30 June 2011

Big plate chicken (da pan ji - 大盘鸡)

Remember the dish I described at Silk Road as my favourite of 2010? 'A massive pot of savoury liquor - red-brown and with aromatic anise steam rolling off it. The meat is in there on the bone as it some veg and chilli but it's really the flavour of the stock that is so incredible.' Well reader, I stumbled across a recipe for it and of course had to make it quick-sharp.

I had perhaps thought that 'big-plate chicken' was a clunky transliteration Silk Road had made rendering their menu into English. Not so. The classic Xinjiang dish is called Da Pan Ji which really does mean big plate chicken, a wonderfully literal name. Xinjiang is the most western Chinese province and borders the central Asian stans. Its people range in ethnicities and cultures, many are Muslim and of course eat quite different food to the Eastern Chinese diets we may be more familiar with. There is lots of lamb, there doesn't seem to be any soy-bean, it's all about the wheat (both noodles and flat-breads) rather than rice and yoghurt features. Having done some basic reading on it I came to think of it as a cross between the familiar Chinese larder of ingredients and the Turkish one.

Here is an article on the food and culture of the region - From Kebab to Nan (pdf) - and here a site dedicated to the culture of Xinjiang - Xinjiang, Far West China.

You can check da pan ji recipes from Read extensively of healthy lives and Lily's Random Diversions and some debate on the thread Big Plate Chicken/Chicken & Potato on EGullet. The recipe I chose to follow was from Chrisnw6. As ever I made a few tweaks.

First you need to get your chicken into manageable chunks. My chicken was actually a guinea fowl which worked out fine. Trying to chop it up  into chunks on the bone without a cleaver is bloody hard work. In the end I jointed it normally, smashed the thigh bones and cut the breast meat and back part into a few rough sections. The key is to have the meat on the bone - I think it's ok to keep the pieces a bit larger than might be traditional. I also recommend removing much of the skin as it makes the sauce rather greasy.

Then fry the spices in oil: Szechuan chillies and peppercorns, then cinnamon, star anise, bay, cumin and white pepper. Add a bunch of spring onions chopped and plenty of sliced ginger. Add the chicken and brown. Add some tomato purée. Then add carrots and potatos in chunks and cook for a few minutes. When it's all primed top up with water or beer. I used a light larger and a bit of water.

Stew until everything is cooked, adding chopped peppers and onions towards the end and serving with chopped coriander and thick wheat noodles or nan.

OK first of all: it's not as good at Silk Road's version. Quite a long way off actually. But in my defence I've never cooked it before. Secondly though: it is pretty good. A chicken hotpot with a Chinese aromatic heat and a Turkish feel. The potato and carrot make me think of a British casserole, the peppers, onions and tomato of a Mediterranean stew and the star anise and Szechuan pepper of Szechuan and Hunan. It's a pretty great combination.

27 June 2011

Fennel and cheese on toast

A very nice brunch of fennel slowly caramelised with a bit of butter and some brie. Use any soft cheese and give it a blast under the grill to make everything nice and sticky.

23 June 2011

Hunan beef with chillies and cumin

Cumin's not a spice that seems to pop up in much Chinese food. Hunan province, though, is on a similar latitude to northern India and Pakistan so maybe climate conditions are right there for cumin cultivation. Anyhow, in this dish cumin is combined with the familiar combo of chilli (lots of chilli), garlic, ginger, spring onion and a little soy sauce and sesame oil to make a wicked flavour in which the beef sits. I used minced beef which came out a touch fatty.

  • beef
  • fresh mild chillies and/or peppers of some kind
  • garlic, ginger, cumin, soy sauce, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, cornflour, chilli flakes, salted chilli
  • spring onions

Take you beef and get into manageable pieces. Next time I will use some proper meat but this time I had some cheap mince. Marinate it in Shaoxing wine and soy sauce whilst you prep the vegetables. The green Turkish peppers/chillies (bit unclear exactly what the are!) shown above are perfect. They are spicy at the business end near the stalk but also have a good crunch and flavour akin to capsicum. Otherwise I would suggest a mix of big mild chillies and some peppers. Chop into smallish rings. Chop the spring onions and prep the garlic and ginger into matchsticks.

Brown the beef and set aside.

Fry the garlic, ginger and cumin in some oil. I suggest using these three things in equal measure. Sprinkle with chilli flakes. After a couple of minutes add the chillies or other vegetables. After another couple add the spring onions and meat and cook for a few minutes. Stir in a little thickening agent stabilised with some water. I use cornflour but there are a few options out there. Continue cooking everything together for a few minutes and season to taste with soy sauce and sesame oil. Add salted chillies if you want more heat.

 I used up a little cabbage here but I'm not sure it added much

The taste was  great. The cumin contributes a pleasing mustiness but does not dominate. I recommend having plenty of vegetables here, even up to two-thirds of the overall mass of food. I don't know if I added too much oil or it was the beef itself which was fatty but the food ended up being a bit greasy.

I adapted the recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop's Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook which details the food of Hunan province as her previous book Land of Plenty address that of Szechuan (or Sichuan). I like the book - it's a larger hard-backed book with more pictures that LOP. It has a pretty clear layout (essential) and the pictures are of the food and not of the cook messing around and laughing like in some books. Some of the dishes resemble their Szechuan cousins, whilst most involve different combinations of spices and procedures. Like its predecessor it gives an overall picture of a comprehensive cuisine with its own traditions, history, combinations and quirks.

17 June 2011

Fish-fragrant aubergine pickle

I love preserving, but the conditions have to be right. It usually happens during a lazy (or rainy) weekend afternoon I find. I think it's because of the delayed reward - when I cook in the week it's because I want to scoff the food. But preserving's a different game altogether. You have to do it all for love and not, initially, for taste. Make the food, put it in a dark drawer and forget about it for a while. I've still not tasted my hot and sweet plum chutney, although I did cave in and eat the green bean chutney pretty soon after making and jolly nice it was too. I found that even a week or two rounded out the vinegar and gave it a gentler and more complex flavour.

The idea for this pickle was pretty simple - make some fish-fragrant aubergines as normal but ramp up the vinegar and sugar in them to levels that preserve the vegetables and allow them to mellow and mature over the course of a few weeks.

  • two big aubergines or equivalent small Asian ones
  • a pepper
  • a bunch of spring onions
  • plenty of chopped garlic and ginger, sugar, chilli broad-bean paste, Chinkiang vinegar, malt vinegar, soy sauce

Chop the aubergine into medium sized chunks. I thought a pepper would be nice to provide a spot of colour - if you decided to include this chop it into similarly sized pieces.

Fry the veg in some oil for seven or ten minutes until it becomes soft. Set to one side.

Chop the garlic and ginger and fry with the chilli bean paste and chopped spring onions for a minute or two until fragrant. I use this Pixian bean paste (川老汇郫县豆瓣) which is 30% broad-beans (more than some others I have seen) and quite rough and thick (and delicious).

Add the soy sauce, some sugar (maybe four or five tablespoons), quite a few good shakes of each vinegar and some water. You need a little liquid. Reintroduce the aubergine and pepper and cook everything together for five minutes.

When it looks nice and jammy spoon the mixture into sterile jam jars. Some people suggest putting the jars in the oven but I've always found it quicker to have them in a bubbling pot of water on a slow boil.

This amount makes about four jam jars' worth of pickle. Dunno what it's going to taste like: might be horrible. But I like the idea of it. All you'd need is some rice, stir-fried veg and a bit of this pickle. I'll keep you posted.

13 June 2011

Fried long green peppers (fu pi qing jiao)

Down Ridley Rd at the moment you can get about eight of these long green peppers for a pound. Amazing. I associate them with Turkish food usually and they would be wonderful fried up with garlic, cumin and olive oil and topped with yoghurt and a little sumac. However we also know that peppers of various forms are much loved in Szechuan. This is one of those mega simple combinations that really lack the necessary complexity to be considered a full on recipe. Just as they would be delicious fried with garlic and dressed with just olive oil and salt and pepper in an Italian style, all I did was fry them and give them a splash of vinegar and a dab of pickle. Simple. The flavours speak for themselves: stands to reason.

I used my new favourite - Wild Brake Pickle (飯掃光家常野蕨菜). Available (along with live eels last weekend) at the compact, excellent Yu Xiao in Dalston.

  • peppers
  • oil, Chinkiang vinegar, pickled vegetables or chilli

Fry the peppers. You need to achieve an appetising softness inside and a semi-blistered skin outside. Spots of blackness are desirable. These green peppers are spicy. I left the seeds in and they were fine.

    Dress with vinegar and a touch of your favourite pickle. You could go for some preserved mustard tuber or maybe some salted chillies. Consume. Great as a side dish: for a whole meal just muddle a couple of eggs in with the peppers and serve with rice a a slug of soy sauce.

    well tasty

    Sunflower Food Galore is a brilliant food blog covering Chinese food and more. You can check their take on this dish - Stir fried blistered green chilli - Hu pe jian jiao - 虎皮尖椒.

    11 June 2011

    Dal 4 - mixed pulses in a soup

    Dal quest continues. Coincidentally The Grauniad ran a similarly themed article - How to cook perfect dal.

    This attempt had mixed pulses - green lentils, green split peas, orange lentils and black-eyed beans. They all went in to boil at the same time in plenty of water bar the orange lentils which take less time to cook and consequently went in later. I also added a knob of tamarind to give some sour-sweet background.

    Instead of the obligatory onions in this I used spring-onions as they were lying around. They are very cheap on Ridley Road at the minutes - four big bunches for a pound.

    • mix of dried lentils, beans and peas (whatever you have in your cupboard)
    • onions or spring onions
    • cumin, coriander seed, mustard seed, curry leaves, tamarind, garlic, green chillies
    • creamed coconut

    Set the pulses to boil, taking into account how long each one will take and adding accordingly. Chuck in a know of tamarind and some turmeric and salt.

    Make the spicy onion mix. Fry the onions in a generous amount of ghee and after ten minutes add chopped garlic and lots of green chillies. Keep them at a temperature high enough to almost burn the onion, which should give it a desirably rough and smoky tinge. Add the dried spices and fry for another ten minutes.

    When the pulses are cooked combine with the spices and onion. Stir and cook for another five minutes. Add some water if needed to make a soupy mixture and shave in some creamed coconut at the end: enough to hint at but not fully deliver richness.

    This one has a nice mix of flavour and made a good tea with some pitta and some pickles. Nothing too exotic.

    3 June 2011

    Congee Mk 3 - split-pea and red-braised partridge

    I've made congee a couple of times before. I love the idea of it: a bland starchy base  topped up with pleasingly strong toppings. My recent discovery of the superb Food and Drink Chengdu lead to the inevitable trawl through the archive and a hoarding of tasty looking dishes. One that took my fancy was a rice and pea soup, a liquid congee type mixture of rice and split-peas.


    I've had a couple of partridges in the freezer for a long time. And there in, perhaps, lies the problem. Emboldened by a recent red-braised pork dish which was a wonder of sweet and spice I thought I'd try the same treatment on the aged partridge.

    • rice and split-peas
    • meat (try fatty pork, or chicken?)
    • sugar, star anise, dried chilli, cinnamon, chilli oil, Shaoxing wine
    • pickled vegetables

    Start the congee - put the rice and split-peas in plenty of water in a ratio of 3:1. Boil away until you get a soupy texture. It'll take a good hour.

    For the red braise I'd recommend not using partridge, at least not long-frozen ones. Perhaps this is a lesson in freezer stock-monitoring. Try fatty pork - belly or spare rib chops are ideal.

    Heat some oil and add a couple of teaspoons of sugar. Melt. It will go liquid and brown. Splosh in a few good shakes of Shaoxing cooking wine (dry sherry is often suggested in lieu of it should you be lacking) and stir. Chuck in a star anise, a few dried chillies and a stick of cinnamon. Add the meat and top up with water. Simmer for forty minutes and when nearly ready reduce the liquid a bit.

    When the congee is ready put a portion of meat on top, spoon over some braising sauce, top with chilli oil and add a little preserved vegetable.


    Good in theory, this dish could come to life with some nicely braised tender meat. As it was, the partridge was dry, stringy, musky and rather tough. The legs were especially unappetising; borderline inedible in fact. In the end I shredded the breast meat and stirred it into the mixture.

    It's also possible that I don't really like partridge that much. I might loose food-cred points but I'm not sure that fiddly, muddy tasting, micro-fowl are the way forward in life.