Why buy $3 (USD) carrots when you can buy ¥3 (RMB) carrots? At the same time, why buy imported when there's plenty of local?
On the last point, you could point out concerns about pesticides and toxins in Chinese soil; but neither I, nor any Chinese friends and families I know, look anything less than sprightly after digging our sticks into heaps of fresh vegetables, simply stir-fried or steamed. (Besides, you could complain about the same issue with unnecessarily chemical-laden bath & body products we soak up every day; but that's another topic).
Being a frugal and strategic shopper; wanting to embrace the culture I found myself in; and wanting to learn more about the huge variety of local, fresh produce in China rather than relying on imported, same-old Western vegetables, I've decided to learn how to cook Chinese veggies the traditional Chinese way, then creating a Western way to cook it.
I'll visit the local, old-school Chinese markets (caishichang; 菜市场) to explore every stem, stalk, shoot and leaf. It's a magical, dusty, rough-and-tumble place where mountains of tender buds, bulbs, roots and swollen fruits are heaped in orderly chaos. I'll randomly choose an interesting-looking Chinese vegetable that puzzles me; I'll ask the stallholder how to cook it (or ask gorilla's ayi (maid), or other Chinese friends and chefs); and, as I said above, I'll cook it the Chinese way and a Western way.
Why include a Western way? I started to realize that, on my admittedly rare trips to the Chinese market, I hardly see any foreigners there. The market may be intimidating for most non-Chinese, what with the chaos of jostling past rough/elderly/clumsy folks and Pekinese mutts through the narrow corridors, what with all that country-fresh dirt still clinging onto the gnarled roots of a giant leek, the raw meat dangling off hooks inches from your nose rather than sealed in septically fantastic styrofoam trays, and all. Just a few reasons I can think of at the top of my head that may explain why foreigners, like me, frequent the Western supermarkets April Gourmet and Jenny Lou's just to get the most basic of produce.
But I think the biggest problem is, when faced with a Chinese vegetable, even an observant and voracious eater of traditional Chinese food like me doesn't know what to do with it. I hope this project will help myself and others who don't instinctively cook Chinese, to be better equipped to use the heaping resources and huge variety of this country's fresh produce, get more imaginative with a "use what you've got" mentality, and more importantly, to eat and discover a whole new world of green stuff for health and happiness.
So here's my first post on a great Chinese veggie: the yellow chive (jiu huang; 韭黄). It's the "albino" version of the same Chinese green chive, so it's got the trademark pungent, oniony and, um, chivey taste to it that you certainly won't forget in the ensuing 12-hour burpfest. Off-putting? It shouldn't be, because it's full of character and has a slightly sweeter, gentler flavour than its more-aggressive, dark-green relative.
For the English version, a New England-inspired seafood chowder, which a healthy handful of yellow chive helped to add an allium tang to the creamy soup.
YELLOW CHIVE (韭黄) RECIPES
Chinese style: Stir-Fried Yellow Chives with Slivered Beef
- 100g beef rump
- 100g yellow chives (about 30 long stems)
- ½ fresh red chilli
- 15g ginger, peeled
- 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp Shaoxing wine
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 tsp potato starch
- ½ tsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tsp water
- 1/8 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp potato starch
- ½ tsp Shaoxing wine
- ¾ tsp Chinese black vinegar
- ¼ tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp water
- Mix the marinade ingredients in a bowl. Slice the beef into fine slivers across the grain, then mix into the marinade. Cut the yellow chives into 6cm sections and slice the chili and ginger into fine slivers.
- Mix the sauce ingredients in a bowl.
- Swirl 2 tsp oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame. Tip in the beef and stir-fry, making sure each sliver separates to cook. When they start getting pale but are still raw inside, transfer the beef to a plate and set aside.
- Add the remaining 1 tsp oil, tip in the ginger, chili and chives and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Return the beef to the mix and stir a few times, scraping the bottom of the wok to prevent sticking and burning. When the beef is just cooked and it all smells wonderfully hot and fragrant, give the sauce a stir and tip it in. Give the stir-fry another few scrapes and turns, then transfer to a plate and serve it up.
- If you can get your hands on some venison, swap it for the beef to make it the way Fuchsia Dunlop does.
Western style: Creamy Seafood Chowder with Yellow Chives
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- 25g cured bacon, sliced crosswise into 1-cm-wide vertical strips
- 40g yellow chives, finely chopped
- 50g leeks, sliced crosswise into ½-cm-wide vertical strips
- 1 garlic clove, smashed and minced
- 3 cups clam broth (or 1 clam broth cube dissolved in 3 cups boiling water)
- 3 cups chicken stock (or 1 chicken stock cube dissolved in 3 cups boiling water)
- ¼ tsp dried chilli flakes
- 3 sprigs of parsley + 3 sprigs of thyme, tied with kitchen strong (or tooth floss!)
- 200g sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
- 240g heavy/double cream
- 3 tbsp cornstarch
- 100g frozen shrimp
- 50g frozen clams
- 1 lemon, zest and a squeeze of juice to taste
- Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat, then add bacon, garlic, chives and leeks to sizzle. When the bacon is just about cooked and the garlic is softened but not browned, add 1 tsp of cornstarch, then toss to combine.
- Add the clam stock, chicken stock, red chilli flakes and the parsley + thyme bouquet; let it simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
- Remove the bouquet and add the sweet potato cubes; let simmer for another 10 minutes.
- Mix the cornstarch and cream together, then add to the chowder. When the chowder heats up once more to a gentle simmer, add the shrimp and clams. Cook for 2 minutes or until the seafood is just-cooked, to prevent over-cooking.
- Stir in the lemon zest and add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste; I like to use lots of the latter. Serve with crackling slices of crusty baguette.