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The last time I went into my awesome local chili store Chili Pepper Pete’s, I discovered a new ingredient: green Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve only ever seen red ones before so I asked the guy behind the desk what was up with the green ones. This was definitely the right question as it unlocked exactly the type of conversation you dream of having with your local food purveyor. He told me not only what they are (young unripe peppercorns) but how they source them in Sichuan province and how they’re used there in different dishes. Turns out one of the owners is married to a woman from there and, as he rather smugly told me, he doesn’t go to any of our local Sichuan restaurants as he gets really great Sichuan food cooked for him nightly. (I kid, he was lovely. I’m just jealous…) Naturally I bought a bag of the little wonders and then had to spend some time figuring out what to make to bring out their ‘greener’ flavour.

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Bangkok is a pretty bustling city already so Bangkok Chinatown was always going to be a bit madcap. We took the regular bus-type boat down the river and emerged into a shopping street that ‘bustling’ doesn’t even begin to describe. Holy hell, I have never seen anything so crowded and claustrophobic in all my life! I don’t actually have any photos of the experience because there was no real way to take meaningful photographs. We were squashed up like the mosh pit of a Morrissey gig, but with only cheap consumer goods as our objects of lust. We just shuffled along with the rhythms of the heaving crowd for what felt like miles till we found a cross-street and then legged it out of there. This picture below is of a relatively quiet, relaxed and empty thoroughfare…

But for all its insanity, I really enjoyed Bangkok Chinatown. The Chinese lanterns were pretty and there was a different energy to the place than the rest of the city. Also fascinating were the proximities of other immigrant communities: walk west a couple of blocks and you’re among sari stores, pan sellers and samosa stalls. Walk north and you’re in an older Chinatown full of mildly decrepit shophouses selling all manner of knick-knacks.

Naturally, I was partly there for the food and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, my first sensation was being overwhelmed by choice: every corner had maybe five or six food stalls and I was anxious about how much I’d miss, no matter what I chose to eat. I started off with some green sugary coconut things that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I love pandan but whatever I bought tasted mostly of sugar. Mr Lemur enjoyed it more than me as he has a South American sweet tooth. Once in the real market area, I found more to my savoury tastes, but what really piqued my interest were these odd dumpling displays.

The dumplings themselves are not odd – they’re the kind of flat, rice flour dumplings that are often filled with slightly bitter Chinese greens and I love them. But these enormous displays of dumpling architecture built around the edges of vast drums reminded me of nothing more than something from the nest of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I think it’s the gelatinous, sticky consistency of the dough, which is so appealing in the mouth, but becomes a bit abject en masse like this. I expected something to emerge from the bottom of the pile and bite me. Plus, the perfect tiling of the wall doesn’t give me the impression that these dumplings are being cooked and served quickly…it was a hot day and the alien dumpling nest looked, well, dank. I ate one and lived to tell the tale, but I was slightly concerned about food safety here, I have to admit.

To recover from the freaky Alien dumplings we stopped off in Hong Kong Noodles cafe for some dim sum. This wasn’t the best dim sum I’ve ever had in my life but it was perfectly serviceable and one shrimp dumpling with chili sauce was amazing. Siu mai and har gow were fine with good fresh seafood and it was mostly good to find a place to sit down after all the crazy crowds.

The only thing I really couldn’t bring myself to try was these little Asian ‘tacos’ that they sell at lots of food stands. I know they’re not tacos and I am willing to bet that they’re delicious. But the filling just looks SO MUCH like nasty American orange cheese and sour cream that they put me right off.

Three Treasures is one of our favourite Chinese vegetable dishes: we order it regularly at Lucky Star, which is of course our most favourite Chinese restaurant. It’s a simply and homey dish of braised aubergine, potato and bell pepper and a soothingly mild contrast to their many spicy Sichuan options. When Mr Lemur brought home aubergine and pepper last night, and realising I had a bag of potatoes going spare, I wondered if it might be possible to work out how it’s made. (I am not usually a big potato person but I had bought some in an aborted bacalao experiment and, of course, hadn’t figured out what to do with them instead.) A bit of research got me nowhere: I don’t know if the dish is usually called something else, or if Lucky Star just makes a very particular version, but the interwebs had very little guidance to offer me. So, I decided to try and retrofit the dish just based on the flavour. Read the rest of this entry »

We wanted to fit in some dim sum on Sunday, because really what’s an urban Sunday without dim sum? When I lived in New York, I ate dim sum all the time in a proper old fashioned palatial banqueting space with mean ladies pushing carts around. The anticipation of what might come next was part of the pleasure, backed up with the knowledge that you could always go up to the various stations for emergency potstickers, greens, or snails if hunger overtook you. The disadvantage was that they didn’t bother offering the more Chinese dishes to western diners. You could probably flag the ladies down and insist on chicken feet if you were determined enough, but my experience was that nothing too alarming was shown to me. Things were a little different in London, where the Crocodiles took me to Golden Dragon, a favourite haunt of theirs for many years. Read the rest of this entry »

Apologies for my radio silence: I’ve been away from the blog for a while, largely because work has been getting a bit overwhelming of late. But I’ve also been getting in some major blog research for you, gentle readers. This weekend took me far from the concerns of my job and into an all-out festival of overindulgence in London. Friday night set the tone with a raucous 40th party for a good friend. You get a bunch of Glaswegians together with money behind the bar and before you know it a chandelier is broken* and we’re dancing to Betty Boo. By Saturday morning I was hungover and ready for a serious ingestion of Asian food. This is where the Crocodiles came in. Who are the Crocodiles? They’re London friends who are also serious foodies and, in particular, Chinese food fiends. This weekend they took us in hand (ooh matron!) and, in between film screenings at the London Film Festival, they took us to some of the best restaurants I’ve been to in ages.

First up is Bar Shu, which won’t come as a surprise to any Asian food lovers in London. It’s long been regarded as the best Chinese food in London, Fuchsia Dunlop consults on the menu, and it’s really the place that kick-started the Sichuan food trend across the UK. I was massively excited to eat there, but also trying to temper my anticipation a little. Just because a restaurant has a strong reputation doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be good. I needn’t have worried: Bar Shu served some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.

We were a fairly big party, so after a couple of appetiser suggestions, we sat back and let one of the Crocodiles order. He had what seemed like an involved consultation with the waitress in Cantonese, so we had no idea what was coming. This is a very unusual situation for me, since usually I’m the one who takes over and orders all the food. I can’t help it: I’m a restaurant top! This time, it was surprisingly relaxing to let someone else take charge. More food arrived than we could possibly photograph before hungry chopsticks attacked it, and also we only had a phone camera, so the pics aren’t great. This is just a rough sketch of the deliciousness that appeared…

Appetisers included the pea starch jelly with black bean sauce at the top of the post, some amazing gourd scented with orange, and these delicious pork rolls in garlic sauce. The rolls, filled with thinly sliced carrot, had a beautiful light spicing that the Crocodiles tell me is a speciality of Bar Shu.

We also had some little whelks in chili-studded broth, marinated cucumber, and Three Silken Threads: julienned papaya, mange tout and radish in mild chili oil.

All of these were fantastic, but merely an introduction to the wonders to come. First up was lamb ribs with lashings of chili (their description), which came as a whole rack of lamb ribs, expertly sliced up tableside, and covered with a sticky sauce topped with fresh chilies and preserved mustard greens. The meat was soft and richly flavoured, and vanished in a flash.

There was also a light shrimp and peanut dish that, to be honest, wasn’t entirely to my taste, and some delicious cold shredded potato. But the piece de la résistance was Fragrant Chicken in a Pile of Chilies. The dish arrived as a huge pyramid of dried Sichuan chilies, studded with a few visible chunks of chicken. The idea is that the chicken is buried treasure and you spend happy and relaxing time poking at the mound with your chopsticks, searching out nuggets of crispy fried chicken.

I’m still dreaming about this dish. It was soooo good. It wasn’t crazily spicy – quite hot but not overwhelming. The chicken was richly flavoured and crunchy with bits of fried skin, and burrowing in the chili pile was just lots of fun. I could go back and eat this weekly, and I honestly might.

The Bar Shu people had to throw us out eventually, since we sat around picking at our vast mounds of food and drinking till well after 11pm and could have hung out longer. The whole evening was a joy – eating delicious food with good friends. And, really, it wasn’t that expensive. It was pricier than crappy Chinese food in Chinatown but for such amazing Sichuan cuisine, it was actually super reasonable. As the centerpiece to my weekend of Asian gluttony, I don’t think I could have done better.

*Not us, honest. No, really, it just happened. Totally mysteriously.

Bar Shu, 28, Frith Street, London W1D 5LF

I’ve been playing around with some chillies I bought from Brighton’s new spicy food store, Chilli Pepper Pete’s. They came in a huge bundle, about 25cm long, just asking to be hung up rustic-style in our kitchen. The store owner told me she has them specially imported from China, so I’m not entirely sure what they’re called. They are mild in the same way as the dried reds you usually find floating in large numbers in Sichuan cooking. Cooked until softened, they lend flavour for the timid, but are entirely edible and not as threatening as they might look. But unlike regular Chinese chillies, these impart a delicate smoky flavour. It’s not as aggressive as chipotle, but imbues food with a mild smokiness that’s really pleasing. I’ve used them here with spring greens but it would work really well with tofu or, I think, with pork.

Last night I tested the combination out on JD, M and their friend from London who came by for dinner. Given the unseasonably beautiful weather we’ve been having, I should probably have been making light summery salads but I’ve always thought a long day at the beach can work up an apptite for hearty food. Since M is a vegetarian, I made several vegetable dishes and one meat one for the omnivores. For the meat-eaters I slow-braised some pork in dark soy and ginger and for a couple of other vegetable dishes, I turned to Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s Beyond the Great Wall, which I’ve been reading avidly. I made a simple but delicious dish of tofu skin in chilli sesame dressing and another of edamame with pickled chilies and sliced garlic.  (Er, yes, detecting a theme there. I had a moment of fear that P might not like chillies but luckily she did!) It was a relaxed mix of dishes, all simple, based on one main ingredient, and perfect for an unexpected late summer evening.

Chinese chilli braised greens

  • 2 onions, diced
  • large chunk of ginger, julienned finely
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 6 long red chillies, halved
  • 8 very long Chinese dried chillies cut into 2 inch lengths, or about 20-25 normal sized ones
  • 2 tbsp shaoxing wine
  • 2 tbsp thin soy sauce
  • 2-3 heads of spring greens, collard greens or cabbage, sliced

Sauté the onion until it is soft and browning in places, then add the garlic, chillies (fresh and dried) and ginger. Fry until soft and fragrant.

Add greens, wine and soy sauce, cover and cook on a low heat for 30 minutes.

The smokiness of the long chillies is a key feature of this dish. If you can’t get those, add in a dried chipotle to get some of the same quality. This dish works as I served it here as a side in a Chinese meal, but it also works as a simple dinner served with rice. I’ve also served it with simply grilled beef on top, or, for a more substantial vegetarian main meal, it’s good with creamy cubed tofu mixed in.

Serves 4-6

I haven’t seen Lemur friends R and S for far too long, especially given they only live in London. So when we finally got in touch, I was thrilled at their suggestion to eat Northeast Chinese food at Manchurian Legends in London’s Chinatown, which is as far as I know the only Dongbei restaurant in the UK. Dongbei describes the region of Northeast China that is also known in English as Manchuria, and because it’s a poor and conceptually distant region to those accustomed to Cantonese food and culture, it has been little explored in the West.

By one of those weird coincidences that seem to bring subjects forcibly to your attention, I’d just been reading about lesser-known Chinese food cultures in Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s book Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. I had no idea how much of China’s vast area was inhabited by non-Han people, and it’s not hard to see a history of subjugation in the contemporary dominance of the Han regions in Chinese politics. Duguid and Alford explore a fascinating range of culinary traditions in the book, and though they don’t include much about Dongbei (since it is actually within the eastern seaboard area of the Great Wall), its native Manchu culture has much in common with the Mongol, Kazakh and other ethnicities that they do discuss. Having read about the very different ingredients and flavours found across China, I was eager to try some of them out at Manchurian Legends. Read the rest of this entry »

Sometimes the universe is just in a good mood. Yesterday, a total stranger stopped me in the corridor to compliment my dress, instantly raising my spirits. And, if that wasn’t enough, someone I don’t know terribly well brought me a gift back from Taiwan of green tea and pineapple cake. It was such a lovely gesture and of course, tapped right into my love of Asian foods.

Since I was already wearing my posh frock, it seemed only correct to have tea and cake when I got home yesterday. The tea is amazing looking, with big clusters of whole, dark green leaves. (It looks a lot like some other kind of dried green leaves, not that I’d know about that…) I wasn’t sure exactly how much tea to put in the pot, and I think to be honest I overdid it a bit since the tea was rather on the strong and bitter side. But it had that distinctive heady aroma of good Chinese teas and I’m sure it will be delicious when I make it a bit less like the Chinese equivalent of builders’ tea.

The cakes, which are a Taiwanese speciality called feng li su, were a revelation. The outer cake is actually a bit like shortbread, but softer and chewy, more buttery than many Asian desserts. Inside is a thick and sweet pineapple jam. Sometimes, Asian sweets don’t entirely appeal to me – this is one of the few areas in which I agree that the French really do win the day – but these little mouthfuls of pineapple, butter and sugar are actually pretty damn good. And, of course, they were made even sweeter by arriving so unexpectedly. Sometimes, it really is the little things that count…

I’ve just bought a new hob, after our last one broke in a depressingly final manner. Having no stovetop is clearly not an option in the Lemur household so we had to get a new one installed PDQ. As it turned out, the only one that fit the space was a fancy-schmancy type with a special wok-burner in the middle. I swear it was Mr Lemur who made this purchase, not me rationalising my need for an Asian food oriented kitchen. Really! Once we got the thing up and running (i.e. after we dealt with the mildly terrifying gas leak and made sure we were not actually about to blow ourselves up) it seemed only right to bust out the wok and stir fry some stuff.

I’m always a bit sceptical of stir frying at home. I know I can’t begin to get my wok hot enough for proper wok hei, the roasty quality imparted to food in a properly made stir fry. Plus, I’m not realistically going to cook one portion at a time, so I probably always have a bit too much in the wok for optimal speed of cooking. That said, the new work burner is kind of impressive. It has two concentric rings of gas and is big enough that you can actually get the whole wok pretty well heated. So to inaugurate the new wok burner, I decided on a simple Sichuan dish of bok choy and minced pork with chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. The unique Sichuan flavour of ma la, or numbing and spicy, is for me the perfect way to bring out the toastiness of wok-cooked food.

Sichuan wok-fried pork and greens

  • 250 g minced pork
  • 4 heads of bok choy
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 5 cm of ginger
  • 10-12 dried red chilies
  • 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 tbs dark soy sauce
  • 2 tbs oil

Cut the bok choy into quarters lengthwise, so that they hold together and sit in a bowl of water for several minutes to wash. Parboil them for 2 minutes and drain well.

Chop the garlic and ginger fine. Heat the wok and, when very hot, add the oil. First add the chilies and peppercorns – fry for just a few seconds until you can smell them, then add the pork. When the meat is just browned, add the garlic and ginger. Fry for another minute and then add the greens. Move the meat out of the way so that the greens come into good contact with the wok – ideally you want to char them a little on the outside.

Stir constantly for a minute more and then add soy sauce. Stir through and serve immediately.

Serves 2-3

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of Sichuan food, thanks in part to local Brighton restaurant Lucky Star and in part to the books of Fuschia Dunlop. I’ve always found Chinese food rather daunting in comparison to other Asian cuisines – perhaps because it’s often harder to eat something and pick out the ingredients by taste and sight – but the simultaneously spicy and reassuring qualities of Sichuan cooking are like catnip to me. Mapo tofu is a familiar dish to anyone who has eaten in a standard Chinese restaurant in the US but most of these versions are pretty inauthentic, or at least taste like a completely different dish to me. Proper Sichuan mapo tofu is searingly spicy, featuring a combination of numbing Sichuan peppercorns and hot dried chilies, balanced by the smooth cooling tofu. The dish supposedly originates in Chengdu and means pock-marked old lady tofu. Like many classic dishes, there’s an origin story about this one old lady who made amazing tofu, which all restaurants in Chengdu now promise to emulate. I’m not sure about the existence of the old lady, but like all recipe origin stories, this one promises one true dish that all others must emulate. It’s a model that places a high premium on authenticity but seems to allow for endless debate about the exact right way to do it. In other words, it’s the perfect dish for the novice to learn…

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