Just in case


Just in case you are wondering if I haven’t given up blogging altogether? No I haven’t, but I have been very busy with lots of other things. Including other blogs!
First of all there’s my Dutch blog on Chinese and other Asian ingredients, plus reviews of Chinese supermarkets at Tokowijzer.nl. Secondly, I am twittering quite regularly – mostly in English at @kattebelletje. All those tweets appear again on my Facebook page.

Since last year I have a new job where I use my Chinese skills at the East Asian Library where I write about eresources, databases, search tips, books and other stuff at the library.

You can go to my photos on Flickr where you can see what foodie things I have been up to: allotment gardening, baking bread and home cooking mostly.

And the last new thing is a blog we started with our food-loving co-workers at the library: the Eating Library.
So if you don’t see much going on here, go find me at all the other places… 😉

Unwrapping 叫化鸡 Beggar's ChickenEver since I wrote about lotus leaves on my ingredients blog Tokowijzer, I wanted to make Beggar’s Chicken, the famous Chinese chicken dish where a whole stuffed chicken is wrapped inside a lotus leaf, covered in a layer of mud and baked in a hot oven. I had seen the chefs in Chengdu doing a demo of this dish when I was at the Culinary Institute in Sichuan last year, but I hadn’t yet tried it for myself.

Lotus leaf: wrapping Lotus leaf: wrapping Lotus leaf: wrapping Wrapping and covering with clay Beggar chicken Unwrapping the chicken

Lotus leaves are such perfect things – large and pretty and smelling faintly like grass like green tea. They give off a subtle perfume to anything you wrap it in for steaming. So lotus leaves are the first thing you have to buy when you want to make this dish: they come dried in a huge package from the Chinese store, 12 large leaves to one pack. They seem impossible to handle but will be pliable and soft once soaked in warm water for half an hour or so. The next thing you have to hunt for is a large chunk of clay, which I found at the handicraft store. Of course if you know your clays or know your river beds or where ever you can find it for free, please do so! I remember the Sichuan chef announcing in the morning before he made the dish he had to go to the Chengdu countryside to get himself some special kind of clay, though I suspected him of making up this mission just to get the afternoon off 😉

As in a lot of Chinese recipes with strange sounding titles, there is a story to go with this recipe and a reason for its name. The story is there was a beggar in the Qing dynasty who stole a chicken and killed it, and wanted to eat it without anyone noticing the smells of cooking. He quickly hid the chicken in mud and then cooked it in a fire pit, covering it all up. Then after returning to the scene of his crime he opened the mud casing and the beautiful smells of the chicken came out. There is a variation to this story that says an emperor happened to pass by – supposedly Qianlong, who did a lot of southward travelling through his empire – and he was so attracted to the wonderful chicken smells, he stepped out of his carriage to share the beggar’s meal.

For this recipe, you will need:
1 chicken
2 tablespoons of Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
3 star anise
100 grams of minced pork
yacai (black Sichuan preserved vegetable) – optional, very hard to come by outside Sichuan
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
pinch of sugar
2 cm. chunk of ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
5 pickled chillies (leave them out if you don’t like hot)
dried lotus leaf
kitchen string
greaseproof paper
about 2 to 3 kilos of clay
hot oven or 200C barbecue
sesame oil

Soak the dried lotus leaf in hot water until soft and pliable. Drain on kitchen towel until needed. Wash the chicken, pat it dry and then rub salt on the inside. Salt the outside too, then rub with marinade of Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce. Put 3 star anise into the cavity of the chicken. Marinate for 30 mins up to one hour.

叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok, fry the minced meat until turning white, add yacai preserved vegetable if you can find it. Add 2 tablespoons of Shaoxing rice wine, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, half a tablespoon of sugar, 2 centimetres of finely chopped ginger. Add 5 deeseeded and chopped pickled chili peppers (from Sichuan): if you can’t get hold of these peppers you can leave them out, or substitute with home pickled chilies. Fry until everything smells good, then turn off the heat and let cool.

Take your chicken, fill the cavity with the cooled minced meat mixture and secure with toothpicks. Now take your presoaked lotus leaf, put the chicken on top and wrap the leaf all around the chicken. Then wrap a sheet of greaseproof paper around the lotus leaf and secure with kitchen string.

What I did next is study the photos of the Sichuan chef to see how exactly he covered the chicken with clay: he kind of caked it on with his right hand while holding the chicken in his left hand. So that’s what I did too. The problem with this method is that when caking the clay on here and there, halfway you won’t remember the thickness of the clay. Just by looking at the outside you can’t say which part was put on thick or thin – resulting in places with thin clay which crack during the baking process. I think next time I will roll out a slab of clay like a piece of dough, in an even layer of 1 centimetre thick, and then put on the chicken and wrap it around.

Put the (heavy!) chicken on an baking tray and bake in a 200 C oven (or barbecue, like Big Green Egg) for about 1 hour and 30 minutes. After baking the package will stay hot for quite a long time! Mine burst halfway because of the thinness of the clay as I said and the increasing heat. Cracking it open was no trouble at all.

The chicken had the most wonderful flavor: grassy and rustic from the lotus leaves, and perfectly succulent from the clay casing. Brush with some sesame oil and eat with plain white rice and a simple soy sauce dip. Will definitely try again!

叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken Unwrapping 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken 叫化鸡 Beggar's Chicken

I now will share with you part of the most wonderful Chinglish recipe for Beggar’s chicken. Even when understanding Chinese perfectly, no one understands what direction this translation is taking! Usually you can kind of translate back and forth in your head to guess the real meaning, but this one, in places, turns out to be a total riddle.

[…] system of law: the chicken claws ribs to get dirty, with knife blade struck decapitation, legs, feet, into the altar, add soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, salt pickled one hour. [sounds like some strange voodoo].

chicken out, the cloves, star anise grind at the end, plus kaempferol wiping the end of the chicken all over the body.

Wok into the Shuzhu You, fried onions, ginger and fragrant from fishing to go after, and then shrimp, chicken gizzard an small, button mushrooms, pork and ham under the small, shrimp into the wok fried Britain several times. Gachot wine, soy sauce, cotton sugar fry off-sheng, Dai Liang squeezed after the chicken stomach, beheaded squeezed blade, armpit put clove oil packet networks using pigs, chicken tight body, wrapped several layers of external Xian Heye truss with a fine hemp rope, grind mud wine Tan mixing of water from Canada into the powder stick flat on a damp cloth, tied difficult to set the middle with a damp cloth scoop up mud to make mud stick thrown off tight wet cloth, wrapped with the wrapping paper, poke a small hole in the.

Good luck with that!

While today is ‘Winter Solstice’, the year’s shortest day, in China, 冬至 dongzhi, the ‘arrival of winter’, is on December 22 this year. The arrival of winter or dongzhi has always been an important day in the Chinese calendar, because it was the day the Emperor went for the most sacred ceremony to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

The emperor would fast for three days (although fasting didn’t actually mean he stopped eating, he just refrained from eating meat and drinking spirits), and then at sunrise of the morning of dongzhi he would perform a sacred ritual at the Altar of Heaven, including prayers and ritual sacrifices. In full imperial costume, he would climb the impressive three-tiered white marble platform at the Temple of Heaven before sunrise and kneel to pray for auspiciousness in the year to come.

Instead of having a western advent calendar, in which one has to open up a little window each day, ending on the Day of Christmas, the Chinese have a kind of chart known as the 九九消寒图 jiujiu xiao han tu, ‘Chart to Pass the Cold’. This chart, which has a time span of 81 days (9×9, a magic number) starts to be crossed off at Dongzhi, the winter solstice. When the 81 days have passed it is well into March, at the beginning of spring.

There are several styles in this type of ‘passing the cold’ charts, the most common one with Chinese characters. It consists of nine characters, each counting 9 strokes, making up a fitting sentence: ‘庭前垂柳珍重待春风‘,meaning “the courtyard’s droopy weeping willows await the breeze of spring”.
Another second chart of this type depicts a peach blossom branch with 81 white petals. Every day after applying their makeup, Chinese beauties could dapple the chart with their leftover rouge and color one peach blossom petal, in this way counting down until the beginning of spring. A third chart is only made up of 81 circles, strongly resembling Chinese ancient coins, divided into 5 segments each, made by drawing a square inside the circle. In these circles one can note down the weather conditions of that particular day. Coloring the upper segment means a cloudy day; the lower segment means a bright day; left side means a windy day; right side means a rainy day, and the center means that day was a snowy day.

This is a fun way to scribble one’s way out of the boring winter darkness and slowly approach the lighter days and the beginning of spring… Would you like to join me ? I have copied a set of passing-the-cold charts which I found on the web in a word document, which you can download and then print out your favorite. I myself will fill in the character one, one stroke for each day, but you can choose the flowers or the little coins too if you like those best. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Coffee granita


The weather is perfect for making coffee granita (granita di caffe). It is so hot, what could be better than coming home and getting this ice cold granita, made of strong espresso and then lots of cold whipped cream?
I just love it in summer. It is especially good after a long meal of salads or barbecue. You don’t need to get up to make coffee, but just take a plunge in the freezer to serve it straight away.

Making granita does take some patience, but one batch will go a long way. You will need a stretch of time at home close to the freezer, since you have to use a fork to loosen up the ice crystals every 20 minutes or so. This might be during an evening you are home anyway, watching football matches for example.

The coffee is made with the cold-drip method (see Oliver Schwaner-Albright’s article in NYT), so you don’t need to brew the coffee. Just mix coffee with water and let the flavors come out. Your house will have a lovely coffee smell while it is steeping.

Here’s what you need:
for the coffee extract:
250 grams of espresso coffee, ground
8 cups of cold water

for the syrup (about 2 cups):
1 cup of white sugar (or more)
1 cup of water (adapt accordingly)

Start the evening before (or in the morning) by putting the espresso coffee in a large bowl. Then add 2 cups of cold water, stir slightly to combine, then add the other 6 cups. Let this mixture sit for 12 hours (or more) at room temperature. Do not stir or disturb, it will be fine.

Then pick a time you want to make your granita. I started in the early evening (and I steeped the coffee the night before). When you start making the coffee granita at about 5 PM, it will be finished by 11 at night.

Make a syrup of 1 cup sugar with 1 cup of water in a small saucepan until it all dissolves. You can use more (up to 1 cup more) if you want your coffee granita to be sweeter later on. Let cool.

Slowly pour your coffee mixture through a very fine sieve to get rid of all the coffee grounds. Do this again so you will end up with a clean coffee. Then mix with the syrup mixture and pour into a bowl fit for the freezer. Let sit in the freezer for 2 – 3 hours. I don’t know about your freezer, but in my freezer basically nothing happened until 3 hours at least.
When the mixture starts to freeze up, use a fork to break the ice particles and do this again, every 30 or 20 minutes. Set a timer, go to the freezer with your fork, and loosen up the ice particles.

The texture will change over time. From a darker coffee mixture it will turn more crumbly and lighter in color, almost like demarara sugar. When the texture of the granita (‘grains’) is like crumbs, your coffee granita is ready. You don’t need to stir again, just leave it.

Leave it in the freezer with a lid on the box, and then every time you feel like having a cup, scoop it out. Serve with lots of ice cold whipped cream… enjoy!

Moving on


cabbage chairTime for a new move!
I’ve been back for over a month now, and thinking about my trip every day since I came home. I enjoyed my stay at the Chengdu cooking course immensely. Such an incredible routine to study cooking every day!

Get up, get dressed, grab one’s cook’s jacket and apron and go onto the street. Then buy a freshly baked bread from a vendor on the street, hop on a bus and get off at the right bus stop, just along one of Chengdu’s busy streets. Then take 5 minutes to jump away from traffic crossing some lanes, duck under an overpass bridge, and then crossing the third and fourth lanes to get to the Sichuan Culinary Institute on the other side of the street. The building is old now (they will move this summer) and there are many Chinese students Continue reading ‘Moving on’

ChengduTomorrow is the big day: I am leaving for Chengdu. There I will attend a 2-week cooking course at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, the school that Fuchsia Dunlop attended in the 1990s. I am very excited to learn lots of things- and really looking forward to walk around this bustling city, filled with food stalls and tea houses.

I haven’t been back to Chengdu since 1991- then we arrived at one of the most luxurious hotels of the city, after weeks of off the beaten track traveling through Pakistan, Xinjiang and Gansu. Continue reading ‘Going to Chengdu’

Dongpo porkThis braised pork belly dish, Dongpo rou or Dongpo pork, is one of China’s classic dishes. Everyone in China loves pork, and praises the gelatinous and soft layers of pork belly to no end… the ultimate comfort food for cold days. The story is this dish is the invention of the famous poet Su Dongpo, who was an government official in the city of Hangzhou, 900 years ago. He not only wrote poetry and braised pork slabs, but had a long dike built in the West Lake as well, on which you can still stroll today and enjoy the lake’s beautiful views. Continue reading ‘Dongpo pork [东坡肉]’