This year we are ushering in the Year of The Snake with the biggest festival on the Chinese calendar-Chinese New Year. Homes will be spring cleaned, feasts will be prepared, decorations put up and gifts bought to welcome in a new year and a new start.
China has a very ancient, complex culture that is fascinating to study. At the heart of Chinese philosophy and culture is Yin and Yang. Hot and Cold. Male and Female. The first references to yin and yang come from the I Ching, the five classic works by Confucius. Literally, yin and yang mean the dark side and sunny side of a hill. People commonly think of yin and yang as opposing forces. However it is more accurate to call Yin and Yang a complementary pair. The Chinese believe problems arise not when the two forces are battling, but when there is an imbalance between them. Floods, divorce, or even a fire in the kitchen – all can be attributed to disharmony in the forces of yin and yang.
An integral part of traditional Chinese medicine is balancing these opposing or complementary forces through specific foods and herbs. A basic adherence to this philosophy can be found in any Chinese dish, from stir-fried beef with broccoli to sweet and sour pork. There is always a balance in colour, flavours, and textures. Taking this principle further, certain foods are thought to have yin or cooling properties, while others have warm or yang properties. The secret is to have a diet that contains a healthy balance between the two. Chinese physicians will frequently advise dietary changes in order to restore a healthy balance between the yin and yang in the body to treat everything from digestive disorders to colds and flues.
I feature a Chineseish chapter in both my cookbooks, Delish and Relish. The recipes are a nod and a wink to the cuisine and not are not pretending to be traditional Chinese recipes.
Some ingredients are indispensable to give you the vibe and flavour of Chinese cooking so here are a few of my favourite Fresh Friends and Pantry Pals to liven up your dishes:
Used mainly in salads and stir fries, soy bean or mung bean sprouts are fairly thick, crunchy white shoots. Discard any that are limp or brown. These are very delicate and can perish quickly. Store in the fridge and use within 3 days.
This delicious Chinese vegetable has crunchy, juicy stems and dark green leaves. Excellent in stir fries, especially with strong flavours like chilli, ginger and garlic. Baby bok choy are tender and sweet and can be cooked whole.
Chillies make up one branch of the pepper family, the other branch being sweet peppers. Red chillies are just ripened green chillies, so like peppers they have a sweeter taste. There are many varieties of chillies with new hybrids being developed all the time. I tend to use finger length chillies as the heat is manageable and if I want extra oomph, I use the seeds. Very Lazy Chillies are crushed chillies preserved in vinegar, great if you don’t have fresh chillies. Dried chillies and chilli powder are also very useful.
Chinese 5 Spice
This is one of my favourite spice blends. An aromatic blend of ground star anise, cassia (a bark similar to cinnamon), cloves, Sichuan peppercorns and fennel seeds. I use a sprinkle on green vegetables, stir fries and pork dishes.
Dried Mandarin Peel
This adds a fantastic citrus note to slowly cooked dishes but also to add zing to stir fries. Available in Asian markets, you can also very easily dry your own mandarin peel. Peel several mandarins and scrape out as much of the white pith on the peel with a teaspoon as possible. Cut into thin strips with a sharp knife and spread out on a baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes at 180°C until dried out.
For Chinese cooking, fresh ginger is best. I like slicing the ginger into very thin strips so it’s more like a vegetable when you cook with it, it gives a lovely bite to the dish. Chinese stem ginger preserved in sugar syrup is widely available and a fantastic Pantry Pal to liven up desserts. I add thin slivers to pavlova, baked fruit, crumbles and even served with a cheese board.
Hoisen sauce is a thick, sticky reddish brown sauce that is made from soy beans, sugar, spices and red rice. It can be mixed straight from the bottle as a marinade for pork ribs, beef or chicken. Use on its own or mix with soy sauce and Chinese 5 Spice. Also excellent as a basting sauce for BBQ’s and roasting or simple as a dipping sauce.
A staple in Cantonese cooking, oyster sauce is made from dried oysters and has a deep, rich salty flavour. Ideal for beef dishes and green vegetable stir fries with soy sauce, chilli, garlic and ginger. It is essential to refrigerate the sauce after opening and using before the best before date.
This is the proper name for Chinese rice wine, as essential acidic component in Chinese cooking. Shaoxing wine that is suitable for cooking can be found in Asian markets, often not good enough to drink but fine for cooking. Pale dry sherry, known as fino sherry, makes a good Western substitute.
Also spelled Szechuan pepper, this is a tiny red berry not related to the ordinary black, green or pink peppercorns that we know. It is highly aromatic and one of the main ingredients in Chinese 5 Spice powder. Lightly toast and then grind the seeds before using for an authentic Chinese flavour.
I’m sure most kitchens have a bottle of soy sauce banging around. This dark, salty sauce is made from fermented roasted soy beans, another grain (usually wheat) and brine. A good soy sauce is matured for at least 2 years before being filtered and bottled.
Toasted Sesame Oil
This oil is made from toasted sesame seeds and has a rich brown colour and nutty flavour. It’s very intense so a little goes a long way. Not suitable for cooking, it is better used as a seasoning oil by sprinkling over a few drops to taste when the dish is cooked. An essential Pantry Pal to make tasty fried rice.
Check out my Chow Down Chicken Noodles recipe
Enjoy that cooking and plenty of experimentation!
Recipes are taken from Delish by Rozanne Stevens available in all good bookshops and available to order from www.rozannestevens.com
Follow me on Twitter @RozanneStevens
Interesting Asian/Irish blog to follow: www.shenanigansblog.com