Apr. 8th, 2011

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
Slim hollow green stems of stirfried water spinach are piled on a plate, glistening with liquid.  Several shreds of red chilli are tucked among them, and a pool of light creamy sauce has gathered on the base of the plate.

As I've said before, when I'm ordering for a group in a Chinese restaurant I always try to include at least one green vegetable dish. One of my favourite vegetables in this context is morning glory, also known as water spinach, water convolvulus, tong choy, ong choy, and no doubt many other names. In Mandarin, it's usually called 通菜 (tōng cài) or 空心菜 (kōng xīn cài), the latter of which, as I mentioned on Wednesday, has the splendidly gothic literal translation of "hollow-hearted vegetable". This is a pretty good description of it; it essentially consists of long, crunchy, hollow stems topped with long, thin, arrow-shaped leaves.

Depending on the other dishes in the meal, I might order it plainly stirfried (清炒/qīng chǎo), or perhaps with garlic (蒜茸/suàn róng) or ginger (姜汁/jiāng zhī); but if I'm after a more complex flavour I'll order it stirfried with fermented beancurd (腐乳/fǔ rǔ).

Fermented beancurd is basically AMAZING. I really wish I'd known about it when I was vegan. It's often described as "Chinese cheese", and the flavour is definitely reminiscent of cheese — in fact, I used some earlier this week as a lactose-free substitute for cheese in an egg dish. I've also been known to spread it on crackers for a snack with a glass of wine; its texture is a little like cream cheese, though its taste is much more assertive.

Water spinach with fermented beancurd is easy to make at home — I follow Helen Yuet Ling Pang's adaptation of a recipe by Ken Hom (edit, May 2011: though next time I think I'll try Carolyn J Phillips' suggestion of adding some sesame oil). But if you're not sure you'll like fermented beancurd, give it a go in a restaurant some time — you may be pleasantly surprised!

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

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