Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bite me: 麦芽糖画艺 Maltose Candy Art and Lollipops

Coffee flavoured marshmallow teddy lolly

Lollipops can be so much fun. And not only for the kiddies. Or maybe I'm in denial. Hmm. Discussion for another time. Today I want to look at this Maltose Candy Art I kept running into during my Chengdu vacation.

In Sichuan, Maltose Candy Art Candy is considered 'beatiful, delicious and playful'  with more than 1000 years of history. In 2008, it was even inducted in the 'Cultural Product' Hall of Fame.

The technique is simple but strategic. According to the banner above, the spoon is used as a brush and the liquid maltose as the paint and each creation should be made in one action. No matter how detailed the subject. As in a true artist must not lift his hand or break the line until the piece is completed.  Had I known this, I would not have chosen an apple. Is it me or does it also resemble a pumpkin?

Candy Apple literally
As you can see behind the apple, a board and dial affords you many animal choices including a dragon, bird, snake and fish.  Luckily, my partner chose a butterfly. The intricacy was really impressive and even included the lines along the butterfly's abdomen.

I really admire their ability to control the flow of such a thin, fast drying substance. I could only imagine the challenge in summer temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius. Also available were 3D structures of basket weaves and dragons prepared before hand and ready for purchase.

It's raw sugar without extra flavour so it's very pure and warm while not being too sticky. Just easy to enjoy.

Maltose on its own is actually really healthy and used as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine to relieve spleen gas and urgent pain, moisten the lungs and thorax, open appetite, ease constipation. So if you experiencing any of these symptoms, try incorporating maltose into your natural remedies. Nutrition-wise, every 100g contains 331kcal,  0.2g protein, 0.2 fat, 82g carbohydrates, 0.1 Vitamin B1, 0.17 Vitamin B2 and 2.1g Niacin. So it's more than just candy. But if you want that Peter Pan lifestyle, then maltose is right here waiting for you.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: The granny that could cook everything except....

This is my third and final week in this little Chengdu community and I DON'T WANT TO LEAVE. Could it be the clear sky and fresh, unpolluted air? Could it be the beautiful spring flowers that I wake up to every morning? Could it be the Mapo Dofu? It's all of the above but most especially, having a family treat me like we are one blood.

I really felt at home, especially in the kitchen, standing next to granny. Watching her put together lunch and dinner was really enchanting;the poise, the confidence and swiftness of her stride. I would watch her transform a small slab of meat into a meal for five. She would dip into her arsenal of pickled veggies and scoop out some secret sauce to give the food that extra layer of flavour that you can't buy in a store.

Pickling jars you can find in every kitchen

And every time I tried to guess the dish , I was usually way off. Like the time she started to slice potatoes. I thought, 'Yea bwoy, granny bad on it! Even fries?' (The islander in me comes out when I'm excited). But then I saw chili and prickly ash pepper and I knew something was different.

Sichuan potato fries

They were actually tasty, partly due to the fact that this combination of seasonings is the only way I'm satisfied. I know in my earlier articles I endlessly complained about having 花椒 in everything. Now, I don't even flinch when I accidentally bite one. Actually, during my first week here, food was absent of this seasoning. Even though this family was born and bred in da South-West, they weren't about that pepper life. So they thought I wasn't accustomed to their cooking. I thought the chopsticks were slowing me down. But one day Mapo Dofu was placed on the table and my chopsticks picked up speed like it was on nitro. That's when it hit us, I had become true Sichuan 人. Since then, granny ensured that there was a pepper-flavoured dish or two during every meal.

Years of wisdom meant that there was always farm-fresh fruit and vegetables, home-made steamed dumplings 饺子, self-made condiments and tasty food. There were no hits or misses. Until we bought popcorn. Call it an experiment of sorts. With the holidays, many kids were at home and popcorn seems like an easy snack to keep their little mouths happy. So when the scent of smoke wafted through the living room, I never imagined I would find my mentor standing over a pot filled with charred kernels.

Then she ask me 'Can you do it?'. I nearly melted. I was getting an opportunity to cook in the kitchen of a master. It was popcorn, yes, but I sure was proud. I made the best bowl of popped kernels ever, with that hand-pressed oil flavour, perfect crunch and colouring. Uh-huh. Thanks to all those cooking at dawn situations.

That moment bonded us. We spent the rest of the holidays together. Her spewing words of Sichuan dialect and me nodding and quickly grasping the Mandarin I did recognize to enable a response. I learnt so much in a short space of time. Including the technique of sealing steamed dumplings. Take a look and guess which were mine.

They both were :p

I freestyled the first and then after Granny's brief demonstration, I tried again and didn't come close. In fact, I kept getting worse, so I watched on, humbled in knowing that in this kitchen, popcorn was all I was made for.

And that, that my friends, is the final instalment of this vacation. I'm on the way back to Chongqing. See you whenever the opportunity to 旅游 arises again.

The Travelling Nutmeg

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

真的吗?:The Round Table Experience

I remember when we moved into our new house in the hills and I was helping out with the designing and decorating. When it came to the dinner table, I decided to go with the round one. I figured, rectangles, been there, done that. By the time we installed it, some unexpected advantages or disadvantages, depending on how you look at it, showed up. Due to the longitudinal nature of our legs and the central placement of the table's, things got intimate real fast. Great for family dinners, kind of weird for guests.

Either way, encountering a round table in China is common in most households and restaurants. And for many more reasons than intimacy. Today, however, I want to look at the restaurant setting a bit.
Table before setting
Table after setting

Remember in China, many dishes are eaten at one time. So having a round table like above, especially rotating ones, allows everyone to conveniently enjoy their dish of choice. A table like this can host up to 10 people and 20 dishes at one time. With so many diners though, you would fare better playing Wheel of Fortune than guaranting that the dish you want doesn't show up on your side of the table empty.

Meats are always served first, usually cold dishes 凉菜 following by hot dishes. There is no limit to the types of meat offered. Yes, I have knowingly eaten frog. No, I have not knowingly eaten any member of the Canis lupus family and have no intention of doing so.

Cold dish of sliced beef and cilantro

Hot dish of beef, mushrooms and
fried pigeon egg soup

Stir-fried vegetable dishes and soups slowly start trickling in to aid with meat digestion. Thinly sliced potatoes 土豆丝, garlic shoots 蒜菜  and steamed pumpkins and yams are some of the general favorites. Up north you may be offered cute beef wraps. In Sichuan, most definitely expect some Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐。It's fresh tofu and minced meat flavoured with bean sauce 豆瓣, chili pepper 辣椒 and presently much appreciated prickly ash pepper 花椒。

Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐

Remember I said that there's always something to surprise me in the world of Chinese cuisine. On this particular occasion, my new friends ask me if I have ever eaten grass. I immediately thought that numbness from all the 花椒 I had be eating in the 麻婆豆腐 had somehow hit my brain. They asked me again and soon the waitress bought out this dish.

Raw edible Chrysanthemum leaves 茼苞

They begged me to eat it, persuaded me that it was a special feature of Sichuan cuisine. But all I could think was that I hit an all time low. I had eaten grass. I must admit that the accompanying sauce had a beautiful sweet, tart flavour, light citrus notes...yummm...but this doesn't change the fact that I ate raw grass.

Now it will probably be about 30 minutes into the meal and you would have seen lot of dishes spinning around and around the table. Plates becoming empty and being replaced with more innovative dishes than before. But all you really want is some rice. Where is that rice? Well how do I defend this? The point of a round table meal is not to become stuffed up on starch but to enjoy the different flavours and cooking styles presented by the chef. When you think about it, rice can be quite a distraction, because if you eat it quickly, there won't be space for anything else. (Not even I can be convinced with that little speech). So the rice is served last. And in some cases, like my recent Chengdu experience, not at all. I waited, while sadly picking at long-empty dishes and not a white fluffy grain appeared. But I should have known when I saw the fried peanuts and sliced fruits. They are always the last dishes served.

Almost forgot the beverages. When eating at home, drinks are pretty much ignored until after the meal. On the other hand, when eating out, tea is obviously the drink of choice; preferably buckwheat tea because of it's light, clean, slightly sweet flavour. Soda and orange juice are also available. Can some one tell me why it's always Tropicana juice?  If we are celebrating, let's say, a visiting foreigner in the midst, or something actually important like Spring Festival, you can expect baijiu 白酒, wine and nut milk to make an appearance. No cup touches the lip without a toast of some kind. Towards your neighbour or the whole table, doesn't matter, but has to be done. I sometimes find myself toasting just so I could keep my throat lubricated.

After the meal, those with heavy bellies roll out the door and those who thought they would be the first to ever outdo baijiu stagger out under the starlight black sky in search for a nearby KTV.

Do you think you have the stamina to endure a Round Table dinner or lunch? Let me know down below...

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Bite me: 麻婆豆腐 Mapo Dofu

Is there an English name for this dish? Yes. Do I want to tell you it? Not really. So if anyone asks, it was social media pressure from you guys, ok? Here goes. Pock-marked old woman beancurd. Legend claims that the original chef had such a face, but after eating this dish a couple times, I'm more inclined to believe that it the appearance of the tofu after its cooked because, depending on its quality, most of the surface will be marked with dips and valleys.

This dish is main part of Sichuan cuisine so you shouldn't be surprised to hear that it contains chili pepper 辣椒 and prickly ash pepper 花椒 or as I am now learning is also called Sichuan peppercorn. But the main layer of flavour comes from broad bean sauce 豆瓣 usually made with the pepper and salty beans . In the very red, oily sauce of the dish itself, you will find chunks of fresh, soft tofu and minced meat but I have even had mushrooms sometimes. Someone was obviously in a rebellious mood.

According to a certain resident on the final word of Chinese everything, an authentic Mapo Dofu must be spicy, hot, fresh, crispy, tender, fresh and live. Did you guess that the spicy meant chilli pepper? Great. Do you think you can guess the source of the other features from the picture. I'm going to give you chance.
Comment below on what you think the answers are and whoever has the most correct responses will win a feature about their country and a special dish...Chop Chop Chop

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: By Day, By Night

My second week in Chengdu has been a bit reminiscent of a war zone. There are still the random sounds of explosives during the day and fireworks during the night. My heart has somewhat settled as I take comfort in the fact that these sounds are in no way related to ammunition.

With that in mind, I took to the streets to lose myself at bit. And that I did. One of these actually saved me.

Tricycle taxi
They are much slower than motorbikes but they get you to your destination without completely drying out your already crackling lips and that's good enough for me. They have their own lane and everything and yet they seem to totally ignore traffic regulations, (which regular drivers do anyway) when they randomly drive through a red light, cross on the zebra crossing and use the side walks.

The next time around, I found some meandering assistance. First, I was taken to a local park. History buffs are greeted with precise wall carvings of ancient warriors. At the center of the park, dreamers will find the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals as huge 20ft. statues. Then around the bend, are activities for the young and young at heart:  table tennis, children's park, scary amusement park rides, fishing and the like. But for some reason I was drawn to the dove hut where you pay to fatten hundreds of these guys. The only place I have ever seen so many doves at one time is the Home Alone movie. And it didn't end well for Marv.

Then again, there wasn't going to be an old lady drowning me in bird feed. Actually, minus the pain from the pecking, it was cool experience. I swear the first guy to peck was a brown one, as if to say, 'It's all good! She's with me.' and soon the grain competition had begun.

Finally on the edges of the park were Tea Bars where everyone just sat drinking these really tall mugs of tea. As I chatted and sipped, I kept wondering why they would refill my mug after reaching about 3/4 full (we are not about that glass 1/2 full life). The answer came soon after, when I was told that I needed to slow down. According the unofficially published 'Art of Tea Consumption' book (or maybe there is an official version), one must sip slowly, with many breaks in between to enjoy the full flavour tones of leaves. The constant refill keeps the drink at a low concentration and prevents diarrhoea and gas. (Sorry:/)

Dou hua er from this week's Bite me and a too tall glass of Jasmine tea

The one time I did go out at night was to attend the community's annual light festival. My words could never be adequate to describe the beauty of  each design. Neither is my 'not too smart' smart phone. I intended to share with you some snaps from baidu.com (China's google) but they were all from previously held events.

So what could I say? They spared nothing in the arrangements. The lake was lit with lillies, dragons, fishes and fairies and each bridge and archway carried the same mystical theme. Most definitely worth risking my life at night to see.

Check me next week for the last instalment to this Chengdu series where I get busy in the kitchen with Granny!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Independence taught me: Oil Down (Grenada Edition)

If I were to title this correctly, it would be Independence schooled me and schooled me well. There is nothing sadder than wanting to cook the most important meal of your life and being unable to find the staple ingredients.

The national dish of Grenada is Oil Down, the basis of which is breadfruit (Atrocarpus altilis), salted meat, dumplings and callaloo (leaves of Colocasia esculenta), flavoured with fresh coconut milk and tumeric (Curcuma longa). I repeat 'fresh'.  Usually other ingredients such green bananas, tuber crops, chicken, crab  are acceptable but with 90% of them unavailable, it was Mission Impossible starring Hopeless Grenadian.

My mom warned that if there was no breadfruit, it was sacrilege. However, being my last Independence in China I forged on. I spent a whole day searching every market in Chongqing with no success so my country-mate and I settled on what we thought were good substitutes and newcomers.  We started with well seasoned chicken drumettes, Irish potatoes and dumplings and covered that with eggplants (Solanum melongena) and zuchinni (Cucurbita pepo) for nutrition and spinach. This was drenched in tinned coconut milk and tumeric powder (from home, thankfully). The thing about Oil Down is that you really can add whatever you want so long as you control your liquid portion and this is where problems arose for me. Zuchinni, being a member of the cucumber family, produced much more water than I expected. Oil Down was not meant to be a soup, so it was only after scooping out and re-seasoning that we survived to night.

Today, I not only want to share the challenges of making Oil Down in a foreign country, but tips to successfully adapt your dish in an Asian environment. After polling various Grenadians who lived or are currently living in China, I assembled the following list of appropriate substitutes. I hope this can be a helpful guide to making your February 7th more memorable.

Original Ingredient Available Suggested Substitute
Meat: Salted Meat  Yes but due to
different processing
methods flavour is deeply altered.
Good ole Chicken and Beef
Meat: Salted Fish Same issue as above Fresh-water fish (salt-water
varieties are a rare find),
prawns, crab
Vegetables: Breadfruit,
Green bananans
No *sobs* Try taobao.com

Vegetables: Tubers
(yams, dasheen,
Yes but yam varieties
produce too much secretion
Stick to potatoes
Vegetable: Callaloo/Dasheen leaves No. But there are so many
leafy greens in the supermarket.
Spinach but watch out for the bitterness.
Gourd leaves have extra secretion.
Bok Choi is also bitter.

Liquid: Coconut milk Yes. Fresh coconuts are imported
but have low fat content and little meat thus producing thin milk
Tinned Thailand coconut milk is rich and creamy and
close enough to the real product.
Spices: Tumeric Not to my knowledge Try taobao.com or
International supermarket or an Indian friend

Feel free to leave other suggestions and make this a knowledgeable forum for the love of a 'GUD OIL DOWN'

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: Changsha to Chengdu

My time in Changsha concluded with a visit to the walking street (步行街)at Huang Xing Road (黄兴路). Even though there were many high end boutiques around, the traditional charm remains. It kind of reminded me of Beijing.

As in any square or shopping center, there was also awesome street food to choose from: seafood, noodles, bbq, cotton candy and the list goes on.

Skills of Cotton Candy fluffing

Steamed buns in the shape of cute rubber duckies

Ready to eat prawns. That 'Make a Line' sign must mean that they really taste good

The Secret to Changsha's beauty

Do I seem rushed? It's because I am. I love Changsha but I've been setting things on fire in Chengdu....LITERALLY.  Walking through the streets of my new home was paradise. I recalled when I was eight years old and the importation of fireworks were banned. Christmas season lost some of its sparkle. All, when you're at that age. So imagine me, when I am shopping with an eight year old girl and the streets look like this:

We just walked around, casually filling up our bags, one 'explosive' at a time. Did I say we? I meant her. I watched safely from a distance. After tons of purchases, I spent the night under the covers like a scared puppy. Just kidding. But I only lit the sparkly ones. Yes, I'm quite the wuss.

The entire square was filled of people just blowing up things for fun. Look at this dude!  I just can't comprehend his courage. And neither can the kid behind him.

Now all this happened around 9 pm after we ate the last dinner of the year and the adult members of the family were busy watching the National Chinese New Year Programme. Click here for deets! Soon I returned home and was off to sleep, pretty silly of me, in hindsight. About 11:58pm, the sky suddenly erupted with colours. I don't know if they were trigger happy or my clock was slow but either way, the noise jolted me out of my sleep. It was then I realized, it had been about 3 years since I've been close to Chinese fireworks. During my first CNY, I was surrounded by dudes who would throw firecrackers in your room. The horror had returned. I couldn't sleep until 3 pm.

But the next morning, things seem to returned to normal...or did they?

Catch me next week to find out!