La Mian (Hand Pulled Noodles)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

La mian is usually found in the Hui (Muslim) restaurants, which offer dishes quite different than the regular Chinese fare with its emphasis on pork. La mian is not technically street food, though many noodle makers are working practically on the sidewalk and can be found in most neighborhoods here in Chengdu.

The noodles are pulled into strands and thrown into a pot where they cook quickly, then are served in a beef broth and topped with a few slices of radish, sliced beef or lamb, and chopped scallions and cilantro on top with a slick of chili oil. The best places have broth with a rich beef flavour and a good jolt of garlic. If you've ordered a fried rice or noodle plate you will get a cup of the broth to drink.The noodles have a fantastic bite to them and go for three to five yuan for a bowl, about forty to seventy cents.

Watermelon and Tofu Salad with Mint

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I glumly mixed this salad together, mentally comparing the flavour void of tofu with the salty sharpness of the feta that I would be using to make a watermelon salad back home. (Note: if you really love cheese, don't move to China.) What got my attention about this salad was the texture - the cool, smooth tofu was really nice against the crispness of the watermelon. I am normally very partial to stronger flavours but this was a very satisfying lunch on a hot day, and would be great served with something spicy. I have also tried tofu with other fruits, like the loquats that are so fabulous now here, but watermelon is my favourite so far.

Per person, dice about 1 1/2 cups of watermelon and 2/3 cup tofu. Julienne about 1 tbsp of mint and toss very carefully so the cubes stay nice and square. Other fresh herbs would work really well too, like basil or dill.

Roasted Eggplant, Tomato, and Red Pepper Dip

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Recently I tried a recipe billed as a pureed eggplant salad. It was very well received but I thought it needed work – the recipe contained bread, which gave the end product an odd texture and I thought dulled the flavours too much. It also called for some raw and some cooked vegetables. For the FC version I ended up roasting all the vegetables and getting rid of the bread, and the result was a very creamy and rich tasting dip brightened with roasted red pepper and tangy pieces of tomato. A slow grill would be fantastic for preparing the vegetables too; the idea is to roast as much moisture as possible out of them while concentrating their flavour.

Take two whole Asian or one split medium Italian eggplant, two whole medium tomatoes, and one large or two small whole red peppers and roast for 30 to 40 minutes in a medium oven until vegetables are soft and blackened. Meanwhile, chop two cloves of raw garlic and blend with 1/3 cup lemon juice, 1/3 cup olive oil and ½ tsp of salt til garlic is completely pureed. Scrape the roasted eggplant out of its skin and add to blender; blend until creamy. Remove the skins from the peppers and dice finely; finely dice tomato as well. (My tomatoes and peppers still had quite a bit of moisture so I reduced them in a thick bottomed pan before stirring into the eggplant.) Add chopped peppers and tomatoes to eggplant and stir to distribute evenly. Let sit at least a couple of hours; best next day. Taste for flavour balance before serving. My batch made slightly more than one cup of dip.

The dip is really good with raw vegetables or with bread. Shown is Xinjiang nan bread, which costs 1-2 yuan (15-30 cents) for an eight to twelve inch round and makes pretty good pizza crust. Xinjiang (the Uighur Autonomous Region) is a northwestern province and home to one of the most trendy regional Chinese cuisines. Xinjiang food, like Tibetan food, is easy to find in Chengdu since we are also in the west.

Cold Marinated Buckwheat Noodles

Sunday, May 06, 2007

My plans to cook stewed and roasted things evaporated in this week’s shimmering heat, and I searched for something to make that was cool but filling and energizing. The liang fen (cool seasoned bean starch noodles) from the street vendors are more like lukewarm fen right now. (I did make a fantastic mango lassi with dead ripe mangoes, sweet plain yogurt, and a little lemon juice, salt, and honey.)

This cold buckwheat noodle dish is adapted from a chowhound post. I was filled with doubt when making the recipe; it didn’t seem right. It turned out fantastic though and is a great make ahead, packable lunch. With two sliced hard boiled eggs and one cucumber (or more if desired) it would feed two generously, or three smaller appetites.

Mix together marinade: 3 tbs soy sauce, 3 tbs black vinegar, 5 tbs chicken or mushroom stock, 1 tbs dark sesame oil, 1 tbs sugar, 1 tbs prepared mustard (I used French’s). Stir til sugar is dissolved. Cook half a pound of thin buckwheat noodles just til al dente, drain, and stir hot noodles into the marinade. (It may seem soupy and not right, and the starch from the noodles will make the marinade cloudy. Don’t worry.) Cover the container and put in the fridge for at least two hours. During this time the noodles will soak up the marinade and get softer. Garnish with cucumber and sliced hard boiled egg.

Candid morning fridge shot

This is in response to Sam's post. Not many of us look our best first thing in the morning, especially when the morning is several hours after a very excellent party. The fridge is about five cubic feet which I think is average for China, and is shared with my roommate. We hosted a jiaozi making party last night. The dumpling skins were bought for next to nothing at the grocery store and I lost count of all the fillings we used - egg (our favourite), beef, 'three treasure' with pork, shrimp, and mushroom; vegetarian...maybe others. We steamed some and deep fried others, and ate them with black vinegar, chili garlic sauce, soy sauce, and stir fried kong xin cai.

The fridge is crammed with leftover jiaozi ingredients, soy and dairy milk, New Zealand butter, Sichuan style bacon, and various vegetables. Watermelon, Chinese Snow brand beer, and yoghurt comprise our cooling agents, very necessary in this 30 degree weather. There is also a little bottle of chipotle salsa and a bag of rotini from the import section of the grocery store.

Dou hua (‘flower’ tofu)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dou hua is soft, warm tofu covered with toppings that add crunch and flavour. A dou hua vendor usually carries a pole across his or her shoulders with two large baskets attached. One of the baskets contains steaming soft tofu and the other contains the bowls and fixings.

For a while I had avoided dou hua due to a mouth numbing, terrible version I’d bought on Dian Nao Cheng (Computer Street.) One my way home the other day, though, I noticed one lady untraditionally carrying dou hua baskets on her bike and paying obvious attention to both the order and appearance of the condiments. First, she spooned up the tofu and added some ground Sichuan pepper. Then, a sprinkle of msg. Then a tablespoon or so of soy sauce, then chili oil, then chopped preserved vegetable, then crunchy dried soybeans, and last of all chopped green onion. We customers accepted the bowl, then stirred everything up and ate. She was only charging one yuan (15 cents) per order, when some vendors charge one and a half.

Cream of Amaranth Soup

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Amaranth is another vegetable that I noticed for the first time at my local market without being able to identify it. Thanks to the posts at Mahanandi I did not remain in the dark for long - check out the fantastic JFI roundup there. In Mandarin it is called hong xian cai but my market vendors, most of whom speak Sichuan dialect, all seem to call it hong han cai.

I found amaranth a bit difficult to cook - it tastes and behaves a lot like spinach, wilting quickly and losing a lot of volume. It also bleeds and stains everything red. I made an amaranth omelet that tasted wonderful but looked really odd. My favourite way to cook it so far is a simple and restorative vegetable soup that does not mind being pink.

Mince half a small onion and one clove of garlic, and half a red pepper and sweat with salt in a small sauce pan until vegetables are tender but not browned. (Can use other vegetables based on what you have on hand.) Add one and a half cups of chicken or vegetable broth and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in one and a half cups chopped amaranth and heat til vegetable is wilted; then stir in three tablespoons of cream. You can omit the cream if desired for an even more basic soup. This should fill up one person or serve two as first or last course.