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Monday, July 28, 2014

My favorite Beijing Muslim bread

One of my favorite reasons for dining in Beijing Muslim restaurants is their selection of homemade grilled breads. 

These range from huge, thick wheels — much like the baked Uyghur breads that go so well with soups and stews  all the way down to delicate wheat wrappers that are used to envelop various stir-fries much like a burrito.

The crusty rounds that lure us back time and again, though, is this one, Grilled Sesame Breads with Green Onions. 

I think I love this one best because of the texture: crunchy toasted sesame seeds on the outside, wisps of flaky bread on the inside, lots of green onions to season every bite, and a definite moistness in the layers that offers perfect contrast to the crust.

Sprinkle on onions
Ordering breads in these restaurants can be tricky because not only the English names often offer little clue of what it is they are offering, but even the Chinese is far from uniform. 

The second-best way to deal with this dilemma is to scout around the room for what it is you want and then point it out to the server. The best choice, as always, is to make it yourself. If you’ve made bread before, you’ll find this very easy indeed.

Grilled sesame breads with green onions
Business letter fold
Zhīmá fāmiàn cōngyóubĭng 芝麻發麵蔥油餅
Beijing Muslim
Serves 4

¾ cup warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1¾ cups Chinese flour (or 2 parts all-purpose plus 1 part pastry flour), plus extra for kneading
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon baking powder

And once again
4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
¾ teaspoon sea salt
2 or 3 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
Water as needed
3 tablespoons raw white sesame seeds

1. Place the water in a bowl or cup and sprinkle the yeast and then the sugar on top. Gently mix the yeast into the water and then give it about 20 minutes to foam. If it does not foam, toss out this mixture and get fresh yeast. Have the flour in a medium work bowl. Stir the yeast mixture into the flour to form a soft dough. Knead this until it no longer sticks to your hands. Form the dough into a ball. Use the oil to coat the inside of a clean work bowl, place the dough in the bowl, cover, and let it rise until double in size.
Roll out

2. Sprinkle the baking powder on a smooth work surface. Punch down the dough, form it into a ball, and place it on the baking powder. Knead these together until smooth, adding more flour if necessary to keep the dough from sticking. When it is as soft as an earlobe, cover the dough and let it rest for around 20 minutes.

3. Sprinkle the top and bottom of the dough with a little bit of flour. Roll it out into a rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Rub the sesame oil all over its surface, and then evenly sprinkle on the salt and green onions. For directions on how to fold the dough, see the photos on the right. To make the dough easier to roll out in the next step, cover it and let it rest for about 20 minutes.
Nudge square into circle

4. Form the dough out into a circle. The easiest way to do this is to gently pull on the edges and change the square into a rounder shape. Then, use your rolling pin to roll it out from the center toward the edge until you have a circle about 8 inches in diameter.

5. Pour the sesame seeds into a rimmed dish. Lightly moisten the top of the dough circle with water, and then place the circle upside down on top of the sesame seeds. Gently press the circle all over into the seeds. Now, moisten the other side of the circle and then flip it over onto the seeds and press this side, too, so that both sides of the dough are covered with sesame seeds.

6. Slide the circle back onto your work surface and pat the seeds and the bread together so that the circle is again 8 inches across (or the size of your skillet). (The bread can be made ahead of time up to this point and frozen.) Place the circle in a cool, clean, nonstick skillet, cover, and let the dough rise for about 45 minutes.
Roll on sesame seeds

7. Place the skillet over medium-low heat, cover, and slowly grill the bread until it is browned on the bottom and the seeds begin to pop. Carefully flip the bread over, cover again, and fry the second side until it too is golden. Remove to a cutting board, slice the bread into wedges, and serve. To reheat, grill it lightly on both sides or toast in a small oven, but  as with all breads  do not microwave it.

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.