Sauerkraut to save my country from ridicule

So seeing that I’m of Dutch descent, my flatmates and Italian friends sometimes ask me to cook something that’s typically Dutch. I don’t usually comply to this request, and I suspect they don’t even really want to eat something Dutch, because I know what Italians are like – they’ll just complain about how it’s not Italian, give me snide comments about the order of the courses (“Oh really, salad before pasta?”) or use adjectives like ‘interesting’ or ‘very typical’ – in general, they’ll just diss the cuisine of my ancestors’ people. I have no intention to let my native country be ridiculed, so usually I say “sure, yeahhh… we can totally do that. This winter. Yeah…” and then I change the subject. I’m in Italy now, better be careful.

Recently I had a stroke of luck though. Blenderman kept asking when we were going to have sauerkraut, or crauti, as Italians call it, with sausages and mustard. I don’t know where he got that idea from, but I’m guessing it was probably a German. Not many people seem to know this, but like the Germans, the Dutch also tend to eat quite a lot of sauerkraut. They call it zuurkool, which makes a lot more sense: it translates to sour cabbage, which is a pretty apt description when you really think about it. Anyway, I decided this was a relatively safe bet for a Dutch dinner, as he’d specifically requested the main ingredient and there would be very little room for complaints. The preparation wasn’t quite as requested, instead I served it the Dutch way: with mashed potatoes, smoked sausage, bacon lardons and gravy. This stuff is so delicious that even an Italian is bound to appreciate it.

The preparation of zuurkool I’m describing here is one of many versions of a dish dish called stamppot – the Dutch make it quite a lot and it’s essentially mashed potatoes with some vegetable or other mixed in. It’s not a pretty sight, which is the reason you don’t normally find this stuff in restaurants. I think this contributes to the general obscurity of Dutch cuisine: Dutch food can be pretty delicious, but it’s so ugly that you don’t want anyone to see it. For this reason you only have it at home, when no one is looking. Well, have a look at this, and if you can get over its ugly face, have a shot. It’s really good.

zuurkool makes me want to become a pigfarmer zuurkool makes me want to live in Zierikzee

For 4, you will need:

  • 1 kg potatoes, ones that are suitable for mash
  • about 700 gr of sauerkraut
  • 2 large smoked sausages or any number of other sausages of your choice
  • 250 gr bacon lardons
  • some milk and butter, for the mash

If you want to make gravy, use whatever you normally use, or scroll down for a description of the mustard sauce I like to have with my zuurkool. If you’re making this, also make sure you have:

  • all the bacon fat from your lardons
  • one shallot
  • a good spoonful of mustard (the smooth type)
  • some vegetable stock

OK here we go!

Peel your potatoes, give them a rinse and boil them. Make mash, you know the drill. (If you don’t: add butter, milk, salt if you need to, mash those bitches up with a potato masher. Don’t have one? Use a fork. Good luck.) Whilst your potatoes are boiling, prepare your krauts. First of all, cut them up finely. No use having all these long sauerthreads killing your buzz. Once you’ve chopped it up into smaller bits, heat up your sauerkraut – you can do this in water, white wine or even apple juice. I prefer water, but it’s up to you. Chuck in a few juniper berries, put the whole bunch on low heat, and let it simmer for a while until it’s pretty hot.

While your tatties and crauti are boiling and/or simmering, get your meat on. If you’ve got some delicious smoked sausages, like we did last time, you can pop those in with the sauerkraut. If not, if you’ve got sausages that need frying, chuck them in with the bacon lardons – which you should pop in a frying pan right now to get them to the right degree of delicious crispiness.

As mentioned before, you can make the gravy any way you like. I made a mustard-based one, in part to humour Blenderman, in part because it’s goddamn delicious. Chop up a shallot, gently fry in as much of the lardon fat as you can possibly harvest, then add 1 or 2 tablespoons of smooth mustard and some vegetable stock or, in emergencies, even some of the potato boiling water. (Trust me.) Simmer until it’s all dense and delicious.

When your potatoes are mashed and your krauts are hot, remove the juniper berries, drain the krauts and chuck them in with the mash. Now mix all of it up so it’s an inseparable beautiful marriage of mash and kraut. Serve with sausage, bacon, gravy and a whole bunch of delicious beer. This shit will make you want to buy a wind jacket and move to the North of Europe.

zuurkool makes me want to chop wood for the winter and get a wood stove zuurkool makes me want to buy wooden vats and chop up generous amounts of cabbage and put them in water and salt zuurkool makes me want to move to the North to sit around in the rain

Posted in Food, Mains, Potatoes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Applesauce to reconnect with your loved ones

One of the saddest things I have ever seen was a documentary on a bunch of Amish who had been ostracised from their community. It followed these ex-Amish types who had been cast out, presumably because they wanted to use a food processor, or the internet, or wear the wrong type of hat, or go out and get pissed, or something else that seems unimportant to some of us but that freaks out the Amish to no end.

Being ostracised from an Amish community isn’t so bad – you can go live somewhere else, use blenders and hair dryers, watch cats on the internet, use heroin and do anything that God forbids. The sad part, however, was when the couple hit hard times, and one of them ended up in hospital. Apparently this warranted a visit from their relatives, who came to see them. After they’d left, the girl of the couple was interviewed briefly. “They said they’d come back tomorrow, and they’re going to make us some apple sauce, so…”

It broke my heart. The sentence just died out like that, we never even found out what that ‘so’ meant. But I imagined it was something like “…so clearly they still love us a little.”, or maybe “…so clearly we’re not as godless as previously thought.” To me, the offer of apple sauce sounds like a poor way to reconnect, but it seemed that for them, there was a lot more to it than just the prospect of a free dessert. In it was the promise of forgiveness, acceptance, redemption.

Or maybe they just really fucking loved apple sauce. It is pretty delicious, it has to be said.

In the Netherlands there’s a thing like apple sauce as well, except they call it appelmoes, which description I find much more apt, as moes means something like ‘mash’ or ‘pulp’. The word sauce describes a condiment, and presumably something rather liquid and homogeneous. This version of appelmoes also exists, but it is a horrible product from usually industrial origins which is intended mostly for very small children who vomit up anything you give them indiscriminately, and elderly people with no teeth left in their mouths. Instead, we’re going to make home-made appelmoes, or applesauce, which is a lot more like a type of compote and much more delicious indeed. It’s also dead-easy to make, so if you intend to use it to reconcile with a long-lost family member, I recommend making something more elaborate.

applesauce, motherfuckers

You can serve appelmoes for dessert or breakfast with yoghurt, scoop it into your mouth just like that, or serve it at dinner with pork (in which case it becomes a condiment again).

For a good pot full of applesauce/moes, you will need:

  • a kilo and a half of soft apples – I like to use rennets
  • a cinnamon stick
  • some sugar – to taste
  • a bit of lemon peel, if you like – totally optional
  • about 200 ml of water

Peel all of your apples, cut them into chunk and chuck them in a pot, preferably with a thick base. Now add some water (about 200 ml for a kilo and a half of apples, but use you own judgement), the cinnamon and the lemon peel if using. Don’t add the sugar yet!

Put the apples on medium heat, bring to a soft boil and simmer for a while. Stir occasionally, so that the apples start disintegrating. Leave to simmer for a while longer so that the cinnamon stick can do its work and diffuse its delicious cinnamony flavour.

After you sauce (or moes) has a consistency you’re happy with (I like mine still slightly chunky), take it off the heat and leave it to cool for a while. After it’s cooled down a little, add the sugar – they say that this way, you won’t have to add as much as when you add the sugar whilst cooking the apples. I’m not sure if its true, but I take it at face value anyway.

Here you go, that’s your apple sauce done.

IMG_2157 IMG_2161 IMG_2162 applesauce, motherfuckers

Posted in Desserts, Food, Sweets and desserts, Vegan, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Something is living in my fridge (and it helps me make bread)

A while ago one of my flatmates, the Queen of the Night, brought back a tupperware full of a dough-like substance that we soon found out was lievito madre, a type of living yeast used for breadmaking. We were initially pretty excited about all of the delicious focaccia that we were definitely, no doubt going to make with this creature, but then it turned out that we didn’t know how to use it and none of our stuff ever came out all that amazing. But help was under way – I recently stumbled across a one-day course to learn how to make bread with lievito madre, and decided to sign up. It was pretty cheap, super cultural, and only one day, so no strings attached.

The course was held on a Sunday, and it was organised by an association that does a whole bunch of cultural events here in the region. I’m generally very fond of this sort of thing, as I like to learn about the region I live in. Unfortunately this type of event is heavily frequented by the elderly, and the course was organised on a Sunday morning, which meant that I had to deal not only with a pounding hangover, but also with 20-odd dead excited pensioners who introduced their every question to the baker-teacher with an anecdote about the flour they bought last week which was different from the flour they normally used but and so on and so forth.

On my left side was the grumpiest man alive. On my right was a neurotic lady with her nine-year-old son whom she kept trying to instruct in doing just about anything from breathing to kneading. At the end of the day, someone stole my bread. I was kind of disappointed, but too unbothered to draw a granny into a fistfight about it, so I left the course with a whole lot of knowledge about different types of flour, new kneading techniques, and an anonymous bread that someone else had left behind (and that may have been way nicer than mine, actually).

So let’s talk about this yeast for a minute. Because this is where the language barrier gets messy. I know this thing as lievito madre. When I wikipedia this item, and I go to the English section, it tells me sourdough. But sourdough is a type of bread, not a yeast, right? I get so confused. The most likely translation I’ve been able to come up with is yeast starter. Let’s settle for that, and if anyone knows a better translation, please let me know.

Now I know that it’s pretty unlikely that anyone but me will have a yeast starter, but I’ve also been assure that no-one ever reads the recipes anyway, you’re just here for the story, which is totally cool. If you feel really inspired, you can chuck a bunch of flour in a tupperware with some water and a piece of fruit that’s gone funny – according to the bread people that’s how it works. If you do happen to have a bunch of yeast living in your fridge, you probably already know how to make bread, so this recipe will be useless, but never mind. This is the way I learned it and it was good fun. Have a go, if you fancy it.

OMFG IT'S ABREAD I MADE WITH MY HANDS

A note on baking bread: if your bread comes out terrible, keep trying. I’ve been assured that anyone’s bread gets better over time and I’m going to have to admit that mine still come out whichever way they choose to, not really the way I plan them to. But it’s cool, I like surprises.

For one big fat bread, use:

  • 250 gr yeast starter
  • 250 ml water, room temperature
  • half a kilo of flour – I use tipo 2, which is a bit stronger than strong bread flour. Go for strong bread flour if you’re not sure, I couldn’t really tell you what the UK calls this stuff
  • a little bit of olive oil
  • a teaspoon full of salt

As for materials, you will need some baking parchment.

You need a full day off for this, by the way. Here’s a summary, so you’ll know how much time this takes:

30 minutes: weighing ingredients, mixing of dough, first rising, kneading and folding
1,5 to 2 hours: rising and second folding
4 hours: more rising and last folding
1 hours: baking

Here we go!

Start by mixing your water with your yeast. Pop it all in a big bowl and then mix it until it’s a homogeneous paste. Put in about 2/3 of the flour, stir well so it becomes a nice smooth dough. Mix in the salt with the remaining 1/3 of the flour, then stir that in as well. By now, you should have a relatively smooth and workable dough ball. Leave it alone for about ten minutes.

That's my baby. My yeats gets more love than any biological child of mine ever would.

Now dust your hands with flour, grab that doughy motherfucker and start working it. You knead for a few minutes, then when it’s a nice smooth dough, start working it out into a circle. Don’t roll it with a rolling pin, don’t pull it so hard the surface tension (you know what I mean, right?) breaks, just carefully squeeze it with your fingers so it becomes a larger circle. Now fold that circle inwards. No idea what I’m talking about? Check this out:

IMG_2115 IMG_2117 IMG_2118 IMG_2121 IMG_2122 IMG_2125

Flip it over, and with swift movements, sort of shove your hands (palms upward) under the dough ball, twist it and repeat. This way you kind of close the folds. Then pop it in a large bowl that you’ve oiled up with olive oil before, cover it with a tea towel, and leave it alone for a couple of hours. It likes to be in a constant temperature of between 25 and 30 degrees celsius. Apparently if you turn on the little light in the oven (but not the oven itself) the temperature is perfect, so you can leave it in the oven for a while and the temperature will be nice and constant and your yeast will love you. When you go back to check on it, it’ll have doubled in size. (No? Don’t bin it, it might still turn out OK.)

They just grow so fast at this age, don't they?

After the rising time is up, pull out your dough, tip it over on a clean work surface, and repeat the whole stretching and folding procedure. Again, pop your dough back in the bowl (greased up!) but this time, leave it for 4 hours. Alright 3’s OK, but 4 is better. After four hours, pull it out, repeat the folding process, but this time instead of flipping the dough and closing the folds, you just leave it upright and you squeeze the folds shut, after which you pull the centre of the folds together upwards into a sort of bready nipple.

Now of course you’ve totally preheated your oven to the highest temperature imaginable (250 degrees, in my case) and you’ve put a bowl of water at the bottom. (No? Go do it now, then.) Pop your bread in and leave it like this or 15 minutes. After fifteen minutes, remove the water, turn the temperature down and leave your bread for another 45 minutes. Remove it from the oven, wait for at least half an hour (with this yeast business the flavour really changes in that half hour) and then eat it whenever you like.

Posted in Baking, Food, Vegan, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The things that prevent me from going into hibernation

October is here, and that’s bad news, because it means that summer is over. The coming half year is going to be bleak and despondent, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. October itself is pretty nice: decent temperatures, good-looking trees everywhere, darkness still more or less at bay. It’s that one month that makes you believe that autumn will be OK (and then November comes and smacks you in the face with violent rain and wind and you remember that autumn is just as shitty as winter but it just has a better PR department).

Either way, I get pretty upset about the arrival of the shitty season, so I need a lot of things to keep my spirits up. You know how some people have Christmas to look forward to and to get them through winter? I have stuff like that too. In Scotland I had the Irn Bru carnival, and after that there’s my birthday, and then the Six Nations for February. You know, just those things that keep you going when really all you want to do is hibernate in a dark room under a pile of blankets.

Something else that I find pretty comforting in these dark times is all the delicious seasonal food that you don’t get to eat in other months of the year. Sure, you can get a lot of products year-round now, but that’s not really the same, is it? You hardly feel like binging on sauerkraut and pumpkin in July. For this month, chestnuts have a special place in my heart, and my diet. This time of the year there’s always guys standing around in Via Roma, one of the main streets here in Turin, selling roasted chestnuts in little bags folded from old newspapers. Those are totally delicious, and I’m sure I’ll be tempted once or twice this month to support their noble cause, but there’s one thing even better, and that’s going out to the hills and foraging your own. We did so a couple of weeks ago, and I turned them into chestnut tagliatelle, which are, as the people these days call it, ‘amazeballs’.

my pasta brings all the boys to the yard and damn right, I lied it doesn't bring anyone to the yard.

In order to make chestnut tagliatelle (or chestnut pasta in any other shape you like), first we need to make chestnut flour. Now beware: whatever weight of flour you need, you’ll need to find at least double the weight in chestnuts, but you’re probably safer to go for quadruple the weight. Of all the chestnuts you’ll find, you’ll have to chuck out a large part because they’re mouldy on the inside, or worse, they’ve got a worm. Although you can avoid a lot of bad ones by picking only firm, healthy looking chestnuts, sometimes it’s impossible to tell which ones will be good and which ones are inedible. After the elimination of the bad chestnuts, you’ll still have to peel them, taking away more weight, and then, in order to make them into flour, you need to dry them, evaporating moisture and reducing the weight yet again.

If all of this sounds too troublesome, just buy chestnut flour in a bag and use that.

For 4 people, use:

  • 200 gr of chestnut flour
  • 200 gr of normal flour
  • 3 eggs
  • pinch of salt

You’ll also need

  • some extra flour for dusting
  • if you have a pasta machine that’s cool, if not, you’ll need a rolling pin
  • some cling film

As condiment to the pasta, I used:

  • some butter
  • some freshly grated parmesan because that shit is awesome
  • some roasted, roughly chopped hazelnuts
  • some olive oil

Grab your chestnuts, give them a rinse if they’re particularly dirty, them start the selection process: take a sharp knife, cut each chestnut in half, check for worms, eggs, mold or other stuff you don’t want to put in your mouth. If it’s OK, pop it in a roasting tin. Once you have a good quantity going, put them in the oven on 75 degrees for an hour or so. This way you’ll dry your chestnuts without roasting them.

This is a good looking chestnut. IMG_2071

When they’re done, peel them (try to take of most of the fluff as well, but don’t worry too much if you can’t get it off), and pop them in a food processor or blender. Grind them up until you’ve got a flour that’s fine enough to work with. Weigh to make sure you’ve got enough, then mix it with the normal flour. Add the eggs, mix well, and as soon as you’ve got a relatively smooth dough, start working it with your hands. Add more flour if it’s too sticky, or a little bit of water if it’s dry (which will depend for a large part on how dry your chestnuts were before you made them into flour – remember there’s not right or wrong here, just different).

My new name is miller. Because I mill shit and shit. Never mind.I call this piece "conker".

When you’ve got a smooth ball, roll it up into some cling film and let it rest for anything from half an hour up to half a day. Now either

a) use your awesome pasta machine to make some bad ass tagliatelle. Experiment with thickness, see what works for you. Keep in mind that too thick will take longer to cook and the chestnut flour might come out a little bit chewy as it is, whilst too thin will make your pasta fall apart if the flour is quite coarsely ground. Aim roughly for the middle ground.

b) roll your pasta out with a rolling pin to the desired thickness (about 1,5 mm probably), dust with flour, roll it up, cut into strips of about 1 cm thick, roll those out and BEHOLD!, you have beautiful tagliatelle.

Try to cut your tagliatelle as close to cooking them as possible – if they are slightly sticky they’ll be harder to pull apart the longer you wait. I make these mistakes so you don’t have to.

No one even reads thiiiiisss But daaayyyyummmm girl, that's some decent pasta

Now that you’ve got the hard part out of the way, roast and chop up some hazelnuts, grate your cheese, grab a knob of butter and some olive oil, and chuck all of this in with the pasta after you’ve boiled and drained it. This shit will blow your minds, people.

you fill me with sweet chestnutty goodness

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A cake that makes your friends go “woah”

Ever since the Great British Bake-Off, amateur bakers all over the UK have started setting themselves impossibly high standards. No longer satisfied with normal cakes, everyone suddenly started making three-tiered cakes, tuiles and other such stuff. I escaped this madness by the grace of not owning a television, so I’m still totally cool with not being able to make mille-feuille or croquembouche.

Unfortunately, the internet is doing to me what Great British Bake-off did to most others. Everyone and their dog is now into cake decorating and obviously, all of these pieces of art need to be posted online. I spend way too much time gawking at cakes that look like the Eye of Sauron, six-packs of Guinness, cats or giant hamburgers – things these cakes are all distinctly not but are made to look like for reasons I cannot quite fathom.

Despite all of my protestations of “a cake should taste good, not look good”, I kinda started feeling like a bit of a loser with all of my plain, boring, cake-looking cakes, and I felt that I also wanted to make something shiny and impressive. It’s just that I really suck at icing. I tried, it didn’t go down well.

I decided to scour the internet for some cheats that even a baking numpty like me could handle. I found some interesting creations that look impressive without actually being impressive. This one’s pretty famous by now, you may have seen it already. It’s essentially a dead plain Victoria sandwich that you cover with biscuits and m&ms. I think a plain Victoria might even be slightly nicer, but I wanted to go for the woah factor. It worked.

cake

For one shiny flashy show-off cake, use:

  • 200 gr flour
  • 200 gr softened butter
  • 200 gr sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 sachet baking powder
  • an espresso cup of milk

For topping and decorating:

  • 250 ml of fresh cream (for whipping)
  • some vanilla-flavoured icing sugar (or just plain, what do you care)
  • a few tbsp of jam of your choice (but strawberry’s best)
  • a couple of packs of long chocolate biscuits like in the picture
  • a bag of m&ms, with or without peanut centre

Beat the sugar together with the eggs. Add the flour, the butter, the baking powder and half the milk – use the other half if you think the batter looks particularly dense. Pop half of the micture in a buttered cake tin (a smallish one, about 20cm) and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes on 200°C. Repeat with the rest of the batter so that you end up with two Victoria sponges.

Whip your whipping cream with the vanilla sugar, as much as you think is appropriate – I don’t like mine too sweet.

Once the sponges are cool, put the first one on whichever surface you want to serve your cakes on (in my case the signature black plate you see in tonnes of my pictures, mostly because the crockery is rather limited in my house). Cover with jam, then with some of the whipped cream, then put the second cake on top. Now lather both of them with whipped cream so that your decorations will stick.

Start by attaching the biscuits to the sides – the cream should keep them up. Then sprinkle m&ms on top until most of the whipped cream is invisible. Serve to children or easily impressionable adults.

IMG_2052 IMG_2059 IMG_2025 IMG_2027 IMG_2029 IMG_2032 IMG_2050

Posted in Desserts, Food, Sweets and desserts | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The train companions that saved my hungry ass

Because China’s so fucking big, train trips tend to last a fair bit, and Chinese people invariably bring shittonnes of food with them. In general, Chinese people seem to travel with as much as they can possibly carry, but half of all their luggage seemed to be food designated for the trip. The most popular item was undoubtedly pot noodles, but apart from pot noodles people brought on fruit, cakes, tupperware boxes with home-cooked stuff, funky Chinese sweeties that I couldn’t really place, dried meats and fish, bread, anything, really.

Check out some Chinese people travelling with as much shit as they can possibly carry:
image

image

I was always unaccompanied on my train trips, and I think the sight of a young, lonely white chick on a big-ass Chinese train by herself awoke some maternal instincts in the middle-aged ladies I encountered, because they invariably offered me food, usually saying something like “mei you“. In this situation, this phrase is most logically interpreted as “you don’t have any”, which was almost never true, because I did normally have food on me but was too embarrassed because at this point I’d already accepted their delicious dried fish with savoury pancake/walnuts/mooncake/tiny apricots (of course after the obligatory initial polite refusal).

I was always dead happy with whatever I was offered, more so than normal on one particular journey. On a certain 16-hour train trip, karma had decided to give my ass a thorough whooping after I’d used my old student card to get into some attraction for half money. I’d saved myself about 30 quid with this fraudulent behaviour, and clearly the universe wasn’t for having it, because after an unfortunate 15-minutes of unsuccesfully hunting down ATM’s in the railway station, I ended up having to run my legs off to catch my train with only 6 kuai, or 70ct, and zero food or water on my person. Yeah, those 16 hours were gonna suck.

Or so I thought, because as ever, middle-aged Chinese ladies came to my rescue! I was offered some fruit, a moon cake, and then something I never thought could be so delicious: boiled peanuts.

It’s weird man, I’d never even considered boiling peanuts, but really, they are legumes and therefore totally suitable for boiling! I decided to try this shit at home. However, what I hadn’t realised when I put my peanuts on the fire at around 4 pm, getting ready for a good late-afternoon peanut-and-beer snack moment, is that you have to boil these motherfuckers for like, four hours. I kid you not, they take forever, because most peanuts that you buy in their shell are actually dried, and so you need to rehydrate them.

Dammit, that ruined my late-afternoon snack, at least for that day, because you can keep them and eat them cold the next day. Don’t keep them too long, they’ll go funny, but a night in the fridge (in their own cooking liquid) they’ll survive. Or you can go for the other, better solution: soak them in cold water overnight and boil them for one hour only.

image

image

Here we go! Boiled peanuts, as they have them in China:

  • one baggie full of raw peanuts in their shell – a sandwich bag full should do
  • a whole bunch of water
  • 3 espresso cups of salt
  • optional: a couple of star anise, if you like that flavour

You’ll also need a big-ass pan!

So pop your peanuts in a big pan of water and leave them like that overnight. It’ll take longer but it’ll cost less in gas.

Next day, grab the biggest pot you have, and fill it with water. Now chuck in three espresso cups of salt and the star anise. Bring to a boil, then chuck in your peanuts. Boil them for an hour and a half, drain, then eat straight away! The shells will be super easy to open and the peanuts inside will be soft and salty, and totally legume-like and not nut-like at all.

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Every day is barbecue day when you’re in China

One of my favourite things about my trip in China were the ubiquitous barbecues. From about 5pm until around midnight, you’ll find barbecues on every other street corner (and long after midnight you’ll still find some scattered here and there, although much fewer). They look a bit like this, usually:

barbecue guy in Jilin

Long and thin, perfectly sized to put all your skewers shoulder to shoulder whilst preventing the ends from falling in and burning to ashes. Normally there would be a big table with a tonne of different skewers on there – beef, pork, chicken, tofu, but sometimes also fish and usually a nice selection of vegetables. Each skewer costs anything from half a yuan (0.06) to maybe 5 yuan (about 0.70) for the more expensive ones.

In Scotland, or in Europe in general, when people decide to have grilled meats after regular dinner time, it’s usually because they’re drunk. The Chinese don’t seem to be heavy drinkers, which must mean that they’re just awesome! Any day is barbecue day in China, and any time can be dinner time, or snack time, or general grilled meats time. I had a fuckload of barbecue dinners, because they’re so convenient: you can pick what you want to eat yourself, so it requires very little deciphering of menus and trying to speak Chinese to impatient waiters. (Incidentally I also had a whole load of drunken barbie snack times, but that’s another story for another day.)

This man saw quite a lot of my drunken face, as he was stationed right outside my hostel in Shanghai. The guy was a gem - he knew my favourite skewers after one night.

This man saw quite a lot of my drunken face, as he was stationed right outside my hostel in Shanghai. The guy was a gem – he knew my favourite skewers after only one night.

Picking your skewers required a certain degree of caution and care – Chinese tastes are distinctly different from your average European taste, and although I would like to brag I bravely chewed my way through duck’s face and chicken’s claw, I can’t say I was tough enough to even order them. The skewers usually looked innocent enough, but sometimes you’d find yourself stuck with something like chicken cartilage or pork toes when you were expecting something really quite different.

With the vegetables, however, you could never go wrong, because they were always goddamn excellent. My favourite skewers were the ones with garlic shoots and the ones with needle mushrooms, and I always made sure to grab a few of those no matter what. They’d be grilled in no time, covered in a red, spicy oil that really just made everything and anything delicious (even the chicken cartilage, once you got over the crunching sounds).

Here’s a selection of the most delicious things you could get from the night-time barbecues on half of China’s street corners. Some of these items require a little bit of a quest, but if your city has a large-ish Chinese supermarket, you’re sure to find everything you need there. If you’re currently unable to barbecue, for example because you don’t own a barbecue, or because the weather is shit and will be for the next six months, you can use your favourite griddle, which is what I did.

tasty tasty inside barbecue

Go and get:

  • some very lean beef – about 200gr will make you 8 skewers, because we’re making thin slices
  • some needle mushrooms – 100 gr will make for 10 parcels
  • some thinly sliced bacon or pancetta – for making the mushrooms parcels, one slice per parcel
  • some garlic shoots – about 150 gr for 6-8 skewers
  • some garlic chives – about 150 gr for about 8 skewers

Also, for the delicious oily substance:

  • 8 tsp of sunflower oil
  • 3 tsp of red paprika
  • just a pinch of chili powder (really, don’t exaggerate, I made that mistake so you don;t have to)
  • one tsp of salt (which seems a lot but isn’t, when you think about how much stuff you’re spreading it out over)
  • 2 tsp of cumin – I like whole seeds, you can use powder if you want
  • half a tsp of sugar

I asked the guys from the shop if they knew more about this oil. They were convinced it was oyster sauce I had been eating all this time. I’m definitely sure it wasn’t, but oyster sauce is delicious, so I bought a bottle anyway. If you feel like mixing spicy oil is out of your sphere of interest, go oyster sauce.

Some notes on the ingredients.

The needle mushrooms were the most difficult item to find in my case, especially since they’re apparently not in season just now – I got some in a tin and some slightly more fresh-looking ones in plastic, which worked fine. See what you can get and work with that. In case you need to ask at the shop, they’re called jīn zhēn .

The garlic shoots I managed to find here are a little thicker than what I usually got in China, but the flavour is the same. They go by different names in different parts of China, but I asked for suan miao which seemed to work.

Then there’s garlic chives, which are also known as Chinese chives (and apparently also as Oriental chives and Chinese leek, because to Hell with consistency and logic) and these are really awesome. They’re from the garlic and onion family and they were completely new to me. Chinese shops with a decent vegetable section should sell these. Ask for jiǔ cài.

funky ingredients

Start by making your spicy oil. Just take all the ingredients from the ingredients list and chuck them in a bowl together. Mix well, and that’s it.

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Now start on your skewers. Cut any wooden-looking bits of your garlic shoots, then cut them up in pieces of about 8cm. Put about 8 of those on a skewer together, brush lightly with some spicy oil and grill them.

Wash your garlic chives and put them in a colander for a while. If you need to, gently dry them off with a clean towel. Now grab a skewer and start piercing the bits of the chives where it’s round and not leafy – you’ll see what I mean. Thread a few on a skewer, push close together and grill them. These are prone to drying up and burning, so lather them with spicy oil before you start.

this is how you skewer thin, sticky vegetables

Depending on what needle mushrooms you got (fresh or from a tin), they’ll be completely cleaned and ready to use, or not. If not, cut off the bottom bit (which will probably be a bit brownish), then gently separate the mushrooms, taking care not to rip their heads off. Grab a slice of pancetta, roll your mushrooms in it with the heads still poking out. Do this to all of them and grill them. Easy on the oil, they’re quite greasy and fatty already.

needle mushrooms are so exciting

Cut up your beef in really thin slices and impale them on a skewer. As before, brush with oil and grill.

Better yet, do all of the cleaning, cutting and impaling first, then grill everything together. Serve with Chinese tea or Tsingdao!

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