Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Pastor taught me: Clootie Pudding (Scotland edition)

Meet the pudding that changed the game. Let me get straight to it. It is comprised of your usual ingredients:flour, butter, eggs, dried fruits and nuts and spices. However, the major and most important difference is that it doesn't go into an oven, it goes into a pot of boiling water. It's one thing to go to church and receive a life-changing word from God but a life-changing cake, it was like manna falling out of the sky.

I won't get into much background today simply because I don't think I am qualified to. The most I know is the name and origin as seen in the title. Anything I could possibly share with you will be stripped from Wikipedia and well, that just isn't fair.

First introduction

Thank you Pastor!
The recipe is open to interpretation. In fact when my friends and I made this during our International Bake Date  the similarities to the first were the texture and the delicious taste.  What we proved is the versatility of the particular recipe. So as I always encourage you, experiment with whatever you find in your cupboards.

Clootie Pudding

Ingredients as originally copied
2 cups flour
1/2 cup or 125g butter
4 eggs
2 cups dried raisins, sultans
1/2 cup walnuts
2 tsp orange peel dried and ground
1 tsp ginger (awesome flavour combo, don't you think?)
extra flour

Ingredients as adapted
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder (not necessary)
125g butter
1/2 cup white sugar (because we used less fruit and a tangy one at that)
4 eggs
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup coconut (Cuz we love da coco)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp ginger (we were heavy on the spices, feel free not to if it's not your thing)
extra flour
cheesecloth & string
pot of boiling water

1. Since we were eyeballing a lot of things here, we followed baking 101: mix dry and wet ingredients separately. Combine flour, baking powder, spices and salt in one bowl. In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in eggs, one by one, without over mixing, followed by vanilla.

2. Mix flour mixture into butter mixture. Add in dried fruits, nuts, coconut. At this time you want to define your flavour and consistency. Play with spices. If your mix is too runny, thicken it up with some flour.  If it's already thick, that's a good thing.

3. On an open cheesecloth, generously sprinkle flour, concentrating on the center. This is the outer coating of the cake that allows it to 'cook' while in boiling water so don't be frugal with this step.

4. Pour batter into cheesecloth, focusing on the flour-covered area.

Note the tight batter texture
Then quickly pull the corners to the center (you may need extra hands) and quickly tie close with string.

5. Transfer the ball of batter to the pot of boiling water and slowing place inside. Make sure that it is completely submerged but that your water level isn't too high to spill out the pot.

6. Boiling can go from at least 2 to 4 hours. There is no over cooking to worry about here. Observe the cake. The more it floats, the closer it is to being ready. You may need to replace water so ensure that it is hot when you do so. As to how to do you know for sure it's ready, I really can't tell you. We opened ours after two hours, and put it back for another 2 hours. Unlike reopening an oven, the pudding is unaffected. There is no way to mess this up.

7. Remove from the pot and allow your cake to cool. Unwrap and cut and share with all the patient tummies. The excess flour will now be a thick skin around the cake.

You can eat it or just as easily peel it off. All up to you.

8. Schedule how soon you will make this again. And what new flavours you want to try. Brandy, minced fruit. What's on your mind? Side note: we really regretted not having any dried orange peel on hand.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: 黑山谷 Black Mountain Valley

Black Mountain Valley is one the most popular tourist sites in the South West of China and probably the closest I'll get to a World Heritage Site for now. It is located in Wansheng city which actually was previously part of Sichuan. I, of course, only figured this out after travelling 6 hours and 4 buses to get there. You know saying that a good mountain is hard to find but totally worth it when you do? Yea neither do I, but obviously they need to make one.

After spending almost 5 years in China and speaking Mandarin, and being surrounded by so many international tongues, I can say with complete confidence the language doesn't cut it. There are some heights of creative expressions that language is not equip to climb, emotional depths of awe that cannot be captured in its five-dimensional phrases . But I have made peace with that. Because what language cannot achieve, nature does on its own. Black Mountain Valley does this in every carving and crevice, every dip and turn.

I felt insignificant yet part of something greater than myself. The sun chased us and the waters guided us pass many landmarks; The Wishing Tree where locals would visit every year and the Bamboo ledge where the legend of the healing bamboo sticks may come to life.

Wishing Tree

Bamboo Ledge

Each part of the valley presented a new face of creation. I couldn't help but reflect on age versus maturity. This valley was a clear revelation that only through life's experience can one flow with confidence and truly welcome every colour and hue that the sunlight brought out in you.

Suspensions bridges, arches, floating walkways added to the mysticisms and adventure along the
 15 km hike especially as the sun began to set.

Even the low water levels, due to the change in weather patterns, couldn't stop you from admiring the Yam Falls or any of the other 75 waterfalls along the valley. Formations like the Cow Head and Dragon Rock were easier to view and appreciate too.

I'd be lying if I said this hike was easy. Especially since I accidentally started at the bottom of the mountain, instead of the top (insert expected Drake reference here). But really, wouldn't you think the North Gate started at the mountain top too? Either way, the first 10 km or so were flat but then turned into a steep incline for 3 km. Then just like that I saw cable cars floating through the trees. A saving grace really, because it was 6 pm and we were about to be locked in. And then we would have to find out if the legend of the Dragon rock was actually true.

Are you sorry there is no food in this post? 
Don't worry! Look out for tips about eating while hiking in the future!

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 331 kcal,  0.2g protein, 0.2g fat, 82g carbohydrates, 0.1g Vitamin B1, 0.17g 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