At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


When a Cantonese person yearns for Chinese food, there is a very great chance that he or she is NOT thinking of the stuff most people associate with Cantonese restaurants. By the same token, the tourists walking down Stockton Street and marveling at the various comestibles being sold there won't consider purchasing those queer ingredients, because while they have eaten at Chinese restaurants, they've never actually tasted any of those items.

At least not deliberately and consciously; many white people just don't associate such things with food.

Yet to a Cantonese person, these substances are the hallmark of their cuisine, and all of them are familiar presences in the larder. They are absolutely essential. It is what makes a Chinatown foodstore a must-visit destination.

Like Belgian food, Cantonese cuisine is marked by the freshness of the main ingredients. But the crisp tastes will be extended or augmented with substances that your Walloon or Fleming will probably not know.


蠔油 hou yau: Oyster sauce.
A condensed extractive of oysters with starch and soy sauce, used to dollop over freshly cooked vegetables, or as an ingredient in stir-fry sauces with splashes of rice wine and superior stock. According to a commercial which ran on the Chinese channel back in the nineties, it's essential on your fried eggs or steak. Probably also good with French Fries, and I'll have to try that one of these days.

鹹蝦醬 haahm haa jeung: Shrimp paste.
A gloop composed of ground fully fermented salted shrimp, which is used in small amounts to add a savoury briny flavour to many vegetable dishes, but is also excellent if you are cooking fatty pork chunks.
Add shredded ginger and perhaps a sliced hot chili before putting the dish in the steamer.

乾貝、江瑤柱 gon pui, gong yiu chü: dried scallops.
These are soaked before adding to soups, stews, or rice porridge. Excellent, and quite nutritious. They increase flavour.

腐乳 fu yü: fermented tofu.
Seldom eaten by itself, but often used as a rub on meats prior to roasting. The flavour is hard to describe, though some people have claimed to detect a cheesy quality. Fatty meats especially benefit.

豆豉 dau si: salted black beans.
Usually available in a cardboard canister. Moistened and partially mashed before adding to stir fries or steamed dishes. You probably are familiar with this, but it's worth your while to acquire the basic 'raw' product in C'town, rather than spending six bucks for a bottled product that promises "authentic Chinese taste" at a gourmet yuppie market.
It's a lot cheaper, and it keeps nearly forever.

臘腸 laap cheung: sausage.
Varies types are available, including versions with liver and duck. The most common type is simply chopped fatty pork in a narrow casing. A few slices with your eggs, or scattered into a simple stirfry or stew, or just dumped in the rice before steaming. Not a lot is used at one time.
Contributes a lovely porky-winy aroma.

鹹魚 haam yü: salt fish.
There are various kinds available. Some types are first sautéed, then simmered with other ingredients to make a stock (such as in Won Ton Soup), others are soaked and steamed to eat with rice, and some are condimental, meaning that they are either cut into thick slivers or slices, or crushed and soaked, before being added in small dosage to dishes during preparation.
Steamed pork patty with salt fish (鹹魚蒸肉餅 haam yü jing yiuk beng) is a classic. Three to five thick slivers arranged on top of flattened ground pork, with finely slivered ginger, steamed for ten minutes. Delicious! It's also good with eggplant, or various squashes and gourds.

臘肉 laap yiuk: preserved meat.
Most often the kind encountered is belly pork, with soy sauce, wine, and nitrates added as preserving agents, partially dried. Flattened duck is in the same category, as are some other items. Cut it into chunks and steam it with your rice, or experiment by adding small quantities to vegetable dishes. It's more than just a flavouring, it's "added value".

鹹蛋 haam daan: salted eggs.
Duck eggs soaked first in brine, then packed in charcoal sludge and aged. These must be steamed before use. A combination I particularly like, which can be considered a heart attack on a plate, is steamed fatty pork chunks combined with the whole yolks. So deadly, but so good.

皮蛋、松花蛋 pei daan, song faa daan: "skin eggs".
Dark-hued preserved eggs, which have been cured by covering them in wood ash, clay, quicklime, and dried rice chaff, then stored for several months. The alkalinity of the packing sludge eventually changes them considerably. They can be eaten as is, but are frequently added to tofu, or steamed with beaten fresh eggs, or even combined with vegetables and meat. Very commonly used to make preserved egg and lean pork rice porridge (皮蛋瘦肉粥 pei daan sau yiuk juk), which is wonderful comfort food.

酸菜 suen choi: pickled cabbage.
No, this isn't similar to kimchi. The vegetable is first briefly blanched, then packed into brine with a heavy weight on top. It can be eaten raw after fermentation, but is most often paired with fatty meats. Stirfried pork and suen choi, for instance, or noodles with suen choi and pork shreds. Many possibilities. It adds a sourish note to dishes in which it is combined with other ingredients.

蝦米 haa mei: dried shrimp.
Soaked before use, added in small quantities to steamed or stewed vegetable dishes. It's just a minor amount of protein, but contributes a pleasant seafoody touch. Dried shrimp can also be briefly roasted then added to stock to up the flavour.

梅菜 mui choy: plum flower salt vegetable.
The absolutely essential ingredient when making steamed streaky pork with salted cabbage (梅菜扣肉 mui choi kau yiuk). Hawaiians know this as 'kau yoke'. It is usually available in small cans. Drain, rinse, and parch before adding it to stews. Do not use a whole heck of a lot.

Other things with which you are undoubtedly already familiar are soy sauce, vinegar, and chili paste. Rice wine OR sherry are likewise essential, and a tiny pinch of sugar added to many dishes makes a surprising difference.

Also buy five-spice powder.


One pound ground pork.
One TBS cornstarch.
Half TBS soy sauce.
Half TBS sherry or rice wine.
Half TBS cooking oil.
A little ginger, minced fine.
Pinch of ground white pepper.
Pinch of sugar.

ALSO: Three to five quarter inch thick slices of salt fish, soaked to soften.

Mix everything except the salt fish and ginger together, and let this stand twenty to thirty minutes. Then flatten it onto an oiled plate, arrange the salt fish on top, and add the ginger. Steam until done, about ten minutes or so.

Dump some cilantro over it, and serve.

You can cut it, but usually diners simply break off pieces with their chopsticks or a serving spoon.

With plain white rice, a small bowl of clear meat and vegetable broth, and one or two simply cooked vegetable dishes, this is a very satisfying and extremely Cantonese home style meal.
Than which there is little finer.

NOTE: the clickable label 「真好食」 underneath this post will bring up a whole collection of essays about Chinese food. The label 「菜譜」pulls up recipes. If you have any comments, feedback, or corrections to suggest, I would love to hear from you.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

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  • At 2:13 PM, Anonymous Jing said…

    My mom makes the best steamed pork.


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