Monday, January 14, 2019

Perfect Jiangsu lion heads

An iconic dish of the entire Jiangsu area, each town seems to have its own take on how to season and present these giant, juicy meatballs. 

Fried green onions add a lovely toasty layer to the dish and excellent depth to the sauce, turning into blackish strips that melt on the tongue.

The mung bean sheets are a personal favorite because I love the silky touch of the fěnpí

If you are looking for something carnal to serve, this is it.

Red-cooked lion heads
Hóngshāo shīzitóu 紅燒獅子頭
Jiangsu cuisine
Serves 4 to 8

Fried green onions and míngyóu:
1 bunch green onions, trimmed
½ cup | 125 ml peanut or vegetable oil
Fried green onions
Seasoned water:
1 scallion, trimmed and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
6 tablespoons | 90 ml water

1 pound | 500 g good quality ground pork (see Tips)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
¼ teaspoon sea salt
8 fresh or frozen water chestnuts, or 5 ounces | 150 g jicama, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons ground raw rice (see Tip)

¼ cup | 60 ml green onion míngyóu (above)
1 quart | 1 liter unsalted chicken stock
6 thin slices ginger
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons rock sugar

The rest:
8 ounces | 250 g napa cabbage, trimmed
3 mung bean sheets (fěnpí)
Boiling water, as needed
2 teaspoons mushroom seasoning 
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
Peeled & unpeeled water chestnuts
1. First make the fried green onions: Chop the green onions into 1-inch | 2-cm lengths and put them in a wok with the oil. Fry these together over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are browned and toasty. Strain out the onions and place them in the bottom of a large (6- to 8-cup) sandpot or covered casserole. Set aside ¼ cup | 60 ml of the green onion míngyóu (a seasoned oil that literally means “bright oil”) for Step 3 and use the rest for something else, like the TK on page TK.

2. Next, prepare the seasoned water: Place the green onions, ginger, and water in a blender and whirl these together until the ginger is pulverized; scrape down the sides a couple of times to get everything liquefied.

3. Place the pork on a cutting board and smack it with the backs of two heavy knives, scraping it up and turning it over again and again, until the meat looks pale and sticky. Place the meat in a medium work bowl and use your hand as a paddle to beat in the seasoned water and then the egg, soy sauce, rice wine, and salt until the mixture is light and fluffy. Pick up handfuls and energetically smack the meat mixture back into the bowl to lighten it even further. Mix in the water chestnuts and rice.

4. Set a wok over medium heat and swirl in the míngyóu. Wet your hands and scoop out about one-eighth of the pork mixture form it into a ball. Toss it back and forth between your hands like it was a baseball and you’re warming up for a pitch, as this will make it even more tensile. Shape it into a ball before sliding it into the hot oil. Do this again with 3 more meatballs, so that you are frying half of the mixture at a time. Brown the meatballs all over until they have a crunchy crust, and then place them in the sandpot. Repeat with the rest of the pork mixture in order to have 8 fat meatballs. Strain the oil in your wok into a bowl and use it for something else, like a stir-fry.
Beat stuff in with your hand
5. Add all of the stock ingredients to the sandpot, cover, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the lion heads for about 2 hours with the lid slightly ajar so that steam can escape.

6. While the sandpot is cooking away, thinly shred the napa cabbage. Place the mung bean sheets in a wide pan and cover with boiling water. By the time the water has cooled, the fěnpí will translucent and soft, but still chewy. Drain. If it hasn’t fallen apart into strips, tear or cut them up into pieces not much larger than 4 inches | 10 cm. Layer the softened fěnpí into the sandpot and add just enough boiling water to come halfway up the sheets. Add the mushroom powder, rice wine, and cabbage. Cover the sandpot and simmer for around 15 minutes so that the vegetables barely cook through and the sheets absorb the rich flavors of the stock. Serve hot. Use tongs to serve the fenpi, as it is pretty slippery.


Grind raw rice in a food processor or mortar until about the size of sesame seeds. Or, get “broken jasmine rice,” which already is busted up into small pieces from the milling process.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Egg foo yung

This was a staple of every single Chinese American restaurant I ever ate at during my childhood. Basically crunchy omelets with Chinese seasonings, what’s not to love?

The first meal I ever made for my one-day husband included this, and he was so miffed at being served Chinese American fast food that he just ate a couple of bites before taking me out to dinner. 

To his credit, he bought me my first genuine Chinese cookbooks that night and started to teach me how to cook some of the more traditional cuisines, like Cantonese and Beijing food. Who knew that would be the beginning of my career way back then?

But I disagreed with him strongly about that dinner. I've always had a very large soft spot for Chinese American. It's comforting and can be incredibly delicious. And you know what? I made this for J.H. recently, and he fell in love with it, too.

Some things just take a bit of time...
Straight outta the Sixties

Egg foo yung
Fúróng dàn  芙蓉蛋
Chinese American cuisine
Makes 10 omelets and serves 4 to 6

½ cup | 125 ml unsalted chicken stock
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
2 tablespoons mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
½ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced

8 ounces | 125 g ground pork, good quality and not too lean
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
The glossy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 cups | 8 ounces | 230 g mung bean sprouts, lightly chopped

4 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
6 large eggs, lightly beaten

The rest:
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed
1 scallion, trimmed and shredded

1. Using a small saucepan, whisk the cornstarch into the stock until relatively smooth, and then add the soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine, sugar, ginger, and garlic. Bring this to a boil over high heat. Cook, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Set a pan over medium heat. Add the pork and cook, stirring, and breaking up meat, until it is no longer pink, and then pour off the fat. Add the soy sauce, rice wine, and cornstarch, and pork toss over medium-high heat until most of the liquid has evaporated. Cool slightly while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Sprouts add crunch

3. Combine the sesame oil, pork, bean sprouts, scallions, eggs, and pepper in a bowl. Pour ½ inch | 1 cm of oil into a wok set over medium heat until the oil starts to shimmer. Using a ladle and working in batches, gently lower a ladle (about ½ cup | 125 ml) of the egg mixture into the oil. Cook, flipping once, until omelets are puffed and brown, about 2 minutes. The oil should be hot enough to brown the omelets quickly, which makes the edges lacy, while the centers cook to a juicy perfection. Add more oil around the edge of pan as necessary. Transfer omelets to a rimmed serving dish. Serve drizzled with sauce and garnished with scallions. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

Cold weather casserole: Shanghai sandpot

We used to order this at our favorite Shanghainese restaurants without fail during Taipei’s dreary season, which stretches unbroken from November through March. With a couple of bowls of this inspired soup—which manages to be hearty without being terribly filling—we’d happily brave the weather and splash in the puddles afterwards.

The only really unusual ingredient is băiyè jiĕ 百葉結, or fresh bean curd knots. At the time of this writing, they can be most usually found fresh or frozen in vacuum-packed 8-ounce packages. If your Chinese market doesn’t hold them, you can roll up sheets of fresh “hundred leaf” bean curd (băiyè) and tie them in knots. 

And if even that isn’t available, just cut very firm fresh bean curd into squares and call it a day; they won’t need soaking, so just toss them in the soup.

This is what you're looking for
Two ingredients are absolutely essential here: good ham and good Shaoxing rice wine. Chinese ham is sometimes labeled Smithfield in Chinese markets, and it’s a much saltier and drier ham that what Americans usually eat; Spanish jamón or Italian prosciutto are great substitutes, and if you can find the ends, they’ll be both cheap and flavorful. 

There are not a whole lot of substitutes for the toasty, mushroomy aroma of Shaoxing rice wine, but in case of an emergency, use dry sherry instead. 

The first four steps should be done more or less at the same time, as this is all prep work. As with just about every good soup, though, this tastes much better if it is made at least a day ahead of time. So, if you can, assemble it up through Step 5 the first day, so that the flavors have the time to marry, and then proceed with Step 6 just before serving.

Shanghai sandpot
Yāndŭxiān 醃篤鮮
Shanghai cuisine
Serves 6

1 quart | 1 liter unsalted chicken or pork stock
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
6 fat, dried Chinese black mushrooms, soaked until plump (use the soaking water in the stock)
Plumped-up knots
3 scallions, trimmed but left whole
2 finger-sized pieces of ginger, sliced
¼ cup | 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine

Soup ingredients:
1 piece of Chinese ham or prosciutto with skin and bone, about 4 ounces | 125 g
Around 8 ounces | 250 g fresh pork belly, preferably with skin
Water, as needed
Around 4 ounces | 125 g frozen or fresh bean curd knots, or very firm bean curd (see headnotes)
1 quart | 1 liter boiling water
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 large bamboo shoot, fresh or frozen, sliced about ¼-inch | 6 mm thick
½ cup | 125 ml Shaoxing rice wine, plus more as needed
A large handful of ice cubes
A pinch or two of sea salt, if needed
8 small green bok choy, sliced lengthwise in half, or 3 large bok choy, cut into thin wedges
Half a leek, white and light green parts only, cleaned carefully and sliced thinly

Wash the bok choy carefully
1. Again, start this recipe at least a day before you wish to serve it. Place the stock in a large (2 quart | 2 liter) sandpot or casserole. Wrap the peppercorns in a piece of cheesecloth or a tea ball. Toss in the mushroom soaking liquid, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, green onions, and rice wine, but don’t add any salt at this time. Reserve the mushrooms for Step 4. Bring the pot to a boil before lowering it to a simmer, and then cover lightly. While the stock simmers, prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Rinse the ham and pork and blanch them in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Rinse them off again, scrape off any black areas on the ham skin, and return them to a clean saucepan and cover with water. Boil the meats for around 30 minutes and remove the pork. When it is cool, slice it against the grain into thin pieces.

3. Continue to cook the ham for another 30 minutes, or until it is tender enough to be easily pierced through with a chopstick. Remove it from the ham stock. When the ham is cool enough to handle easily, slice off and discard any skin, gelatinous bits, and bones, and then cut the ham into thin slices. Ever ham has a different level of salt, so pour the ham stock a bit at a time into the pork stock until it is as salty as you like; reserve the rest of the ham stock for later.

4. While the pork is cooking, place the bean curd knots in a heatproof bowl and cover them with the boiling water. Add the baking soda and stir. After about an hour, the knots will have plumped up. Rinse the knots in several changes of water. Slice the mushroom caps into pieces about ¼ inch | 6 mm wide.

Time to skim off the solid fat
5. Remove the Sichuan peppercorns, scallions, and ginger from the stock and discard. Arrange the sliced ham, pork, bamboo shoots, mushroom caps, and rice wine in the stock. Bring the soup to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook the soup for around 30 minutes. Taste the soup and add more pork or ham stock as needed to cover all the ingredients. Add the bean curd knots and simmer the soup for another 20 to 30 minutes. If you can, make it up to this point and let it sit covered overnight in a cool place.

6. Place the ice cubes on top of the cool soup, and after a few minutes remove any coagulated fat and unmelted ice cubes. Heat the soup up until it is at a full boil. Just before serving, taste the soup again and add more rice wine and ham stock to taste; there should be a nice, winey punch to the soup, and you can adjust the seasoning as you like with a pinch or two of salt, if necessary. Add the bok choy and leeks to the soup and bring it only to a boil, as you want them just barely cooked through. Set the sandpot on the table and serve in small soup bowls. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Yunnan cold rice noodles

This is a taste of the kind of simple foods my grandfather-in-law probably enjoyed during his youth in southern Yunnan’s countryside. 

People all over the spice-laden highlands of China make variations on this dish, for it’s the sort of thing that sparks the appetite even when it is hot and muggy.

The story about my late mother-in-law's father is told in my upcoming memoir, The Jade Labyrinth. She had always told us he was a warlord. However, what I discovered was something so much more fascinating that my husband is still trying to wrap his head around it. Sorry to be so opaque here... I'm just throwing that out there to get you excited about this upcoming book of mine.

If your mom is whispering something in the back of your brain about eating sensibly, note that there are enough vegetables and meat in here to turn this into a superbly delicious, easy, and totally balanced one-bowl meal. And if you want to eat this in winter, this dish is excellent hot.

Yunnan cold rice noodles
The tasty nuggets in here
Yúnnán liáng mĭxiàn  雲南涼米線
Yunnan cuisine
Serves 4 as a main dish

Around 1 pound | 500 g dry round rice noodles (see Tips)
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
8 ounces | 225 g fresh soybean, or 4 ounces | 100 g mung bean sprouts
Boiling water, as needed
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
8 ounces | 225 g ground pork
3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons golchujang sauce, or to taste (see Tips)
1 teaspoon toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns, or to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons sweet soy sauce, or 2 tablespoons regular soy sauce plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
½ cup | 40 g chopped garlic chives
½ cup | 20 g coarsely chopped cilantro
Garlic chives & cilantro

1. Bring about 1 quart | 1 liter water to a boil in a saucepan.  Add the rice noodles and stir. As they soften, work them apart with chopsticks or tongs so that they aren’t allowed to form sticky clumps. When the noodles are plump and fully hydrated, transfer them to a colander set in the sink. (Check package directions, as each brand is different.)  They should be cooked, like any pasta, just to the point of al dente and no further, as this gives them personality. Rinse the noodles with cool water to stop the cooking. Put them in a work bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon oil to keep them from sticking.

2. Bring the pot back to a full boil. Check over the sprouts and discard any discolored ones, as well as any extra seedhead casings. Add the bean sprouts. Cook soybean sprouts until the yellow heads no longer taste raw, and yet they retain a nice crispness, about 10 minutes. Mung bean sprouts only need to be blanched briefly. Drain the sprouts and rinse under cool water to stop the cooking. Add to the rice noodles and toss. (If you are serving these noodles hot, reserve some of the noodle water for Step 4.)

3. Set a wok over medium-high heat. Add the 2 tablespoons oil, swirl it around, and then add the pork, breaking it up into smaller clumps as you go. Add the garlic and stir-fry the meat until it is no longer pink. Toss in the chile sauce for about 30 seconds to coat each piece of meat. Add to the rice noodles along with the raw chopped chives.

4. Toss the noodle mixture with the sweet soy sauce, vinegar, and cilantro. If you are serving the noodles hot, at about ½ cup | 125 ml of the hot noodle water to the bowl, too. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately while the vegetables are still vibrant.


Jiangxi style dried rice noodles (called làifěn 瀨粉) work perfectly here. Make sure the rice noodles are about the thickness of spaghetti to give them enough heft to hold their own against the rest of the ingredients.

As for the chile sauce, Zhàotōng 昭通 style is traditional, but Korean golchujang works in a pinch. Zhaotong chile sauce is made with ground toasted soybeans, and that gives it a nice crunch. Plus, this fermented sauce contains Sichuan peppercorns and chiles, which give it a wonderfully buzzy flavor. If you don’t have this, use the golchujang with a good spoonful of ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns.