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Monday, July 21, 2014

Something for your inner child: creamy peanut milk & peanut buns

If you have never tried peanut milk before, you are in for a treat. This tastes of a happy Chinese childhood crossed with melted peanut butter ice cream. We really have nothing like in it the States, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. 

It is also a dead simple recipe with no-fail, heavenly results.

Taipei in winter was always bone-crushingly cold, and I found that hot drinks were one of the best ways to deal with the weather. If they were sweet, so much the better, and if they were lusciously flavored, well, life didn’t get much better.

Bread filling of sugar & nuts
Summer in the city was just as bad: miserably hot and humid, and I would always be on the hunt for relief in the sweets shops that seemed to be on every corner. 

This drink was so popular that commercial ones were readily available. But the best ones were always house-made using some secret recipe or another.

This one is my favorite. I discovered that red dates added just the right fruity edge to keep this from being too saccharine or one-note. It is a very subtle touch, but makes all the difference in the world. If you have popsicle molds or an ice-cream maker, consider using this in either one. Your inner child will thank you.
Red dates & peanuts

Down below is a recipe for peanut buns that uses the dregs from the milk to make an utterly delicious bread. If you want to take this peanut tangent a bit further, consider rolling the dough around ground toasted peanuts and sugar. Simply amazing.

Peanut milk
Huāshēng nǎilù  花生奶露
All of China
Serves 4

8 red Chinese dates
8 ounces raw peanuts, preferably skinned
6 cups (or as needed) water, divided
2 tablespoons raw white rice
Pinch of sea salt
Rock sugar to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla (not traditional, but good)
Cook til thick

1. Start this recipe the night before. Place the dates in a small heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. When the dates are plump, slit each one open and discard the pit; reserve the soaking water. If the peanuts are unskinned, put them in a medium heatproof bowl and cover them too with boiling water. Wait 5 minutes, drain the peanuts in a colander, rinse with cool tap water, drain again, and dump them out onto a terrycloth towel. Rub the peanuts in the towel to remove the skins. Place the peanuts back in the work bowl, cover them with tap water, and let them soak overnight; the next day, drain and rinse the peanuts in a colander.

Ribbons of peanuts
2. Put the pitted dates, peanuts, rice, and 4 cups water (including the date soaking liquid) in a blender and pulverize the peanut mixture on high for a few minutes to make it as smooth as possible. Strain the peanut milk into a medium saucepan. Return the solids to the blender, add another 2 cups of water to the blender, and repeat this step to extract as much flavor from the peanuts as possible.

3. Add a piece of rock sugar about the size of a small egg (or to taste) and the pinch of salt to the saucepan, and bring the slowly liquid to a boil over medium heat before lowering the heat to so as to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the peanut milk a few more minutes until thick, stirring the bottom often with a silicon or wooden spatula. Taste the peanut milk and add more sugar, if necessary. When the peanuts taste fully cooked, remove the pan from the heat. Either serve it immediately or cool it to room temperature and chill for a couple of hours.

Roll around filling

The dregs can be used in Fast Steamed Breads to make delicious peanut-flavored buns: In Step 2, add the leftover peanut mash to the yeast mixture along with 2 cups flour. Knead and add more flour as necessary. Form and steam the buns as directed.

For extra deliciousness, mix ground toasted peanuts with brown sugar, and then spread it over the peanut-flavored dough, forming the ribbon breads as directed in Taro Steamed Buns

Monday, July 14, 2014

Lychee pearl tea

Pearl tea has taken over the world. There’s no two ways about it. 

It started out in the city of Taichung in central Taiwan, but this has turned out to be so popular that every place seems to sell it and everyone seems to love it.

And little wonder, because it simply is sweetened tea made chewy with big balls of black tapioca, which are called boba. 

Hot or cold, it’s easy and delicious. The only thing you need in addition to the special tapioca is some fat straws so you can suck up the boba. Some call it “pearl tea” in Chinese (zhēnzhū nǎichá 珍珠奶茶).
Once you get the hang of this drink, you can make endless variations using fruit juice, milk, coffee, or even milkshakes instead of the sweetened tea.

This is another one of those this-is-a-template-rather-than-a-recipe deals, and so you should play around with it until you find the perfect mix. This one just happens to be my favorite and also my own invention, as far as I know...

Pearl tea
Bōbàchá 波霸茶
Makes 4 cups

Canned lychees
½ cup uncooked boba (big black pearl tapioca)
Water as needed
The juice from a (16- to 20-ounce) can of lychees, or ¼ cup agave syrup

Tea and the rest:
6 cups boiling water
5 tablespoons lychee black tea (or any other fragrant black tea)
½ cup (or more) finely chopped canned lychees, optional
Condensed milk to taste
Ice cubes

1. Cook the boba according to package directions. (Many different varieties are now available; some are quick-cooking, others take a bit of time. The label should tell you what to do.) Add the lychee juice or agave syrup to the hot tapioca and its liquid, stir, and let the boba soak up the flavor for a couple of hours at room temperature. (Boba become hard if they are refrigerated, so don't chill them unless it's absolutely necessary. Then, heat the boba up again in their liquid until they're soft again before using.)
Floral & fruity fragrance
2. Place the tea leaves in a strainer and rinse them with some boiling water. Put the leaves in a large, heatproof bowl and pour 6 cups boiling water over them. Steep the tea for about 10 minutes, and then strain off the tea into a pitcher. Chill the tea for a couple of hours.

3. To serve, mix together the tea, boba, and the syrup. Add the chopped lychees and condensed milk to taste. Put a few ice cubes in each glass and then distribute the tea, boba, and lychees evenly among them. Stick a fat straw and a long spoon in each one and serve.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Alimentum short story: 'Monkey Eve'

Monkey Eve
Carolyn Phillips
Alimentum, July 2014

My Chinese father-in-law looks over his glasses at the oblique chunks of bean curd piling up in front of me. He frowns slightly and gently clears his throat, for unlike his small squadron of perfectly hollowed-out pyramids, my disheveled army is most definitely not up to his exacting standards. It isn’t that he expects much from me, the inappropriately foreign wife of his eldest son, but I am definitely irritating him more than usual today as we prepare his annual Chinese New Year’s Eve extravaganza.

“You are going too fast,” he at last says in his Cantonese-accented Mandarin. “Watch me.” I stop and take in his glacially slow movements, trying to rationalize why it should always take forever to cook a meal in his tiny apartment kitchen. The bustle of Chinatown’s traffic vibrates thirteen stories below us, the strange flat blue of the Los Angeles sky casting harsh afternoon shadows on his brushes and pots of ink, the tan smell of sandalwood soap invading every corner. Firecrackers rip and rebound though the alleys, and wisps of gunpowder filter in through his living room window.

As always, I am on my best behavior with him — not as wary as when I am around my volcanic mother-in-law, just very mindful of our generational and cultural differences. He patiently shows me again what it is that I should be doing: a fingertip slips into the yielding mass and then scoops up microscopic bits as he carefully prods away, hollowing out the doufu triangle with infinite care so that its sides are not breached. He readies them so that they can be stuffed with marbles of ground pork seasoned in the style of his Hakka home town in Guangdong hill country. He was forced to abandon this ancient ancestral fold when civil war exiled him, first to Taiwan and then to the States with his wife and grown children. As he approaches his eighth decade, these deeply savory Hakka dishes tether him to the old country and in turn form the sole connections the rest of us will ever have to his former life....

(please read the rest on the Alimentum: The Literature of Food website)
Illustration copyright (c) 2014 by Carolyn Phillips

Monday, July 7, 2014

Guizhou's chili chicken and delectable hot sauce

Chili chicken is popular throughout the Central Highlands, and both Hunan and Chongqing (Sichuan) have their own delicious versions. 

My favorite, though, comes from Guizhou. It is not as spicy as the other two, but I find the flavor much richer.

The secret to Guizhou’s famous chicken dish is soaking dried chili peppers until they are soft, and then grinding them with ginger and garlic into a creamy paste that the locals call ciba lajiao, or “mochi chili.” 

Ciba is a rice paste that is used throughout the south for snacks, sweets, and as a starch, and this sauce probably got its name because it too is thick.

Ciba lajiao
The following recipe gives you extra sauce that can be refrigerated for some other dish. (Try it in a quick stir-fry or braise with either bean curd or pork, or as a dipping sauce for jiaozi with a dash of soy sauce and/or vinegar.) Do keep your eye on it, though, as I found that guests tend to snag the jar once they've tasted the sauce.

The soaking of the chilies tames much of the heat and turns them mellow, and then a slow turn in hot oil with other aromatics magically turns this into something truly special.

A second secret to perfect Guizhou-style chicken is using bone-in meat that you chop into bite-sized pieces. The Chinese believe—and I agree with them—that the meat on the bones is the sweetest, and having to deal with the bones forces me to linger over this dish and appreciate all of the many layers instead of wolfing it down.

Chili chicken
This recipe will give you a medium-hot chicken dish. What this means is that you should not be alarmed at how hot the sauce initially is, because the heat of the chilies calms down as the sauce is cooked. However, this heat can be increased or decreased as you wish.

Chili chicken
Guìzhōu làzĭ jī 貴州辣子雞
Serves 4

Guizhou ciba chili sauce (makes about 1 cup):
1 cup dried Thai chilies
Warm water as needed
¼ cup peeled, coarsely chopped garlic
¼ cup peeled, coarsely chopped ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly-ground black pepper
1 cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided

Grind the aromatics
Chicken and marinade:
Half a whole fryer
2 tablespoons rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 or more tablespoons Guizhou ciba chili sauce (see recipe above)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup cornstarch
½ cup or more peanut or vegetable oil (used all right if it smells fresh)

2 or more tablespoons Guizhou ciba chili sauce (see recipe above)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 medium leek or 3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
Whirled into a paste
1. Start this recipe the day before you plan to serve it. First make the sauce: Rinse the chilies, remove the stem ends, and place them in a medium work bowl. Cover the chilies by about 2 inches with warm water and let the soak for at least 12 hours and up to 24, or until the chilies have softened completely. (If you are in a hurry, pour boiling water over them instead.) Drain the chilies in a colander, discard the water, and shake them dry.

2. Place the softened chilies in a mini food processor fitted with a metal blade (or blender) and add the garlic, ginger, salt, about 10 grinds of black pepper (or to taste), and ½ cup oil. Pulse these together to form a coarse paste, scraping the sides down as necessary.

Chopped bone-in chicken
3. Pour the rest of the oil into a cool wok and add the chili paste. Slowly cook the chili paste over medium heat, stirring often, until the chilies have turned from red to a mahogany hue; this should take about 30 minutes. When it is ready, the garlic will taste mellow and there will be a yellowish foam on top of the sauce. Cool the sauce to room temperature, and then refrigerate it in a closed glass jar.

4. Clean and dry the chicken. Use a heavy cleaver to chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces no larger than 1-inch square. (Even the breast meat should be trimmed down, as this allows the marinade’s flavors to penetrate the chicken well.) Place the chicken in a medium work bowl, toss with the rice wine, chili sauce, and soy sauce. Marinate the chicken for 2 hours or so. Drain off and discard any liquid and then toss the chicken with the cornstarch.

Fry chicken in batches
5. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, add ½ cup oil and swirl it around to coat the inside. Add a handful of the coated chicken and toss it in the hot oil until it has browned. Remove the chicken to a clean plate but leave the oil in the wok. Repeat with the rest of the chicken until all have been cooked, adding more oil as needed.

6. To make the sauce, return the wok to medium heat and add the chili sauce. Stir it around in the hot oil to release its fragrance, and then add the cooked chicken. Toss in the sugar, soy sauce, and water, and turn the heat up to high. Cook the chicken quickly until the sauce has reduced. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Finally, add the leeks or green onions and toss these together with the chicken only until the greens wilt. Plate and serve immediately.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Crunchy, delectable jellyfish the Hunan way

Jellyfish is yet another one of those cheap, good ingredients that is beloved for its texture, not its taste. Like tendons, sea cucumbers, swallow’s nests, and shark fins, this is pretty close to tasteless. 

It does have a wonderful squeaky texture that goes especially well with shredded cucumbers and a spicy dressing. 

The cucumbers lighten the mix and provide a juicy note to the appetizer, as well as slightly bitter edge from their bright green peels.

But what makes this such a classic Hunanese dish is the vibrantly flavored dressing that coats each strand of animal and vegetable. This appetizer really is about the sauce more than anything else, when you get right down to it. The jellyfish and cucumbers act more as mild foils for the spicy, sweet, sour, and savory dressing.

I have specified “jellyfish heads” (haizhetou) here — which are actually the fringy oral arms that cascade down from beneath the bowl-shaped hood — while that thin hood is what the Chinese refer to as “jellyfish skin” (haizhepi). They are interchangeable, but I just prefer the pronounced crunch of the heads.
Salted (L) & plumped up

As the oceans’ health continues to decline, jellyfish have come to take over what were once prime fishing grounds. It is time for us to take back the oceans. First step: eat as much jellyfish as you can. And with this recipe, the task suddenly becomes anything but onerous.

Cold tossed jellyfish
Liángbàn hǎizhétóu 涼拌海蜇頭
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

Jellyfish and cucumbers:
8 ounces salted jellyfish heads (see Tips)
Water as needed

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1½ tablespoons finely minced, peeled ginger
1 red jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
Blanched fringes appear
The white half of 1 green onion, trimmed and minced
½ cup chicken stock (salted or unsalted)
2 tablespoons black vinegar
1½ tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 Japanese or Persian cucumbers, unpeeled
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 red jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped, optional
Greens of 1 green onion
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, optional
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1. Start this recipe at least 3 days before you plan to serve it. Rinse the jellyfish heads and place them in a plastic container with at least 4 inches of head room. Cover them with around 2 inches of water, put the top on the container, and refrigerate. Change the water twice a day, and on the morning of the third day (or up to 1 week later), drain the jellyfish in a single layer in a sieve or colander. Boil about a quart of water and then douse the jellyfish with it, shaking the jellyfish around with the other hand, so that they all get blanched. This blanching will make the fringes spread out, which lets you know that they have cooked enough. Rinse again with cool tap water and drain. Place the jellyfish on a cutting board and slice them into thin julienne.

2. To make the dressing, place a wok over medium heat. When it is hot, add the sesame oil and swirl it around to coat the bottom third. Add the ginger, garlic, and the first jalapeno to the oil and let them sizzle until they are very aromatic but not yet browned. Pour in the rest of the dressing ingredients (adding the soy sauce to taste), turn the heat to high, and bring this to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Reduce the dressing over a full boil until it is syrupy, remove the wok from the heat, and pour this dressing into a medium work bowl to cool off. Chill the sauce.

3. An hour or two before serving, prepare the cucumbers: Rinse and pat them dry, remove both ends, and then cut them into thin shreds about the same size as the sliced jellyfish. Place the cucumbers in a colander set in the sink and toss them with the salt. Let the cucumbers drain while you prepare the sauce. Rinse off the salt and lightly squeeze them dry. Refrigerate the cucumbers in a closed container if you are not using them immediately.

4. To serve, toss the jellyfish with the sauce, cucumbers, the optional second jalapeno, onion greens, and cilantro together in a medium work bowl. Mound the jellyfish on small serving plates and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve chilled.


Unhelpful English label
Jellyfish are usually sold cleaned and salted, and they are packed into clear plastic bags. Often there is no English description on the label — just “jellyfish” — but it’s easy to figure out what is what. The “skin” is smooth and thin, and generally is folded up, while the “heads” are fat bits that look somewhat like beige cauliflower florets.

Keep the sealed bag in the refrigerator, where it will be fine for months. If you open the bag, don’t get any water in there. Close the opened bag in a resealable plastic bag and refrigerate it. Try to use it up within a couple of weeks. Once you try this recipe, though, this will not prove a problem.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Taiwanese potato salad sandwiches

Tracy, Enzo, & sammie
This is a guilty pleasure of mine, a tiny monkey that has been on my back since my years in Taiwan. It seems to have Japanese origins, but no matter, as this is an indelible part of Taiwanese snack culture. 

Summertime is when this dish is most popular, which makes sense, as that is when potato salad makes the rounds of our own barbecues and picnics.

What makes this such a treat is not only the many different flavors and textures that find their way into the mix — anything from apples to ham to peas to corn to cucumbers to whatever you would like to toss in — but also the total carb fest it becomes when it is served inside of soft baked buns. 

Taipei’s bakeries used this salad to stuff small, round breads, and the resulting contrast was perfect, so that is what I have set out to achieve here. I therefore recommend King's sweet rolls, a Hawaiian staple that matches the salad deliciously.

Another vital component is Kewpie mayonnaise, the Japanese mayo that seasons so much of Taiwan’s fusion dishes. I don’t know what they put in this dressing, but it’s irreplaceable. American-style mayonnaise is good, but the potato salad will then taste like American food, and that misses the point. Be generous with it, too, as it is the main seasoning.

I enjoy all the colorful bits and pieces that give the salad a good variety of color and texture. Who knew that peas could be so good in this, or that ham provides just the right jolt of saltiness, or that apples supply such a nicely sweet undercurrent? 

Summer delight
Plus, you get to mix and match the ingredients to suit your taste. Use all or some or none of the options — it’s all good. When serving this at a party or barbecue, I often offer one vegetarian salad and one with the ham, one with Kewpie and one with wasabi mayo (see Tips), so that everybody is happy.

Try this soon. Summer will never be the same.

Taiwanese potato salad sandwiches
Mayo & hot potatoes
Mǎlíngshŭ shālā miànbāo 馬鈴薯沙拉麵包
Serves 12

Potato salad:
3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
Kewpie brand (Japanese-style) mayonnaise, as needed
1 medium carrot
1 medium onion, preferably a sweet Maui onion
½ cup frozen baby peas
1 Fuji (or other tasty variety) apple, unpeeled, cut into small (¼-inch) dice, optional
½ cup ham cut into small (¼-inch) dice, optional
4 hard-boiled eggs cut into small (¼-inch) dice, optional
2 Japanese or Persian cucumbers cut into small (¼-inch) dice, optiona1
Freshly-ground black pepper
Hard-boiled eggs

24 sweet raised rolls

1. Rinse and peel the potatoes. Cut them into ½-inch dice and place them in a saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook only until the potatoes can be easily pierced in the center. Remove from the heat, drain, and dump these into a medium work bowl. Toss these with about 1 cup mayonnaise while they are still very warm so that they absorb the dressing.

Chop stuff to same size
2. Peel the carrot and onion, and cut them into ½-inch dice. Place the diced carrot in a small saucepan, cover with water, and simmer only until they are barely cooked through. Drain the carrots and add them to the potatoes along with the peas (which do not have to be defrosted). Blanch the onion in boiling water for a minute to make it milder, then drain and add to the potatoes. Add whatever other ingredients you like from the suggested list, and then lightly toss them with just enough mayonnaise to nicely coat each bit and add black pepper to taste. Cover the bowl and refrigerate it for at least a couple of hours — and preferably overnight — so that the flavors combine.

Get rolls like this
3. To serve, lightly toss the salad again and add more mayonnaise to taste. If the rolls or buns are not already sliced open (they are usually cut horizontally in the States), slash them down the center of the top and gently squeeze the breads open. Either fill the breads with the salad or set them out for your guests to fill themselves. Keep the salad cold at all times, especially in hot weather.

Variation: For a more adult-oriented salad, use half wasabi-flavored mayonnaise and half Kewpie. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

African chicken via Macau

Like Portuguese Chicken, this dish represents many of the colonies that Portugal once possessed in its globe-spanning empire. However, instead of Goa in India, this recipe from Macau proudly shows off its African roots through the use of peanut butter and peppers. 

In other ways, this also suggests the Algerian dish djej bil besla, or “chicken with onions.” But it is made more Chinese through the addition of five-spice powder, coconut milk, and shredded coconut, as well as a mound of shallots and garlic instead of onions.

Galinha à Africana is still popular in Macau, where it is served with or without potatoes, and usually with a mound of fluffy steamed rice. The cheesy-tasting sauce is exquisite, and so it is imperative that you serve lots of rice to sponge up every drop.
Definitely not Chinese stuff

As my husband said when he first tried it, “This does NOT taste Chinese!” And it doesn’t. 

It does not taste of Africa, either.

It tastes of Macau.

African chicken (Galinha à Africana)
Fēizhōu jī 非洲雞
Serves 4 to 6

Chicken and spice rub:
4 whole chicken legs (including thighs)
1 teaspoon coarsely ground dried chilies (not too hot)
¼ cup finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
Peanut or vegetable oil as needed
2 large baking (Russet) potatoes, optional but terrific

¼ cup unsalted butter
2 cups chopped shallots
¼ cup chopped garlic
2 red or orange bell peppers, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
¼ cup sweet paprika
Potatoes are great in this
2 (13- to 14-ounce) cans coconut milk
1 cup shredded coconut (unsweetened)
½ cup peanut butter, chunky or smooth
2 bay leaves
2 cups chicken broth, salted or unsalted
Sea salt to taste

¼ cup finely chopped parsley

1. Clean and dry the chicken and sever the joint between the legs and thighs. Slash the thicker parts of the meat so that the seasonings can penetrate it. Mix together the chilies, shallots, paprika, five-spice powder, and salt, and then rub this into the chicken. Place the chicken in a resealable plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

2. Heat a wok until hot, add the oil, swirl the wok around to coat the inside, and then add the chicken. Turn the heat down to medium and brown the chicken on all sides. Spray a 13 by 9 inch casserole with oil. Remove the chicken to the casserole. If you are adding the potatoes, cut them into thin wedges (no larger than ⅛ inch on the outside edge), place in a small work bowl, and cover with water so that they do not brown.  Place a rack in the middle of the oven and heat it to 400°F.

Tastes cheesy & rich
3. To make the sauce, add the butter to the wok, place it over medium heat, and add the shallots, garlic, and peppers. Cook the aromatics until they have wilted but not yet browned, and then add the paprika, coconut milk, shredded coconut, peanut butter, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until thickened, and then taste and add salt as needed.

4. Drain the potatoes, if using, and add them to the casserole. Pour the sauce over the chicken and potatoes so that every piece is coated. Bake the casserole uncovered for about 1 hour, or until the sauce has browned lightly and both the potatoes and chicken are cooked through. Dust the top with the parsley. Serve hot with lots of steamed rice.