Arriving at China put a huge smile on my face as it’s one of my favourite set of cuisines, alongside other South East Asian foods. I’m going there for the first time this summer and can’t wait to eat my way around Hong Kong! There are many things I love about Chinese food but one of the major ones is it’s love of small dumplings and treats. I much prefer many bite-sized foods (such as Spanish tapas) to becoming bored with one large meal. I also love the exciting range of texture and flavours present in Chinese food; sour, sweet, salty, bitter, soft, crunchy and chewy all in one mouth full!
China has a population of nearly 1.4 billion! That’s about a fifth of the entire world population. Do do this as one blog post would, therefore, be like doing the whole of Europe in one meal.
There isn’t really such a thing as ‘Chinese Cuisine’ due to the fact China is such a huge and varied place. There are eight distinct cuisines; Shandong, Sichuan (famed for its chillis), Guandong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan and Anhui. That’s not even taking into account the other ethnic groups
These can be simplified into the four gastronomic quarters of the country;
- Beijing (the old Peking – Peking duck, wheat noodles and steamed dumplings) in the North
- Cantonese / Guangzhou in the South gives us Dim Sum, char sui and foods flavoured with soy and ginger
- Sichuan in the West with its spicy flavours, such as Kung Pao chicken as found on many takeaway menus in the UK
- Shanghai / Fujian region in the East – rice and noodles with more subtle flavours and lots of soups and broths.
This image from the Chinese Food for Kids website shows these key regions.
Although we’re in leafy Cheshire, we’re only half an hour away from central Manchester. Having grown up in Manchester I’ve always loved going to China Town and some of the larger supermarkets scattered around Greater Manchester. Wing Yip on Oldham Road is great for a visit as it has it’s own little Ho’s Bakery and “Glamorous” restaurant upstairs which is the only place you can get trolley service Dim Sum at the weekend as far as I know. Chi Yip, closer to where I grew up was a regular treat – I used to love wandering down and looking at all the unusual ingredients and smelling amazing aromas. I love wandering around China Town and being able to pick up all of the ingredients we need to make our favourite foods without having to rely on mail order. Obviously while we’re there it’s always good to eat out too!
To do China justice, we decided to do several meals. Not necessarily one per region, but to at least sample the range of different food types. Although I’m going to publish this now, I’ll update this post when we’ve explored more…
For our first meal, I opted for a range of dumplings and dim sum. Dim Sum means “hearts delight” and I can see why! We regularly eat dim sum; at least once a week. We usually head over to Chi Yip or Wing Yip, spend a small fortune and stock up the freezer. It makes a very quick and easy meal; take out a few of each type of dumpling from the freezer, stack up the bamboo steamer baskets and steam for around 15-20 minutes. We do sometimes make our own using frozen dumpling and wonton skins and a nifty little folding device I found on eBay.
I don’t speak Cantonese at all, but I’m finding that I’m starting to recognise a few food related words and can sometimes figure out what a new dish might be like by using the words I know. My favourite dim sum are Lo Mai Gai (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf and stuffed with meat), Har gao (steamed prawn dumplings), sui mai (steamed prawn and pork dumplings) char sui bao (steamed pork buns – so light and fluffy!), cheung fun (rice rolls filled with prawns – not quite got he knack of eating these with chop sticks yet though!)… and the list could go on.
Last night we made three types of dumpling; The first was Shui-Jiao which I got from a fantastic book by Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang. I love food books that contain cultural information as well as recipes and this does just that. These dumplings are a staple of Northern China. The filling is made from prawns and pork which are blitzed in the blender, along with chives, minced water chestnuts, oyster sauce and Shaoxing rice wine. The filling (approx 1 tea spoon) is stuffed into a wheat flour dumping skin and folded. These are then boiled for 3-4 minutes and served with a dipping sauce. My favourite dipping sauce is a mix of Chinese vinegar and soy sauce – it’s light, fresh and sharp. We also made a similar version using chicken but these were boiled then fried. I enjoy the texture of these and the golden colour. The filling for these dumplings is easy to scale up and freeze. The dumplings themselves can be frozen before cooking but I think the filling takes up less space in the freezer and the dumplings are quick to make.
The third dumpling recipe came from the same book – Sui Mai. These have been a favourite of ours for a while and are possibly the most common dim sum to get hold of – they’re sold in Marks and Spencer and Waitrose! Sometimes the mass produced ones can be a little too homogenous, and I love the chunkier homemade versions. Again, the filling is prawn and pork minced with water chestnuts, white pepper, soy, spring onion, sesame oil, Shaoxing rice wine and an egg white. The filling is places on a square wonton skin and the corners are pulled up without closing the dumpling at the top. These are steamed for 15 minutes.
We also made Lo Mai Gai; parcels of stuffed sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. I absolutely love sticky rice but can’t always cook it as well as I’d like. I followed the recipe in the same book and it came out perfectly! A portion of rice (1 mug for 2 people?) is soaked to remove the starch and then mixed with double the volume of water. This is brought to the boil and then simmered on a very low heat for 15 minutes. Perfection! Separately, shallots, ginger, mushroom, pork mince, Chinese sausage, Shaoxing rice wine, soy, sesame oil were fried off and then mixed in with the rice. This was then parceled up in lotus leaves and steamed for ten minutes to allow the fragrance from the lotus leaves to permeate the rice.