kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2012-12-09 04:00 pm

The end of the menu

So it's been nearly a year since I last posted, and it's time for me to admit that the Chinese menu project has run its course.

There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the main one is that I lost someone very important to me at the start of 2011, and have spent much of the time since putting my life back together. Everything has changed; nothing is the same. I live in a different area of London now, where good Chinese food is hard to find. But also, my feelings about the menu project are inextricably tied up with the person I lost — he was my primary cheerleader on this, and every time I think of it, I think of him.

I've made myself a new life, full of so many good things, and I think it's OK now to say that I'm not writing a Chinese menu blog any more. The old posts will, of course, stay up, and I will continue to respond to any comments.

(If you like my writing style, and want more, you can always head over to The London Road Tour Project, a series of articles I'm writing for the Croydon Citizen online newspaper The Past and Present of Croydon's London Road. It's a kind of hybrid of local history and city guide, and as far as I know nobody else has done quite this sort of thing before.)

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2012-02-26 06:11 pm

Apologies for lack of posting...

Description follows.

[Image: A small glass bowl containing fish balls, chunks of daikon radish, and large pieces of translucent pig skin, all bathed in a reddish-brown broth with small "eyes" of fat floating on the surface.]

Hello! I'm so sorry I haven't posted here for a while. I've been very busy with paid work recently, and that (along with other things) is leaving me a bit wiped out. Right now, I can't say when I will be able to get back to regular posting again. But I do have some good things in the pipeline, including a couple of guest posts that I'm pretty excited about!

For now, though, here's a photo of a super-old-school dim sum dish I ate a few months back with [blogspot.com profile] eatlovenoodles and [personal profile] ewan. This is 魚蛋豬皮蘿蔔 (yú dàn zhū pí luó bo), or fishballs with pig skin and daikon, served in a thin, rich, savoury, slightly spicy broth. We had this at Tai Tung at the Wing Yip Centre in Croydon (you can read more about the restaurant on Sung's blog).

魚蛋 (yú dàn) are fish balls, literally "fish eggs"; according to Sung, they're called this in Cantonese because of their shape, roughly like an egg. 豬 (zhū) is pig, and 皮 (pí) is skin. Note that as I mentioned in my very first "character" post, 豬/zhū doesn't appear on menus as much as one might expect given the ubiquity of pork in most Chinese cuisines, since when 肉 (ròu/meat) is used without further specification, it's taken to mean pork. However, in this case we do get the 豬: 豬皮. Finally, 蘿蔔 (luó bo) is daikon (aka mooli, white radish, Chinese radish, etc).

Speaking of dim sum, I'm in Oxford (the UK one) for a week from 2nd-9th March and am planning a dim sum lunch there on Sunday 4th as well as a Sichuan dinner on Tuesday 6th. If you're in the area and interested in coming along to either or both, do let me know.

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)
2012-02-02 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)
2011-12-16 10:29 am
Entry tags:

No blog post again this week.

I have to apologise again for not putting up a proper blog post this week (and also to anyone who's waiting for an email reply from me). I just have too much to do at the moment, and I'm still not getting enough sleep. So here's another photo of some tasty dim sum (from Gerrard's Corner in London Chinatown).

Description follows.

[Image: Fried and baked dim sum arranged in little paper cases on a white plate, with a red polystyrene flower in the middle for decoration. Clockwise from top left: egg tarts, barbecued pork puff pastry, and deep-fried turnip puff pastry.]

Speaking of dim sum, one of the many things I've been doing was a visit to Oxford yesterday, where I had a great dim sum lunch with a friend and her 8-month-old baby. This was said baby's first experience of dim sum, and she seemed pretty keen on it, particularly the tofu skin rolls.

I've been for dim sum with several babies and small children now, and it always seems to go down well. I might organise a baby/child-friendly dim sum outing in London in the New Year — if you'd be interested, please let me know.

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2011-12-08 08:14 pm
Entry tags:

No blog post this week.

No blog post this week, sorry. I've been sleeping very badly recently and can't think straight. Here is a photo of some pumpkin-shaped dim sum instead (taken at Shanghai Blues in Holborn).

Description follows.

[Image: A square white plate containing three deep-fried pumpkin-shaped items, with bits of cucumber for the stem. A small pile of shredded carrot and daikon salad, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, is also on the plate.]

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2011-11-29 05:00 pm

Recipe translation: 紅油黄瓜拌豬耳朵絲 (hóng yóu huáng guā bàn zhū ěr duǒ) — pig ear & cucumber in chilli oil

Last week I posted about pig's ears with chilli oil, and mentioned that although I hadn't been able to find any recipes for this in English, I hoped to be able to link to a Chinese one in translation soon. [personal profile] pulchritude has kindly translated a recipe from MeiShiDao for me, and here it is! (Follow that link for the Chinese version, and photos.)

Text in [square brackets] is an aside from either me or [personal profile] pulchritude. I have done some light copyediting (and hopefully have not introduced any mistakes).

Shredded pig's ear and cucumber in chilli oil

Main ingredients
  • one pig's ear, simmered in a flavourful liquid until cooked [you could use master sauce, or a mixture of soy sauce and water; as noted last week, about 20 minutes is enough time to cook a pig's ear to a good level of crunchiness]
  • one cucumber
  • garlic
  • salt
  • Sichuan pepper
  • dried red chillies
  • "numbing-spicy" oil [made during the course of this recipe]
  • light soy sauce [light-coloured soy sauce, not low-sodium]
  • Shanxi aged vinegar [one of China's four famous vinegars; you can subsitute Chinese black vinegar, available at most Chinese supermarkets]
  • chilli oil [made during the course of this recipe]
Preparing the pig's ear
  1. Let the pig's ear cool [after simmering it in the master sauce].
  2. Place your knife at a 45 degree angle.
  3. Slice the pig's ear diagonally into julienne strips.
Finishing the dish
  1. Put the julienned pig ear into a large bowl.
  2. Wash the cucumber, cut into julienne strips, and add to the pig ear.
  3. Peel the garlic and put it into a [small, separate] bowl with a bit of salt, then use the end of a rolling pin to crush it. [Or just use a pestle and mortar.]
  4. [Making the "numbing-spicy" oil.] Put some oil in a pan, then add the Sichuan pepper and the dried chillies (cut into a few pieces each). Fry until the colour changes and the aroma is fragrant, then strain to remove the solids.
  5. [Turning this into chilli oil.] Add the flavoured oil to the small bowl with the crushed garlic in.
  6. Add light soy sauce, vinegar, and salt to the small bowl, and mix well to create a dressing.
  7. Pour this dressing into the large bowl.
  8. Use chopsticks to mix everything evenly.

Please note that I haven't personally tried this recipe! But it looks potentially tastier than the one I made up myself — I'm particularly thinking that the simmering in master sauce would add a lot more flavour than my simple simmering in water.

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2011-11-24 03:21 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Dishes: 紅油豬耳 — hóng yóu zhū ěr — pig's ears with chilli oil

Description follows.

[Image: Cooked pig's ears, sliced around 5mm wide, intermingled with finely-julienned cucumber and a few leaves of fresh coriander, all coated in a light dressing.]

Some of you may have been able to guess from my post on texture in Chinese food a couple of weeks ago that pig's ears were coming up. Here they are!

Pig's ears are used in many cuisines beside Chinese. Jerry Hopkins' Extreme Cuisine (a title I have some issues with, but I won't go into that here) states that pig's ears can be "boiled, fried, sautéed, braised, grilled, stuffed, made into a gratin, or added to a stew or soup". Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book suggests cooking them for 2-3 hours and then crisping them up on a hot griddle or on the barbecue[see footnote 0].

In Chinese cuisine, however, pig's ears are often treated in a way that I haven't come across in other cuisines. In fact, although Alan Davidson's weighty and comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food insists that "the cartilaginous meat has to be softened by lengthy cooking", the author is missing a trick by failing to mention that a shorter cooking time is also possible. Simmering for as little as 20 minutes renders the ears not only edible, but enjoyably crunchy. The pork flavour is subtle; there's not much meat here, nor much fat, just plenty of crunchy cartilage.

Once cooked, the ears are usually cooled, sliced into thin strips, mixed with a flavourful dressing, and served as a cold dish. I like them served as pictured above, mixed with julienned cucumber and a dressing based on chilli oil.

When I made this dish myself in preparation for this post, I didn't have a recipe to follow, since the ones I found online were all in Chinese. I've described below how I made it, but I have since posted a recipe translation by [personal profile] pulchritude, which I would urge you to also take a look at.

My made-up method: clean a pig's ear (shaving it if necessary), then simmer it in boiling water for around 20 minutes. Leave to cool, then slice into long strips around 5mm (1/5") wide. Optionally, add some cucumber cut into similar-sized strips. Then mix with a dressing made from 3 Tbsp light soy sauce, 2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp sesame oil, and 3–6 Tbsp home-made chilli oil, including some of the sediment from the chilli oil if you like[see footnote 1]. Leave a little while for the flavours to soak in, and serve cold or at room temperature as part of a Chinese meal.

On Chinese menus, this may be listed as 紅油豬耳 (hóng yóu zhū ěr), 紅油耳片 (hóng yóu ěr piàn), or 紅油耳絲 (hóng yóu ěr sī). As I mentioned in my post on 紅/hóng/red, the 紅油 here is chilli oil, literally "red oil". 豬 (zhū) is "pig", 耳 (ěr) is "ear", 片 (piàn) is "sliced", and 絲 (sī) is "shredded". In this context, "sliced" and "shredded" pretty much mean the same thing — a pig's ear is quite flat, so slicing it results in long shreds. You'll note that 豬/pig is omitted in a couple of these names; as with many other Chinese dishes, pig is assumed to be the default animal unless otherwise specified (see also 肉/ròu/meat).

Footnote: [0] Note that Hugh, like me, is British, and hence barbecuing to him means cooking quickly on a grill above the heat.

Footnote: [1] I found this dressing in Fuchsia Dunlop's excellent Sichuan Cookery (published as Land of Plenty in some countries), where she explains that it is "typically used for cold chicken and rabbit meat, as well as various types of offal". The quantities given are stated as being enough for 300g–400g of cold chicken meat; a pig's ear weighs around 200g, so with the addition of cucumber this is about right for a single pig's ear.

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)
2011-11-16 04:30 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Characters: 紅 — hóng — red

紅 (hóng) is the Chinese character for the colour red. Red is a significant colour in Chinese culture, symbolising happiness and good luck.

It turns up on menus in a number of contexts. One that I've already discussed is red-cooking (紅燒/hóng shāo), which is a style of braising in an aromatic soy-sauce-based liquid, sweetened with caramelised sugar and scented with wine, star anise, and other spices. The braise leaves the ingredients with a rich reddish-brown colour, hence the name.

紅 also appears in one of the Chinese names for tomato: 西紅柿 (xī hóng shì), literally "western red persimmon". According to [identity profile] sung's comment on my post on 茄/qié/aubergine, in the north of China this is more common than the other names I've seen for tomatoes on menus: 番茄 and 蕃茄 (both of which are fān qié in pinyin).

Coagulated pig's blood is often referred to on menus as 豬紅 (zhū hóng), literally "pig's red". This is actually a surprisingly mild-tasting ingredient, with a consistency similar to soft tofu; in fact I've had it paired with tofu a few times, generally in soup. (Another, more literal, term for pig's blood is 豬血/zhū xuè.)

Another frequent occurrence of 紅 on menus is in the Chinese term for chilli oil, which is literally "red oil": 紅油 (hóng yóu). Chilli oil is commonly used in various cold dishes, as well as other applications.

Finally, for those who like to drink tea, it may be worth knowing that while in English we generally divide Chinese teas into green and black, the corresponding Chinese terms are literally green (綠/lǜ) and red. There's an interesting discussion of "red tea" vs. "black tea" on the Not Learning Cantonese In Hong Kong blog, including some speculation as to why the difference occurs, and some examples of languages which come down on each side.

Here are some dishes with 紅 in the name:

紅燒肉hóng shāo ròured-cooked pork
Other ingredients that can be cooked in 紅燒 style include aubergine (茄子/qié zi), beef (牛肉/niú ròu), fish (魚/yú), pig trotters (豬手/zhū shǒu or 豬蹄/zhū tí), spare ribs (排骨/pái gǔ), and winter melon (冬瓜/dōng guā).
紅油抄手hóng yóu chāo shǒuwontons in chilli oil
As [identity profile] sung pointed out in a comment on my post on 手/shǒu/hand, 抄手 (chāo shǒu), literally "crossed hands", is the Sichuan term for wontons — the Cantonese word is 雲吞 (yún tūn in Mandarin pinyin), literally "swallowing clouds".
紅油豬耳hóng yóu zhū ěrpig's ear in chilli oil
This is a cold dish. As with 紅油抄手, the 紅油 here is chilli oil, literally "red oil". You may also see this dish as 紅油耳片 (hóng yóu ěr piàn) or 紅油耳絲 (hóng yóu ěr sī), both of which make it explicit that the ear is sliced (片) or shredded (絲); in this context, these two characters mean essentially the same thing.
韭菜炒豬紅jiǔ cài chǎo zhū hóngstir-fried pig's blood with Chinese chives
As mentioned above, 豬紅 (zhū hóng) is literally "pig's red". 韭菜 (jiǔ cài) are Chinese chives, also known in English as garlic chives.
女兒紅鳳爪nǚ ér hóng fèng zhǎochicken feet in wine sauce
Literally "daughter's red phoenix claws", this is a dim sum dish. 鳳爪 (fèng zhǎo/phoenix claws) is a common name for chicken feet.
酥炸紅糟海鰻魚sū zhà hóng zāo hǎi mán yúcrispy deep-fried eel with red wine lees
This is a Fujian dish; red wine lees is a by-product of making red rice wine, and is a common ingredient in Fujian cooking.
紅: hóng radical 120 (糸/糹) Cantodict MandarinTools YellowBridge Zhongwen

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)
2011-11-02 06:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Dishes: 東坡肉 — Dōngpō ròu — Dongpo pork

Image description follows.
Photo © Ewan-M, taken at Chilli Cool, Bloomsbury, London, used under cc-by-sa.

[Image: A square of skin-on pork belly, covered in a dark glossy sauce, and served in a shallow white dish garnished with steamed Chinese greens.]

At first glance, 東坡肉 (Dōngpō ròu) may seem quite similar to a dish I've posted about before, red-cooked pork (紅燒肉/hóng shāo ròu). Like red-cooked pork, Dōngpō ròu consists of pork belly, braised for a long time in a sauce including soy sauce, Chinese wine, caramelised sugar, star anise, and other aromatics.

One difference between the two dishes is that the lengthy process of making Dongpo pork includes a number of other stages in addition to red-cooking. Some recipes begin by frying the pork, others by blanching it in hot water. The red-cooking, or braising, stage comes next, followed by an optional steaming for an hour or more, to make it even more tender.

The versions of red-cooked pork I've had tend to include less wine than I see in most Dongpo pork recipes, and also the pork is cut into smaller pieces. For Dōngpō ròu, the sauce should be highly fragrant with wine, and the pork should be in fairly large squares, each tied up like a parcel with thick strands of dried grass or butcher's string, as illustrated in the photo above.

I intended to make 東坡肉 this week, to serve to some friends I have coming round for dinner tonight — but I forgot to buy the wine! I was planning to follow Carolyn J Phillips' Dongpo pork recipe, which requires a bottle and a half of Shaoxing wine for half a kilo of pork belly, and I only had about a quarter of a bottle at home. So my friends will get red-cooked pork instead, and you will get my reassurance that Carolyn's recipes do tend to turn out well (though I've included links to several others at the bottom of this post too).

I've always had Dōngpō ròu with rice, but I would like to try having it with 饅頭 (mántōu, a type of steamed bread) some time, as [identity profile] sung describes in his post about the Dōngpō ròu he ate at Phoenix Palace in London.

I'm also keen to try Carolyn's vegetarian version, which is made using winter melon. Carolyn's name for this adaptation is Sù Dōngpō (素東坡), which is a pun on the name of the poet/politician Sū Dōngpō (蘇東坡) who as I mentioned last week gives his name to the dish Dōngpō ròu. Note the only difference in pronunciation here is in the tones — 素 (sù) is fourth tone, and means "vegetarian", while the poet's family name, 蘇 (Sū), is first tone.

Here are some recipes for 東坡肉:

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)
2011-10-25 01:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Characters: 東 — dōng — east

東 (dōng) is the Chinese character for "east" or "eastern". I've mentioned this character before, as it forms part of the name 東北 (Dōngběi), a region which is home to a couple of dishes I've posted about previously: 地三鮮 (dì sān xiān) and 東北拉皮 (Dōngběi lā pí).

Dōngběi was once known as Manchuria. It includes the three northeastern provinces of China: Jílín, Liáoníng, and Hēilóngjiāng. 北 (běi) means "north", so Dōngběi is literally "east-north" — the opposite way around to how we'd say it in English.

Another context in which 東 appears on menus is as 東風螺 (dōng fēng luó), literally "east wind snail". According to Baidu Encyclopaedia, this refers to a number of sea snails in the Babylonia genus. I've seen these on dim sum menus, as 沙爹東風螺 (shā diē dōng fēng luó), which are sea snails in satay sauce, and as 咖哩東風螺 (kā lī dōng fēng luó), which are sea snails in curry sauce ("shā diē" and "kā lī" are phonetic transcriptions of "satay" and "curry" respectively).

Probably the most common dish with 東 in the name, however, is 東坡肉 (Dōngpō ròu). This is a dish of wine-infused pork belly, cooked using multiple methods (blanching, frying, braising, and steaming) over several hours. 東坡肉 is named after the 11th century poet and politician Sū Shì (蘇軾), who is more commonly known as Sū Dōngpō (蘇東坡); according to Wikipedia, he took this name from a farm he lived on, called Dōngpō (東坡), literally "eastern slope".

Other place names you might see on a menu are 廣東 (Guǎngdōng), the southern province which is the home of Cantonese cuisine (including dim sum), and 山東 (Shāndong), an eastern coastal province whose cuisine, like Cantonese cuisine, is considered one of China's eight culinary traditions.

東: dōng radical 75 (木) Cantodict MandarinTools YellowBridge Zhongwen

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)
2011-10-18 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)
2011-09-30 02:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Dishes: 香辣土豆絲 — xiāng là tǔ dòu sī — fragrant-spicy deepfried shredded potato

Image description follows.

[Image: A tall pile of thin, browned, crispy deep-fried slivers of potato. A few pieces of dried red chilli can be seen among them.]

So, I said I'd be back in September, and here I am, just under the wire.

I realise I've been a bit flaky recently in terms of this blog. I took July off to move house. I missed a post at the start of August, then halted the dim sum month entirely. It's true that in my personal life I've had A Bit Of A Year, for various reasons, but I do really want to keep up this project, because I enjoy doing the research, testing the recipes, writing the posts, and reading all the useful, critical, amusing, and generally lovely comments that people are kind enough to leave.

So my plan is as follows, for now. I'm going to keep the structure of concept post followed by character post followed by dish post, but I'm going to post once a week instead of three times a week. I'll see how this goes, and possibly adjust it a bit so each month has a theme instead of each-three-weeks having a theme, but this is what I'm going to do for now. Hopefully this will let me maintain quality while still posting regularly.

I'm also going to make things easy on myself today, by posting a dish that I have no intention of attempting to make at home. It's also on-theme since it's a variation of a dish that I posted about at the end of a previous hiatus, 土豆絲 (tǔ dòu sī) — shredded potatoes. While that version is a fresh, snappy stirfry of julienned potatoes, this version is basically a large, fragrant pile of crispy deep-fried ultra-thin shoestring fries. It is delicious.

The version pictured above, which I ate at Royal Palace in Surrey Quays, was listed on the menu as 香辣土豆絲 (xiāng là tǔ dòu sī), literally "fragrant-spicy shredded potato". Judging by Google Image search, 香辣土豆絲 is usually, but not always, the deep-fried version. I've seen this particular name twice on menus; once it was deep-fried, the other time it was the lightly stirfried version.

I said above that I'm not going to try to make this at home, but if you'd like to then the Beijing Haochi recipe looks pretty good.

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)
2011-08-22 01:11 pm

Unexpected hiatus

First of all, apologies for the lack of a second dish post last week — I seem to have seriously overcommitted myself this month and am scrambling to keep up with things.

Because of this, I've decided to halt my dim sum month here. I don't want to put up scrappily-written and under-researched posts just for the sake of sticking to the schedule; I'd rather take a break for a couple of weeks, and leave the rest of the dim sum posts I'd planned until the next time.

So! This blog will resume at some point in September. I'm not yet sure exactly when in September, but hopefully not before too long.

(People having dim sum with me this Friday — don't worry, I'm not cancelling that!)

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
2011-08-17 05:30 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Dishes: 紙包蝦 — zhǐ bāo xiā — paper-wrapped prawns

Description follows.

[Image: Three long, deep-fried, rice-paper-wrapped cylinders sitting on a white paper doily on a white plate. The pink-orange colour of the prawn filling is visible through the wrapper.]

I have no recipe to offer you for today's dim sum dish. I tried to find one in my cookery books and on the internet, and failed on both counts. So instead, have a photo of it (above), and an encouragement to order it in restaurants!

Paper-wrapped prawns (紙包蝦/zhǐ bāo xiā) can be found in the "fried" section of the dim sum menu. The English name and Chinese name match up quite simply: 紙 (zhǐ) is paper, 包 (bāo) means "package" or "to wrap", and 蝦 (xiā) are prawns. The paper here is rice paper — not the very thin, shiny stuff that Brits of a certain age may remember purchasing from sweetshops, but the sort of thing used to wrap Vietnamese spring rolls.

You may also see these listed as 威化紙包蝦 (wēi huà zhǐ bāo xiā). Don't try to extract meaning from the characters 威 and 化, since this is another phonetic Cantonese transliteration ("wai faa") of an English word, "wafer" in this case, referring to the texture of the deep-fried rice paper wrappers.

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)
2011-08-15 07:00 pm

Reading Chinese Menus: Characters: 蝦 — xiā — prawn

I've mentioned 蝦 (xiā) in several posts already, so I thought it was time I gave it a character post of its own. 蝦 on its own means "prawn" or "shrimp" — though don't ask me what the difference between a prawn and a shrimp is, since it seems to vary by country.

You may also see 大蝦 (dà xiā), or "big prawns", i.e. king prawns. However, a lack of 大 in the name of a dish doesn't necessarily mean that the prawns are small ones. In addition, 球 (qiú), which means "ball", is sometimes used as a reference to the way prawns tend to curl up into balls: 蝦球 (xiā qiú). 蝦仁 (xiā rén) are peeled prawns; 仁 means "kernel" or "core".

Other prawn-related words include 蝦醬 (xiā jiàng), which is shrimp paste (belachan), and 蝦米 (xiā mǐ), literally "prawn grains", which are dried prawns. Note that another name for dried prawns is 海米/hǎi mǐ, literally "ocean grains".

Finally, although it's not a prawn, the word for lobster also includes 蝦; it's 龍蝦 (lóng xiā), literally "dragon prawn".

Below are some dishes with 蝦 in the name. (I decided to try out a new style for this "table of dishes" — what do you think? See last week's character post for a comparison.)

蝦餃xiā jiǎohar gao
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, "har gao" is simply the Cantonese pronunciation of 蝦餃, adopted into English as the name for these translucent-skinned prawn dumplings.
紙包蝦zhǐ bāo xiāpaper-wrapped prawns
紙 (zhǐ) is paper, and 包 (bāo) means "package" or "to wrap". These are deep-fried prawns wrapped in rice paper skins.
鮮蝦腸粉xiān xiā cháng fěnprawn cheung fun
I discussed cheung fun during last year's dim sum month. 鮮 (xiān) means "fresh", and is used here to make the dish sound more appealing.
芝麻蝦多士zhī má xiā duō shìsesame prawn toast
芝麻 (zhī má) is sesame and 多士 (duō shì) is toast; the latter of these is another of those words which originated as a Cantonese transliteration ("do si") of the English word ("toast"). Note that despite its reputation as an Anglicised Chinese dish, [identity profile] sung assures me that 芝麻蝦多士 is a bona fide Cantonese dish, usually served as a starter or snack.
宮保蝦球gōng bǎo xiā qiúkung po prawns
Note the use of 球 (qiú) as described above.
姜蔥龍蝦jiāng cōng lóng xiālobster with ginger and spring onion
You might also see this with the alternative word for ginger, 薑 (also pinyinised as jiāng).

蝦: xiā radical 142 (虫) Cantodict MandarinTools YellowBridge Zhongwen

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.