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Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front as it has been a busy old time, chez Lemur. Mr Lemur has been finishing a major project and I have been organising a series of events that have eaten up a good deal of my usual cooking time. But we’re finally into Spring break and I thought I should come back with a bit of a culinary experiment. And what’s better to get the juices flowing than pigs’ ears? No, really, you have to trust me on this: pigs’ ears are totally delicious.
I’ve always enjoyed cold pressed pigs’ ears in Sichuan restaurants; the softness of the outside skin followed by a just yielding crunch of cartilage is a pleasing texture sensation and the long slow braising imbues the slices with deep umami flavours. When I was in my lovely local butcher the other day buying some pork shoulder, I noticed his assistant breaking down some pig legs at the back of the store. I remarked how nice it was to see the butchering being done right there and my butcher said, yes, we got three pigs in this morning. Maybe those amazing Sichuan restaurant ears popped into my head, because I asked him, without thinking, ‘do you have ears then?’ ‘Sure,’ he replied, ‘how many do you want?’ Then, he went off to the back of the store and came back a few moments later with a some ears wrapped up in paper. He didn’t even charge me for them! So off I went with my little bag of ears: what an adventure! Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for my vegetarian and vegan readers–who impressively continue to read despite my love for all things porcine–so I wanted to post a little something meatless to start the week off. Lemur friend the Geek Goddess gave me Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice as an un-birthday present (because she is the kind of awesome friend who knows you are stressed out and responds with cookbooks!) and it has a brilliant range of vegetable dishes from Sichuan province and beyond. I particularly loved her simple meatless version of ma po tofu: meat works more as a flavouring than as a main component of the dish in its traditional form, so it is actually relatively easy to replace the meat with other umami flavours. The real pleasure of ma po tofu for me is the contrast of soft, cooling tofu with the fiery, oily, tingling chili and Sichuan peppercorn sauce and this version focuses your attention on precisely that experience. I know there are people out there who are yet to be converted to tofu and I think this might be one of the dishes to do it. It’s making my mouth water just looking at the picture. Read the rest of this entry »
There has been lots going on for the Lemurs lately, and I’ve been neglecting the blog. Truth be told, I’ve been neglecting cooking too and that’s always an index of my overall wellbeing. Obviously, it can be pretty fun to be too busy to cook when what’s taking up your time is an endless round of parties and social events, and it can even be exhilarating to find yourself working super hard on an important project. I’ve been doing a bit of both of these and it’s certainly no hardship to attend glamorous book launches, film festival premieres and gallery openings. Nonetheless, I’m enough of an introvert that I need time at home to replenish my energies, and when I’m too tired even to cook, it’s a sign that I ought to slow things down. If I’m going to make it through the festive season in one piece, I need to take a breather and get myself back into the kitchen. Read the rest of this entry »
At the Brighton Fiery Foods Festival, I made the acquaintance of Jenny Song, entrepreneur and killer Sichuan cook from Chengdu. Jenny and her partner John run China Spice, a company that imports peppercorns, chilies and other traditional foods from Chengdu to the UK. The stall was doing a brisk business with eager customers trying out John’s claim that their Sichuan peppercorns put what we currently have in the UK to shame. John explains that the peppercorn business shares some tricks with importers of certain less legal products: the real peppercorns are cut with the cheaper, tasteless shells of other bushes and often dyed to look the part. Morevoer, even the real peppercorns we see tend to have hard black seeds inside – a pain to dig out – whereas well-picked peppercorns will be almost seed-free. The proof of the peppercorn is in the tasting and I cheerfully agreed to eat one – just one – peppercorn. It was astonishing. You start with the expected citrusty notes and numbing sensation, but these familiar experiences are just the beginning of a several-minute sensory play that includes fizzing and a dreamy feeling that’s actually a bit like being on drugs. In the nicest possible way. John was dead on: these are like tasting Neapolitan bufala mozzarella for the first time when you’ve only ever had string cheese. Read the rest of this entry »
I was thrilled to be Freshly Pressed on my last post – that’s included in the WordPress editors’ daily picks. And welcome to new readers who liked the Vietnamese Chicken Curry post and have decided to stick around! I hope you enjoy the blog. Unfortunately Mr Lemur is away shooting a film so I am without both camera and photographer for a few weeks. Boo! For now, we will all have to put up with my iPhone photography. I know, it’s a hardship, but we soldier bravely on…
I came across black rice noodles in our local ethnic food store the other day and was intrigued. I love black rice but I don’t cook it very often as it is fairly time consuming and many of the uses I know for it are desserts. (I adore Malaysian pulut hitam, or black rice pudding with coconut milk, for instance, but I rarely make it myself.) I was immediately drawn to these deep black noodles. I knew they wouldn’t produce the exact satisfying chewyness of a black rice grain on the teeth but I figured they might combine the glutinous qualities of glass noodles with a deeper, wholegrain flavour.
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.
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 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.
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…
Just a quick post to say how delighted I am to have won the Chinese New Year recipe contest on Farina’s Asian Pantry blog. I entered my recipe for Sichuan braised beef cheek with orange, and Farina’s Singapore foodie judging panel loved the braise and found it to be both approachable and versatile. Yay! Farina has a fab looking new iPad and iPhone app on demystifying Asian cuisine and her blog is chock full of recipe ideas and lovely photography. I’m honoured that she enjoyed my food.