Friday, December 30, 2011

Jian Bing (spicy crepes): A step-by-step guide to my favorite Beijing street food

My first apartment in Beijing was in a classy neighborhood near Chaoyang Park, with lots of children and no nearby street food presence at all. Really, when I came home in the small hours of the morning, I'd have to order McDonald's delivery if I wanted anything to eat at all.

After about a year and a half I moved to a much smaller apartment near the Worker's Stadium, where I was surrounded by lively bars and all the street food I could possibly want. There was a chuan'r guy selling grilled skewers, boiled skewers, and fried skewers of everything from cumin/chili lamb chunks to whole chili peppers. My personal favorite, though, were the jian bing stands that dotted the street in front of my apartment selling spicy crepes.

First you take the crepe batter and pour a bit on the grill.

Jian Bing - 02

Then you spread it into a circle with this little tool. So far this process isn't much different from ordering from a crepe stand in Paris.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My big fat cannoli from D'Amato's Italian Bakery


Allow me to introduce you to the Big Cannoli from D'Amato's Italian Bakery in Chicago. It comprises one giant cannolo stuffed with 40 mini cannoli.

From the little scarecrows on top and the "Happy Thanksgiving" stick, you can probably tell that this is a Thanksgiving cannoli. But fear not, you can also get Christmas cannoli, birthday cannoli, or "My cannoli love cannot be appeased by just one measly cannolo. I require a ginormous cannoli stuffed with dozens of other cannoli."

I'm not saying I've eaten a whole one by myself, because that would be crazy. (I'm not necessarily saying that I haven't. Just that it would be crazy.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi

Sadly, I left China a couple days ago and am now back in Chicago. Before I left, though, Mrs. Zhao and Mr. Shi came over for another cooking lesson. This time we did jiaozi, or dumplings. I've cooked a lot of dumplings before, but this set was an interesting variation that was stuffed with a crisp filling of toasted sesame seeds, scrambled eggs and diced spring onions.

To start, make a standard batch of dumpling dough. Nick is at a Shang history conference at Rutgers this weekend. When he gets back, I'll put up a standard "dumpling dough" post that shows how to knead, roll and pinch dumplings. (I'm waiting for Nick because he's particularly gifted at kneading things. Also because it's difficult to photograph yourself while covered in flour.)

Until I get that up, the recipe is basically as follows:
250g flour
130-140g water

Put the flour in a bowl and slowly add the water in stages. Mix well until you have a very smooth ball. Then cover it with a damp cloth and let it sit for 15 minutes. When it's done setting, knead it again and roll it into a long piece. Then cut it into 32 equal pieces. Take those and roll them into balls with your hands and then discs with a rolling pin.

OK, now we can get on with the interesting part of this recipe: The filling.

1lb white sesame seeds
6 eggs
1/2lb small spring onions
1T table salt
1T 13 spice
1T dark soy sauce
MSG optional

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 01

Toast the sesame seeds on the stove until very lightly browned. You can just lay them in there and give them a toss every once and awhile while doing the rest of your prep work.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 02

Combine the eggs in a bowl and mix with chopsticks.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 04

Scramble the eggs in about two tablespoons of cooking oil.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 03

When the sesame seeds are toasted, crush them by rolling them with your pin.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 05

Mix the sesame seeds and scrambled eggs.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 06

Mince your greens, and add those to the mix.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 08

Add the salt, 13 spice, dark soy sauce, and then look around for the MSG. When you find there isn't any in the house, like Mrs. Zhao did, proceed without it.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 09

Mix the filling well.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 07

Take your dumpling dough chunks (see above) and roll them out into wrappers.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 10

Fill each one with about one rounded tablespoon of filling. Mrs. Zhao closes her dumplings in the casual way, by pinching it at the top, then squishing the sides together with both hands while holding the top closed with her thumbs.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 11

When complete, boil, steam or fry like any other jiaozi.

Sesame and Egg Jiaozi - 12

These are a great combination. I love spring onions, and the toasted sesame seeds give them a great scent and crunchy texture. As an afterthought, these things are actually vegetarian! Good to know.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I almost forgot the airag (fermented mare's milk)

Airag - 1

Whoops! While I was putting up the other Mongolian food posts, I very nearly forgot to include the airag, fermented mare's milk. It's a thin, relatively sour and acidic beverage with a flavor that seemed closest to an extremely tart yogurt. It has a good fizz and a light but noticeable alcoholic kick. The first sip is awful; the second is mildly disturbing. The third is awesome.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mongolian Food: Khorkhog (Real Mongolian Barbecue)

The first time I had "Mongolian barbecue" I was in Indianapolis at what was basically a build-your-own stir-fry joint. I don't remember if it was good or bad, just that there was a buffet line of vegetables and sauces, and some nice gentleman cooked it all in a giant novelty wok.

It turns out there's nothing Mongolian about that (you can tell by all the vegetables. My entire time in Mongolia, the only vegetables I saw were cabbage and potatoes). On the last day of our trip, Minde said he'd cook Mongolian barbecue for a special treat. According to, the dish Minde was calling "Mongolian barbecue" is khorkhog and consists of mutton cooked in a container with hot stones.

That night we were staying in a ger with a nomad family that used dung for their fires instead of wood. At first I was disturbed by the idea, but I found it kept the ger warm much longer than the wood fires did. I'm a dung-power convert. While Minde and the family built the fire, I noticed them adding a bunch of flat, oval-shaped stones to the stove with the cow dung. I hadn't noticed them doing that at the other ger we stayed in, so I figured it had something to do with the heat source. I was wrong; it had to do with the menu.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 01

When the fire was hot, Minde brought out his large cooking pot filled on the bottom with water and salt. He laid in a couple mutton ribs.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 02

Then pulled one of the stones out of the fire ...

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 05

... and added it right on top of the meat. (Yes, the dung-rock was touching the food-meat).

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 03

It got very smoky very quickly.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 04

Minde continued to layer mutton ribs and rocks until he was out of mutton. Then he began fitting some new potatoes in between the stones.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 06

Finally he covered the entire thing in cabbage leaves and covered the pot.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 07

The pot was then hefted back on top of the stove, where it was allowed to sit for an hour.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 08

After letting the barbecue stew for 60 minutes, Minde unveiled it:

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 09

Then he used a fork to separate the barbecue into two bowls: one with potatoes and cabbage, and one with meat.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 11

We ate the cabbage and potatoes with forks, and the mutton with our hands right off the bone.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 10

I did my best, but no could match our host, who pulled out a small knife and cleaned the ribs and shoulder bones so thoroughly of any meat, fat or gristle that they looked like they'd been made from Plaster of Paris for a 3rd grade science class.

Later we threw them to the dogs, who raced right to the Americans, where the bones were covered in delicious little flecks of smoky meat. The slower dogs were left to sniff around at the clean, dry, white bones left by our hosts. I have to admit I felt a little sorry for those dogs; they looked utterly disappointed by the whole affair.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mongolian Food: Khuushuur (meat-filled fried pancakes)

Blue skies, horses, Genghis Khan: Mongolia is known for a lot of things, but food generally isn't high on the list. Meat and dairy dominate to such an extreme that Lonely Planet optimistically suggests vegetarians might still have a good time in Mongolia on the condition that they're willing to cook for themselves. Vegans are flat-out advised to reconsider their travel plans. That's still a significant step up from the first edition of Lonely Planet's Mongolia guide, which I'm told began with the sentence, "Do not go to Mongolia."

That book was written in '91, however, and the advice no longer holds. I had a wonderful time. I'm not a vegetarian and certainly not vegan, so everything was pretty idyllic to my tastes (including the time the host family slaughtered a goat immediately outside my door. It turned out to be a gift for the shaman staying two ger down).

Most things you'll read on Mongolian cuisine describe it as "practical." That's true, but it's not necessarily a bad thing, as simple food can have a lot of flavor, and it makes for an easier blog post when a person is only including meat, salt, and fire. I found that people in general were eager to talk about their food and tell me about the different ways of eating meat, dairy, and certain incarnations of flour. Near the end of the trip, we stopped in at a ger near the side of the road and our guide, Minde, asked the proprietress, a woman named Bolor, to make us some khuushuur, meat-filled fried pancakes. (You can also get them stuffed with other things. Cabbage is delicious.)

 Khuushuur - 01

She started by mixing up a dough of about 250g of flour and 150g of water and kneading it until it formed a large, tacky lump.

 Khuushuur - 02

Then she put the lump in a large bowl and covered it with a damp cheesecloth while she took care of the filling.

 Khuushuur - 03

I saw a lot of this particular cut of mutton during the Mongolia trip. She stripped the meat from the bones with a knife and diced it.

 Khuushuur - 04

 Khuushuur - 05

 Khuushuur - 06

She took the resulting 350g of minced meat and put it in a bowl. She then added three teaspoons each of salt and pepper.

 Khuushuur - 07

She chopped one small yellow onion and smashed two cloves of garlic and added them to the meat. With her hands, she kneaded the meat, onions and garlic until it was well mixed, then she sat the filling aside.

 Khuushuur - 08

Back to the dough! She kneaded the dough with flour until it was smooth and uniform.

 Khuushuur - 09

She rolled out half the dough into a long tube about two inches in diameter.

 Khuushuur - 10

Then she cut them into little chunks, about 1.5" tall. She pushed a little divot into the top of each and set them aside.

 Khuushuur - 11

 Khuushuur - 12

Each of the dough chunks was rolled out into a wide, very thin round pancake.

 Khuushuur - 13

She'd roll out four or five pancakes, then fill them with meat, fold them over and pinch the edge closed.

 Khuushuur - 14

 Khuushuur - 15

 Khuushuur - 16

While she filled the Khuushuur, her husband would take them in batches of four or five and slip them into a pot of very hot cooking oil.

 Khuushuur - 17

For good luck, eat the khuushuur by holding onto the two ends. One end at a time is bad luck. It's served with suutei tsai, Mongolian salted milk tea. (There's no actual tea in this one, it's just hot milk, water, salt and some butter. The best version I had in Mongolia was at a tourist camp on the second day where it was made with fresh yak milk).

 Khuushuur - 18


 Khuushuur - 19

The recipe is the same for many Mongolian dishes. If you stuff the pancake into a round dumpling shape instead of a half-circle, then it is a buuz if steamed, like so:


Buuz is pronounced like "booze," which resulted in one or two mildly disappointing lunches. "Hey Liz, want some lunch?" "Yes." "Want to get some buuz?" "Hell yes!"

Then I realize my friends wanted dumplings, not beer.

It's called a bansh if boiled.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes, and Tomatoes

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 01

With fresh ingredients, Mr. Shi's stew of pork, garlic scapes, and tomatoes is magnificent. Mr. Shi got started prepping ingredients and cooking while in the middle of making noodles.

1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
5 lajiao, dried red chili peppers, cut in half (with seeds)
250g pork
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
2 tomatoes, roughly chopped into 1" pieces
2 tsp salt
1/2 medium purple onion, sliced and separated
3 long green peppers (these are spicy), roughly chopped
250g garlic scapes, cut into 2" pieces
250g thin celery, stalks only, cut into 2" pieces

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 02

Mr. Shi cuts off the pork fat and slices the meat into 1/8" pieces.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 03

Here's Mr. Shi's mise en place. The garlic scapes are under the onions, because those will go in together.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 04

In one tablespoon of peanut oil, cook the ginger until the flavor is released. You'll know that's happened when a cloud of intense ginger perfume rises from the wok. If you're standing over the wok with the spatula, you won't be able to miss it.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 05

Then add the dried red chili peppers and cook until they're light brown.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 06

Add the pork and the dark soy sauce, and stir-fry until the pork has become completely opaque and lost its raw pink translucence.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 07

Add the chopped tomatoes and mix them into the pork, ginger and peppers. Add the salt and mix well. (Mr. Shi prefers to use MSG, but we didn't have any in the house.)

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 08

Cover the pot and let it cook for about five minutes, or until the tomatoes have released their juices and the pot is simmering. In the meantime, you can make some more noodles.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 09

Add the rest of the ingredients and mix them together.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 10

Cover the wok and allow the ingredients to simmer together for about 10 minutes, the onions should be tender and translucent, and the scapes and celery should have darkened from stewing in the tomato juices.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 11

The final mix should look like this.

Mr. Shi's Pork, Garlic Scapes and Tomatoes   - 12

Serve over Mr. Shi's noodles.