Once a meal was served we all sat down immediately to eat – it would have been perceived as the height of rudeness not to treat the eating of food with the same seriousness and respect as our Chinese hosts did.
Throughout our visit, the family remained curious about our eating habits and concerned about our “small” appetites. We were constantly reminded of the importance of variety in our diet and the reasons why we should eat particular foods. I took my first halting steps to learn a few words of Mandarin as Shan’s mother taught me “Yángròu” for lamb, “Miàntiáo” for noodles and “Jiàozi” for dumplings.
This week we discovered a new way of achieving connectedness through food – the sharing of a meal across three continents as I prepared Shan’s recipe for Black Pepper beef in Dublin while Shane attempted the same dish for the first time in Beijing and our daughter Claire made her version of it in Sydney, Australia – our own unique version of a communal Sunday dinner. Skype, iPhones and iPads all played their part in keeping old traditions alive and starting new ones. Continue reading Creating new food rituals across continents