Kong Xin Cai (Water Spinach), for JFI - Green Leafy Vegetables

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ever since learning the theme of this JFI I have been looking forward to joining in. Many have the view that eating healthy or eating a good vegetarian diet is difficult or expensive, but I find that fresh greens are great value and take no time at all to cook. Washed greens in the fridge are my favourite convenience food. I have never been a green salad person, but love to chop greens and stir them into soups, use them as a bed for Eggs Cooked on Top of Things, or give them a quick stir fry for eating on top of rice, grits, or noodles.

This odd, long-leafed plant at my local market was a mystery until I saw some vendors selling piles of it already trimmed and chopped. The hollow stems gave it away - kong xin cai means hollow heart vegetable. I had actually eaten this before and liked it very much but had never seen its natural form. A preparation I enjoy very much is to stir fry with shrimp paste, but I didn't have shrimp paste on hand so used a smoky bacon to get some salt and depth. If you don't want to use bacon you can heat half a tablespoon of crushed garlic in 1-2 tbs of oil til garlic is soft, then add the vegetable and a little salt. Other greens such as chard or kale would also be delicious cooked this way.

Take 1-2 tablespoons of diced bacon and cook over high heat til fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Add two cups of chopped kong xin cai and stir fry over high heat for just a few seconds til stems are tender and leaves are wilted. Drizzle with black or balsamic vinegar. This feeds one person as a meal or two as a side dish.

Cold Grits with Milk

Saturday, April 28, 2007
Currently I am having a where-have-you-been-all-my-life moment with the very coarsely ground dried corn that some know as grits and some call polenta. Although I use the same basic recipe as polenta, grits have two qualities that I wanted to highlight in their own post - first, their amazing texture when cooked; second, they love to be prepared in the rice cooker.

Use a 1:4 ratio of grits to water with some salt in your rice cooker, and let them sit for two hours on the keep-warm or congee setting after cooking. My favourite way to eat them right now is cold with milk and dark brown sugar for breakfast.

Shao Bing

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Shao bing are small flatbreads that the vendor rolls out with either a little sugar or chili paste inside and usually sesame on the outside. They are freshly baked in a hollow oven, a kind of portable tandoor. The oven makes them crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and they are a perfect bite in the mornings or in colder weather. My neighborhood shao bing vendor sets up shop in the mornings only, but around busier areas of Chengdu like Chun Xi road you can find shao bing all day.

Some street foods can be fantastic from one vendor and inedible from another, but shao bing are among the most consistently good sidewalk snacks as long as they are fresh. The vendor asks ji ge, how many, and if you want tian de (sweet) or xian de (savoury). I love both kinds. They cost half a yuan, or about eight cents each.

Street Food Smarts

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Should food be cooked and sold out in the open, where the people are? Just today two articles crossed my screen. One is from Toronto, whose street food scene has been smothered inside a bun, so to speak, by a law that may now change. (See Food for Thought post for article and more links.) The other is a very thoughtful piece from the Times on how the chaat in Delhi is moving off the street and possibly losing its soul.

Chengdu has one of the most active and colourful street food scenes I’ve ever enjoyed. Its main initial attraction for me, besides the low cost, was that street food is some of the most accessible through a language barrier - you can see what is available without having to puzzle through a menu and you can order and pay with hand signals. I eat street food almost daily and feel like I’ve only begun learning about it.

Many foreigners living here, however, eschew street food entirely. Some do this out of caution and some due to painful past experiences. Many local people also avoid it, mentioning the lack of hygiene. For some years I worked in restaurant kitchens and am all too aware that street food can’t comply with most of our food prep safety standards; two major challenges are lack of refrigeration and lack of a ready source of water for washing. Still, I can’t bring myself to write off all street food entirely – it is too good and too cheap.

Keeping an eye on the popular stalls is one of the most basic ways of finding safe street food. You can find the good vendors, see what people are ordering, and observe how they are eating it. By watching the food being prepared you can also see if the cook cares about what they are doing or not. A good cook has been recognizable in any country I have been in so far - they should move with a kind of attentive confidence, even when working very quickly.

A cook’s attention to hygiene, or lack thereof, is also pretty easy to gauge. So I avoid the stalls where the vendor has his hands jammed into his pockets or is rubbing his hand across his face in thirty degree weather. The vendor who has stacked up several dozen cooked items in the heat of the afternoon also gets a pass. I look for the stall with clean, organized equipment and oil that looks and smells fresh. I look at the ingredients carefully and sniff them if I can, and hold my hand above the food items to feel if they are still hot. Compared to sitting down in a nice clean inspected restaurant this is unquestionably still a risk, but so far I have avoided being sick and some of my favourite foods here have been bought and eaten on the street.

Starting this weekend, Frugal Cuisine will have posts on Chengdu snacks and street food along with the recipes. It fits the frugal theme and will break up the routine a bit, since I no longer have books to review. Hope everyone enjoys the new feature.

Rice Cake

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rice cake is called dok in Korean and nian gao in Mandarin. The savoury kind is formed into small tubes or ovals and sold either frozen or vacuum packed in the fridge section. It is used in soups, stir fries and a fiery, brick coloured Korean street food called dok-bokki (fried dok). There is an enormous variety of Korean sweet rice cake confections as well, some quite rustic and some astoundingly beautiful and delicate. A sweet Chinese nian gao (sometimes labeled 'rice pudding') is traditional at New Year's.

I love all of it, but have never tried cooking rice cake before though I adore the chewy, melting texture and how it soaks up flavours from its companion ingredients. My curiosity finally got the better of me and I picked up a package of chili oil marinated rice cake from the market that actually had English instructions. Now, I am almost sure the instructions were, well, not really correct. Chinese stir fried nian gao is usually fried like chao mian (fried noodles) - first cook your meat and vegetables and then add the starch and cook til everything is heated through and the flavours are absorbed without cooking long enough to ruin the texture of the rice cake. (Some types of rice cake need soaking in water for several minutes to soften before cooking.)

My package just said to heat oil in a wok, add the rice cake, and fry on high heat for six or seven minutes til done. Not having meat or vegetables in the house anyway, I followed the instructions to the letter and got this amazing, crispy on the outside, melting on the inside, full of flavour rice cake. Because it had been marinated in the chili oil, it didn't even need salt or seasoning and was much too good not to blog. The same method is fantastic for the sweet Chinese rice cake - heat a little oil, slice the sweet rice cake into small pieces a little less than half an inch thick, and fry on both sides until it has a crispy crust and melting centre. You need to eat it quite warm; rice cake loses appeal very quickly as it cools.

New This Season

One of the great things about living in a different country is being surprised by whatever is newly in season. These yin tao (cherries) started appearing on Chengdu streets about a week ago. The first ones were so small I thought they were a new kind of berry but now larger ones are turning up. They have firm flesh and a small pit, and are very tangy and sweet.

Everyone calls the little rough fruits plums, though I am not sure how they are related. They have a deeper flavour - some are very good but others I've bought were quite sour and I am still figuring out how to find good ones. They also have a pit.

Jiaozi Soup

Sunday, April 01, 2007

This vegetable based soup comes together quickly and is a great way to stretch your supply of jiaozi. Jiaozi are Chinese dumplings, usually stuffed with meat and some kind of vegetable. Korean mandu would be great eaten this way too. Jiaozi are fantastic things to have in the freezer, whether you make them or buy them. I love jiaozi eaten traditionally, boiled and dipped in black vinegar and sesame or chili oil, but they feel more familiar this way.

The correct stage to add the greens to the soup depends on what vegetable you are using. I added the you cai shown after the potatoes were cooked. For something more delicate like spinach or watercress, wait until the jiaozi are cooked before adding the green so that it just wilts without getting slimy or losing its colour. On the other hand, if you have something sturdier like cabbage or kale add it earler, just after the onions, and decrease the amount by a third or so.

Chop a tablespoon of garlic (or less, or none) and two tablespoons of onion and sweat in a saucepan with some oil and salt until tender but not browned. Add three cups of water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, peel and cube one large potato and add to the boiling water. After potato is cooked, taste broth for salt. (You want it salty enough to flavour the jiaozi, and the potatoes will have absorbed some while cooking.) Add two cups chopped leafy greens, bring soup to a boil, then add six to eight fresh or frozen jiaozi and simmer until dumplings are cooked through. Serves 2.