kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2012-02-02 07:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: 辣椒油 — là jiāo yóu — chilli oil

Description follows.

[Image: A close-up view on some bright red chilli oil in a glass jar. A sedimental layer of sesame seeds and crushed dried chillies is visible at the bottom.]

As you may have noticed, it's technically February now. However, as I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, I haven't finished doing everything I intended to do in January, so I declare today to be the 33rd of January. And so it's still ingredient month! Each week in January I'm covering a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.

The final ingredient of this year's ingredient month is chilli oil, which has a number of different names in Chinese. You may see it as 辣油 (là yóu, literally "spicy oil"), 辣椒油 (là jiāo yóu/"spicy chilli oil"), or perhaps 紅油 (hóng yóu). The last of these, 紅油, is the one I've seen most often on menus; it literally means "red oil", a good description in my opinion!

Chilli oil is an essential component in Sichuan food — in fact, Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery lists 紅油味型 (hóng yóu wèi xíng), or "red-oil flavour", as being one of the 23 essential flavours of Sichuan[1]. However, it's also used in other Chinese cuisines as well as cuisines from other areas of East and South-East Asia. Even Cantonese cuisine, which certainly doesn't have a reputation for being particularly spicy, has uses for chilli oil; for example, [blogspot.com profile] eatlovenoodles recently posted about the chilli oil at Gold Mine, one of his favourite Cantonese barbecue restaurants (he notes in comments that it goes particularly well with their soup noodles). Chilli oil is also frequently found as a table condiment (and one which, unlike soy sauce, is actually used by those "fluent" in Chinese cuisine, not just the newbies!)

Like sesame oil, chilli oil is not used directly for cooking, but is added to stirfried dishes at the last minute, incorporated in dressings for cold dishes, or simply used as a dipping sauce on its own. Unlike sesame oil, however, chilli oil is not extracted from the plant for which it is named, but rather is an infusion based on a milder-flavoured oil such as peanut oil.

To make chilli oil, the base oil is heated with crushed dried chillies and other spices, then left to infuse. The solids may be strained out before the oil is stored, or they can be left in as shown in the photograph above, and even included in the dishes and dressings made with the oil.

The very simplest type of chilli oil is made with just oil and dried chillies, but there are many variations (see the links at the bottom of this post for a selection of recipes). Vegetarians, beware! Some chilli oil is flavoured with dried shrimp; I think this is more common in the Cantonese version than in the Sichuan version. The chilli oil shown above was made using Sunflower's Sichuan chilli oil recipe, flavoured with spring onion, ginger, Sichuan pepper (花椒/huā jiāo), star anise, ground-up dried chillies, and sesame seeds.

Here are some dishes that include chilli oil:

漢字pinyinEnglish
紅油豬耳hóng yóu zhū ěrpig's ears with chilli oil
Pig's ears are cooked until tender, then sliced thinly and served as a cold dish, dressed with a mixture of chilli oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, and a pinch of sugar. Similar dressings are also used for other cold dishes, such as 涼拌木耳/liáng bàn mù ěr (wood ear salad), 皮蛋豆腐/pí dàn dòu fu (beancurd with century egg), and 涼拌三絲/liáng bàn sān sī (three-sliver salad).
紅油抄手hóng yóu chāo shǒuwontons in chilli oil
A common dim sum dish. 紅油 refers to the chilli oil used to dress this dish — "red oil", as mentioned above — while 抄手, literally "crossed hands", is the Sichuan term for wontons.
酸辣豆花suān là dòu huāhot-and-sour "flower" beancurd
The sediment of the chilli oil should be included in this dish, for extra flavour and texture.
夫妻肺片fū qī fèi piànmarried couple's lung slices
Despite the name I give here, which is literally translated from the Chinese, this Sichuan cold dish doesn't usually contain lung, but rather a combination of sliced beef and various offal such as tripe, tongue, and heart.
麻婆豆腐má pó dòu fumapo tofu
This spicy Sichuan dish is cooked with chilli bean paste (豆瓣醬/dòu bàn jiàng), but I like to also finish it with a spoonful of chilli oil, for extra heat and flavour.
蒜泥白肉suàn ní bái ròupork with mashed garlic
The dressing for this cold dish is based on chopped raw garlic and chilli oil — pungent and spicy. If you like this, you may also enjoy 口水雞/kǒu shuǐ jī (mouthwatering chicken).

And here are some links to other people's posts:

1 Interestingly, although chillies are now firmly embedded in Sichuan cuisine, they only arrived in Sichuan a few centuries ago. According to Zhang Tingquan's translation of Chinese Imperial Cuisines and Eating Secrets, chillies were first brought to China from South America around the end of the 1600s; prior to this, people living in the area now known as Sichuan preferred other flavours, such as sweet foods (during the Three Kingdoms period, circa 220-265 CE[2]) or pungent foods flavoured with ginger, mustard, chives, or onions (during the Jin Dynasty, 265-420 CE). Chillies do however have a very long history of use in other parts of the world; according to Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food, "[w]ild chillies were being gathered and eaten in Mexico c.7000 BCE, and were cultivated there before 3500 BC."

2 According to Wikipedia, the state of Shu, which at the time of the Three Kingdoms occupied land that is now in Sichuan, was conquered by Wei, another of the Three Kingdoms, in 263. Wei was in turn conquered by the Jin Dynasty in 265. The takeover of the Three Kingdoms was completed in 280, when the third state, Wei, fell to Jin.

Characters mentioned in this post:
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.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2012-01-27 04:30 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Ingredients: 粉絲 — fěn sī — glass noodles

Description follows.

[Image: A large dark plate with two piles of thin, translucent noodles, one on each side. The pile on the left is somewhat larger and has fewer straggly ends.]

It's still ingredient month! Each week in January I'm covering a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.

This week's ingredient is perhaps my favourite type of noodle: 粉絲 (fěn sī). These thin, translucent noodles are made from various starches[1]; the ones I'm most familiar with are pictured above and are made from mung bean starch, but I've also come across versions made from sweet potato starch.

粉絲 have several names in English: glass noodles, cellophane noodles, bean thread noodles, bean threads, glass vermicelli, mung bean vermicelli. They are also sometimes referred to simply as "vermicelli", but I find this name rather too general, as it can also be used for noodles made from rice or wheat[2]. [blogspot.com profile] sunflower-recipes points out in comments that in Chinese you may also see them listed as 冬粉 (dōng fěn), 粉條 (fěn tiáo), 紅薯粉條 (hóng shǔ fěn tiáo), or 紅薯粉絲 (hóng shǔ fěn sī), with the 紅薯 in the last two of these indicating sweet potato.

Glass noodles are soaked in warm or hot water before use, for varying lengths of time from 15 minutes up to two hours. One thing to note about them is that they're very hard to break apart when dry. For this reason, they're sold in bunches of several different sizes; I prefer to buy the ones sold in multipacks of 50g bags, despite the extra packaging involved, since this gives the most flexibility (50g is around the right amount for a single serving).

When purchasing 粉絲, it's important to check the ingredients. My favourite brand, originally recommended to me by [blogspot.com profile] sunflower-recipes, is Longkou (龍口); the ingredients in these are listed as "peas, green bean, water" in English and "豌豆,綠豆,水" in Chinese. They're pictured after soaking on the left in the photo above, and I also have photos of the packaging and the unsoaked noodles.

One to avoid is Tiantan (天壇) brand, which are shown on the right in the photo above (and before soaking in this photo). They include cornstarch (玉米澱粉); this weakens the noodles, making them much more likely to break. You need to be careful here, since the Tiantan packaging is deliberately designed to mimic the Longkou packaging, right down to using the same photos for the serving suggestions.

Here are some dishes made with 粉絲:

漢字pinyinEnglish
螞蟻上樹mǎ yǐ shàng shùants climbing a tree
This poetically-named dish consists of glass noodles (the tree) cooked with pork mince (the ants), chilli bean sauce, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and a pinch of sugar.
羅漢齋luó hàn zhāiBuddha's delight/monk's vegetables
The proper Chinese version of this dish bears no resemblance to the limp collection of tinned vegetables that often turns up in Anglicised Chinese takeaway food. Glass noodles are a must-have ingredient, particularly when served at Chinese New Year, as their long lengths symbolise long life.
涼拌三絲liáng bàn sān sīthree-sliver salad
The name of this dish literally means "cold mixed three threads"; one of the threads is usually 粉絲, while the others might be finely-julienned kelp, carrot, wood ear fungus, or lightly blanched spinach.
越式炸春卷yuè shì zhà chūn juǎnVietnamese-style spring rolls
A popular dim sum dish, these deep-fried rice-paper-wrapped rolls include glass noodles in the filling along with minced pork and prawns and various finely-chopped or shredded vegetables.
酸菜魚suān cài yúfish soup with pickled greens
This sour and savoury fish soup sometimes includes glass noodles along with the fish and pickled greens.

And here are some links to other people's posts about them:

1 I've previously posted about another type of noodle made from mung bean starch, 拉皮 (lā pí); these are much thicker and sturdier, and are used in dishes such as 東北拉皮 (Dōngběi lā pí).

2 In Chinese, rice vermicelli are 米粉 (mǐ fěn). I'm not entirely sure of the general Chinese name for wheat vermicelli, but I do know of one type called 麵線 (miàn xiàn), which are popular in Taiwan; see Wikipedia for a little more info on these.

Characters mentioned in this post:
Other related posts:
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.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2012-01-15 02:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Ingredients: 醬油 / 豉油 — jiàng yóu / chǐ yóu — soy sauce

Description follows.

[Image: Two small white saucers, one containing light soy sauce and the other containing dark soy sauce. The saucers have been tilted to show that the dark soy sauce is much more viscous.]

As I mentioned in last week's post on shiitake mushrooms, January is ingredient month! Each week this month I'll cover a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.

Soy sauce is perhaps the most well-known of Chinese ingredients; here in the UK at least, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who'd never tasted this salty dark brown sauce. However, although it's a common table condiment in Chinese restaurants here, its primary use in Chinese cuisines is not for the diner to season food before eating, but rather for the chef to season food during cooking. It's also used alone and with other seasonings to create dipping sauces, but sprinkling it over your food at the dinner table is not generally likely to actually improve flavours which have already been carefully balanced by the chef.

Another nuance sometimes overlooked is that there are different types of soy sauce, and these differ between countries too. Within Chinese soy sauces, the primary division is between light and dark soy sauce; light soy sauce[see footnote] is thinner, saltier, and lighter in colour, while dark soy sauce is thicker, blacker, and characterised by flavours reminiscent of molasses or caramel. Both are used in Chinese cooking; sometimes both in the same dish.

Soy sauce has a few different names in Chinese. 醬油 (jiàng yóu) and 豉油 (chǐ yóu) are terms for soy sauce in general ([blogspot.com profile] eatlovenoodles points out in comments that the former of these is more commonly used in Mandarin and the latter in Cantonese). Light soy sauce is 生抽 (shēng chōu) and dark soy sauce is 老抽 (lǎo chōu).

Good soy sauce has a highly complex flavour. According to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, it contains "several hundred aroma molecules" including "roasty compounds (furanones and pyrazines), sweet maltol, and a number of meaty sulfur compounds". Soy sauce production is a lengthy process involving various enzymes, yeasts, and bacteria. Even the final pasteurisation plays a role in creating flavour, with browning reactions occurring between the sugars and amino acids.

Here are some dishes in which soy sauce is indispensable:

漢字pinyinEnglish
醬牛肉jiàng niú ròusoy sauce braised beef
Beef braised with dark soy sauce and various spices, then chilled, sliced, and served as an appetiser. Su-Lin has a comprehensive post on jiang niu rou, including a recipe.
酸辣豆花suān là dòu huāhot-and-sour "flower" beancurd
Soy sauce is combined with ingredients such as chilli oil, Sichuan pepper, sesame oil, and Chinese black vinegar to create a savoury, fragrant dressing for a bowl of ultra-soft tofu.
皮蛋豆腐pí dàn dòu fubeancurd with century egg
Similar ingredients to the above, but a different balance and a very different result.
口水鷄kǒu shuǐ jīmouthwatering chicken
This is one of my favourite Chinese cold dishes. The name suggests that it's so delicious it will make your mouth water.
地三鮮dì sān xiānthree fresh things from the earth
Homely, comforting, and meat-free, this dish of deep-fried potato, aubergine, and green pepper is flavoured with light and dark soy sauce, garlic, spring onion, and a little sugar or sweet bean sauce.
鐵蛋tiě dàniron eggs
A specialty of Taiwan, "iron eggs" are hard-boiled chicken, duck, or quail eggs that are then shelled and simmered repeatedly in a spiced, soy-sauce-based broth until they turn shiny black and chewy. Su-Lin was kind enough to share some of hers with me last year; here's a photo. They look a little like black olives!

And here are some links to other people's posts about soy sauce:

Footnote: In the USA and possibly elsewhere, "light soy sauce" may be taken to mean "low-sodium soy sauce". In her book Cooking From China's Fujian Province, Jacqueline M Newman suggests "thin soy sauce" as an alternative term; I've not seen this in wider use, though.

Characters mentioned in this post:
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.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2012-01-05 04:30 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Ingredients: 香菇/冬菇 — xiāng gū/dōng gū — shiitake mushrooms

Description follows.

[Image: Dried shiitake piled up in a heap. The dark brown tops of the mushrooms bear a characteristic cracked pattern, though some also appear to have been cut and scored to accentuate the natural cracks.]

It's 2012 already! How did that happen? And it's Lunar New Year soon as well!

I've decided that January on this blog is going to be a themed month — not themed around a type of food, like the dim sum months I have each August, but themed around a type of post. Each week in January I'll cover a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.

Since today marks the end of the 22nd solar term, 冬至 (dōng zhì/winter solstice), I thought it appropriate to choose an ingredient that includes the character 冬 (dōng/winter) in one of its names: shiitake[see footnote]. These mushrooms are used both fresh and dried, and come in different grades of quality (and cost).

Shiitake go by several names in Chinese, including 香菇 (xiāng gū/"fragrant mushrooms"), 冬菇 (dōng gū/"winter mushrooms"), 北菇 (běi gū/"northern mushrooms"), and 花菇 (huā gū/"flower mushrooms"). In English, they may be called "shiitake", "shiitake mushrooms", "Chinese mushrooms", or "Chinese black mushrooms". The ones pictured above were labelled 精品白花菇 (jīng pǐn bái huā gū) in Chinese and "super white flower mushroom" in English. (精品 means "good quality" and 白 means "white".)

I'm not entirely sure of the nuances/differences between the different Chinese names. I think 花菇 (huā gū/flower mushroom) is reserved for the higher grades of dried shiitake, as the crackled pattern that naturally forms on top of these is reminiscent of a flower. However, it's worth noting Carolyn J Phillips' warning that this pattern can also be created by cutting inferior-grade mushrooms with a razor blade! I've also formed the impression from Google searches that 北菇 (běi gū/northern mushroom) is only ever used for dried shiitake, never fresh, though I could be wrong in this hypothesis.

Dried and fresh shiitake differ in terms of flavour and texture, and tend to be used in different ways. I personally consider the dried ones to be generally much more useful than their fresh counterparts; the drying process concentrates and improves the flavour, and gives a nice chew to the texture after the mushrooms are reconstituted. Good-quality dried shiitake are wonderfully perfumed — at home, if I don't double-bag them then the entire pantry ends up smelling of them.

To use dried shiitake, soak them in warm water for at least 30 minutes, then use as required. The soaking water takes on plenty of mushroom flavour, and can be used as stock for making soups or stews — though do make sure to let any grit settle to the bottom first, and then pour off the liquid carefully, discarding the gritty sediment.

Shiitake are used in many Chinese dishes. Sometimes they're left whole and constitute a prominent part of the dish, other times they're chopped finely and used to add to the general flavour and texture. Here are some examples:

漢字pinyinEnglish
羅漢齋luó hàn zhāiBuddha's delight/monk's vegetables
According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the shiitake in this dish "welcome spring and symbolize seizing opportunities".
糯米雞nuò mǐ jīglutinous rice in lotus leaf
For me, the three canonical ingredients in this (aside from the rice) are chicken (雞/jī), Chinese sausage (臘腸/là cháng), and shiitake.
粽子zòngziglutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves
Although zòngzi bear some resemblances to nuò mǐ jī, they aren't the same thing.
蜂巢炸芋角fēng cháo zhà yù jiǎocrispy deep-fried taro croquettes
The mushrooms in this tasty dim sum dish are chopped finely to form part of the filling.
蘿蔔糕luó bo gāopan-fried turnip cake
Dried shiitake are used along with dried prawns and Chinese sausage to provide little savoury "nuggets" in the soft daikon-based cake.
火鍋huǒ guōhotpot/steamboat
Shiitake can be used both to make the hotpot stock (medicinal/herbal stock often includes them along with other dried ingredients) and as ingredients for cooking in the stock. They're particularly useful in vegetarian/vegan hotpot, as they add a lot of flavour to the stock.

And here are some links to other people's posts about dried shiitake and other mushrooms:

Footnote: The name "shiitake" is derived from Japanese, not Chinese. However, I believe it to be the most commonly-used name for these mushrooms in English, so I'm using it here in preference to any other. A similar dilemma arises for "tofu" vs. "beancurd"; Fuchsia Dunlop recently discussed this on her blog. It's worth also noting that "shiitake" in Japanese literally means "shii mushroom", so "shiitake mushroom" is perhaps a little redundant, along the lines of "PIN number", though it can be useful to aid comprehensibility.

Characters mentioned in this post:
Other related posts:
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.