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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!