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:

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:

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)
2012-01-23 12:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: The inner workings of the lunisolar calendar


Happy New Year! 新年快樂 (xīn nián kuài lè)!

Today marks the start of the Year of the Dragon! To celebrate this, I have a guest post from [personal profile] shuripentu, who has previously guest posted here on the subject of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Last year I posted a brief introduction to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which led to my asking her to do another guest post for this New Year. Shuri is a Canadian of Chinese descent, and a great fan of calendrical systems, mathematics, and footnotes.

Now over to Shuri...

A while back, my mother and I were discussing the Chinese calendar[1], and I happened to mention that the Hong Kong Observatory has some useful Gregorian-Chinese conversion tables. "What does the Observatory have to do with it?" asked Mum.

The involvement of an observatory in setting a calendar may seem odd to those of us who are used to the purely arithmetically defined Gregorian calendar: the number of days in a year, and the way those days are divided into months, is set by a simple numerical algorithm. That the Gregorian year remains closely synchronised with the actual solar year[2] is entirely due to the well-chosen numbers involved in the algorithm: there is no need to track the position of the sun or moon, or attempt to match any solar event – an equinox or solstice, say – with any particular Gregorian day.

The Chinese calendar, however, is defined almost entirely by astronomical events, and therefore requires the accurate and precise prediction of when these events will occur. The core requirement of the Chinese calendar is that each month must begin with the day (starting at midnight in Beijing – for astronomical calendars, location is crucial[3]) containing the new moon. Now if, for example, the moment of a new moon occurs very close to midnight, then correctly determining whether the new month begins on the previous day or the next requires a very good astronomical model, and an error would result in the lengths of both months, and the numbering of all the days in the second month, being incorrect.

Like most calendars, the Chinese calendar aims to remain in sync with the solar year. In order to do so, it divides the solar year into 24 segments called solar terms, each corresponding to 15° of solar longitude. The odd-numbered terms are minor solar terms, and the even-numbered ones are major solar terms. Then, to compute the number and arrangement of the months (of which there are either 12 or 13) in a Chinese calendar year, the following rules are applied:

  • The 22nd solar term, 冬至 (Dōng Zhì/"Winter Solstice"), always begins on a day contained in Month 11.
  • If there are 13 new moons between a winter-solstice-to-winter-solstice period, then one of those new moons is the start of a leap month. The leap month is selected by finding the first month in this period which does not contain the first day of a major solar term.
  • The leap month is given the same number as the month that preceded it; it is a second go at the same month, if you will. For example, the upcoming Chinese calendar year contains 13 months, and the months are numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 4 again, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.[5]

I find the generational differences in the use of the Chinese calendar interesting. My grandparents now use the Gregorian calendar for everyday things, but still celebrate their birthdays according to the Chinese calendar[7]; I'm not sure they even know their Gregorian birthdays offhand. (I'd certainly need to look it up, whereas I do know their Chinese birthdays.) My parents, on the other hand, celebrate their birthdays according to the Gregorian calendar, and it's their Chinese birthdays that would need looking up. However, my grandparents don't know offhand what their Chinese zodiac signs[8] are – it's apparently something their generation didn't pay much attention to – whereas my parents most certainly do. (And nowadays the zodiac signs are everywhere: as cheap trinkets, as not-so-cheap trinkets, and incorporated into all sorts of personalised gubbins.) So while the use of the Chinese calendar as an actual calendar has fallen away, the use of it to provide an aspect of personal identity has increased.

And finally, since this is a food blog, here is the foodstuff which I most strongly associate with Chinese New Year: the traditional tray of sweets.

Description follows.

[Image: A circular tray of sweets, divided into sections, sitting on a red tablecloth.]

On either side of the tray are bowls containing dried seeds of some sort – the internet suggests watermelon. In the centre of the tray are 利是糖 (lì shì táng, which translates roughly as "lucky money candy", since the wrappers resemble the red envelopes in which monetary gifts are given), the one true candy for Chinese New Year. It's just your average boiled sweet really, but you've got to have them, and I think there's only the one company that produces them; they must rake in the profits every winter. I can't identify the rest of the things in that tray, except for the single slice of dried lotus root (it's the thing that resembles a wagon wheel above and to the left of the sweets), but they'll mostly be dried fruits and nuts and suchlike, and they'll all be deliciously sugar-laden.

1 Disclaimer: I have spent almost all of my life living in non-Chinese-majority countries, so my experiences of things Chinese predominantly reflect my family's particular views and traditions and may therefore be extremely idiosyncratic.

2 In this post, I use "solar year" to specifically mean the tropical year, "lunar month" to specifically mean the synodic month, "day" to specifically mean a civil day, and "midnight" to specifically mean local civil midnight.

3 The pedant in me notes that it is not strictly necessary for an astronomical calendar to take location[4] into account, but I have yet to meet one that does not do so. That way lies wailing and gnashing of teeth.

4 The super-pedant in me clarifies that I of course meant location on this planet. Which is Earth. (For now.)

5 Note, however, that due to the variable length of the lunar month (presently ranging between 29.27 to 29.84 days, with an average of 29.53 days[6] – and besides, it is never an integral number of days anyway), the number of days in a Chinese calendar month varies from month to month and year to year. In the above example from 2012-13, the first round of Month 4 has 30 days, but the second round of Month 4 – the leap month – only has 29 days. Next year, Month 4 will have 29 days again, and the year after that, Month 4 will have 30 days.

6 Dershowitz, Nachum, and Edward M. Reingold, Calendrical Calculations, 3rd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 193. Much of my understanding of the Chinese calendar, and calendrical systems in general, is indebted to this inimitable work; any errors in my understanding are entirely my fault.

7 I'd never considered it until now, but the extremely variable nature of the Chinese calendar creates a lot of edge-case birthdays, and I wonder how people with them handle it. For example, any given Chinese calendar month will sometimes have 30 days, but some years it'll only have 29 days – what do people born on the 30th of the month do? I figure they probably just celebrate on the 29th, or the 1st of the next month, but I don't actually know. And leap years don't insert single leap days but entire leap months – and it's not always in the same place either! How do people cope? I should probably ask.

8 According to my father – and this is backed up by at least one website on Chinese astrology – the change in zodiac sign occurs not at Chinese New Year as commonly believed, but at the 1st solar term, 立春 (Lì Chūn/"Start of Spring"), which occurs around 4 February. This isn't something most people will know, though, unless they have consulted (or are) a Chinese astrologer.

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:

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:

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.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2011-11-09 03:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: The importance of texture

One aspect of Chinese food that can be confusing at first for those unfamiliar with it is the importance of texture. Some dishes and ingredients may appear subtle or even bland in flavour, since their purpose is primarily textural.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is tofu/beancurd (豆腐/dòu fu), particularly the ultra-soft "flower" beancurd (豆腐花/dòu fu huā or 豆花/dòu huā) which I discuss in my post on hot-and-sour flower beancurd. Beancurd in Chinese dishes is generally much softer than the type used in Western vegetarian/vegan dishes as a meat substitute, to the point where it can be a bit offputting if you're not expecting it. Personally, I love its smooth, wobbly-soft texture, particularly in combination with strong flavours such as in mapo tofu or with other interesting textures such as beancurd with century egg.

Other examples of foods that have little flavour but interesting texture include pork skin, pig ears, jellyfish, and cartilage. Pork skin has a different texture depending on how much you cook it; it can be chewy or almost meltingly soft. Pig ears are chewy, too, but in a good way — chewiness is often prized in Chinese cuisines, but was deprecated in the British food with which I grew up, so it took me a while to be able to appreciate it. Cartilage is another food it took me a while to get the hang of, but now I happily crunch away at it when eating chicken feet at dim sum. In fact, the last time I cooked chicken feet myself, I overcooked them and was very disappointed to not have that crunchiness in there.

One interesting word used to denote texture is 滑 (huá), which means "smooth/slippery". Good cheung fun will display this quality, and this aspect is often explicitly mentioned in the name of the dish; for example I've seen prawn cheung fun listed as 鮮蝦滑腸粉 (xiān xiā huá cháng fěn), literally "fresh prawn slippery cheung fun". 滑 is also commonly associated with chicken (雞/jī), where it's used to describe the texture of perfectly-poached meat, neither undercooked nor dry. Finally, you might see it in connection with puddings such as coconut mousse (香滑椰汁糕/xiāng huá yē zhī gāo) and egg dishes such as beef and scrambled egg with rice (牛肉滑蛋飯/niú ròu huá dàn fàn).

QQ is another important texture, and one that I don't have an English term for. [identity profile] sung wrote about this yesterday, in his post on beef noodle soup/牛肉麵 (read the comments too). In his words, QQ "describes the springy or bouncy texture upon biting into food e.g. good fishballs should be QQ, as should certain types of Chinese noodles". There's more discussion of the term in the comments on another post of his, on QQ vermicelli/粉絲.

Another hard-to-translate texture is crispness/crunchiness, specifically the type of crispness manifested by very fresh prawns, or rehydrated black fungus. I'm never quite sure how to describe this in English, as it's not quite the type of crispness manifested in certain baked or deep-fried foods (which would be 脆/cùi in Chinese). It's more like the crispness of raw carrots or lettuce, but to me the words "crisp" and "crunchy" in connection with prawns bring up associations with deep-fried battered prawns, which is a long way from the intended meaning.

According to Prawncrackers on eGullet, the Chinese word for this type of crispness is 爽 (shuǎng in pinyin, song in Cantonese). This texture can be achieved in prawns by brining them before use; I've also seen the suggestion of adding sugar to this brine. Another poster further down the same thread uses the term 彈牙 (daan ngaa in Cantonese), or "bouncing teeth", though Prawncrackers points out that this term may be better applied to fishballs, as with the QQ mentioned above — then again, according to Steamy Kitchen, good prawns are QQ!

At this stage of my learning about Chinese cuisines and languages, I can't give you a neat little list of all the important textures and their translations. But I can suggest a few dishes that are worth looking out for if you're interested in exploring texture in Chinese food (some of which are also mentioned above):

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)
2011-10-18 01:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: The restaurant cheat-sheet

Image description follows.

[Image: A printed sheet of paper with three columns containing names of Chinese dishes: first in Chinese characters, then in pinyin, then in English. Some of the Chinese characters are missing, replaced by question marks to indicate that I couldn't figure them out. Some of the English translations are followed by question marks to indicate that they're tentative.]

OK, so I've taken a couple of weeks to get going again since I mentioned that I'm cutting back to posting just once a week, but here goes with the new regime. I'll probably aim to post mid-week, Tuesday or Wednesday.

Today's concept is the restaurant cheat-sheet, an example of which is pictured above. This is how I deal with ordering from a Chinese-only menu when I've organised a meal out with a group of people who don't read any Chinese. I acquire the menu in advance, then transcribe it, attempt to translate it, print off a few copies of my translation, and bring them along with me on the evening. Then we can all take a look at the menu and see what looks interesting.

As can be seen above, my translations are often incomplete (though this is a fairly difficult menu in comparison to most I've seen in London). It also obviously doesn't help with restaurants where I've not been able to see the menu in advance. But it's a technique I've found quite helpful, so I thought I'd share it.

As for the amount of work involved; yes, there is some, but it's work that's useful in more than one way. I've posted before about the importance of daily practice. One of the things I try to do every day is a little bit of transcribing, and even with just five minutes spent on this every day, the task is soon done.

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)
2011-06-27 12:30 am

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Keep on keeping on

First off: I'm taking July off blogging. [personal profile] bob and I have bought a house, and now we need to move into it, so I thought it was probably best to remove distractions for a while.

I'll be back on August 1st with the start of another dim sum month, since last year's went so well. My plan is to temporarily halt my concept posts, and instead post two dim sum dishes per week, along with the regular Wednesday character posts (which will move to Mondays for the month). I also plan to eat a lot of dim sum, preferably with lots of lovely people. If you're within reach of London during August, and you'd like to eat some dim sum with me, please get in touch!

I'm not saying anything new in today's post, but I want to highlight something that I think is really important for learning anything. That is, to keep plugging away at it. I have a lot of other commitments, but I still try to do something every day towards my goal of understanding things written in Chinese. Some days I get to spend an hour or two on this, other days less than ten minutes, but every little bit of contact with the language helps to cement my existing knowledge.

Here's what I try to do every day, though I don't always manage it:

  • Transcribe something. A few lines from a menu, or a list of Chinese dish names from a cookbook. Anything that gets me looking at Chinese characters, figuring out what they are, and typing them into my computer.
  • Five minutes or so on Skritter. I've posted about Skritter before; this is an online tool that lets you specify lists of Chinese characters that you'd like to learn to write, and uses spaced repetition theory to test you at the optimal time for remembering.
  • Work through anything due on Anki. I've posted about Anki before as well; this is a flashcard program that again uses spaced repetition to work out when to test you. When I learn a new character or dish name, I enter it into Anki, and Anki takes care of making sure I don't forget it.
  • Do some LiveMocha. I haven't posted about LiveMocha yet, but I will do at some point. It's a community-based language-learning site that gives you basic lessons in your chosen language, and lets you submit written and spoken exercises for assessment by native speakers. It's not at all useful for learning menu vocabulary, but I'm learning some very basic Mandarin grammar from it which I hope will eventually be useful in letting me read Chinese-language cookbooks and so on.
  • Watch an episode of 天天飲食. This is a daily cookery programme shown on China Central Television; it's around 8 minutes long, in Mandarin, and subtitled in simplified Chinese characters. I find it helpful on multiple levels; it shows me how a particular dish is made, it shows me various preparation and cooking techniques, it gets me used to hearing the sounds of Mandarin, and it gets me used to seeing sentences of written Chinese. I can't get the channel here, but fans of the programme upload episodes on YouTube, and I watch it there.

If you've got any suggestions for anything else I should be doing, I'd love to hear them.

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)
2011-06-20 03:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Numbers

One phenomenon worthy of note to the student of the Chinese menu is the use of certain numbers in the names of dishes. Three (三/sān) and eight (八/bā) turn up particularly frequently, for example as 地三鮮/dì sān xiān ("three fresh things from the earth") and 八珍糯米雞/bā zhēn nuò mǐ jī (eight-treasure glutinous rice with chicken).

The frequency with which these numbers appear is not coincidental — in Chinese culture, as in many other cultures, some numbers are considered to be particularly "lucky". There's some information on this on Wikipedia. [personal profile] shuripentu, who has guest-posted here before, tells me:

I'd say the most important numbers in terms of (un)luckiness are 8 (very lucky), 4 (unlucky), and 14 (incredibly unlucky). If the random witterings I've heard on the topic are indeed true, people will go out of their way (sometimes considerably so) to acquire 8s and avoid 4s and 14s (and apparently also 24s, 34s, etc.).

Numerological superstitions do seem to be a lot more common and more deeply ingrained into Chinese culture than most Western cultures I've come across. Not that most people seem to take those superstitions hugely seriously, but they certainly seem to consider them and talk about them more often in general, and it doesn't seem to be so unusual for such considerations to affect people's decisions. For example, if someone here [in the UK] were to avoid buying a house because it's number 13, I would think it somewhat unusual, whereas if someone in Hong Kong were to do the same with a number 14 flat, I would think they were being silly but I wouldn't think it was odd.

According to Slanted magazine, a Chinese wedding banquet should include eight courses, due to the lucky connotations of the number. Relatedly, some people think that a meal should always include an even number of dishes; the ChineseTones website states that an odd number of dishes "would be appropriate only for occasions such as the meal after a funeral."

Below are the Chinese numbers from 1 to 9, along with 10, 100, and 1000. (I've stopped at 1000 because that's the largest number I've ever seen on a menu!) If you know these, and you also know the rules for combining them to make other numbers (see Wikipedia for these), you can count from 1 to 9999.

1used on menus as 一品 (yì pǐn), which I think means something like "first-rate", i.e. best quality
èr2not usually used on menus; 雙 (shuāng) or 兩 (liǎng) is more commonly used to denote a pair of things
sān3appears frequently on menus; more on this later this week
4occasionally used on menus as part of other words; see earlier post
5used on menus in a couple of contexts; see earlier post
liù6not generally used on menus
7not generally used on menus, though you may see it as 七喜 (qī xǐ), or the soft drink Seven-Up
8frequently used on menus due to its lucky connotation; I'll post about 八 at greater length at some point
jiǔ9not generally used on menus
shí10I've only seen this on one menu, as 十香醉排骨 (shí xiāng zuì pái gǔ), which translates as "ten-fragrance drunken ribs"
bǎi100occasionally used on menus; see the bottom of my post on 白/bái
qiān1000used as 大千 (dà qiān), literally "big thousand", to denote a spicy sauce, e.g. 大千乾燒魚 (dà qiān gān shāo yú), a deep fried whole fish in spicy hot sauce; it also appears in the name of a type of tea, 千日紅花茶 (qiān rì hóng huā chá), literally "thousand day red flower tea"

(NB there's lots more about numbers in the comments to this post!)

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)
2011-06-13 01:30 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: The point of all this

Apologies for making another meta post so soon after my "first anniversary" post, but I just wanted to briefly discuss the reasons behind (a) learning to read Chinese menus, and (b) blogging about it.

I've had a few people express admiration at my teaching myself to do this, and I wanted to make it clear that I'm not doing it to show off, and I'm not blogging about it to show off.

When I started teaching myself to read Chinese menus, which was a few months before I started the blog, I had no idea if it was even a plausible thing to do. All I knew was that there was delicious food, served in restaurants within walking distance of my house, that I had very little chance of being able to eat otherwise.

In November 2008, I took this photo. I'm not sure I can even remember why I took it; I don't think I had plans to learn to read Chinese at that point. Judging by comments on that photo, in May 2009 I could identify a couple of characters, and by February 2010 I could tentatively translate most of it. As of now I would happily and confidently order from it (though sadly I can't, since the restaurant has closed), and in fact last Thursday I successfully ordered from a Chinese-only menu that I'd never seen before (usually I like to get the menu and study it in advance).

I may be rambling a bit here, but I think the point I want to make is that this is possible. I am monolingual and have no particular talent for languages as far as I can tell. I realise that I'm lucky in that I can afford to eat out at restaurants, I have time and space to study at home, I have pretty good internet access, and I have plenty of Chinese restaurants and supermarkets within easy reach. I'm not saying that if I did it anyone can do it. I'm just saying that if you're reading this and wondering if you can teach yourself to read Chinese menus, one of the main reasons I started this blog was to encourage people like you to give it a go.

(For the avoidance of doubt, this post wasn't written in response to criticism — everyone who's spoken to me about the project, or linked to it from their own journal/blog/website, has been very positive about it!)

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)
2011-06-06 12:45 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: 端午 — Duānwǔ — Duanwu

Today is the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calendar. This marks the day of 端午 (Duānwǔ), one of the most important dates of the Chinese year.

端午 is also known in English as the Dragon Boat Festival, but as [personal profile] pulchritude explains in the post linked below, this name captures only one aspect of what is actually a multifaceted occasion. So it's worth knowing how to pronounce the Chinese name; see Forvo for an example pronunciation.

The main theme of 端午 is health/hygiene/purification, and celebration of the day includes several related customs such as drinking realgar wine, the symbolic destruction of the "five poisons", and the use of various herbs. Dragon boat racing is another custom associated with 端午; teams of paddlers race in long boats, kept in synchronisation by a drummer who sits at the head of the boat. Finally, 粽子 (zòngzi) are perhaps the most famous of the foods associated with the day; these are glutinous rice dumplings filled with various morsels and wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Aside from eating 粽子, the dragon boat races are the only part of 端午 that I've actually experienced (and then only as an onlooker)[see footnote], so here are some links which hopefully give a fuller picture:

Footnote: [0] Fellow Londoners may wish to note that this year's dragon boat races will be held on Sunday 19 June at the London Regatta Centre (near Royal Albert DLR station on the Beckton branch). I might be going — haven't decided yet.

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)
2011-05-30 01:45 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Sichuan/四川/Sìchuān

Description follows.

[Image: A map of China with Sichuan province shown in red. This is a public-domain image from Wikimedia Commons, originally created by Joowwww.]

Like Fujian food, which I discussed earlier this month, Sichuan food is one of the Eight Great Schools of Chinese food. Aside from Cantonese cuisine, it's probably the most commonly-available regional Chinese cuisine here in London, possibly even in the entire UK. You may also see it referred to as "Szechuan" or "Szechwan" food — these are older transliterations of its Chinese name, 四川 (Sìchuān in pinyin).

I've already posted about several Sichuan dishes individually (see the end of this post for a list), but haven't yet given an overview of the province and its cuisine, so today I hope to remedy that lack.

The province of Sichuan is a landlocked one, and so seafood is less commonly used than in the provinces along the coast. However, its warm climate and abundant supply of river (and rain) water provide ideal conditions for agriculture. Indeed, the name 四川 literally means "four rivers"[see footnote].

Note also that as I mentioned in last Friday's post on 辣子雞/là zi jī/chicken with chillies, the direct-controlled municipality of Chóngqìng (重慶) is adjacent to Sichuan province, and used to be part of it until fairly recently (1997), and so there are multiple similarities between the cuisines of the two areas. See Fuchsia Dunlop on Time Out Beijing for more on this.

The most famous ingredients of Sichuan cuisine are probably chillies (辣椒/là jiāo or 辣子/là zi) and Sichuan pepper (花椒/huā jiāo), which together create the characteristic 麻辣 (má là/"numbing-spicy") flavour. Chilli is used in multiple forms — fresh, dried, pickled, as chilli oil (紅油/hóng yóu/"red oil"), and as chilli bean paste (豆瓣醬/dòu bàn jiàng).

Sichuan peppercorns are the "numbing" (麻/má) component of Sichuan's numbing-spicy ma-la flavour. They can be used whole or ground, and they're also usually included when making chilli oil. Sichuan pepper can be quite astonishing to people who've never tried it before — it really does make your mouth and lips tingle in a numbing, almost pins-and-needles kind of way. This isn't by any means an unpleasant sensation, though, and the flavour is also good; woodsy and citrussy and complex.

However, as Fuchsia Dunlop explains in her excellent book Sichuan Cookery, "the most salient characteristic of Sichuan cuisine is its audacious combinations of several different flavours in a single dish". One such combination of flavours is 怪味 (guài wèi), translated literally into English as "strange-flavour"; this type of flavouring is commonly used to dress a cold dish of chicken or rabbit. A similar flavour combination is exemplified by 口水雞 (kǒu shuǐ jī), or "mouthwatering chicken", the main difference between the two being that 怪味雞 includes Chinese sesame paste while 口水雞 doesn't.

Another characteristic Sichuan flavour combination is 魚香 (yú xiāng), literally "fish-fragrance", named due to its basis in the seasonings traditionally used in fish cookery. Many different base ingredients can be "fish-fragranced", though the ones I've seen most often are aubergine/eggplant (魚香茄子/yú xiāng qié zi) and pork (魚香肉絲/yú xiāng ròu sī).

For much more information on Sichuan province and its cuisine, see the Fuchsia Dunlop book mentioned above. I recommend it very highly.

One thing to note is that true Sichuan food bears little resemblance to the "Szechuan style sauce" that you might see in the "X in Y sauce" section on a standard Anglicised "Chinese" menu. Similarly, there are a few Sichuan dishes, most notably fish-fragrant aubergine and mapo tofu, that tend to show up on these Westernised menus in versions that are almost unrecognisable in comparison to the way they should be. If you've only ever had "Sichuan" food from the type of restaurant that specialises in sweet and sour pork balls and advertises itself as serving "Cantonese, Peking, Szechwan cuisine", then I do urge you to try the real thing.

Speaking of which, something I've noticed recently in London is a tendency for restaurants to use "Sichuan food" as a shorthand for "regional Chinese food"; for example, a menu that looked much more Hunan to me was described as "our Sichuan menu" (as opposed to "our Cantonese menu", which contained not Cantonese food but Westernised Chinese food). I suspect this is because the idea of Sichuan food has now entered the mainstream among London's dining public, whereas Hunan food is still seen as somewhat more obscure. It's worth keeping an eye out for this sort of thing, if you're interested in the distinctions between different Chinese cuisines, though if you're only interested in obtaining some kind of regional food, it probably doesn't matter!

One way to identify a true Sichuan restaurant is to look for the word 川菜 (Chuān cài) somewhere on the frontage. Another clue might be the use of "Shu" and/or "Ba" in the name (example), since Sichuan province lies in the area of China previously occupied by the ancient kingdoms of 蜀 (Shǔ) and 巴 (Bā).

Incidentally, [personal profile] ewan asked me when we met for tea the other day whether I'll be posting about each of the Eight Schools (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang). I would like to! Though I'm going to have to do a bit of digging around to find restaurants within reach of London that will serve me Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong, or Zhejiang food. If you know of any, please let me know! I don't currently have a passport (I need to sort out various paperwork and such before I can get another one) but will happily travel anywhere within the UK.

Here are the Sichuan dishes I've posted about:

Footnote: [0] According to Wikipedia, 四川 is an abbreviation for 川峡四路 (chuān xiá sì lù), or "four circuits of rivers and gorges".

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)
2011-05-23 01:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Pronunciation guides

Today I want to round up some useful links regarding Mandarin pronunciation.

One article that I came across fairly early on in my learning process, but wasn't able to make use of until later, is the Sinosplice article on Mandarin pronunciation. The details of the discussion are perhaps a bit too advanced for a beginner, but reading it now as someone who has spent some time listening to fluent Mandarin speakers, I find it very useful in explaining some of the things that seemed inconsistent at first.

For pronunciation of specific words/characters, Forvo is worth a look. It's a crowdsourced collection of pronunciations of various words in different languages, and it has reasonable coverage of Mandarin. The thing I like about it is that it collects a number of different people's pronunciations of each word, and also tells you roughly where in the world each person is from. Make sure that you listen to the Mandarin (listed as "Chinese") pronunciation of the word, not the Cantonese, Hakka, etc.

Another option is the Our Chinese reading tool (thanks to [identity profile] sunflower for the link). This is for individual characters only; although it lets you enter words, it doesn't take tone sandhi into account, which can be misleading. The MandarinTools entries that I link to from my character posts also fail to take tone sandhi into account, but are useful for individual characters. However, YellowBridge, which I also link to, does seem to make sure to incorporate tone sandhi into its pronuniciations.

One point to remember is that different people have different accents in Mandarin, just as they do in English. I've noticed that the presenters on the cookery programme 天天飲食 have what I believe is a Beijing accent, with lots of retroflex "rrrr"ing at the ends of words, and a completely different pronunciation of words such as 黑 (hēi/black) in comparison to other sources (example video on YouTube, around 0:48 and again around 1:10 and 1:30 and several times after that). Here's a blog post I found on the subject, if you're interested.

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)
2011-05-16 12:05 am

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Fujian/福建/Fújiàn

Description follows.

[Image: A map of China with Fujian province shown in red. This is a public-domain image from Wikimedia Commons, originally created by Joowwww.]

Here in the UK, probably the most well-known Chinese cuisines are Cantonese, Sichuan, and more recently Hunan. However, these are only three of the cuisines included in the Eight Schools classification of Chinese food (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang).

A little-known fact I recently learned from the ever-informative [identity profile] sung is that many of the kitchen staff at Chinese restaurants in the UK originally come from Fujian, a province which lies on the southeast coast of China, across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan itself. The peculiar thing is that despite this, restaurants offering Fujianese food can be quite hard to find here. I only know of two in London — New Aroma on Gerrard Street and Fu Zhou on Lisle Street — and both of them have their Fujian dishes hidden away on Chinese-only menus.

Fujian borders on Guangdong, the home of Cantonese cuisine, and hence the food bears some resemblance, though it is by no means identical. The province's location on the coast has a strong influence on its cuisine; clams, oysters, jellyfish, sea cucumbers, and other seafood are commonly used, as is nori (a seaweed more often associated with Japanese cuisine).

Fujian cuisine often uses fish and seafood in combination with meat, perhaps most famously in the form of Fujianese fish balls (魚丸/yú wán); springy, chewy spheres of minced fish stuffed with pork mince and served in soup (photo; not mine). Another example is oyster omelette (蠔煎/háo jiān), which often includes a little pork mince for extra flavour.

An additional effect of location is the adoption of ingredients from other coastal areas outside China. One example of this is the sweet potato, which according to Jacqueline M Newman's Cooking From China's Fujian Province was originally imported from the Philippines during a famine in the province around 400 years ago. Sweet potatoes are used in Fujian cuisine both in their original form, for example as sweet potato balls (蕃薯丸/fān shǔ wán) stuffed with pork and nori (photo), and in the form of sweet potato starch.

However, by no means all the ingredients associated with Fujian cuisine are related to the sea. Lychee (litchi) fruits are used in both fish and meat dishes, and give their name to one of the province's characteristic meat dishes, lychee pork (荔枝肉/lì zhī ròu; photo). The pork in this is cut in such a way as to curl up and resemble lychee fruit after cooking; some versions include actual lychees as well, while others don't.

Another unusual ingredient is red wine lees. Fujian red wine is made from glutinous rice and red yeast rice, the latter getting its colour from being cultured with a reddish mould, Monascus purpureus. After fermentation is complete, the rice residue is removed and the wine is bottled. This residue, known as lees, is not discarded, but saved and used in dishes such as eel in red wine lees (photo). For more info on how this wine is made, see posts by Going With My Gut and Greg & Nee.

Like most Chinese cuisines, Fujian cuisine includes various dumplings. Perhaps the most intriguing of these are the dumplings known in Chinese as 燕丸 (yàn wán), literally "swallow balls" ("swallow" as in the bird)[see footnote] These are wonton-style dumplings with a minced pork filling — hardly unusual so far, but the interesting thing about them is the wrappers, which are made from pounded pork along with some kind of starch. Some sources say that the starch component is tapioca flour and glutinous rice, while others have it down as sweet potato flour, and others still say that it's yam. They're usually served in a light soup (photo).

Finally, no discussion of Fujian food would be complete without a mention of the dish known as "Buddha jumps over the wall" (佛跳牆/fó tiào qiáng). This is essentially a casserole of many delicious ingredients, which is said to smell so tantalising that it would tempt any Buddhist monk to set their vegetarianism aside and climb out over the wall of the monastery for a taste. I've never had it, partly because it's quite expensive. At New Aroma it costs £32.50, while Kai, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair, currently prices its version at £108 and notes that five days' notice is required; the ingredients listed on the menu (PDF) include abalone, dried scallops, sea cucumber, corn-fed chicken, and gold.

For more photos of Fujian food, see my Flickr photoset, and for further reading on Fujian cuisine see encyclopedia.com or Wikipedia.

Footnote: [0] 燕丸 may also be called 燕皮 (yàn pí), though some sources say that 燕皮 refers only to the meat paste wrapper. They may also be called 扁肉 (biǎn ròu), though I'm really not sure about this one — it could be something different.

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)
2011-05-09 10:45 am

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: 長洲太平清醮 — Cháng Zhōu tài píng qīng jiào — Cheung Chau bun festival

[Image: Many white buns piled on top of each other. Each bun is decorated in red with a stylised combination of the Chinese characters 平 (píng) and 安 (ān), meaning peaceful/safe.]

Tomorrow is the 8th day of the 4th month in the Chinese calendar. In a number of countries, including China, this is the day for celebrating the birthday of Buddha, and it's an official public holiday in both Hong Kong and Macau. On Cheung Chau island within Hong Kong, it's also the culmination of a famous local festival known in English as the Cheung Chau bun festival.

While there is a strong spiritual aspect to the festival (the Chinese name, 太平清醮/tài píng qīng jiào, translates as something along the lines of "the purest sacrifice celebrated for great peace"), it's also a fun day out. Stalls offer various types of bun (包/bāo) as well as bun-related souvenirs such as bun-shaped cushions, bun-shaped fridge magnets, bun t-shirts, and so on. There's also a parade, music, and lion dance performances[see footnote].

Perhaps the most unique aspect is the bun scrambling competition, in which climbers race to the top of a giant tower of buns, collecting as many buns as possible along the way. Historically there were three towers, which were constructed of real buns and built around a bamboo framework. However, although these three towers still form part of the festival, these days the actual scrambling takes place on a different tower in which the buns are plastic replicas and the framework is steel.

Everything I know about this festival I learned from the internet, so here are some links:

Footnote: [0] As an aside, if you're interested in lion dance, you could do worse than heading over to Strange Horizons to read [personal profile] qian's excellent story 起狮,行礼 (Rising Lion — The Lion Bows). There's also an out-take from that story right here on Dreamwidth.

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)
2011-05-02 01:30 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: More reasons to learn to read menus

Just a quick post today, following up on last week's concept post in which I mentioned a few reasons why knowing some Chinese menu vocabulary is worthwhile, despite the very welcome trend in restaurants towards providing English translations. Here are some more!

Cookery programmes.
I am a huge fan of 天天飲食, a daily 10-minute cookery programme shown on China Central Television (and uploaded by other fans to YouTube, where I watch it). It's subtitled in simplified Chinese. I can't understand most of the dialogue, but I can understand the names of ingredients, which often helps when I'm trying to figure out exactly what they're doing.
Recipes not in English.
Sometimes, the only recipes I can find for a given dish are in Chinese. Happily, my Chinese vocabulary is generally sufficient to fill in the gaps left by Google Translate. Not to mention that my knowledge of Chinese dish names is the only way I managed to find these recipes in the first place.
Chinese menus in non-Anglophone countries.
[personal profile] marshtide recently posted about a vegan Chinese restaurant in Stockholm. To my surprise, even though I don't speak Swedish, clicking through to the restaurant's website, I could understand the menu because it was in pinyin as well as Swedish.
Finding ingredients in Chinese supermarkets.
Being able to read the labels is always handy. Also, last week, I was shopping in Loon Fung and couldn't find the fermented black beans. I asked an employee, who couldn't work out what I wanted; he asked a colleague, who was similarly baffled. I decided to be brave, and said "豆豉" — they understood me immediately! And led me directly to the product I wanted!

Finally, although I wouldn't exactly say this is necessarily useful, I have found that I've acquired an unexpected fluency in Chinglish.

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)
2011-04-25 12:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: A year of Chinese menus

Today is the anniversary of my very first post in the Chinese menu project!

Over the past year, I've noticed a welcome trend among London's regional Chinese restaurants: more and more of them are providing translations of at least part of their Chinese-only menus. When I first visited Sanxia Renjia in June last year, the interesting menu was entirely in Chinese; on my latest visit a month ago, it was entirely bilingual (and illustrated too). Similarly, Royal Palace now has an illustrated English translation of part of their Chinese menu[see footnote 0], and it's a decent enough selection that on my latest visit we ordered almost exclusively from this.

However, even if this trend continues and spreads, I still think it's worth being able to read the Chinese names of dishes. For one thing, the translated/bilingual menu is often only a selection of the full menu; similarly, specials boards are usually Chinese-only. Also, the Chinese name of a dish often gives you more information than the English name. "Noodles with pork", for example: is that 炸醬麵/zhà jiàng miàn, 擔擔麵/dān dān miàn, or even 螞蟻上樹/mǎ yǐ shàng shù? (As an aside, [personal profile] bob mentioned to me the other week that he has a similar advantage when reading bilingual English/Spanish menus.)

On a more personal note, I am very pleased (and slightly surprised) that I've managed to keep this project going for so long. Thank you, thank you, thank you, to everyone who's encouraged me, whether by commenting here or in email, by sending me useful links, by telling me in person that you enjoy reading the posts, or by coming out for yet another Chinese meal with me and being patient while I photograph the menu and interrogate the waitstaff.

I do have a couple of requests today. First of all, is there any way I can make my posts more accessible to you? I try to strike a balance between overexplaining and underexplaining, and between avoiding too much repetition and assuming all readers have read all posts. I also try to use informative alt texts for images (would people prefer to see that in the main text as well/instead?), and to provide transcripts or at least precis of videos that are in English (I don't speak Chinese, yet, so can't transcribe those). In short, I want to do my best not to exclude anyone from being able to read my posts — so if you have any suggestions, I am listening.

Relatedly, is there anything you particularly like or dislike about the way I structure these posts? Do you like (and indeed had you noticed) the model of concept on Monday, character on Wednesday, dish on Friday, vague theme running throughout the three? Do I post too often for you to keep up? And so on[see footnote 1].

Finally, if there's anything you'd like to ask me, anything at all, this is a good time! You can leave a comment, or email me if you prefer (kake@earth.li). Or if you'd just like to say hello, there is a handy tickybox below (should work for both Dreamwidth users and OpenID users).

Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 25

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Hello Kake!
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Footnote 0: There is actually a faint possibility that my frequent visits and requests for the Chinese menu despite not being Chinese had something to do with this, though I haven't asked.

Footnote 1: Before I saw how popular last Friday's post was, I was also going to ask if people would prefer the Friday posts to have more of a focus on restaurants and less on home 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.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2011-04-18 09:30 am

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Cooking techniques (linkspam)

Today I'm posting some links to articles elsewhere that have taught me a lot about various techniques associated with Chinese cooking. If you're aware of anything particularly good that I've missed, please leave a comment and let me know!

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)
2011-04-11 11:30 am

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Dried ingredients

I've discussed the use of various ingredients in Chinese cuisine here before, including greens, potatoes, eggs, and chilli bean paste. I only have time for a quick post today, so I just want to give a quick shout-out to dried ingredients, and point people at the eGullet thread on the subject.

Some of my favourite Chinese dried ingredients are dried scallops (conpoy), dried black fungus (wood ear/木耳/mù ěr), and dried tea tree mushrooms (茶樹菇/chá shù gū). How about you? What dried ingredients do you like to use in cooking Chinese food? And what dishes using dried ingredients do you like to eat in restaurants?

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)
2011-04-04 12:05 am

Reading Chinese Menus: Concepts: Different forms of radicals, and non-radical components

Shortly after I first started blogging about reading Chinese menus, I wrote an introduction to the concept of radicals. In brief, all but the very simplest Chinese characters are made up of a number of components, one of which is the radical. The radical is used to index the character in a dictionary, and also often gives some hint as to the meaning of the character (though this isn't always the case).

The radical I used as an example in that post was 魚 (yú/fish), which keeps the same form when used as a radical rather than a standalone character, though it will be "squashed" in some way to fit it in. When it appears on the left of the character, as in 鰻 (mán/eel), it's squashed left-to-right, whereas when it appears on the top or bottom of the character, as in 鱟 (wǔ/king crab), it's squashed top-to-bottom. A similar pattern appears in radicals such as 虫 (chóng/insect), for example in 蝦 (xiā/prawn) vs. 蟹 (xiè/crab).

However, some radicals change their form quite significantly from character to character, for example 水 (shuǐ/water), which often manifests as three slanted strokes (氵) on the left of the character. Another radical which appears in a few different forms is 心 (xīn/heart), which may also be seen as 忄 or as ⺗. Although few if any common menu characters have 心 as an actual radical, a number of them have it as what I'm calling a non-radical component. This is not, as far as I know, a recognised or official term, it's just a phrase that makes sense to me and describes an aspect of Chinese characters that I've found useful in remembering them.

By "non-radical component", I mean a portion of a character that is recognisably describable as a single unit, but that is not the radical. As an example, I'm going to deconstruct the abovementioned character for crab, 蟹 (xiè), which when I first met it seemed incredibly complex. Here it is in big:

As mentioned above, the radical of 蟹 is 虫, which here appears at the bottom of the character. Now looking at the rest of the character with the radical removed (some sources use the term "residue" for this), in the top left corner is 角 (jiǎo/horn-shaped), and in the top right corner is 刀 (dāo/knife) above 牛 (niú/cow). All three of these are characters I already know: 角 via 豆角 (dòu jiǎo/string bean), 刀 via 刀削麵 (dāo xiāo miàn/knife-cut noodles), and 牛 via 牛肉 (niú ròu/beef).

Hence, when I'm trying to remember how to write 蟹, I just need to remember to write 角 first, then 刀, then 牛, and finally put 虫 on the bottom. Some people like to make up little mnemonics to help remember these, though I find them more trouble than they're worth. (If you're a Skritter user, you can access other people's mnemonics and add your own while practising.)

This might all seem rather obvious, but when I first started noticing repeating components, it felt like a huge breakthrough in my understanding, so I thought it was worth mentioning!

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.