15 Minute Stir-Fry Dinner

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When I’m tired from a hard day’s work but don’t want to cop out by having instant noodles, I go the wholesome route by doing a quick stir-fry. This time, a quick run through the supermarket got me some organic choy sum, mixed agro-tech mushrooms, ginger and some pork shoulder. Once I got home, I washed and cut the vegetables quickly, then sliced the mushrooms, ginger and pork. (I can never be bothered to wash them.) That takes about 10 minutes and then the stir-fry itself takes 5 minutes. If there’s leftover rice in the fridge, then a 2 minute microwave sorts out the rice. If not, it’s a 5 minute boil of noodles. No, the minutes don’t add up to 15 because a lot of them are done simultaneously. After that short time of quick work, a piping hot and very home-cooked satisfying dinner.

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Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
6 thin slices of ginger
handful mushrooms, cut into chunks
small piece pork, sliced
good splash Chinese shaoxing wine or dry sherry
salt to taste
soy sauce to taste

Method:

  1. Heat your wok over the highest possible flame. Coat the wok with the oil and allow to get as hot as you dare. Make sure all your ingredients are ready.
  2. Slide in the ginger (gingerly!) and stir. Just before the ginger burns, toss in the pork. Stir rapidly till just about cooked, then add the mushrooms and keep stirring furiously. Now add the vegetables and keep going till the leaves are completely wilted.
  3. Splash in the Chinese wine and add salt and soy sauce to taste. Turn off the heat and serve over rice or noodles.

Serves 1.

The Art of Stir-Fry

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Stir-frying is actually quite simple, as long as you’re quite brave too! Most home cooks only do it on medium heat, resulting in food that’s more steamed than fried. Stir-frying requires a very hot wok and all the ingredients, in small quantities, on the ready. This makes sure that the food is fried quickly and you get that barely charred taste.

Here’s how to do it. First, heat a dry wok till very hot. Then add the oil, swirling to coat most of the wok. Wait till the oil starts to shimmer and barely smoke. Make sure the ingredients are ready. Add the aromatics, like chopped garlic, and stir like mad. When it’s fragrant, add the rest of your ingredients according to how long they take to cook, and keep stirring. Turn off the flame and then season.

Here are some ideas:

Almost Sambal Kang Kong

Ingredients:

2 tsp belachan (about thumb-size)
1 tbsp oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 chilli padi, finely chopped
1 bunch kang kong

Method:

  1. Toast the belachan in a dry wok until brown on both sides. Crush using a mortar and pestle.
  2. Add oil to the hot wok and when oil is shimmering, add the shallots and fry till fragrant.
  3. Toss in the chilli padi, belachan and kang kong and fry till kang kong turns deep green.

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Watercress and Tau Kwa Stir-Fried in Tau Cheow

Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cake tau kwa, cut into squares
1 bunch watercress, torn to small sections
1 tbsp tau cheow, crushed

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till oil shimmers, then add the garlic. Fry till fragrant.
  2. Add the tau kwa and fry till tau kwa is browned but not burnt.
  3. Add the watercress and tau cheow and fry till the veg turns deep green.

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Chicken, Mushroom and Bean Fry

Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
as many mushrooms as you like, cut into strips
1 chicken breast, cut into small chunks
handful fine french beans, cut into sticks
2 tbsp shaoxing wine

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till shimmering. Add the mushrooms and fry till browned.
  2. Add the chicken and fry till browned slightly on all sides.
  3. Now add the french beans and fry for a few seconds.
  4. Add the shaoxing wine and stir till it stops bubbling, then turn off the heat. Add salt to taste.

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All recipes serve two. (Or one greedy person.)

China Memories: Shaoxing Braised Pork

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Mum bought some preserved vegetable from Shaoxing. It’s called mei cai but is quite different from the type used in Hakka braised pork. This version is slightly fermented and has a lovely pungent, almost loamy mushroomy aroma. I braised using a slightly more Western technique by putting it in the oven for a long, slow braise. This  renders out a lot of the fat and makes for soft, yielding meat. It’s up to you if you want to do the hellish job of skimming the fat. I suggest just savouring the dish as is the first time round and put the leftovers in the fridge. The next morning, scrape off the white fat layer from the top.

I have no idea whether this is available outside China, but I suppose you could try using Hakka mei cai or any preserved leafy vegetables. It’s a very simple recipe, so use the best ingredients you can find.

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Ingredients:

600 g belly pork, skin and fat on
100 g Shaoxing mei cai
1 cup Shaoxing wine

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 150ºC and heat a casserole dish and lid to heat at the same time.
  2. Cut the pork into large chunks. Make sure you cut against the grain, pretend that you’re cutting out ginormous pieces of siu yok. Pat dry with some kitchen towel, especially the skin part.
  3. Heat a non-stick frying pan to the hottest you can and sear the pork on all sides, skin side down first. Be very careful as the skin will start to blister and pop and hiss and do all sorts of hair-raising (and hair-singeing) things. Be brave!
  4. Take out the casserole dish from the oven and transfer the seared pork inside.
  5. Now off the heat, deglaze the frying pan by pouring the wine in using one swift motion. It will boil but should not spit. Scrape the bottom of the pan so you get all the burnt and good-tasting bits off and pour the lot into the casserole dish.
  6. Add the mei cai and mix the whole lot around. Top up with some hot water if you need, till it just covers the meat.
  7. Cover the casserole dish and stick in the oven for three to four hours, depending on how impatient you are. After half an hour or so, check that the braise is bubbling gently. One or two bubbles per second is fine, just make sure it’s not boiling furiously (lower the oven temperature if it is). If you’re bored or very hands on, stir it once or twice during the cooking process.
  8. It’s done when you can’t wait or till the meat is tender and a lot of the fat has rendered out. Serve with lots of rice.

For two or three people as a main dish.

November in China: Shaoxing’s Most Famous Son

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Aside from its wine and stinky tofu, Shaoxing is especially famous for the writer and intellectual, Lu Xun. The whole historic quarter of the town is devoted to his memory. Here, the boats in the canals form a pretty backdrop to the various Lu Xun museums dotting the area.

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Just by showing our passports at the ticket office, we got a free combination ticket to see all the various museums. They were pretty much a few houses with exhibits showcasing the different aspects of Lu Xun’s life. One of them displayed various portraits of Lu Xun’s family.

Here’s a rather depressing charcoal of his father.

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And a dour facsimile of his paternal grandfather.

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His mother, from whom he takes his pen name, looks very kind and maternal.

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Sadly, I can’t say the same for his scary dragon-lady lookalike grandmother.

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Here’s Lu Xun’s badly maintained bedroom. Shame on them for leaving the room to bare wire and damp floors. I couldn’t get close enough to get a good photo, the hordes of tourists kept pressing in around me.

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And out we popped into the open, where there was a singer performing Cantonese opera, of all things. Of course, everyone had to take photos and I certainly wasn’t an odd one out here.

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The domestic tourists came in packs and there really was no fighting them. Just go with the flow and all will be well. Take copious photos just like the rest of them.

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Children are well-pampered here, especially if they’re out on a trip with their family. Here, this little boy poses for a picture, channeling Lu Xun as a child. He sat at his grandmother’s feet listening to her many folk tales. Some of these stories subsequently went on to influence his works.

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It’s just as well that entry was free. It took us about two hours to finish the entire complex, then we went off to search for more food to eat and more wine to buy (and drink).

November in China: Of Wine and Stinky Tofu

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The drive from Ningbo to Shaoxing had much of the same dreariness. Knowing how similar tourist places were, we matched our expectations with the weather, bracing ourselves for yet another tourist trap.

Shaoxing city proper was a typical Chinese city with lots of grey buildings and little else. The tiny historic quarter was different. It had lots of old restored buildings, canals, and tiny lanes. We had to leave the car behind and transfer to the hotel’s minivan.

Our boutique far exceeded expectations. It was an old building with rooms surrounding a private inner courtyard. Mum and Dad were enchanted. I especially liked the slate roof and red lanterns.

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The rooms made it extra special. I had a traditional canopy bed, a mahjongg table and a rattan rocking chair. My parents had a modified opium bed with pretty carvings. The bedding, though, was thoroughly modern, with soft pillows and mattresses, unlike the typically hard beds in the rest of China!

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For breakfast, we had the local carb-rich fare: youtiao (deep-fried dough fritter), mantou (steamed bun), bao (steamed bun with filling) and watery rice porridge. The porridge was eaten with a cube of furu, fermented tofu in several styles. It was smooth, salty and almost cheesy, somewhat like goat cheese. Yum.

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Of course, that little bit for breakfast wasn’t enough. I had to conquer another frontier, chou doufu (stinky tofu), which originates in these parts. These are sold in push carts all over town, each claiming to be the best in town, each proclaiming to be stinkier than the rest. They can be spotted a block away, just from the special aroma reminiscent of rotting garbage.

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I bought two pieces of stink on a stick for ¥1. It’s actually not too bad. It’s crisp and salty on the outside and smooth and silky on the inside. Somehow the smell didn’t really bother me when I ate it. It just wasn’t very stinky when I got close. Mum kept her distance from me and Dad as we hit the museum.

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Soon we were hungry (again) and went to Shaoxing’s best restaurant for lunch. We had to order the famous cold dishes, drunken chicken and drunken fish. Not a regional specialty, but still good was braised firm tofu with fresh herbs. These were a fab departure from the usual oil-laden fare.

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The drunken fish was some kind of raw salted fish then soaked in shaoxing wine. It was salty and, well, fishy with a mild fragrance from the wine and a mild alcoholic kick. Great to nibble on with hot tea before lunch proper.

The chicken was something closer to home. Mum makes it quite often, though she does it Taiwanese style by steaming then dousing in wine. Here, the traditional way is to poach the chicken in wine and leave it to soak. It’s heavenly, like a  very grown-up interpretation of Hainanese chicken.

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Now after all that eating, we proceeded to the drinking, or rather the buying for future drinking. Shaoxing is especially famous for its rice wine. It has to be made from a particular lake in the town before it can be called Shaoxing wine. Though this being China, I doubt many wines are really made using water from that lake. Out of the myriad types, we chose hua tiao (medium, quite like sherry) and nu’er hong (dry and slightly savoury).

I think we spent enough to give this shop its year-end bonus. It had a mind-bloggling array of rice wines all made in the region. I can’t imagine how each bottle differs from the other, it’s quite different from regular wine where the grapes are different and the vintages are different. Here, the rice and water must be pretty much the same and while the wine is aged, it’s not done according to the year like wine. Yet, each brand claimed to be different and indeed the  ones we tried all tasted quite unique.

In the end, we bought six mini-bottles as gifts, three big bottles of good aged wine for personal consumption and one big bottle for cooking. The sales lady was taken aback by our request to have the oldest possible wine for cooking. Shaoxing natives normally use cheap new wine for cooking, but we found that we could tell the difference. She was horrified that we wanted to cook with a five-year old wine. We settled for a three-year old instead.

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