I was sitting eating pot stickers in Chinatown on Sunday and suddenly realised I’d rather eat them over a traditional British roast dinner on any day of the week.
(I’m talking specifically about the crimped dumplings which are made fresh in the window of the Jen Cafe and then fried for you to dip into a salty, tangy mixture of soy sauce and vinegar. The rest of the food there doesn’t look so good so I always order exactly the same thing: fried dumplings and a jasmine tea.)
It’s taken me years to work out the origins of another Chinese comfort food, one which is something of a staple meal for the Greig family, and mysteriously known to us only as “ja ja mien”.
It turned out that a simple change to the spelling of the recipe was all I needed to help me discover its origins.
When I got hold of Fuchsia Dunlop’s (highly recommended) Sichuan Cookery book a couple of years back, I flicked through it at random to find myself looking at a recipe for “dan-dan noodles”.
It seemed to be along the same lines as my mum’s recipe.
The ingredients were all there: minced pork, cucumber, spring onion, a rich salty sauce, and noodles.
Considering my mum was a kid when she was in Asia I reckon they have to be one and the same thing.
“Dan dan noodles are the most famous Sichuanese street snack… originally sold by men who wandered the alleys of the city, carrying their stoves, noodles and secret-recipe sauces in baskets hanging from a bamboo shoulderpole (known as dan in Chinese) . Older people in Chengdu can remember the days when these vendors were a common sight, and their calls of ‘dan dan mian! dan dan mian!” rang out in every quarter of the city. The noodles were served in small portions in tiny bowls, just enough to ease the hunger of scholars working late or mah jong players gambling into the night.”
Doesn’t this sound like a great way to both deliver and eat food? (I’ve half a mind to start my own London take on it..).
These days, most of the time my mum refuses to eat at Chinese restaurants in the UK, preferring to cook her own food instead.
Her father, my grandfather, worked for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank which meant she spent a good chunk of her childhood in the Far East. And her mother, my grandmother, was half Chinese. Which makes me 1/8th Chinese, and almost qualified to write something about Chinese food.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s stir-fried potato slivers with chilli and sichuan pepper. Photograph: Chris Terry.
So here, for what it’s worth, is everything I know about Chinese food (short of posting my mum’s ja ja mien recipe, which I’m not sure I’m even allowed to).
Some of my statements may be wildly incorrect of course and thus any corrections or suggestions you may have are warmly welcomed.</p>
- There's not really a right or wrong way to use chopsticks. I'm not even going to try to teach you because I don't think my own method is up to much. But it works. That's the main thing. Don't worry about the technique too much, just try to get the food into your mouth.
- You're not supposed to eat rice from a plate with chopsticks. If someone serves you Chinese food on a big plate and gives you chopsticks, be highly suspicious of them. It's a trap. No wonder people end up eating with Western cutlery in restaurants. You need a small bowl with steeply curved sides otherwise you'll just be pushing the food around until it goes cold.
- It's ok to pick up your bowl and bring it closer to your moth when eat.
- It's also ok to pick up your bowl and shovel rice straight from the bowl into your mouth rather than pick it up.
- And it is equally ok to dip your head down to the bowl and slurp away. Trust me on this. There is lots of slurping going on in China at meal times.
- Eating left-handed in close proximity with someone eating right-handed can sometimes lead to chopsticks clashes. This doesn't really happen when you're using knives and forks. I try to look at the funny side of the situation when it does.
- If you are eating at a Chinese restaurant, avoid the dishes which come all-in-one, e.g. on a plate with their own helping of rice or noodles. Part of the joy of eating Chinese food is sharing multiple dishes. Even (or especially) if you're eating on your own.
- Yes, chicken feet are a big thing in Chinese cuisine. No, I don't know why. I've eaten them on a couple of occasions — once at a remote restaurant by the Great Wall of China, and the other time in Rotterdam, of all places. Neither time could I say that I enjoyed them. I guess they're just are an acquired taste, like marmite. But really there didn't seem to be much to taste, it was more a case of sucking on some bones.
- Forgot everything you have learned about Chinese food from run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants (especially takeaways). Their Westernised recipes are so far removed from the real thing that you have possibly already been put off eating things which are actually rather good. Sweet & sour dishes for example, are so much better if made yourself. The sauce tastes as described, (in a good way) without being gloopy or a ridiculous fake suntan orange colour. Start with one of Ken Hom's sweet & sour shrimp recipes if you don't believe me.
- Black rice vinegar (or Chinkiang vinegar) is delicious stuff. When mixed with soy sauce, for example, it makes a great dipping sauce. Sometimes I even use it mixed with olive oil as a salad dressing, instead of balsamic vinegar.
- Also amazing, both in name and taste: Bang bang chicken.
- Making pot stickers or jiaozi or pan-fried dumplings or whatever you want to call them is easier than you think. You can buy frozen packets of the wrappers and then make your own filling (a mixture of prawn and minced pork with massive quantities of finely chopped ginger and garlic works best I think). This recipe is pretty good although I wouldn't bother with the cabbage myself.
- Stir fries: you don't have to cook everything at once. In fact it's better not too. Cook the meat first, and set it aside to cook the vegetables, before returning everything to the pan at the end. That way everything can be cooked just so.
- The potato revolution will not be televised. Because all you need to do is cut your potatoes into extremely fine slices and fry them with Sichuan pepper to experience the revolution for yourself.
- If your chopsticks come in a paper wrapper, fold the wrapper into a knot when you've taken them out. It's meant to be good luck.
- On which note: chopstick wrapper origami. Three words. Endless possibilities.
- Peking duck. those crispy slivers of skin and a little meat, wrapped in delicately thin pancakes with cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce, is perhaps the most magical Chinese food of all. At least to my taste buds. It's almost impossible to make at home so I recommend treating yourself to it (at least once a year).
What’s your favourite Chinese food?
Day 10 of 30 days of writing x Teach everything you know
Words written: 1200
Time taken: 2 hours
Posted to life in 2013.