As an open-minded omnivore, I enjoy vegetarian dishes as much as meat dishes. On many occasions I’ve successfully made vegetarian dishes for my vegetarian friends. Many were surprised at the diversity of Chinese vegetarian dishes and commented how flavorful and hearty they were. The key to a rich tasty vegetarian dish is to make use of what is known as umami, which is a Japanese word used to express the fifth taste in addition to the generally accepted four tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In Chinese umami is known as xian (鮮) and making stock full of umami is the basis for a successful vegetarian dish.
Summer in Shanghai heralds the arrival of bountiful local fruits like lychees (荔枝), longans (龍眼), peaches, and yangmei (waxberries 楊梅). Street vendors hawk them from overflowing bamboo baskets, which they carry on poles balanced on their shoulders. They are a welcome, yet increasingly rare, sight in modern Shanghai as urban life whizzes by. Although I’m not adept at the art of bargaining I would always try to get the best deal from the vendors. It simply is part of commerce in China. After successfully negotiating a purchase I would bring my fruits home, chill them and serve them at the end of dinner. But this is not the only way to enjoy these summer fruits. Cooking with fruits is a long-standing tradition in Chinese cuisine.
A starving beggar in China during the Qing dynasty is said to have stolen a chicken and was hotly pursued by its owner. In his haste he buried the chicken in mud near a riverbank to hide it. Later that night he returned and retrieved the chicken, its feathers covered in mud. He started a fire of twigs and branches to cook the chicken. But not having any utensils he placed the entire chicken directly into the fire. A tight clay crust formed as the fowl cooked, and when the crust was cracked open the feathers came right off the chicken exposing juicy tender meat and emitting an incredible aroma. The roasted chicken was so delicious he decided to start selling his creation to the villagers. Unbeknownst to him he had just invented one of the greatest culinary traditions of China.
Chinese takeout lunches as a rule are fast, convenient, filling and economical. We in America know them as a Styrofoam container loaded with heaps of white rice, and topped with a gooey sticky stir-fry. Sometimes accompanied by a grease soaked fried spring roll. Although the quality of these lunches is not always consistent they are mostly tasty and satisfying. I’m not ashamed to say that I occasionally enjoy them as well. But are there homemade alternatives that can be more fulfilling than these quintessential takeout lunches? One answer is red cooked pork over rice.
I can’t believe it’s been more than a month since my last post! I’d just completed a major system development project for a client at work. The delivery of this system had taken over my entire attention. Perhaps some of the technologist readers out there might sympathize with me and I ask for your apology. As soon as the project was over I went to Chinatown and was excited to find edible lily bulbs (百合) in season. I was itching to get back to my kitchen.
I was encouraged, actually prodded, to start blogging about my cooking slightly over a year ago after Kim at the Yummy Mummy Cooks Gourmet tasted one of my all time favorite dishes, Red Cooked Pork, or “Hong Shao Rou” (紅燒肉). She was completely blown away by the tender velvety meat of the pork belly surrounded by sweet soy sauce and anise flavors. Since this recipe was posted on January 18th 2008, I’ve had numerous responses from readers and friends about variations in ingredients and techniques. I’ve decided to revisit this very important dish.
Red wine and Chinese food are often thought to be incompatible. Many feel that full-bodied red wines either compete aggressively with spicy Chinese dishes or simply overwhelm them. If my dinners are any indication, this is very much the case. So when I planned the long distance wine pairing with Kirstin of Vin de la Table I decided to see if I could finally find a red wine to match spicy Chinese food.
In our household Thanksgiving dinner is a sacred tradition. My partner Warren insists that we only serve his mother’s New England Thanksgiving dinner. For years I’ve not strayed from her traditional menu, which includes roast turkey with oyster stuffing, orange cranberry sauce, homemade pickles, creamed peas and onions, mashed Butternut squash and turnip, and mashed potato. For dessert we routinely serve apple and pumpkin pie. At the end of the meal there’s usually rarely any apple pie left but plenty of pumpkin pie. And there’s always uncooked pumpkin left from making the pie. This year I decided to use it to make a very traditional Chinese stir-fry.
A few days ago I received a bagful of freshly picked long beans (豇豆) from a friend’s rooftop garden. They were bi-color, crisp and just absolutely gorgeous. Legumes are at their peak during late summer, and I was once again reminded of how we’ve lost the custom of eating locally grown food in season.
Guess what I found when I was in New York’s Chinatown last week. This beautiful looking hulu! I’ve not seen them before in New York nor anywhere in the U.S. Hulu (葫蘆) is a bottle shaped gourd often seen in Chinese brush paintings. Sages or monks carrying hulu flask are common themes in Chinese art. But these sinuous shaped gourds are also delicious as vegetables.