Oriental Supermarket, Oriental City, Edgware

I needed to restock my storecupboard this weekend, so we headed for Oriental City (see my earlier post on Oriental City’s food court for directions). It’s probably my favourite source for exotic ingredients, as the supermarket extends to cover Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian and Thai ingredients alongside the Chinese bits and bobs you’ll find in many other oriental supermarkets, and has a remarkably good selection of fresh produce flown directly from Asia.

They’re currently reorganising the supermarket to extend the Japanese section, which has a grand re-opening later in August. All of the shelves are clearly labelled in English so those with problems reading Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Korean orthography do not accidentally buy tinned silk worms (something I have still not been able to bring myself to sample). The supermarket is also an absolute joy for fresh ingredients; the pictures below are just a small selection of the fresh goods on offer.

Six different kinds of chilli. There were more on another shelf, and a further shelf of dried chillis further back in the supermarket.

Turmeric, young ginger, galangal and other juicy, fresh roots for pounding into pastes.

Six different kinds of small aubergine. I used the purple ones towards the right in a Thai green chicken curry yesterday.

The fresh fruits, spices and vegetables extend all the way down one wall. You’ll find Asiatic pennywort, pandang leaves, banana leaves, lily buds, gourds, mooli, a million and one variations on the theme of a cucumber, perilla, lotus roots, herbs like Mitsuba…it’s a challenge to recognise everything.

While many places will only stock one kind of soya sauce or one kind of fish sauce, this supermarket prides itself on the choice it offers. I counted six kinds of fish sauce, and one side of an entire aisle is given over to different soya sauces. The chilli sauce aisle is packed tightly on both sides with bottle upon bottle of the red stuff, and there were seven different brands of instant dashi, alongside the bonito flakes and kelp you need to make your own.

Ex-pats craving snacks from home are well catered for. These Japanese snacks are on offer at the moment so they’re out of the way before the advent of the new Japanese section, which will, apparently, carry even more.

Here’s that crab again, with some other fish so you can get an idea of scale. The fish counter is one of the fewI’ve found that will actually carry fresh, properly prepared fish specifically for making sushi and sashimi at home. (It’s also a good place to find roes like tobiko and a fresh salmon roe.) Cuts of meat which aren’t usually represented in UK butchers are also easy to find here; chicken’s feet come frozen or fresh, and there are even duck tongues for the brave.

If you live in or near London, or if you’re just passing through, try to pay a visit to Edgware and see what you can find at the supermarket. Cook with something you’ve never tried before. Try to find out which is the strongest chilli. Use those canned silkworm larvae to broaden your experience. I’d love to find out how it goes.

Chinese spring onion pancakes

(That’s Chinese scallion pancakes for those of you cooking under the weight of a transatlantic language barrier.)

When I was a kid, my parents acted as guardians to another girl at my school, whose own parents lived in Hong Kong. Wai boarded at school in the week, but used to come and stay with us at the weekends, and those weekends became positive orgies of Chinese cooking. Wai, my Dad and I sprayed the kitchen with a fine glaze of soya sauce and palm sugar every Saturday in an attempt to pretend we weren’t in Bedfordshire, but somewhere far more exotic with zinc-topped tables.

These flaky, crisp, aromatic little hotcakes are messy fun to make, and they were one of our favourites. Like puff pastry, they’re folded on themselves and rolled out several times, like a samurai sword (albeit one punctuated with onions), resulting in a glassy crisp surface and a softly flaking interior. My poor mother used to look on in horror at the mess; if you’re making these at home, I’d recommend using a glass or marble board (if you own one) to roll the dough rather than using the kitchen surface. They don’t take long, and they’re a delicious starter.

To make six (serves three people as a starter) you’ll need:

1 cup plain flour
⅓ cup boiling water
2 tablespoons lard (duck or beef dripping will also work well, but make sure you use an animal fat for the flavour)
6 spring onions (scallions)
1 drop sesame oil per pancake
Salt and pepper

Combine the flour and water in a mixing bowl, and knead the mixture hard until you’ve got a smooth, soft dough. You’ll have to work the dough to make it smooth; keep kneading for a few
minutes. Leave the dough to rest for 15 minutes to allow the gluten to develop, helping the dough to become more stretchy.

When you set the dough aside to rest, you can use your spare 15 minutes to chop the spring onions finely and take the lard out of the fridge so it’s soft when you come to use it.

Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll a piece flat, into as thin a circle as you can manage, and spread one side generously with the softened fat.Add a drop of sesame oil, and sprinkle one chopped spring onion over the top.

Roll the circle of dough up tightly like a scroll, with the onions inside. Use your hand to flatten the roll, fold it in half and use a rolling pin to make it into a flat circle again. You don’t need to flour your board; the fat from the dough will stop anything from sticking. Roll into a scroll again, then repeat the folding and flattening. You will have a pancake with many layers, each with a little fat between them. The edges won’t be very tidy; don’t worry.

Repeat for each piece of dough. Season each pancake on both sides with salt and pepper.

Melt a teaspoon of the remaining fat in a large, non-stick frying pan, and bring up to a high temperature. Slide the pancakes into the pan, and fry on one side for about 5 minutes until golden. Add another teaspoon of fat to the pan and flip the pancakes over using a spatula. Cook for 5 minutes more, until crisp and golden, and transfer to a serving dish.

If you’ve got guests, you might want to use scissors to cut the pancakes into triangles. I didn’t; we just put them on our plates and gobbled.

Lettuce wraps

Every country has a dish it thinks is Chinese. These dishes don’t originate in China, but are often good enough to be celebrated and enjoyed. In the UK, made-up Chinese food includes crispy ‘seaweed’ (deep-fried, shredded greens served with fish floss) and the ubiquitous chop suey. Americans can point at that peculiar sweet mustard, Crab Rangoon (no self-respecting Chinese dish contains cheese), and General Tso’s chicken.

The lettuce wrap is another of these mongrel dishes, but it’s so good that you can easily forgive it its roots and embrace it. Preferably with tongue and teeth.

To serve four people, you’ll need:

4 chicken breasts
1 inch piece of ginger, diced
4 cloves of garlic, diced
8 spring onions, sliced
1 red, yellow or orange pepper, diced
1 can water chestnuts, diced
3 sticks celery, diced
5 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in boiling water and diced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 wine-glass Chinese rice wine
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soya sauce
1 teaspoon cornflour
1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of MSG (as usual, leave this out if you must, but read this first)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 large lettuce (I used a Cos)

Put the chicken in a blender, and pulse gently until it’s chopped finely. You’re aiming for a texture like mince here, not like slurry, so be careful.

Stir-fry the ginger, garlic and spring onions together for three minutes, until their fragrance is filling the kitchen. Add the chicken and the cornflour, and stir-fry until the chicken is all white. Throw in the diced vegetables, stir-fry for another two minutes, then add the rice wine, the oyster sauce and the soya sauce with the MSG and sugar. Let the liquid ingredients start to bubble, and when the cornflour has made the sauce glossy and thick, stir in the sesame oil and transfer the mixture to a warm bowl.

Serve by spooning into the bowl of a lettuce leaf. I used a Cos lettuce, partly because of the charming spoon shape of a Cos leaf, but mostly because my choice was extremely limited; it’s near-impossible to buy whole lettuces these days, the whole world having gone mad for pre-mixed salads in bags.

Wrap the leaf around the hot, textured filling, and then wrap your mouth around the whole thing.

Man Ho restaurant, Luton

It’s New Year, which merits a rare photo of me doing something . . . candid. Here I am pootling the New Year in on a celebratory pootler.

On with the food.

John and Cora Lau are old friends of ours who run the Man Ho Chinese restaurant in Luton (72 Dunstable Road, LU1 1EH, 01582 723366). The restaurant has been there for twenty-odd years now (a lot like me), and serves up excellent, traditional Szechuan food in a real degree of style. The chef is from Hong Kong, the ingredients are fresh from Billingsgate Market and the Far East – all of this sandwiched in amongst Luton’s endlessly peculiar mix of evangelical churches in old bingo halls, mosques, casinos and kebab shops.

New Year and all our other celebrations seem to happen at the Man Ho; driving forty miles for dinner is nothing when dinner is this good. One of the very best things about being Chinese is that we get two New Years, Western and Chinese; the Chinese one will probably be spent at the Man Ho too.

We opened with cold meats; slices of velvety poached chicken, Char Siu (Chinese barbecued pork) and a roast beef, all with a light, soy-based sauce. John was trying out a new dish alongside the cold cuts, which you can see in the picture, in the centre of the plate. It’s a slice of fresh bamboo shoot, braised gently with soy and five spices, and it was a perfect, tender accompaniment. John is hoping to put these bamboo shoots on the menu in the New Year.

John knows me well, and had pre-positioned a bowl of his home-made chili oil (which he always seems to manage to avoid giving me the recipe for with utmost politeness, the clever man) next to my place setting. God knows how he makes it, but it’s downright perfect and I wish he’d bottle it.

Next was a dish of Siu Yuk (the crispy roast belly pork which makes my top ten foods list, and which works so well with that chili oil that the two should get married and have children) and delicate seafood rolls wrapped in crackling sheets of rice paper. Cora pointed at the kiwi fruit and the strawberries, grinned and said that it’s important to garnish foods which are unfamiliar and Eastern in a familiar, Western style. (Looking at the Siu Yuk from a different restaurant which I blogged a few months ago, looking delicious but mildly terrifying, she probably has a point.)

I can’t comment on the next course, lobster in ginger and spring onion sauce, because I am, to my eternal misery, terribly allergic to lobsters. I’ve wound up unable to breathe, covered with hives and having adrenaline shots in my backside twice in the last ten years as a result of careless lobster-ingestion, so I sat this course out and just smelled it. It smelled fantastic.

I had hoped I could count on the family to provide me with a decent review of this course. Mr Weasel, however, asked for his impression, says: ‘It was nice. It made my fingers very sticky.’

Aren’t you glad Mr Weasel doesn’t write this blog?

Next came a crispy duck with pancakes, which is a dish you’ll all recognise. Here is mine, unwrapped. Something bizarre, secret and good goes on with the sauce in these pancakes, and I suspect that John (who remains taciturn on the subject) makes it in the restaurant.

Crispy duck pancakes are my god-daughter’s favourite food. They’re my brother’s favourite food. They’re my husband’s favourite food. They’re one of mine. I have some theories about this, which have to do with interactive eating and the wonderfulness of things wrapped in other things . . . but I suspect it may actually be to do with the fact that they’re just very, very tasty.

Five dishes arrived at once, as a final course, served with plain rice. Butterflied prawns in a basket with chilis and garlic; a whole sea bass, steamed in soya sauce and spring onions; sizzling fillet steak; a crisp roast chicken; and some choi sum in oyster sauce. All were excellent. Best I show you these as a list of photos, or we’ll be here all day . . .

The yellow spheres around the prawns are hard-boiled quails’ eggs, deep-fried and used as an extremely delicious garnish.

John helped us see the New Year in with a gourd-shaped, porcelain bottle of Sanpien Jiu, a very special tonic wine made from steeping rare herbs in a Chinese rice liqueur. On top of all the champagne and pootling, it left me with a mammoth headache on New Year’s Day – a headache which was worth it a million times over for this extraordinary meal. Thanks very much, John and Cora – we’ll be back soon.

Slow-simmered Chinese beef and fried rice

Slow braising in soya sauce is one of the best things you can do with stewing meat, making it scented, tender and melting. Here, I’ve used some whole spices, oyster sauce, sugar, garlic and ginger to turn some cheap cubes of stewing beef into meaty gold.

To accompany it, I’ve broken out my packet of Chinese sausages (lap cheung). These are a sausage rich in pork fat, sugar and anise, preserved by wind-drying. You can buy two kinds of Chinese sausage; these, which are red in colour and made from pork and pork fat, and the darker ones, made from duck meat and liver. I’ve put the rest of the packet in the freezer, to use another day in some steamed rice. Today’s sausage is going in some stir-fried rice.

The beef is easy – all its deliciousness comes from long, slow simmering. You’ll need:

1 lb cubed stewing beef
1 bulb of garlic, halved
3 slices ginger
2 dried chilis
2 stars of anise
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soya sauce
1 wine glass Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Water to cover

Put all the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pan and simmer very gently for two to three hours, until the meat is tender. Top up with water if the pan starts to look dry.

The fried rice is full of simple, assertive flavours. I used:

4 Chinese sausages, sliced thin
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 inches peeled ginger, julienned (cut into matchsticks)
8 spring onions, sliced into circles
1 pack shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 large handful frozen peas
1 large bowl cold, pre-cooked rice
2 eggs
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespons soya sauce

Stir fry the sausage slices, moving everything round quickly over a high heat until they give up some of their fat, then throw in the garlic, ginger and spring onions and stir fry for three minutes. Add the mushrooms and peas and continue to stir fry until the mushrooms are soft and cooked. Crumble the rice with your hands into the wok. It’s vitally important that the rice is cold from the fridge; warm rice will go gungy and come apart. Cold rice will keep its grains whole and keep its texture. Stir fry the rice until it’s all piping hot, then make a well in the middle so you can see the bottom of the wok, break the eggs into it and use your spatula to scramble them in the well. Stir the cooked egg into the rest of the rice, add the sesame oil and soya sauce, stir fry for another twenty seconds, and serve.

Peking dumplings

It’s nearly Christmas. The family is descending upon the Uptonarium, and this calls for finger foods which I can freeze and cook quickly, with the minimum of fuss. Not for me, though, the supermarket mini-samosa or the tiny quiche in a box. I’m making Peking dumplings; lovely little pockets exploding with Chinese flavours, which are fried golden and crisp on one side, and steamed soft and tender on the other. In the north of China, these are traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day. Here in the south of England, we’re going to be eating them on Christmas Eve; infinitely nicer than the traditional glass of sherry and a carrot.

These dumplings freeze, uncooked, brilliantly, and, being tiny, defrost very quickly for cooking. If you’re freezing them, you can do the final, cooking step once your dumplings have defrosted. Try them as an alternative to sausage rolls.

For sixty Peking dumplings (I am informed that Americans call these ‘pot-stickers’), you’ll need:

Wonton wrappers
You can either buy sixty wonton wrappers in the Chinese supermarket, or make your own, as I did, using:
1lb very strong white bread flour
1 1/2 cups water

1lb minced pork
1/4 white cabbage, chopped finely
15 spring onions, chopped finely
1 small tin water chestnuts, chopped finely
1 bulb garlic (about ten cloves), chopped finely
2 in piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon msg (leave out if you really must)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (substitute cooking sherry if you can’t find any)
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Start by mixing the bread flour and water into a soft, but not sticky, dough, adding more flour or water if your dough is sticky or dry. The resulting dough should be as soft as the plump bit at the heel of your thumb. Set aside in a covered bowl for the gluten to develop.

Chop all the filling ingredients to the same size. You should end up with around the same amount of vegetables as you have pork. Using your hands (I hope you took your rings off to mix the dough, or your diamonds are going to be set in a lovely crusty dumpling mixture), squish the whole lot together until it’s well mixed and holding together loosely. Don’t worry about adding eggs or anything else to bind; the wrappers will keep everything together for you.

Set the filling mixture to one side for the flavours to mingle while you prepare the wonton skins.

There’s a reason you used strong bread flour; the gluten in it will give you a very smooth, tough dough, which stretches easily and doesn’t break and snap. Looking at your ball of dough, I realise it is hard to imagine that you’ll get sixty bits out of it large enough to make into wrappers. Trust me; you will. It’s stretchy stuff. Start by dividing it into two, then divide each of those bits into three. The remaining small pieces are easy to chop into ten equal-sized bits.

Roll each piece into a rough circle on a floury board. You don’t need to be terribly accurate with these; the tops will be frilly anyway, so don’t worry if, like me, you suddenly start acting like someone with fewer than the full complement of fingers when faced with dough and a rolling pin. When you’ve rolled your little wrapper, put it on a plate; you can stack the others on top of it and they won’t stick together.

When all your wrappers are made, put one on the board and place a teaspoon of the mixture (this is quite easy to judge if you make the spoonful about the size of the ball of dough that went to make up one wrapper) in the middle of it. Moisten a semicircle around the edge of the dough (don’t moisten all the way round or it won’t stick), and push the two halves of the circle together, crimping the edges as you go.

I am full of admiration for dim sum chefs, with their lightness of finger and artistry when faced with wrappers. Some of them even make them look like fish or little bunny rabbits. My own are always functional, and never pretty. Anyway; crimp away, and if you’re even half good at this, you’ll end up with something that looks prettier than this picture.

At this point, you can freeze the little dumplings. Line a container with floured greaseproof paper, put a layer of dumplings in, cover with more floured greaseproof paper, add another layer and so on until the container is full. Defrost before continuing to the next stage.

To cook, heat some vegetable oil in a thick-bottomed, non-stick (there is a reason the Americans call these things pot-stickers) frying pan, and when it is hot, slide the dumplings in carefully in one layer, their bottoms in the sizzling fat and their frilly tops pointing upwards. After about five minutes, pour water into the pan until it reaches halfway up the sides of the dumplings. Simmer over a medium heat without a cover until all the water has evaporated. The tops will be delicately steamed and the bottoms brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted skimmer.

These dumplings are traditionally served with black vinegar. (Chinese black vinegar, not the stuff you heathens put on chips.) I enjoy them with a good, sweet, bottled chili sauce mixed with a little soya sauce, alongside a nice cold beer.

Canteloupe and winter melon ice cream

Apologies for the lack of a post last night; one of my friends had his UK Citizenship ceremony yesterday, and we were out late celebrating. (When I got home, I was arguably not in a fit state to be allowed anywhere near a keyboard.) This means you get an early morning, pre-work post.

Buying the melons for this ice cream was an interesting experience. I was casting around the supermarket for some fruit to turn into an ice cream, and saw a stack of canteloupes. Next to it was a second stack of canteloupes; these were nearly half the price. Why could this be? I picked up an expensive one. It smelled fragrant and melony, even through the skin. I picked up a cheap one. It smelled like a potato.

I don’t like potato ice cream, even potato ice cream that’s a pretty melon colour, so I went for the expensive ones.

To make this ice cream you will need:

2 canteloupe melons, seeds and skin removed
1/2 pint milk
2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons honey
1 pack crystalised winter melon (see below)
2 drops vanilla essence

I started by making a custard as a base; the milk was brought to a near-simmer with the vanilla and honey (from a jar of local honey from bees from the next village), and the egg yolks were beaten in until the mixture thickened. I then pureed the melons in the Magimix, then passed them through a sieve into the custard, folded everything together, and added the winter melon, cut into tiny pieces. Refrigerate the mixture, then follow the instructions on your ice cream maker.

Candied winter melon was my favourite Chinese sweets when I was a little girl. On trips to London I would bully my parents into going to Chinatown to visit the supermarkets, so I could take a pack home. It’s tooth-achingly sweet, and the melon has a slightly crisp texture, like a water chestnut. If you’re near a Chinese supermarket, do try to get your hands on a pack for this recipe; you could also substitute Italian candied melon, but this is so good that it would be a shame if you couldn’t try it.

Winter melon grows in the summer, but has a waxy skin which means it will keep for many months, giving it its name. It’s used in Chinese cooking as a vegetable (if it’s not candied, it’s not very sweet; it’s really a gourd and not a sweet melon); it has a crisp texture and is a good carrier of flavours. Once candied, it’s sublimely good.

I was hoping to garnish the ice cream with winter melon pieces as well, but unfortunately we’d eaten the few I kept to one side by the time the ice cream was ready. (I defy you to be able to leave unaccompanied winter melon in your kitchen for long without accidentally eating it.) It was delicious; Mr Weasel made gurgling noises and said ‘it tastes like sweeties’. Most of the ice cream is now in the freezer, so we can keep people happy at Christmas.

Hainanese chicken rice

Mr Weasel and I are still feeling rather jet-lagged and delicate. It’s also the cold season, and my office, which I share with six people, has a horrible miasma of runny nose.

If I were a New York grandmother, I might have prescribed chicken soup with matzoh balls for what ails us. As it is, I’m the product of Malaysian Chinese and British families. As we all know that the English are bred to maximise upper lips and minimise tastebuds, I decided that what we needed was a nice bit of soothing Malaysian cookery – Hainanese chicken rice.

Hainan is a southern island province of China. Many of the Chinese living in Malaysia and Singapore originated in Hainan, and they brought their recipes with them. This chicken rice is probably the best known of these recipes, and it’s a wonderfully soothing, clean-tasting dish. The chicken in this dish is poached, and its cooking liquid is used to cook the rice, flavour the chili sauce that accompanies the meat, and to make a clear broth.

Chicken and broth
One chicken, without giblets
Four pints water
Chicken stock cube
One teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon MSG (go on – you can leave it out if you absolutely must, but it won’t kill you)
Wine glass of Shaoxing rice wine
Two tablespoons of light soya sauce
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
Ten cloves of garlic, squashed lightly with a knife blade
Two large spring onions (scallions)

Chili sauce
Two limes, peeled and segmented
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
Two cloves of garlic
Two red chilis
Tablespoon of caster sugar
Half a wine glass of the chicken broth

One tablespoon rendered chicken fat (see below)
Chicken broth (adjust amounts according to how many people are eating)

Begin by bringing the water, stock, salt, msg, rice wine and soya sauce to a rolling boil. Pull out any poultry fat from the inside of the chicken, and put it in a dry frying pan on a medium heat to render out the fat. Stuff the chicken with the ginger, garlic and spring onions, and place it in the boiling water. Bring back to the boil for two minutes uncovered, then put the lid on and simmer for 40 minutes. It’s helpful if you use a heavy, thick-bottomed pan like one by Le Creuset, as the heat will disperse better and you will avoid catching the bottom of your chicken.

Meanwhile, place all the ingredients for the sauce except the chicken stock in a blender (or you could use a pestle and mortar. I’m lazy and use the Magimix). Lime doesn’t give up its juice readily like a lemon, so the best way to get all of the juice out is to quarter and peel the lime by hand as in the picture, then process in the Magimix.

I don’t want to make the sauce too spicy here, so I’ve removed the seeds and the white ribs from these chilis. The hottest part of the chili is these ribs, and then the seeds. Removing them still leaves this sauce very hot indeed; use more or less chili as you wish.

When the chicken has been poaching for forty minutes, remove it from the cooking liquid and put aside. Add half a wine glass of the stock to the pureed sauce ingredients, and mix well. (This isn’t a great photo – I’ve sloshed the sauce about a bit here. It tastes fantastic, though.)

I had run out of Thai fragrant rice, so used basmati for this; you may prefer a stickier rice. I always use a rice cooker, so I put my rendered fat in with enough rice for two, stir well to make sure all the grains are coated, and fill the rice cooker with the chicken broth up to the two-portion line, as I usually would with water.

The broth is served alongside the chicken and its flavoured rice as a soup. It’s got a tiny amount of glossy fat from the chicken floating on it, and it’s clean-tasting, clear and delicious. We prefer to eat it as a starter before serving the chicken and the rice, which isn’t traditional (but I defy you to have a kitchen smelling of this stuff and not eat it at the first opportunity). Any broth you have left over can be frozen and used as chicken stock. It’s surprisingly successful used as a base in Western dishes – try it in gravy and soups.

This dish would usually be served with some sliced cucumber. I don’t have any in the fridge, so we’re just eating the chicken and the rice on its own. I’m rubbish at carving, but thankfully Mr Weasel, a butcher’s grandson, has meat-chopping in his blood, and sets about the chicken (in Malaysia it’s always eaten at room temperature, which I prefer – the chicken is somehow much juicier this way, and the muscle tissue relaxes and makes the meat tender and toothsome) with abandon. And a very sharp knife.

The hot rice has taken on all the flavour from the broth, and a gorgeous sheen from the fat. It’s a glorious contrast with the, moist, tender chicken. The meat is served with the dipping sauce and a bowl of soya sauce. Any cold bug that might have been thinking of settling has given up in the face of all this nutrition and gone to pester the neighbours.

Dim sum at Taipan, Milton Keynes

Forget paper, gunpowder, tea and umbrellas. China’s greatest contribution to my personal culture is dim sum, a meal traditionally eaten for brunch. It’s made up of an array of tiny dishes of little stuffed buns, fried morsels and steamed goodies, all artfully presented, perfectly delicious and the optimum size to pop effortlessly into a lazy weekend mouth.

Dim sum translates from the Cantonese as “to touch the heart”. For us it’s always something best shared and enjoyed with friends and family. This weekend, we went to Taipan, an excellent restaurant located surprisingly in the jungle of concrete and traffic controls that is Milton Keynes. The owner informs me that their new chef is presently doing something very wonderful in the evenings with garoupa and other fish considered delicacies in Hong Kong but relatively unheard of here – I’ll have to pop back in in a few weeks to check it out.

We rolled up with my parents, who live nearby enough that we can pretend we’re not driving fifty miles just for lunch, and set about the dim sum menu (presented here as a list of numbers, menu items and boxes to tick; three or so dishes per head should be sufficient, but we usually seem to tick more) with gusto. We then asked the manager if we could have the black bean crab (not dim sum, but an evening restaurant dish) as well. It’s an excellent time of year for crab, and the one which arrived at our table, steamed, segmented by the chef and stir-fried in a glossy black bean and pepper sauce was full of rich red roe, tasting of the sea. The sweet meat came away from the claws and legs we cracked open cleanly, with a minimum of the slightly revolting sucking which everyone in my family seems to start doing the moment we think nobody’s looking. We puddled the meat in the sauce.

Dumplings started to arrive in the bamboo steamers they were cooked in. Clockwise from the top, these are chiu-chau fun guo (peanuts, garlic chives, pork, prawns and shitake mushrooms), prawn and coriander dumplings (whole and minced prawn with herbs), and crystal dumplings (pork, water chestnuts, bamboo shoot, prawns, and other vegetables). We ate these with fresh chilis in soy sauce. A chili sauce and a chili oil were also on the table.

Each of these dumplings is wrapped in a rice flour skin, which becomes transluscent when steamed. Texture here is as important as flavour, and the different meats and vegetables which go to make the fillings were cut evenly into tiny pieces. The crystal dumplings in particular have a beautifully fresh crunch.

This dumpling is a bao, a fluffy, steamed bun made from a yeasty, white flour dough. This particular bao is filled with char siu, a barbecued pork in a rich red sauce. (An excellent char siu recipe used to be found at Shiokadelicious, which, to my horror, doesn’t seem to be around any more. Perhaps Renee got a recipe book deal. Fortunately, Jessica at Su Good Eats makes it to a similar recipe here.)

This particular bao is about half the size of my clenched fist. (I seem to clench my fists a lot these days.) When we visit family in Malaysia, one of my favourite breakfasts is one of these buns (but a larger one, perhaps the size of Mr Weasel’s muscular clenched fist), stuffed with char siu or perhaps with a gingery chicken mixture, or a paler pork in garlic. We really miss out here in England, where our closest equivalent is the dry-as-dust Cornish pasty. Don’t expect a recipe for one of those any time soon.

Nuggets of turnip paste rolled in XO Sauce and fried until the outsides are crisp arrive. Each is the size of a grape. Turnip paste sounds very un-prepossessing in English, but is actually a light savoury cake made of grated mooli (Japanese radish), rice flour, preserved Chinese meats, dried shrimp, ginger and other spices. It’s always fried or baked until crispy – this presentation makes it even crisper and lighter, while the XO Sauce underlines the flavours already present in the paste. My friend Wai’s mother makes a wonderful turnip paste at home – I must ask her for the recipe.

I am delighted that the waiter has decided to put this dish next to me. I cunningly hide it from everyone else behind the teapot.

More dishes arrive. Unfortunately, despite my best effort with the teapot, the family is swooping in with chopsticks faster than I can take photographs now, and I need to get in there too if I’m not to be denied my rightful dumplings. I manage one more photograph; a chive dumpling (pork, chives, garlic, soy and spices) which is first steamed, then pan-fried to get this crisp finish. These are garlic chives, which presently I don’t grow in the garden; I think I have a packet of seeds somewhere, so hopefully you’ll get to see some in the summer. They’re thicker than normal chives, and have a pronounced garlic flavour.

Several dishes later (I’ll have go back to Taipan in a few weeks and do a follow-up post so you can find out about the rest of them) we admit defeat, and waddle from the restaurant into the gaping maw of Milton Keynes, where I need to find some shoes for the wedding we’re going to in India in a few days. Thank God your feet don’t get noticeably fatter when you eat your own bodyweight in dumplings all at one sitting.