Mapo Tofu with Shiitake Mushroom (Vegan)

Mapo Dofu (麻婆豆腐) is one of those classic Sichuan dishes that have been made a million times in a million different Chinese restaurants around the world. Growing up vegetarian in a hippy household full of macrobiotic health food, it was fiery, grease-laden dishes like this tofu that blew my mind and sparked my taste buds. Mapu tofu is an umami-packed powerhouse of chilli and pepper that sucked me into Chinatown diners, and alerted me to the unbelievable depth possible in vegetarian cookery. Years later, it was the memory of those first plates of peppery tofu that forced me to travel around the world in search of that mouth-numbing hit of ma-la spice.

 

This recipe is a much simpler and faster take on the ragu-style mapo tofu that chef Danny Bowien makes by slow cooking a sichuan chilli pepper sauce using dehydrated shiitake mushrooms, tomato paste and mushroom powder/soup base. It steals the mushroom idea from Mission Chinese Food, but regresses to the much simpler wok style fry-cooking method of a more traditional mapu dofu from Sichuan province.

tofuMapo Tofu with Shiitake Mushroom (Vegan)

Note: Links are to Amazon affiliate, if you can’t find anything in your grocer)

Prep time: 20-30 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Makes enough for 6-8 portions

 

Ingredients:

  • 1K/2lbs tofu, cubed (I prefer silken, for the texture as it breaks down into the sauce)
  • 125ml/1/2C vegetable oil (grapeseed/corn/canola)
  • 500g/1.2lbs shiitake mushrooms, diced
  • 50g/1.8oz Sichuan peppers, whole (dry toasted in a wok)
  • 50g/1.8oz Sichuan peppers, ground to a fine powder
  • 125ml/1/2C doubanjiang (broad bean chilli paste)
  • 75ml/1/4C tomato paste
  • 750ml/3C mushroom (or other veggie) stock (simmering on a back burner)
  • 30ml/2tbsp mushroom powder/MSG
  • 125ml/1/2C garlic, smashed, diced and pasted
  • 125ml/1/2C ginger, grated
  • 75ml/1/4C Sichuan chilli oil
  • 1 bunch of scallions, finely sliced for garnish
  • 75ml/1/4C corn starch (diluted in equal amount water to form a slurry)

Preparation:

  1. Prepare all ingredients, as above. Open any cans, cut all the vegetables, measure out and have all your spices and stock and corn starch slurry within arms reach. When you’re cooking with a wok, and high heat, everything happens fast. You may also want to make your rice before hand, so it’s ready to serve as soon as your mapo tofu is cooked.
  2. Heat a wok, or large skillet over a high flame. Once your cooking surface is hot, as in singe the hairs on the back of your hand hot, add the oil and swirl it around the cooking surface.
  3. Add shiitake mushroom and cook off the liquid, stirring rapidly until they don’t give off any steam and start to brown. This could take 3-7 minutes, depending on how hot your stove is, whether it’s electric or gas.
  4. Add garlic and ginger, stirring rapidly for 30 seconds to a minute, until the aroma of garlic and ginger sweetens and begins to brown. Working quickly, stir in the tomato paste and ground sichuan pepper powder. Actively stir for 1-2 minutes, until the mixture darkens and resumes a fast boil.
  5. Dump in your mushroom powder/MSG and pour in your already simmering stock, bit by bit, stirring quickly to incorporate into your sauce. Simmer for a minute to get the flavours humming together.
  6. Turn down the heat to low and stir in the corn starch slurry to thicken the sauce into a gravy with a beautiful glossy, sheen.
  7. Now, very gently slide in your cubed tofu and carefully cover in the sauce, trying not to break the cubes, as they will inevitably break down on their own.
  8. Pour out your tofu onto a serving platter, or tray, and sprinkle with whole toasted sichuan peppers, sliced scallions and a swirl of the sichuan chill oil.

Note: Ladle this fireball of delicious tofu onto steaming bowls of rice while it’s piping hot and watch as your vegan friends descend into the ecstasy of an umami bomb that will numb their mouths faster than a visit to a novocaine happy dentist. 

Puerto Escondido – Salsa Verde con Piña

girl-in-pool

There are certain meals that slap you out of a waking sleep. I remember the exact moment I first tasted this salsa verde con piña. I was in Sayulita, a sleepy little surf town with an easy break, just close enough to California for ex-pats to drive down and just far enough to keep away the droves of tourists. I had only been drifting around Mexico for a few months, my Spanish was barely passable, and I was living out of a backpack. After hitchhiking to the Pacific coast with a girl from landlocked Guanajuato, we had been lazing on the beach, licking the salt off each other’s napes, and drinking long-necked Pacificos for a week.

canada-van

 

Sayulita is not the culinary capital of Mexico; it’s not even the culinary capital of Nayarit. We walked up from the beach to the main drag in a haze of heat and humidity, and plunked ourselves down on stools under the surfboard awning at another one of the beach-themed taquerias that you find everywhere from San Diego to Puerto Escondido. We ordered the classic deep fried white fish tacos  served with a ‘crema’ that is usually watered down mayonnaise. Our expectations were low.

blonde-surfer

A day earlier, we had smoked mota and walked through a forest so thick with mangoes that they were plunking into the soil around our bare feet., then lay down on the black sand beach and scooped the dripping flesh from the fruit with our bare hands. The rich, pregnant taste of the mangoes had been ethereal.  So when I reached for an American style squirt bottle of a yellowish salsa verde at a sidewalk taco stand, I was not expecting a life-changing bite. What I got was the sharp burn of serrano chiles, the acidic nip of tomatillos and the incredibly layered caramelized sweetness of charred pineapple. It was then, and remains now, one of the most incredible salsa I have ever tasted.

Enjoy. Provecho!

salsa-verde-con-pina-vert

 

Salsa Verde con Piña – Green Salsa with Pineapple

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Makes roughly 500ml

Ingredients

  • 6-8 tomatillos, peeled, rinsed and halved
  • 2 serrano chile peppers
  • 2 limes, juice only
  • 1 clove of garlic, preferably a small one
  • 1 fresh pineapple, peeled and sliced into wedges
  • 4 sprigs of cilantro, chopped
  • sea salt

Instructions:

  1. Grill tomatillos, garlic, serrano peppers and 1/2 of the pineapple wedges until charred.
  2. Blend in a food processor, then bring mixture to a boil in a pot. Simmer for ten minutes, season with salt.
  3. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Blend in the remaining pineapple, cilantro and lime juice. Taste and season again, if necessary.
  4. Eat on everything. It is sweet, sour and spicy amazing.

Nota: Dime si la no esta riquisimo.

Roasted Squash Soup with Chilli Oil

 

This simple squash soup recipe is great for anytime in autumn or winter, and can be served chilled in warmer months. My mother, sister and other half have all made various versions of this recipe, which feature a roasted and then pureed squash. The spice combinations are endless, but I prefer to keep the additions to a minimum and let the star of the dish speak for itself. Keeping the recipe simple, and not mucking it up with a bunch of “pumpkin spices”, let’s each of your guests control the flavour with the meal time addition (or not) of a complex, smokey and garlicky chilli oil.

 

I do, on the other hand, love to mix and match different combinations of squash, pumpkin or any other gourd available to layer different flavours in each spoonful. My only recommendation for technique, if you’re experimenting with different gourds is to make sure you strain or sieve your finished soup because you don’t want to end up with any of the woody or stringy textures that accompany certain types of squash.

squash-soup-white-vert-tight-crop

 

Roasted Squash Soup with Chilli Oil

Prep time: 50 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Makes enough for 8-10 servings, lasts for a week, and will freeze and reheat well

Ingredients:

  • 1 acorn squash
  • 1 butternut squash
  • 45ml/3 tbsp olive oil
  • 500ml/2C chicken stock (substitute vegetable stock if you’re vegan)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 15ml/1 tbsp of freshly grated ginger (half if using ginger powder)
  • Salt
  • Chilli oil (if you don’t want to make chilli oil, buy some for your pantry)

Instructions:

Prep:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F/200C. Line a baking sheet with parchment or aluminum foil.
  2. Half each squash lengthwise, then cut again into quarters. Slice each quarter into four segments, and lay out slices flat on baking sheet.
  3. Drizzle with 15ml/1 tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle to coat with salt.
  4. Roast in oven for 45 minutes.

Note: If you are uneasy about cutting into a squash, or don’t have a truly sharp knife in your kitchen, watch this video on how to cut a squash with a bread knife. If you still can’t figure it out, ask someone for help.

Cook:

  1. Bring stock to a rolling boil in a large pot.
  2. Scoop out the flesh of your squashes, reserving seeds for a snack. Discard the skin, unless you make your own stock. In which case, freeze the skin in your stock bag. If freezer scrap stock is a new concept to you, prepare to have your mind blown.
  3. Add squash, garlic clove, and grated ginger to your stock and stir until the temperature comes back to a boil.
  4. Turn down the stove to a low flame and cover with a lid. Think 20% of your stove’s maximum energy output. Simmer for at least ten minutes, and up to an hour to let the flavours marry.
  5. Remove from heat and blend the soup using an immersion blender, or food processor. If you don’t have one, please buy one. Seriously though, if you’re in a pinch, or cooking in a dormitory or at a friend’s who is incompetent in a kitchen, make sure the squash simmers for an hour, then mush out any chunks with the back of a spoon and strain through a fine sieve. Your soup should still be silky, smooth and delicious.

Note: This is a versatile soup, and the recipe can be played with a lot. If you want a rich, luscious version, use half stock and half cream, then serve with a monte au beurre, which is French for “put lots of butter in at the end”. If you’re a food nerd, read this explanation from Thomas Keller.

Wontons in Sichuan Chili Oil

 

Wontons are on the menu of almost every Chinese restaurant around the world, from Los Angeles to Paris. They are an incredibly adaptable dish: steamed, boiled, deep fried or floating in soup, they are a bite-sized package of delicious meat. My first introduction to ‘Chinese ravioli’ was in the classic Wonton Soup, a bowl of clear broth filled with a pile of hearty dumplings.

 

Wontons are popular in the street stalls and restaurants of Southern China, running the gamut from one yuan orders served on styrofoam and noshed on while perched at stools on the sidewalk, to daintily pleated upper crust versions served on silver platters at five star hotels. I have two favourite versions I ate while traveling in China. First,  at the Michelin recognized Mak’s Wonton Noodles in Hong Kong, they serve a perfect, tiny bowl of shrimp and pork broth with thin noodles topped by delicate wontons. Second is the inspiration for this recipe, the Wontons in Sichuan Chili Oil doled out in the markets of Chengdu. They also serve a mouth-watering version of Spicy Won Tons at Tim Ho Wan.

 

FYI: You need a blender, food processor or bad ass knife skills to make this recipe well.

steamed-wontons

Wontons in Sichuan Chili Oil

Prep time: 1-2 hour

Cook time: 10 minutes

Makes 50 wontons; chili oil to last for 1-2 months

Ingredients:

  • 1 package wonton wrappers.
Note: bend wrappers at the corner in package, like a sheaf of paper, to make sure they are pliable and don’t stick to each other.
Pork filling:
  • 500g/1.1lbs ground pork, roughly 30% fat, well chilled
  • 300ml/1 1/4C pork/chicken stock
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 30ml/2 tbsp fresh ginger, diced
  • 30ml/2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 30ml/2 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
  • 30ml/2 tbsp white sugar
  • 15ml/1 tbsp sesame oil
Sichuan Chili oil:
  • 250ml/1C peanut or vegetable oil
  • 20 whole dried chili peppers, hunan, thai or a similar small red chili pepper
  • 45ml/3 tbsp coarse salt
  • 30ml/2 tbsp fresh ginger, diced
  • 30ml/2 tbsp sichuan peppers, crushed or chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 15ml/1 tbsp sesame oil

Instructions:

Prep:

Pork filling:
  1. This recipe is easiest with a food processor, if you have one throw everything in their and pulse until it forms a ball. If not chop everything finely and evenly, then toss together in a mixing bowl using a fork or spatula. If you use your hands, you’ll melt with body heat everything, which you don’t want.

Note: The only way you can mess this up is if you don’t chill the filling before you fold your wontons, which will quickly turn into a sticky, messy disaster.

Sichuan Chili Oil:
  1. Heat a wok or frying pan and add the peanut/vegetable oil. Just before oil reaches smoking point, add garlic and ginger. Fry until golden in colour. Add half of the chilis and fry until they begin to turn a dark, crimson red.
  2. Remove from heat. Add remaining chili peppers and let cool for a few minutes.
  3. Once the mixture is a safe temperature, pour into a blender, add salt and pulse until chunky but uniform.
  4. Stir in sesame oil and put in a sealed container.

Note: This Sichuan chili oil lasts for months because the moisture has been cooked out of the garlic and ginger. It tastes ridiculously delicious on everything, adding a round numbing spice to any dish, and a depth of flavour to even simple soups and sauces.

Wontons:
  1. Before you wrap the wontons (choose a folding style, there’s great Youtube videos), line a baking sheet with parchment or aluminum foil, soak a tea towel in water to cover finished wontons while you’re working, and fill a bowl with cold water to rinse your fingers. You may want an additional tea towel to wipe your hands.
  2. Take your time folding the wontons, if they’re sealed properly the juice will stay locked inside and you’ll get that incredible soup dumpling explosion of juicy flavour when you bite into them.

Note: I fold wontons while I’m watching Netflix, or Mind of a Chef or whatever, so I get a whole folding station setup on my coffee table. Also, the wontons will keep for a week, if frozen on a baking sheet and properly sealed. So you can fold them ahead of time.

 

Cooking:

  1. Add enough water to cover wontons to a wide pan or pot and bring to a rolling boil. Add a pinch of salt, then place in a layer of wontons. Make sure they do not touch each other.
  2. Cover and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the wrappers are completely translucent.
  3. Serve wontons immediately, while they’re still bursting with juicy filling, drenched in the mala Sichuan chili oil.
  4. Alternatively, you can steam these wontons in a bamboo basket, or deep fry them in crock pot or any deep stock pot.

Note: These wontons are insanely addictive, scalding hot, and I betcha can’t just eat one.

Country Cornbread with Black Beans

cornbread-round-black-beans-wedged

This country cornbread incorporates black beans to add some sustenance to a quick and easy recipe that can be thrown together last minute, or in the morning before work. It is a versatile batter that can be baked in a cake pan, loaf pan or muffins to grab and go for the rest of the week. It is also a favourite in my house to make for cornbread dressing for a holiday dinner.

 

This cornbread batter can easily be adapted to add whatever flavours or ingredients with accompany your meal. If you’re going southwest, toss some jalapeno slices into the batter, stir in shredded cheese, or add peach slices to give it some sweet appeal.

cornbread-with-kidney-beans-sliced

Country Cornbread with Black Beans

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20-30 minutes

Makes one loaf, cake or 10 muffins

Ingredients:

Dry:
  • 250ml/1C cornmeal
  • 250ml/1C all purpose flour
  • 30ml/2 tbsp sugar
  • 15ml/1 tbsp baking powder
  • 5ml/1 tsp salt
  • 2.5ml/1/2 tsp baking soda
Wet:
  • 295ml/1 1/4C buttermilk
  • 30ml/2 tbsp melted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk, separated
  • 250ml/1 C black beans (or substitute of your choice)

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 225C/425F.
  2. Mix together dry ingredients and create a well in the middle.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat together ingredients, then incorporate into dry ingredients.
  4. Butter cake pan or muffin tins and spoon in batter.
  5. Bake until golden brown on the bottom, and a knife slipped into the middle comes out clean of any wet batter. Eat it while it’s hot, lathered in butter.

Thanksgiving Cola Braised Ham Hocks

 

Turkey, turkey, turkey. You say Thanksgiving, first thing everyone pictures is a wattle-necked gobbler. Then they think dry, tough, chewy: these are not the words you want associated with your home cooking.

Some of you might think stuffing or cornbread dressing is the best item on your Thanksgiving table. Stuffing and dressing are certainly scrumptious, but they’re side dishes, and so, left out of the running for best holiday plate. It’s really no contest. Ham hocks are the best Thanksgiving dish. A thick, cheap, fatty, bone-in slab of pork, braised slowly over low temperature, these ham hocks are tenderly simmered in a delicious bath of stock and cola rendering a more delicious, more juicy and more flavourful meat to adorn your holiday table than any turkey, deep-fried or baked.

 

This is a very easy recipe that lets bold flavours sit at the head of the table without too much fuss in the kitchen. These braised ham hocks stew in Asian staples, like soy and hoisin, with a sweet American classic, cola, to build depth and subtlety that soaks up into a hearty cut of meat until it slips free of the bone. A pot of these cola braised ham hocks will make your whole house smell like the sweet savoury salty sticky bits that everybody wants on their plate at Thanksgiving.

braised-ham-hock-pot-overhead

 

Cola Braised Ham Hocks Recipe

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 3-8 hours
Serves 8-12 people

Ingredients:

  • 4 – 6 ham hocks
  • pork neck bones
Cola Braise
  • 1L/4C of bone broth (substitute any kind of stock)
  • 750ml/3C of your favourite cola (Mine is a Canadian classic, A & W Root Beer)
  • 125ml/1/2C soy sauce
  • 30ml/2tbsp oyster sauce
  • 30ml/2 tbsp hoisin sauce
  • 30ml/2 tbsp Chinese five spice
  • 15ml/1 tbsp apple cider vinegar or black rice vinegar
  • 15ml/1tbsp tomato paste or red bean curd (for depth and colour)
  • 1 thumb-sized chunk of ginger, roughly chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 whole dried chiles (chipotles add a bit of smoke, but whatever works)
  • 2 scallions, roughly chopped
  • 1 white onion, chopped
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions:

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 150C/300F.
  2. Heat up  broth/stock in a pot until it reaches boiling point.
  3. In a large crock pot or Dutch oven layer up ham hocks, seasoning each piece of meat on both sides before placing it in the pot, then weigh down with seasoned neck bones.
  4. In a mixing bowl, stir together all ingredients of cola braise except stock, then pour over ham hocks and bones.

Cooking:

  1. Pour simmering broth over meat and braising liquid. If liquid does not reach the top of your pot, add water until it is sufficiently full to cover all the meat.
  2. Place in oven and braised for a minimum of 3 hours.

Note:

This dish will only get better with time, cooking for a whole day will allow the flavours to fully come together, while breaking down the tendons and connective tissue in the meat, resulting in that tender fall off the bone, melt in your mouth yum yum.

Serve & Plate:

  1. Pull out each piece of meat and gently slide out the bones, then plate the meat on a serving platter. If strained, the braising liquid can be boiled down, or thickened with a corn starch slurry, to make an amazing cola gravy. Ham hock leftovers and remaining gravy will make awesome pulled pork sandwiches for the rest of the week.

Lion’s Head Meatballs (紅燒獅子頭) and Sichuan Strange Flavour Sauce (Guaiwei 怪味)

The first time I made Lion’s Head Meatballs (紅燒獅子頭), I forgot to write down the recipe. I had looked at a hundred variations, but none of them stuck. I planned to serve the wok-fried then braised meatballs with bok choy, then finish them with Sichuan ‘strange flavor’ sauce (Guaiwei 怪味) to add a bit of lip smacking flavour to what seemed like a plain sort of meat and greens dish with a punchy name. When I got home, annoyed at myself for having lost the recipe I wanted to riff on, I unpacked my groceries and realized I had compounded my mistake and somehow bought ground turkey instead of pork. Thus, this crackpot Chinese-American Thanksgiving holiday mashup recipe was born.

bok-choy

The dish works like a charm for a bunch of reasons: turkey meat is primarily dark and packed with rich, gamey flavour, but famously dry and texturally boring. The meatballs are heavily seasoned and fried, giving a deep caramelized brown to the exterior and a bit of crunch to the exterior while sealing in the natural juices. Then, they’re braised in chicken stock suffusing the potentially dry meat with succulent moisture and ensuring a delicious and juice-packed meatball. The Sichuan strange flavour sauce has a tahini and sesame base, ingredients not native to Sichuan which were introduced via the Silk Road, hence the unique name. The nutty chilli sauce adds a layer of salty sour sweet and spicy umami bang to the dish that will give you a bit of leo pride when you lay it down on the table beside the sliced cardboard, dry beast meat everyone else is serving.

lions-head-meatball

 

Lion’s Head Meatball  Recipe (紅燒獅子頭)

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35-40 minutes
Makes  8-10 meatballs, serves 4-6 people

Ingredients:

Meatballs
  • 900g/2 lb ground turkey
  • 30ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
  • 45ml soy sauce
  • 15ml sesame oil
  • 15ml neutral oil
  • 10ml cornstarch
Broth
  • 2 scallions, slivered
  • 1 finger of ginger, in matchsticks
  • 200ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
  • 500ml chicken broth, simmering
Odd Sauce
  • 45ml soy sauce
  • 45 ml neutral oil
  • 30ml tahini
  • 15ml chinkiang black rice vinegar
  • 15ml sesame oil
  • 10ml sugar
  • 20g ginger, roughly chopped
  • 20g garlic, smashed
  • 10g Sichuan peppers
  • 2 whole dried chilis
Garnish
  • 1 head of bok choy

 

Instructions:

Preparation:

  1. In a mixing bowl, beat together turkey, soy, shaoxing wine, and sesame oil until the meat forms a smooth paste.
  2. Stir in cornstarch and neutral oil, then form 10-12 large meatballs, cover and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.

Cooking:

Odd Sauce:
  1. Heat oil in wok or frying pan until smoking point. Add ginger, garlic, chilis, Sichuan peppers and scallions.
  2. Remove from heat and stir rapidly for 30 second as the oil cools.
  3. Blend mixture in a food processor, coffee grinder or mortar. Stir in remaining ingredients and set aside. (Note: this is an awesome all purpose umami rich dipping sauce.)
Meatballs (Not using a wok):
  1. If not using a wok, line a roasting pan or crock pot with cleaned and stemmed leaves of bok choy. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Heat a frying pan over a medium flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
  3. In two or three batches, fry the meatballs, cooking evenly on all surface areas. As they brown, set meatballs on waiting bok choy leaves.
  4. When the meatballs are all browned and set aside, deglaze your frying pan with shaoxing wine, add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions and stir rapidly as moisture evaporates.
  5. When the wine sauce is reduced by half pour it over the meatballs, add simmering chicken stock.
  6. Cover with aluminum or parchment and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
Meatballs (With wok):
  1. Heat wok over high flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
  2. At smoking point, add meatballs and roll around cooking surface to brown, careful not to burn as you must work fast.
  3. Once the meatballs have all browned, push to the side of cooking surface, deglaze wok with shaoxing wine, and add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions, toss mixture together as moisture evaporates.
  4. Slip bok choy leaves under meatballs, add simmering chicken stock, and cover wok with a large lid. Turn down heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve & Plate:
  1. Serve as Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs in a larger meal, such as a Thanksgiving or a pot luck. Plate meatballs on bok choy leaves and drizzle with odd sauce.
  2. Don’t ditch the broth! Make a soup, or freeze for stock.
  3. Alternatively, if you’re making Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs for a weekday dinner or your family, serve swimming in the broth, atop noodles or rice. These meatballs and their cooking broth make a hearty and pungent soup, served over a starch.
  4. This dish will be the most talked about addition to any holiday dinner. It tastes delicious, looks intense and has a bad ass name. It might even be healthy.

 

Char Siu Pork Belly Recipe; 叉燒 Cantonese Yale: Chāsīu

 

(Note: scroll straight to the bottom of the post for recipe details.)

Your butcher is your friend. If you start with a crappy piece of lifeless meat lodged to a piece of styrofoam ‘wet aging’ (i.e. rotting in its own juices on a Cryovac absorbent pad in the discount aisle of the supermarket) nothing you do will mask the flavour of chemicals. Conversely, a good piece of meat will make your meal sing, and will have your guests groaning and drooling with carnal bliss. Pork is the most flavourful and juicy meat. Pork belly is the fattiest, juiciest and thus most flavourful cut of a hog. There’s a reason why a panful of bacon can still make a seasoned gourmand weak in the knees, and a vegan questions their faith in ascetic principles. Your friends and family will appreciate a few incredible slices of this Char Siu (“fork roasted”) barbecue, which elevates the best qualities of pork, highlighting the flavours of the cut and rendering the fat into succulent meat. Serve smaller portions of better quality food, if you have to skimp, with more rice and greens.

fish-vendor

This famous dish goes by many names, but it is instantly recognizable, when you see the tantalizing strips of glossy, copper-hued barbecue hanging in the windows of Cantonese restaurants around the world. It’s a type of siu mei (燒味), roasted meat, rotisserie or barbecue, from the Pearl River Delta: Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangzhou. Because of the time it takes to prepare, this popular dish is usually a take-out meal served with white rice and a side of simple greens. This char siu recipe stays true to traditional ingredients, using real red wine lees and red bean curd for the trademark colour instead of food colouring or ketchup, but plays with a few Western cooking techniques to produce a crunchier, caramelized bark on the meat, similar to an American-style barbecue char.

char-siu-pork

Char Siu Pork Belly Recipe – 叉燒 Cantonese Yale: Chāsīu

Prep time: 2 to 3 days
Cook time: 60 minutes
Makes 8 to 12 strips of ‘char siu’ barbecue, serves 6 to 12 people

FYI I have tried to find links to all the hard to find, or regionally specific ingredients on Amazon, or included substitutes where applicable.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 Kilos of pork belly, sliced into 2 cm slabs
Marinade
Finishing ‘Wing’ Sauce
  • Marinade, set aside remainder after removing meat
  • 15 ml maltose (molasses)
  • 15 ml honey

Instructions:

Cooking (oven):
  1. Slice the pork belly into slabs as thick as a finger (roughly 2 cm). You want them to have a maximum amount of surface area to absorb marinade and create the crunchy bark, while maintaining enough volume to produce a juicy interior meat.
  2. Mix all marinade ingredients, then toss the slabs of pork to thoroughly coat. Refrigerate in a sealed, air tight bag for 48 to 72 hours.
  3. Remove slabs from marinade, let excess marinade drip off, and lay on a rack elevated from a baking sheet, leaving space for hot air to circulate around each strip.
  4. Place the baking sheet of ribs in the cold and oven and heat (100C/215F). This will allow the meat to sweat and open to the flavours. Once the oven is heated, turn up to 125C/250F for 20 minutes, rendering much of the fat at low heat. Turn up to 175C/350F for 20 minutes.
  5. Finish under the broiler for 10 minutes, flipping continually. Beware, the fat may spit and/or smoke under a gas broiler, and you must maintain eye contact with the meat throughout broiling. The pork belly strips are finished when they form a dark,  caramelized, crunchy bark. Remove to a large mixing bowl.
Cooking (barbecue/smoker):
  1. Remove the skin from the top of pork belly slab and score with a crosshatch pattern.
  2. Mix all marinade ingredients, then thoroughly coat the pork belly meat. Refrigerate in a sealed, air tight bag for 48 to 72 hours.
  3. Smoke for 4-5 hours with applewood and/or hickory at 100C/215F. Allow to cool completely. The smoking process can be done 2 to 3 days before your meal.
  4. Slice pork belly against the grain into 2 cm slab portions with a very sharp knife. Brown slabs on the grill, for a few minutes on each side.
Serve & Plate:
  1. For the finishing ‘wing’ style sauce, boil down leftover marinade with maltose and honey, stirring constantly, until it thickens and sticks to the back of a spoon.
  2. Pour the hot sauce over the cooling pork belly strips and toss in mixing bowl. The sauce should be thick enough that it binds to the meat and does not drip off. Return strips to rack and cool slightly before serving, which will allow the sauce to candy and harden to crunchy perfection.
  3. Optional: You can slice leftover strips crosswise into bite-sized ‘burnt ends’ and serve as an amazing snack, appetizer, or fancy plating option. The interior of the pork belly strips will cut into 3 different bands of colour, and the red marinade will mimic the beautiful red ‘smoke ring’ of American barbecue.

 

Scallion Pancake Recipe – Cong You Bing (葱油饼)

 

Note: scroll straight to the bottom of the post for recipe details.

I grew up in a vegetarian household during the 1980s and, like most adolescence, I was always hungry. The maddening lack of meatless options at friends’ houses and in Toronto’s diners led me to experiment in my tastes. As a result of my diet, I was usually left with starches to tied me over between home cooked meals.

 

And so, as a youngster in Toronto, I developed an affinity for substantial snacks, which gave potato and bread the lead role. In the Little India on Gerrard Street, there were plentiful samosas: deep-fried pockets of dough, packed with potatoes and peas heavily spiced with cumin and turmeric-laced curry powders. At Willow Fish and Chips on Queen Street East, there were thick, hand-cut fries tossed in salt and wrapped in newsprint, which I doused in malt vinegar and buried in a heap of glistening ketchup.

As I branched out into downtown, I found the strip of Chinese restaurants and bakeries on Dundas Street West between the art gallery and Spadina Avenue. Toronto’s first Chinese community had landed on their feet in The Ward, and after being pushed north by the construction of the new City Hall, the neighbourhood’s belly occupied the storefront’s along Dundas in the city’s original Chinatown.

dundas-streetcar

I didn’t know I was having my first dim sum experience, as I entered the old Kim Moon Bakery at 438 Dundas. When Howard Wong opened the restaurant in the 1970s, it was the largest Chinese bakery in the city. But by the time I found my seat, the upstairs dining room was a ghost of its former self. Through the sliding doors, past the bakery display case full of moon pastries, and a steel dumb waiter with a port hole, there was an unadorned dining room. Elderly Chinese men in weathered sport coats read the Apple Daily and South China Morning Post, drank Hong Kong milk tea, and let ash accumulate on the cigarettes that burned black worms along Kim Moon’s red-belted side plates. A paper menu was delivered to my table with a stub-nosed pencil, and a love affair began, as soon as I saw the prices: buns and pastries were a dollar, dim sum items set you back between $2 for a Small, and $4.50 for a Large. I ignored the Extra Large and Specialty items, which were out of my price range.

The free jasmine tea (茉莉花茶) , stuffed eggplant (煎釀茄子) — I was too naive then to realize the filling had shrimp and/or seafood– , turnip cakes (蘿蔔糕), and red bean pastries (红豆酥 ) became regular after school snacks. But it was the spring onion pancakes (葱油饼), Cong You Bing, that kept me coming back for years afterward. They were cheap, crunchy, filling, and once slathered in black vinegar, soy sauce and chilli paste, they fulfilled all the basic requirements: salty, sweet, sour and spicy.

Around the corner, at the first location of Mother’s Dumplings on Huron Street, I truly came to understand what Cong You Bing could become with the right tough. I was studying History at the University of Toronto, and living up the street in a basement matchbox at the Epitome Apartments, when I made the big switch. Unlike the notebook-thin, cracker like pancakes served at Kim Moon, Mother’s was (and still is) serving scallion pancakes similar to those you’ll find stacked on the trays of vendors in the streets of Shanghai — almost like ‘grabbed flatbreads’, zhua bing (手饼). By my undergraduate years, I was deep into the delights of an omnivore’s diet, and the ground meat stuffing at Mother’s added a new layer of complexity to an old favourite, keeping me wedded to the simple appetizer.

The recipe below will render a much thicker, crunchier, and flakier pastry, which actually has a bit of spice to it, lent by a quick paint on of a roux-like wash, “yo sue”. But enough with the backstory, see the recipe below for further details.

scallion-pancake-vendor

Scallion Pancakes Recipe – Cong You Bing (葱油饼)

Makes 6 pancakes, serves 4 to 6 people

  • Peanut or vegetable oil, on hand
  • 2 bunches of green onion/scallions, finely chopped greens
  • (Optional) 200 grams of ground pork

DOUGH

  • 350 grams of Chinese flour (low protein/gluten content)
  • 250 ml boiling water

SEASONING PASTE (YO SUE)

  • 70 grams Chinese flour
  • 15 grams sea salt
  • 15 grams of ground Chinese five spice
  • 60 grams lard/butter, melted
  • 30 grams of peanut/vegetable oil

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large mixing bowl, form a well in the flour and start adding boiling water, little by little. Slowly incorporate the water into flour, using chopsticks, two butter knives, or a food processor.
  2. Once a dough ball has formed, turn out and knead gently on an oiled working surface, trying not to add more flour unless absolutely necessary.
  3. Once the dough is tensile, oil its smooth surface, and cover in plastic wrap. Let rest for half an hour, as glutens activate and work their magic.
  4. In a smaller bowl, make paste by mixing flour, salt and Chinese five spice. Add melted fat and oil and beat until a smooth, glossy paste forms. It should look like an egg wash.
  5. Portion dough into 6 balls, and cover remaining dough balls with a moist tea towel while you form pancakes, one by one.
  6. Press the ball into a flat rectangle with the palm of your hand. Pinch one end of the rectangle, and give your wrist a quick flick, to slap the dough onto your work surface and stretch it thin. Slap dough repeatedly, until you have a 20cm long, almost transparently thin strip, roughly as wide as your hand. If the prospect of dough slapping is too much for your gentle soul, use a rolling pin. But make sure to get the dough to 3 or 4 mm in thickness– roughly as thick as leather belt.
  7. Coat one-side of the rectangle with seasoning paste, then roll up a small handful of pork/scallion into a short, fat tube, and pinch off the ends.(Refer to the picture above for a visual reference) Repeat with each portion until you have 6 balls of spiralled dough filled with scallions, pinched closed on the sides.
  8. Heat pan/wok over high flame, add a thick coating of cooking oil, then place all six balls in the hot oil and gently press flat with the back of your spatula. Fry until golden and crusty on each side, pressing thinner with each flip of the pancake.
  9. For an extra crispy pancake, place the pancakes on a rack in a hot oven or toaster oven for 5 to 10 minutes at 180C, and let the excess fat bake off. This mimics the use of the drying rack inside the charcoal ovens street vendors use in Shanghai.
  10. Eat’em while they’re hot!