Friday, August 28, 2009

Tianshui Inspired Chinese Stir Fry with Pork, Italian Peppers & Onion

I have been reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms since I was 27 or so and in my mid-30s, I visited China to see the birthplace of a certain general who I especially admired. He came from the north western area of China - from Tianshui - which was a gateway to the silk road in those days, and as we neared his home town - we saw restaurants sporting Halal flags.

The market stalls, unlike those we saw in Beijing or in Inner Mongolia did not have solid roofs but had rough linen awnings, and they served a smoky flavored tea with rock sugar and dried fruit in it - and you knew that the culture in this area had been touched by something from a culture further west of the Taklamakan desert.

I was more focused on history than culinary pleasures at the time, but luckily my mother and our wonderful guide who we called 'Kee' were food obsessed, and Kee found a little restaurant in the little town in Gangu County where they served this delicious stir fry of bitter melon and pork. Kee being from Xian was a snob and apologized for the 'country' cooking and said this was the best he could do, but it was wonderful country fare and more delicious then some of the food we were to have later on in Cheng Du. This was served with a bowl of freshly cooked rice and a Cilantro Salad. The Cilantro Salad was nothing more than fresh cilantro tossed in dark sesame oil and salt - but Key told us it would help restore our appetite in the sweltering hot summer weather and it did the job.

We asked him how to make this salad and Key informed us that the important thing was to toss it with your bare hands, which some of you may find appalling, but he said it was integral that you do this as the warmth from your hands would help the flavors blend properly.

Anyhow, I never got the recipe for the pork stir fry with bitter melons and have not encountered this dish outside of this area. I mean you will find pork stir fry with bitter melons in Chinese restaurants, but I have tried them and it's not the same dish as the one I had in Tianshui.

The recipe I'm going to share today is a recreation of this dish, made with Italian peppers and onions instead of bitter melon which I can't get easily in Costa del Sol. There used to be a store that would order bitter melons for me but sadly the owner had to go back to China because of family issues and with her went my supply of bitter melons.

Tianshui Inspired Chinese Stir Fry with Pork, Italian Peppers & Onion

Serves 2


3 - 4 Fatty Pork Chops (preferably pork collar)

1 Onion

1 Italian Pepper

1 Tsp Sichuan Peppercorns

3 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil or White Sesame Seed Oil or Dark Sesame Seed Oil*

For the Marinade:

1 Tbsp Soy sauce

1 Tbsp Dry Sherry or Shaoxing Wine**

Sea Salt

For the Sauce:

3 - 4 Tbsp Chili Bean Paste

1-2 Tbsp Oyster Sauce

1 Tsp Soysauce

1 Tsp Dry Sherry or Shaoxing wine**

1/2 Tsp Sweetened Soybean Paste or Black Bean Garlic Sauce

1/2 Tbsp Brown Sugar

Step 1: Dice the onion and peppers into bite sized pieces and put them into separate containers ready to throw into your Wok or frying pan that can heat-up to really high temperatures. Do not use a frying pan that won't heat-up to higher temperatures because you can't make stir fry with these kinds of pans.

Step 2: Cut the pork chops into bite sized rectangular pieces and marinate these inside a bowl with soy sauce and dry sherry/shaoxing wine. I've written approximate amounts of this above but only use enough to dampen the bits of pork. The amount of soy sauce, wine and salt you need will depend on the size of your pork chops. Sprinkle some sea salt on the pork and blend it a bit with your hands (or with a kitchen utensil) and let it sit for 30 - 60 minutes. If you don't have time to do this - 15 minutes will do. This step isn't critical so I wouldn't worry about it so much.

Step 3: Put the ingredients of the sauce into one bowl and have it ready for use. This is important as speed is integral to stir frying which is done at very high temperatures. Do not start frying the ingredients and try to put the sauce together later - because your stir fry will be ruined.

Step 4: Before you start stir frying anything make sure your rice will be ready in 15 minutes or so. Basically your rice has finished cooking already at this stage and is sitting there absorbing moisture and settling down already. I let mine sit for 30 minutes with round grain rice so this means the rice has been cooked and has been sitting there for 15 minutes already. This is when I start cooking the stir fry.

Step 5: Now put your wok or frying pan on the stove and max out the heat. Put the oil in and let it heat-up until it's smoking and then throw in the Sichuan peppercorns until the aromas have been released, then put in the pork and stir fry them until they're nicely browned. When the pork is done remove these to a bowl or plate.

Step 6: In the same pan (and add more oil if needed - but if you do this let the oil heat-up again before frying the onions) stir fry the onions first until they are a bit brown or a bit caramelized on the outside layer. If you are using the right kind of frying pan and do this at max heat, the onions will still be crisp even though they are a bit browned and this is what you're aiming for.

Step 7: Throw in the diced peppers and stir fry this until they are coated in oil. These don't really have to cook so as soon as they are glistening with oil and you can put the pork back into the pan. Quickly put the 'sauce' we have prepared into the pan.

Step 8: Now stir fry this until the aroma of the raw sauce changes to a more pleasant aroma and all the bits of vegetables and pork are glistening in the caramelized sugar (which was inside the sauce).

Serve immediately.

Let me reiterate here that your stove should be at max heat the whole time and that you should prepare all your ingredients before you start stir frying anything. The key to making a good stir fry is speed. If your ingredients stay in the pan too long the vegetables will wilt and lose their crunchy texture and the pork will become dry.


*In Japan I used to use a mixture of white sesame seed oil with a touch of dark sesame seed oil for flavor. Again, I'm using extra virgin olive oil here which isn't something one uses in Chinese cooking frankly, but I live in olive oil country and the quality of olive oil is exceptional - so I use this rather than the inferior varieties of sesame seed oil I can get here.

**The quality of dry sherry in Southern Spain is exceptional and has an aroma similar to good quality Shaoxing wine which is why I opt for this instead of the real thing. Use which ever is easier to procure in your area. Don't use a sweet sherry for this.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Grilled Salmon Steak with White Wine Saffron Sauce with Prawns

Yesterday was my birthday and because I was kind of lazy about going out - Ronny cooked dinner for me instead. The warm weather tends to take away my appetite and yesterday was one of those days when I felt like eating something light like shrimp or prawns. What you see is much heavier than a shrimp cocktail and I only ended-up eating half the salmon steak...but it was delicious.

Ronny tells me it's quite common to serve salmon with a white wine sauce in Sweden and decorate it with shrimp or prawns boiled in dill to give it a nicer flavor, but Ronny likes to put the prawns inside the sauce and he spiced it up with some fragrant Spanish saffron to give it more depth in flavor.

I'm going to share his recipe for the sauce because I'm assuming you all know how to grill salmon steaks and cook rice.

Ronny's White Wine Saffron Sauce with Prawns


3 dl Fish Broth

2 dl Cream + 1 dl Whipped Cream

1 dl Dry White Wine + more to taste

125 mg Spanish Saffron

30 g Unsalted Butter

2 Tbsp Flour

1/2 Lemon (the juice)

400 g Boiled Peeled Prawns (500g with their peel on)

Sea Salt

Step 1: Put the fish broth, cream and wine in a saucer and simmer until it's been reduced to half its volume.

Step 2: Mix the butter and flour in a bowl until it forms a thick paste.

Step 3: Add the flour paste into the sauce and blend thoroughly.

Step 4: Add the whipped cream and saffron and blend.

Step 5: At this point make sure the sauce is smooth and add salt and more wine to taste, then add the boiled prawns. Add the lemon juice bit by bit to taste. We used the juice of half a lemon but yours might be bigger and have more tang.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pseudo Sushi & the Avocado

I don't understand why there is even a debate about a substitute for traditional Sushi ingredients when we already have the avocado. Since Ichiro Mashita the Sushi Chef at The Tokyo Kaikan tried substituting avocados for Toro, the avocado has become standard fare for Sushi...outside Japan.

Since the basic premise for Japanese cuisine is using the freshest ingredients in season - why even think about eating raw fish in inland areas faraway from the ocean? During my days as a production coordinator for television commercials I remember how the Japanese staff from Tokyo would cringe at the thought of eating Sushi deep in the mountains somewhere in some rural town. I guess the American crew just thought they should be eating Sushi since they were in Japan because it was the vogue in those days to do this, but well....fresh saltwater fish deep in the mountains where the hotel didn't even have decent toilet paper? Then after not heeding the advice of the Japanese coordinators that it wasn't a good idea to eat Sushi at all, the American crew would invariably complain that the Sushi wasn't good as the Sushi in New York.

I'm sure it wasn't and they put way too much sugar in the rice and I thought it was disgusting.

People from Tokyo are awfully proud of their Sushi, but if you ask the fishermen in the small fishing villages, they'll turn their noses up in disgust because the fish is 'half-rotten' according to them. These people are used to fish as fresh as can be you see.

Anyhow what you see in the photograph is not Sushi because the rice needs to have vinegar in it to be called Sushi and I don't like vinegar. It's just glorified rice balls rolled in toasted sesame seeds, garnished with a slice of ripe melt in your mouth avocado marinated in lemon juice and drizzled with a mixture of Wasabi and soy sauce. The green stuff you see on top of the avocado are chives.

I often eat what the Japanese call Temaki Zushi (which is pretty much DIY Sushi at the table), and I just use freshly cooked rice. Avocado, wasabi, soy sauce and toasted sesame seeds is a golden combination that makes an excellent substitute for real Sushi and this is how I get my Sushi and Sashimi fix when I need it.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Oriental Rucola Chicken Salad

I've had a craving for Japanese food these past few days and have been eating odd things like avocado seasoned with Wasabi and Soysauce wrapped in seaweed paper with toasted sesame seeds, finely chopped leeks, cucumbers and fluffy freshly cooked round grain rice.

This salad is what I have when I need a quick fix of something that tastes 'Japanese'. You can pretty much put any vegetable in it although peppers are a bit too strong and may clash with the Wasabi Soysauce dressing.

Oriental Rucola Chicken Salad

Serves 2



1/4 Cucumber (thinly sliced)

1 Ripe Red Tomato (diced)

1/4 Red Onion (thinly sliced)

1 Ripe Avocado (diced)

4 Small Chicken Fillets (fried and shredded)

3 Tbsp White Sesame Seeds (toasted)

2 Tsp Wasabi

3 Tbsp SoySauce

Extra Virgin Olive Oil


Black Pepper

Step 1: Fry the chicken filets seasoned with salt and black pepper in extra virgin olive oil until they are golden brown. Set them aside.

Step 2: Toast the sesame seeds inside a pan.

Step 3: Assemble the ingredients in a salad bowl. Toss the diced tomatoes and avocaod with the Rucola and then put the cucumber slices on top.

Step 4: Pour the dressing over it. I pour a nice glug of extra virgin olive oil over the salad, and then pour a mixture of Wasabi and soysauce over it.

Step 5: Decorate this with the red onions and top it off with chunks of shredded chicken. Sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds and serve.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Transplanted Baker

I found this cute little parcel in my mailbox today from Transplanted Baker. Siri had asked her readers to post their favorite summer dessert and she was giving away a Bjorklund Soft Cheese Slicer. It's quite common to do 'giveaways' in food blogs these days but since this is the first time I've won anything I thought I'd post it. Don't we all love getting presents?

Siri is "A pie-lovin', bread-risin', apron wearin' expatriate living the good life on the west coast of Norway". I've been reading Siri's blog for quite some time now, and I think she's a great writer. She comes across as a sincere person and she always manages to make me smile, or even laugh. As a person who has been 'transplanted' more than once myself, I guess I can also relate to a lot of her thoughts.