Chao Shou

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Chao shou is a signature Chengdu xiaochi, or snack. This is a basic, classic bowl of chao shou – delicate pork dumplings with a whiff of ginger folded into a hat shapes and floating in a bowl of nearly opaque broth. The broth's whiteness comes from long simmering of bones, and it is often broth that distinguishes a good bowl of chao shou from the lesser versions. On the side is a bowl of plain boiled cabbage and a dish of pao cai, preserved vegetable (cabbage in this case). In cooler weather, chao shou makes a perfect lunch or snack. This being Sichuan, the dumplings often get the spicy treatment and are served with toppings such as stewed chicken pieces (mostly neck and bone), or simply by tossing the cooked dumplings into a pool of aromatic chili oil - hong you chao shou. A bowl of chao shou topped with aromatic stewed beef and cilantro (niu rou chao shou):

Chao shou topped with stewed ribs (pai gu chao shou) was my favourite version until I discovered suan cai chao shouchao shou with sour cabbage. Both suan cai and this particular pao cai are cabbage preserved with salt, chili, and sometimes Sichuan peppercorns, but they are very different in character. Suan cai tastes like it has been preserved much longer - darker, limp shreds that are rather mild in flavour. Pao cai is quite crunchy and tangy. A bowl of suan cai –topped chao shou served with boiled cabbage and a little dish of pao cai is a revelation of the flavours and textures that can be coaxed from this plain Jane vegetable.

Near my house is a little place selling lao ma chao shou, a Chongqing specialty. The ma character means numbing and I am guessing the name refers to the effects of Sichuan pepper. The food of Chongqing is, if anything, even more incendiary and enamored of Sichuan pepper that that of Chengdu. The server warned me that I was ordering something a little spicy but I waved off his concern and received a little bowl of chao shou with cabbage, boiled peanuts, and a topping of scarlet oil. I like the pepper's tingly effect in moderation but don’t enjoy feeling like my mouth and throat are closing up with no feeling. The amount in this bowl of chao shou was definitely in the respiratory arrest category.

Shoe shiners often set up shop beside these little outdoor places to eat and make rounds among the tables, offering potential customers a pair of slippers to wear while they take your shoes to be shined during your lunch.

Calabacita over Croutons

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A little butter and garlic has the power to transform the most humble of foods, like potatoes, into something luxurious. The starring vegetable here is something I never saw back home but my Mexican friends call it calabacita - summer squash that look like ball-shaped zucchini and are similar in texture but have a yellowish flesh. This is something that you can make in a few minutes for one or two people. Since the garlic cooks with both the croutons and the squash you have to take a bit of care not to burn it, but that is the only tricky part.

You need to crush two cloves of garlic and thinly slice half a pound of calabacita, or zucchini, for one person. Melt one and a half tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a wide heavy bottomed frying pan and stir in garlic; heat gently til garlic has lost its sharp taste and has flavoured the butter. Push bits of garlic to sides of the pan and throw in a couple of handfuls cubed bread. (I used dried but you can use fresh. It just takes a bit longer.) Let bread cubes brown and soak up some of the butter. Remove to a bowl when toasty. Add the sliced squash to the pan with a half teaspoon or so of salt and cook just til soft before spooning on top of the croutons.