Chinese New Year

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Are you ready for another celebration? Chinese New Year is coming up. According to the Chinese 12 year annual zodiac cycle, February 16th,  marks the beginning of the Year of the Dog and the start of the Spring Festival  and the holiday season when the hardworking Chinese can take seven days off work to celebrate and feast with their families.

Chinatowns all over the world burst into a riot of colour, spectacular festivities, dragon parades, street parties, lion dances…. There will be bell ringing and fire crackers and red envelopes stuffed with lucky money to give to the children.

Last year, I visited China for the first time so I’m more excited than ever about Chinese New Year and am planning a little Chinese feast to celebrate. My first visit was not as you might expect to Shanghai or Beijing but to Chengdu in the Sichuan province to attend the International Slow Food Conference in the UNESCO capital of gastronomy

There were many fascinating elements to the trip, the city of Chengdu welcomed the Slow Food delegates from all over the world wholeheartedly with wonderful entertainment, opera, theatre, music and superb Chinese food for which the Sichuan province is justly famous

So let’s gather some friends to celebrate the end of the Year of The Rooster and the beginning of the Year of The Dog.

Spring rolls are the obvious choice, universally loved, and easy to make. They are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival hence the name. Spring rolls are considered to be lucky because when fried they resemble gold bars.

Each food is symbolic in some way, long noodles served in various ways symbolise longevity. Citrus fruit are traditionally eaten for Chinese New Year because they too are considered to be lucky.

 

 

Chinese food is influenced by two major philosophies. Confucianism and Taoism. Devotees of Confucius cut food into small bite sized pieces. Followers of Taoism focus more on foods that promote health, longevity and healing. There are eight culinary traditions. Cooking styles, ingredients and flavours differ from region to region. The most prominent are Szechuan, Cantonese, Hunan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhuang.

A typical Chinese meal will have a carbohydrate or starch – rice, noodles or steamed buns and accompanying stir fries or dishes of vegetables, fish, meat or tofu and lots of fresh vegetables.

Each dish focuses on creating a balance between appearance, aroma and flavour. Sauces, seasonings and fermented products are an important part of the whole and of course beautiful teas to sip.

Here are a few of my favourite Chinese recipes to make at home. On my last trip I discovered green as well as red Sichuan peppercorns. I was familiar with the latter before but oh my goodness what a difference freshness makes. Sichuan peppers are fascinating to cook with, bite into one and it will temporarily numb your mouth in an intriguing way. It is one of the five spices in five spices powder along with cinnamon, cloves, fennel and star anise.

 

 

 

Chicken and Mushroom Noodle Soup

So comforting and delicious. Who doesn’t love slurping noodles

 

Serves 6

 

6-8 tablespoons  Iceberg lettuce, shredded

1.2 litres (2 pints)  homemade chicken broth

2.5cm (1 inch) piece of fresh ginger, sliced

1 organic chicken breast

2 tablespoons chopped scallions, green and white parts

110g/4 ozs  mushrooms, thinly sliced

salt and freshly ground pepper

110g 4 ozs egg noodles

1.1 litres/ 2 pints water

salt

2-4 tablespoons soy sauce, I use Kikkoman

salt

1 green chilli, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons coriander

 

Bring the stock slowly to the boil with the sliced ginger. Dry fry the sliced mushrooms on a very hot pan, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Keep aside. Bring the water to the boil, add salt and cook the noodles for 5-6 minutes, they should be al dente. Slice the chicken breast into very thin shreds at an angle, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Strain the chicken broth. When ready to serve add the chicken, bring the broth to the boil, add mushrooms, scallions and noodles and allow to heat through. Add soy sauce and seasoning to taste. Divide into 6 bowls and serve garnished with flat parsley.

 

 

 

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Fish Fragrant Aubergines

Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a Chinese meal
600 g aubergines

salt
cooking oil
 for deep-frying (400ml will do if you are using a round-bottomed wok)
1½ tablespoons Sichuanese chilli bean paste, or Sichuan pickled chilli paste, or a mixture of the two
1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoons garlic, finely chopped
150 ml stock
2 teaspoons caster sugar
¾ teaspoon potato flour, mixed with 1 tablespoon  cold water
2 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar
4 tablespoons spring onion greens, finely sliced

Cut the aubergines lengthways into three thick slices, then cut these into evenly sized batons. Sprinkle them with salt, mix well and leave in a colander for at least 30 minutes to drain.

In a wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 180C. Add the aubergines in batches and deep-fry for 3-4 minutes until slightly golden on the outside and soft and buttery within. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

Drain off the deep-frying oil, rinse the wok if necessary, then return it to a medium flame. When the wok is hot again, add 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the chilli bean paste and stir fry until the oil is red and fragrant, then add the ginger and garlic and continue to stir fry until you can smell their aromas. Take care not to burn these seasonings; remove the wok from the heat for a few seconds if necessary to control the temperature (you want a gentle, coaxing sizzle, not a scorching heat).

Add the stock and sugar and mix well. Season with salt to taste if necessary. Add the fried aubergines to the sauce and let them simmer gently for a minute or so to absorb some of the flavours. Then stir the potato flour mixture, pour it over the aubergines and stir in gently to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and stir a few times, then serve.
 

 

Fuchsia Dunlop’s beef with cumin

The powerful aroma of cumin is always associated with Xinjiang, the great northwestern Muslim region where it is grown. On city streets all over China, you will find it drifting up from portable grills where Xinjiang Uyghur street vendors cook their trademark lamb kebabs, scattering the sizzling meat with chilli and cumin. In Hunan, the spice finds its way into “strange-flavour” combinations, Uyghur-influenced barbecues and a limited number of restaurant dishes. This one is irresistible. Tender slices of beef luxuriate in a densely spiced sauce, speckled with the gold and ivory of ginger and garlic, scarlet chilli and green spring onion, and suffused with the scent of cumin. You may use prime steak if you wish, but I usually make do with braising steak: the method of cutting it across the grain makes it seem almost as tender.

This particular recipe is one from the Guchengge restaurant in Changsha, and it’s one I fell in love with immediately. I’m sure you will too.

Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as part of a Chinese meal


340g (11½  oz) beef steak, trimmed (see introduction above)
400ml (14fl oz) groundnut oil, for frying
2 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
2 fresh red chillies, seeds and stalks discarded and finely chopped
2-4 teaspoons dried chilli flakes
2 teaspoons ground cumin
salt
spring onions 2, green parts only, finely sliced
1 teaspoon sesame oil

For the marinade
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon potato flour
1 tablespoon water

Cut the beef across the grain into thin slices, ideally 4 x 3 cm. Add the marinade ingredients and mix well.

Heat the groundnut oil to about 140C/275°F. Add the beef and stir gently. As soon as the pieces have separated, remove them from the oil and drain well; set aside.

Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the oil. Over a high flame, add the ginger, garlic, fresh chillies, chilli flakes and cumin and stir fry briefly until fragrant. Return the beef to the wok and stir well, seasoning with salt to taste.

When all the ingredients are sizzlingly fragrant and delicious, add the spring onions and toss briefly. Remove from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.

From Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop

 

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Gong Bao chicken with peanuts
gong bao ji ding

This dish, also known as Kung Pao chicken, has the curious distinction of having been labelled as politically incorrect during the Cultural Revolution. It is named after a late Qing Dynasty (late nineteenth-century) governor of Sichuan, Ding Baozhen, who is said to have particularly enjoyed eating it – gong bao was his official title. This association with an Imperial bureaucrat was enough to provoke the wrath of the Cultural Revolution radicals, and it was renamed ‘fast-fried chicken cubes’ (hong bao ji ding) or ‘chicken cubes with seared chillies’ (hu la ji ding) until its political rehabilitation in the 1980s.

 

Serves 2 as a main dish with rice and one stir-fried vegetable dish, 4 with three other dishes

 

Ingredients
2 boneless chicken breasts (about 300g or ¾lb in total)
3 cloves of garlic and an equivalent amount of ginger
5 spring onions, white parts only
2 tablespoons groundnut oil
a handful of dried red chillies (at least 10)
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper
75g (3oz) roasted peanuts
For the marinade:
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons  light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
1½ teaspoon potato flour
1 tablespoon water
For the sauce:
3 teaspoons sugar
¾ teaspoon potato flour
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
3 teaspoons Chinkiang vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chicken stock or water

Cut the chicken as evenly as possible into 1cm strips and then into small cubes. Mix with the marinade ingredients.

 

Peel and thinly slice the garlic and ginger, and chop the spring onions into 1cm (1/2 inch) chunks. Snip the chillies into 1.5cm (3/4 inch) sections, discarding seeds as far as possible. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

 

Pour a little groundnut oil into the wok and heat until it smokes, swirling the oil around to cover the entire base of the wok. Pour off into a heatproof container. Add 3 tablespoons fresh oil and heat over a high flame. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the chillies and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry for a few seconds until they are fragrant (take care not to burn them).

 

Add the chicken and continue to stir-fry. When the chicken cubes have separated, add the ginger, garlic and spring onions and stir-fry until they are fragrant and the meat is just cooked.

Give the sauce a stir and add to the wok, continuing to stir and toss. As soon as the sauce has become thick and lustrous, add the peanuts, mix them in, and serve immediately.

From Sichuan Cookery (Land of Plenty) by Fuchsia Dunlop

 

Pork Wontons with Soy Dipping Sauce

 

Makes 30-35

 

1 stick lemon grass, chopped

2 inch (5cm) piece ginger, peeled and grated

1 large clove garlic, crushed

1 small red chilli, seeded and chopped finely

1 kaffir lime leaf, shredded finely

sunflower oil

11ozs (300g) pork freshly minced

2 tbsp grated palm sugar

2 tbsp fish sauce, Nam Pla

½ cup fresh coriander leaves

 

Soy Dipping Sauce

 

4fl ozs (125ml/¼ cup) light soy sauce

1 medium red chilli, sliced thinly

a generous pinch of sugar

squeeze of lime juice

 

To Serve

 

30-35 square wonton wrappers

 

Pound the tender lemon grass, part of the ginger, garlic, chilli and kaffir lime to a rough paste in a mortar and pestle.  Heat a little oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat and fry the pork, stirring, until cooked through.  Remove from the pan.  Add a little more oil to the pan, increase the heat to high, add the paste mixture and fry for about 30 seconds.  Add the palm sugar and fish sauce and stir until the mixture bubbles.  Return the pork to the pan and mix well to combine.  Transfer to a bowl, add the coriander and set aside to cool.

 

To make the sauce, mix all the ingredients together to combine well.  Transfer to a serving bowl and set aside.

 

Lay a wrapper on a work bench and place a teaspoon of the pork filling in the centre.  Gather the wrapper around the filling and pinch together with a dab of cold water to seal and form a pouch.  Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling.  Heat enough oil to deep fry in a large saucepan over a high heat until hot.  Test the oil with a cube of bread – if it sizzles and rises to the surface immediately it is ready.  Deep-fry the wontons in small batches until golden.  Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel before serving warm with the dipping sauce.

 

Deh-ta Hsiung’s Cantonese Sweet and Sour Prawns

 

This dish is best eaten with chopsticks or fingers, though it should be served hot rather than cold.

 

Preparation time 10-15 minutes

 

225 g (8 oz) king prawns

1 egg white

1 tablespoon corn flour

Oil for deep frying

1 spring onion, finely chopped

2 slices ginger root, peeled and finely chopped

 

Sauce

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon vinegar

2 teaspoons cornflour mixed with 2 tablespoons stock or water

 

Trim the heads, whiskers and legs off the prawns but leave on the shells. Cut each prawn into 2 or 3 pieces. Mix the egg white with the corn flour and coat the prawns with this mixture.

 

Heat the oil in a work or deep saucepan but before it gets too hot, add the prawns, piece by piece and fry until golden, then remove with a perforated spoon and drain.

 

Pour off most of the oil, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the wok or pan and stir fry the spring onion and ginger root, then add the sugar, wine or sherry, soy sauce and vinegar, stirring constantly. When the sugar has dissolved, add the prawns and blend well, then add the corn flour mixed with the stock or water. Stir constantly and serve as soon as the sauce thickens

 

 

Ken Hom’s Spring Rolls with Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce
Spring Rolls are one of the best-known Chinese snacks.  They are not difficult to make and are a perfect starter for any meal.  They should be crisp, light and delicate.  Spring roll skins can be obtained fresh or frozen from Chinese grocers.

Makes 15-18

1 packet of spring roll skins, thawed if necessary
1 egg, beaten
1.2 litres (2 pints/5 cups) groundnut oil for deep-frying

Filling
100g (3 1/2oz) raw prawns shelled, de-veined and minced or finely chopped
100g (3 1/2oz) minced fatty pork
1 1/2 tablespoons groundnut oil
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh root ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
3 tablespoons finely chopped spring onions
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
225g (8oz) Chinese leaves (Peking cabbage), finely shredded
25g (1oz) dried Chinese black mushrooms, soaked, stems removed and finely shredded

Marinade
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Sweet and Sour Sauce
150ml (5fl oz) water
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons Chinese white rice vinegar or cider vinegar
3 tablespoons tomato paste or tomato ketchup
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon cornflour, blended with 2 teaspoons water

To Serve
1 quantity of sweet and sour dipping sauce (see recipe)

First make the dipping sauce.
In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients for the sweet and sour sauce except the cornflour mixture.  Bring to the boil, stir in the cornflour mixture and cook for 1 minute.  Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
For the filling, combine the prawns and pork with all the marinade ingredients in a small bowl.

Heat a wok over a high heat.  Add the 1 1/2 tablespoons of groundnut oil and, when it is very hot and slightly smoking, add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 20 seconds.

Add all the rest of the filling ingredients, including the prawn and meat mixture and stir-fry for 5 minutes.  Place the mixture in a colander to drain and allow it to cool thoroughly.

Place 3-4 tablespoons (4-5 American tablespoons) of the filling near the end of each spring roll skin, then fold in the sides and roll up tightly.

Seal the open end by brushing a small amount of beaten egg along the edge, then pressing together gently.  You should have a roll about 10cm (4 inch) long, a little like an oversized cigar.

Rinse out the wok and reheat it over a high heat, then add the oil for deep-frying.  When the oil is hot and slightly smoking, gently drop in as many spring Rolls as will fit easily in one layer.

Fry the spring Rolls until golden brown and cooked through, about 4 minutes.  Adjust the heat as necessary.  Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on a wire rack then on kitchen paper.  Cook the remaining spring rolls in the same way.

Serve at once, hot and crispy with the sweet and sour sauce for dipping.

 

Buttered Cabbage with Sichuan Peppercorns

The flavour of this quickly cooked cabbage has been a revelation for many and has converted numerous determined cabbage haters back to Ireland’s national vegetable.

 

Serves 4-6

 

450g (1lb) fresh Savoy cabbage

25g (1oz) butter or more if you like

1 teaspoon of highly crushed Sichuan peppercorns to taste

salt and freshly ground pepper

a knob of butter

 

Remove the tough outer leaves and divide the cabbage into four. Cut out. the stalks and then cut each section into fine shreds across the grain. Put 2 or 3 tablespoons (2-3 American tablespoons + 2-3 teaspoons) of water into a wide saucepan with the butter and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, add the cabbage and toss constantly over a high heat, then cover for a few minutes. Toss again and add some more salt, freshly ground pepper and the knob of butter. Serve immediately.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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