A week or so ago I finished another foodie memoir, Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper, written by an English lady by the name of Fuschia Dunlop (as the owner of a flowery name, I appreciate other floral first names and I love hers more than mine!). At the time I was struggling with the decision to add more meat to my diet, and I found the text quite heavy going at times for my still-vegetarian stomach. I’m glad I persevered – I really enjoyed her travel stories and she brought not only China but the Chinese people to life for me in ways I couldn’t previously imagine.
There were several reasons I was interested in this book; apart from the fact I love food memoirs, I’m also keen to expand my Asian cooking repertoire, and learn a little more about the kinds of foods my dad is eating. He’s been living in and around Shanghai for the past 12 months with his wife Jin, and often recounts his dining experiences. Here’s an excerpt from my dad’s recent email:
We recently visited some of Jin’s relatives in a Central China. You can see from this photo we are all sitting at a big round table – this seems to be standard at restaurants when more than about 6 people get together. One interesting thing about this is that all the dishes are on a central ‘lazy susan’, everyone uses their own chopsticks to help themselves from the centre. So, anyone with some lovely germs can spread them to all at the table, from their own mouth to their chopsticks to the central dish where everyone can get as many germs as they like. The food on the table is a variety of meats and vegetables, some soup and tofu. There will always be some sort of soup and always fish, always rice.
I sometimes go with Jin to the local food market, it is very interesting walking around there. The prices are quite cheap and the vegetables appear to be very fresh. The meats are interesting – Jin usually gets a couple of chickens, the chickens are chosen when they are alive, the man will then slit their throats, then give them a quick pluck and gutting before cutting them into small pieces for us to take home – everything goes into the pot at home including the head and feet. We also sometimes buy eels, they are also bought live and killed and cut up in front of us. Also at the market we can buy live turtles, live bullfrogs, etc – I don’t go much on them. Sometimes I see someone serving food with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth. I remember at a small cafe recently we were sitting outside, our order included fish which we chose live from a tank – the chef took the live fish from the tank and beat it to death on the pavement beside our table!
Can you spot my dad?!
I’m sure this is nothing new for millions (or gazillions) of people, but it’s very different to our style of eating. I grew up in a traditional Aussie home with Spaghetti bolognaise on the table – never an animal in sight!
Fuschia Dunlop first visited China in 1992 as an Asia-Pacific news editor, and chronicled her experiences over the next 15 years – upon arriving, she made the decision to “eat whatever the Chinese might put in front of me”. She not only recounts her amazing travel adventures and provides detailed historical anecdotes, but tantalises us with the flavours and textures she experienced whilst there.
Read this excerpt, from p.138.
Chinese chefs and gourmets talk often about ou gan, or ‘mouthfeel’. Certain textures are especially prized. Cui, for example, denotes a particular quality of crispness that is found in fresh crunchy vegetables, blanched pig’s kidneys, and goose intenstines, not to mention sea cucumbers that have been properly cooked. Cui crispeness offers resistance to the teeth, but finally yields, clearly, with a pleasant snappy feeling. It is distinct from su, which is the dry, fragile, fall-apart crispeness of deep-fried duck skin or taro dumplings. Some foods, like the skin of a barbecued suckling pig, can be described as su cui because they offer both types of crispness, simultaneously. … In the English language, with all its expressive beauty and startling diversity, it is hard to describe the appeal of a braised sea cucumber. Try as you might, you end up sounding comical, or revolting. A Chinese gourmet will distinguish between the bouncy gelatinous quality of sea cucumbers, the more sticky, slimy gelatinousness of reconstituted dried squid, and the chewy gelationousness of reconstituted pig’s foot tendons. In English, it all sounds like a dog’s dinner.
Dunlop not only wheedled her way into the kitchens of the eateries she favoured to take her own notes, but she became the first Westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She subsequently published two Chinese cookbooks which you can read more about on her website.
There are many descriptions of her favourite street-snack noodles, the meals she shared with villagers, and sumptious banquets, but the lengthy list of animals she devoured lingered the most in my kind… preserved duck eggs feature early on, and are swiftly followed by dog, cat, rabbit tongue, deer tail, chicken feet, goat testicles and rat brains, to name just a few. She also spoke about her feelings towards the use of MSG, and her last few chapters dealt with many ethical and legal issues facing the Chinese way of eating. Each chapter finishes with either a recipe or foodie notes, including a recipe for ‘Stewed Bear’s Paw’, for ‘illustrative purposes only’ she states!
Her Yangzhou Fried Rice sounded so different to the fried rice I’ve been making for years, so I naturally had to make it to see how it compared! I doubled her recipe because there was no way I was not getting leftovers out of this, but otherwise the ingredients are pretty much the same.
Yangzhou Fried Rice – adapted from Shark’s fin & Sichuan Pepper, Fuschia Dunlop
- 2 1/2 cups uncooked Jasmine rice (around 250g)
- 4 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 50g pork
- 50g frozen or fresh prawns
- 50g cooked ham or bacon
- 50g cooked chicken
- 50g frozen peas or soybeans (shelled edamame)
- 50g bamboo shoots
- 4 spring onions, green parts only
- 2 eggs
- 4 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
- 200 ml Chicken stock
- 6 Tablespoon peanut oil
- Cook the rice using your preferred method (I use a rice cooker) and allow to cool.
- Soak the shiitake mushrooms for 30 minutes in hot water, then drain, remove stems and finely slice.
- Finely dice the pork, prawns, bacon, chicken and bamboo shoots, and finely slice the spring onions. Beat the egg and season with salt & pepper.
- Heat 3 Tablespoons oil in a hot wok, then add pork and prawns, stir-frying briefly until pork is just cooked. Add the bacon, chicken, and bamboo shoots and stir-fry until sizzling. Add the mushrooms and soybeans, then the Shaoxing wine and stock and bring to the boil.
- Season with salt and then remove to a separate bowl.
- Clean, dry and re-oil wok, add remaining oil and once heated, add beaten egg. Swirl around wok until half-cooked, then add rice and mix through. After a minute or two, add the cooked ingredients in their broth and mix well until combined. Add spring onions, season to taste with salt & pepper, and serve whilst hot.
* These quantities make around 6 serves as a main dish, or 10-12 as a side. Mr B. and I ate a big bowl each for dinner and have 4 tupperware containers in the freezer waiting for another meal – yippee!
My ‘normal’ fried rice, made almost weekly here because I love it so much, features a predictable mix of garlic, ginger, celery, spring onions and a good dash of soy and oyster sauce. I also load my version up with vegies, usually carrot, peas, capsicum, broccoli, mushrooms and corn spears. My version is much drier than this one.
This flavoursome rice is much more reminiscent of the Chinese take-away fried rice I remember from my childhood. I loved the softness and the variety of meaty flavours it contained, but I missed my vegies! I think in future I’ll meld this recipe with my own to try and come up with the ultimate fried rice recipe – any excuse to keep eating it!