kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake

Today I want to talk about potatoes. The Mandarin Chinese word for potato is 土豆 (tǔ dòu), which literally means "bean of the earth"; I've posted about 豆/dòu/bean before, so the only new part here is 土/tǔ, which has a number of meanings including soil/earth/land. It's very rare to see 土 on a menu without 豆.

Potatoes play a rather different role in Chinese cuisines than in Western ones; rather than being a staple carb, they're treated like any other kind of vegetable. One consequence of this is that the potatoes themselves are often rather undercooked to Western tastes, particularly when served as 土豆絲 (tǔ dòu sī), or shredded potatoes, a crisp stirfry of finely-julienned potatoes cooked only very briefly to preserve the natural crunch of the vegetable.

"Undercooking" is not the only aspect that may confuse those more familiar with potatoes as a bulky side dish. Rather than being quite bland and served with a more flavourful protein or other "main" dish, a Chinese potato dish will often be deeply flavoured and even relatively spicy, and will generally be served with rice. Fuchsia Dunlop has an anecdote and some history relating to this — the comments are worth reading too, as is the Washington Post article she links to.

Another example of a dish that includes potatoes is 大盤雞 (dà pàn jī/big-plate chicken), a dish from Xinjiang in the northwest, which I posted about last week. Potatoes also appear in 地三鮮 (dì sān xiān), or "three [] fresh [] things from the earth [地]", a Dongbei (north-east Chinese) dish of aubergines, potatoes, and green peppers, all fried separately and then braised together in a savoury sauce.

Most of the Chinese potato dishes I'm familiar with, like those above, come from the cuisines of north/northeast/northwest and central China, rather than the provinces nearer the south/east/southeast coast. The ever-informative [identity profile] sung tells me in comments that this is because sweet potatoes and taro are more common than actual potatoes in the areas around the coast — and although potatoes are used in Cantonese home cooking, particularly in casserole/hotpot dishes, you're unlikely to see these dishes on a menu.

The Cantonese word for potato is 薯仔 (syu zai). This word isn't used in Mandarin, but the individual characters are; for example, the Mandarin for sweet potato is 番薯 or 蕃薯 (both pinyinised as fān shǔ).

For more thoughts on potatoes, see the eGullet thread on potatoes in Chinese cooking.

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.

Date: 2010-11-22 04:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com
I think you can already guess where this comment is coming from! Potato is better known as 薯仔 syu zai in Cantonese. You won't see potatoes on many menus serving Cantonese or food from other provinces in that south/east/southeast coast region.

That's cos sweet potatoes and taro are more commonly used in these cuisines rather than the humble spud. That said the potato is used in in Cantonese home cooking, usually in casserole/hot pot dishes.

Date: 2010-11-22 10:46 pm (UTC)
thorfinn: <user name="seedy_girl"> and <user name="thorfinn"> (Default)
From: [personal profile] thorfinn
Potatoes are in one of my favorite Chinese diaspora dishes - singapore chicken curry. :-)

Date: 2010-11-24 01:08 am (UTC)
thorfinn: <user name="seedy_girl"> and <user name="thorfinn"> (Default)
From: [personal profile] thorfinn
Hrm, I don't specifically have one for Singapore Chicken Curry that I've tried... It's one of those dishes that my mum and aunts make that I haven't tried to make properly yet. :-)

The cheat version is to buy Yeo's Singapore Chicken Curry in a can, brown some chicken, pour the can over, add potatoes and simmer... but that is nowhere near as good as the proper made from fresh version if the fresh version is done well...

Some googling and reading reveals, respectively:

NY Times: Violet Oon's Singapore chicken curry which has a link to a recipe for the curry powder too.

A different Malaysian Curry Chicken recipe (same thing as the Singapore recipe, really), which says to just buy the curry already. :-)

My personal favourite standby from the region is actually my Hainanese Chicken Rice recipe. :-) I make that all the time for dinner parties.

Date: 2010-11-25 11:26 pm (UTC)
thorfinn: <user name="seedy_girl"> and <user name="thorfinn"> (Default)
From: [personal profile] thorfinn
Give my recipe a go, it's surprisingly easy to make. The chilli is the tricky bit, and carving a chicken is a separate skill that not everyone has, but the cooking part is quite easy. :-)

Date: 2010-11-23 11:06 pm (UTC)
almostwitty: (Default)
From: [personal profile] almostwitty
When I was a kid, one of my favourite dishes was pork with potatoes in a red bean curd sauce. I've tried to recreate it a few times but it never *quite* works...

Date: 2010-11-24 12:47 am (UTC)
almostwitty: (Default)
From: [personal profile] almostwitty
Hrm... we never deep-fried the potatoes - we just boiled them or stir fried them. Actually, I can't quite remember. Must dig into the family archives...


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