A couple of weekends ago was Chinese New year! The year of the rabbit has ended, welcome year of the dragon. I have been so lucky this year as to make friends with a Chinese girl, and was invited to a small celebration. Yuxiao (that’s her name) had bought lots of Chinese food and a pack of Chinese beers, and she was going to cook us all kinds of typical dishes. Real Chinese food, mind you, so that’s no chips and curry, no fluorescent fu yong hay, and, good as they may be, no ravioli ai gamberi, the things you would typically buy at Chinese restaurants in the UK, the Netherlands and Italy, respectively. Instead we were served all kinds of interesting stuff that I’d never even dreamed of eating. All of it was fascinating, most of it was delicious, some of it required some getting used to. Have a look.
This is only some of it. It was like having Chinese tapas. Yuxiao had made all kinds of dishes and we all had a little bit of each.
This dish on the left is tofu with garlic shoots. That planty bit that I always tell you to remove from the garlic? If you let it grow forever it becomes a long green stick, a proper plant, and you can eat it! I never knew.
Tsingtao spring rolls, like Tsingtao beer, is from the city where Xiao used to study when she still lived in China. For some reason it is sometimes spelled Qingdao (on Wikipedia and googlemaps) and sometimes Tsingtao (everywhere else). Anyway, they were very nice.
I was really quite intimidated by the following:
These are fermented chicken eggs. I’m going to have to admit that I was being a right child about these. I try not to let my safe Dutch upbringing get in the way of how I regard food, and I will try anything, even if it seems strange to me. But these just look so different from anything that I have ever considered edible that I almost chickened out on them.
In the end I did try them. You’re meant to have them with a strong, aromatic sauce that, like almost everything else we had, involved a lot of garlic. The egg tasted mostly like egg. Just like a boiled egg. I was embarrassed of all the fuss that I’d made about trying it, but at the same time I wondered: what’s the point of going through all the trouble of fermenting them, if the flavour remains almost unchanged? The answer, undoubtedly, will be something about conserving food in times before the invention of the fridge. Fair enough.
The tastiest dish of that night must have been the spicy, sour Chinese cabbage. Oh, explosion of flavours, oh tangy Chinese vinegar, oh pleasant burn of dried chilli, it had it all. So that’s what I’ve made again at home, and that’s what we’re making today.
To serve 2, go to a Chinese supermarket and buy yourself the following:
- one Chinese cabbage (you’ll probably need only about half of it)
- a bunch of spring onion
- a load of garlic, I’d say about 6 cloves
- a bottle of dark Chinese vinegar (but not rice vinegar)
- some dried chillies
- ginger powder
- Chinese 5 spice powder
Finely chop the garlic and the spring onion. Heat some oil in a wok and add the onion and garlic. Also add some dried chilli, as much as you like, I’d say a flattened tea spoon. Cook for a couple of minutes.
Break the leaves off the cabbage, wash them if necessary and cut off a centimeter from the bottom. Cut the leafy part off the stem, chop up, not too finely.
Take the stems and cut them up, too, making sure that you create as much surface as possible where the cabbage can soak up the flavours of the vinegar and the spices. Hold the knife almost horizontal when you cut through the stems, like in the picture.
First add the stems to the wok, leave the to cook for about 5 minutes. Make sure they are cooked properly, because apparently this particular type of cabbage is poisonous when it’s only half cooked (it’s fine raw or cooked, though). Then add the leaves, too, and a teaspoon full of each ginger powder and five spice powder. Also add a pinch of salt. Leave for about a minute, then add the vinegar. I’m not sure why, but you’re meant to add it from the side of the wok, not straight into the centre. Cover with a lid and leave for a minute. Then take the lid off, mix well and it should be done!
Happy new year!