Tuesday, October 26, 2010


While I was in South-East Asia I stayed for a while with a Chinese family.
The father had been educated in America, and consequently spoke English with far greater eloquence than I could muster in the local language. He was a very interesting person, combining Ivy-league literacy with the stern heterodox Confucianism once common among Chinese born and raised outside China - old style cultural knowledge, but no strict adherence to any quaint literalities which were in conflict with common sense and pragmatism.
All in all a very flexible man.

His sons and other male relatives were involved in the family business, as were some of the senior women. The only time his daughters showed up at the company warehouse was when they needed to requisition material from the stores. At other times, unmarried females were strictly forbidden from being anywhere near the working men. Too distracting, and quite unseemly.

Whenever I was in that part of the country I would stay over for a while. Not necessarily because of him, however, but because of his youngest daughter. Yes, she was even more fascinating than him - she knew how to cook.
I found her utterly charming.

After eating fruitbat, rancid dried fish, and other oddments, food homecooked by a vivacious young miss is VERY appealing.

Whether it was her food or her vivacity that attracted me I do not know.

[Yeah, I know - not quite a fitting choice of words. It's a private joke.]

She once told me that the main problem with Shakespeare was that he never wrote about cooking. So boring, lah!

Well....., one doesn't really expect a mature appreciation of The Bard from a pretty teenager.

Even if she can quote MacBeth with relish.

Neither does one expect Act IV, Scene 1 when observing the young lady in the kitchen. Very disconcerting to have heard about poisoned entrails, toad, sweltered venom, fenny snake, eye of newt, and toe of frog, when you knew that the result would soon be on the dinner table.
The disarming girlish giggle that followed, alas, did not disarm.

"So what the heck am I eating here?!?"

I need not have worried. Her cooking was creative, but not THAT creative. She merely used typical South-East Asian Chinese patent approaches to adding flavour.

Dried shrimp and black mushrooms, gonpui, salt vegetables, dried lilies, chinkang ham, lapcheung, soysauce cured porkbelly, lard, chicken fat, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine.

Unlike several other Chinese comestibles of the dry or odd variety, the substances above are used in small quantities to make a dish more interesting, rather than as main ingredients.
They round out flavours, and many of them contain glutamic acids, and so function in some ways like monosodium glutamate. Their contribution is savoury rather than salty.
These are the equivalents of the salt pork, smoked fish, and dried apples in mediaeval European cooking, essential only because their absence dulls the finished dish.

Dried shrimp: 蝦米 haa mai - these add flavour, and increase the savouriness of the resultant dish.

Black mushrooms: 香菇 heung gu, or 冬菇 dong gu - shiitake mushrooms, used for taste and a textural element.

For vegetable dishes which are simply cooked, one uses about a tablespoon or two of dried shrimp and an equivalent amount of dried black mushroom. Soak them about an hour or so before use. You can add the soaking water to the cooking pot. Black mushrooms can be left whole after trimming off the hard stem, or sliced; dried shrimp are either left whole or mashed up.
Rehydrated dried shrimp can also be stir-fried with garlic, ginger, scallions, soy sauce, sugar, and chili-paste to make a zesty side dish. If oily, add a squeeze of lime.

Gonpui (conpoy): 乾貝 dried scallop, also called 乾瑤柱 (gon yiu chyu - Dried Jade Supports) and 江瑤柱 (gong yiu chyu - River Jade supports). The name 'gonpui' is more common in the Cantonese-speaking areas - it means dried seashell, dried currency. Dried scallop is added to stewed dishes and soups for flavour and nutrition.
Gonpui needs to be soaked for three or four hours at least, after which it is usually pulled apart.

[Yiu: 1. Surname Yiu (Yao). 2. Tribe situated along the China-Burma and China-Siam frontiers. 3. Mother of pearl, nacre, jade. Precious. Chyu: Pillar, supporting post or beam. Support. To lean on.]

Salt vegetables: 鹹菜 haam tsoi. Preserved vegetables, such as 梅菜 mui tsoi - Red-in-Snow cabbage preserved with salt; 天津冬菜 Tien-Jun dong tsoi - Tientsin style finely chopped cabbages with salt and garlic; 榨菜 ja tsoi - Szechuanese mustard stems preserved by semi-drying, salting, pressing (榨) and fermenting.

[Tsoi (菜): as you can guess, this means vegetable. But also, by extension, any cooked dish, or even an entire cuisine. Watch out for restaurants which in their Chinese name have 鬼佬菜 or 西方菜 (kwailo tsoi, seyfong tsoi, respectively). What they serve is NOT Chinese cuisine, it's yours.]

Dried lilies: 金針 kam dzam - Golden Needles; a dried hemerocallidaceous flower which is tonifying, often used in vegetarian dishes and soups.

Chinkang ham: trade name for 金華火腿 (Kam-Hwa foh-doei); cured ham from Chinhua in Chekiang province that rather resembles some Spanish hams.

Lapcheung: 臘腸 Chinese dried pork sausage.

Soysauce cured porkbelly: 臘肉 lap yiuk - thick strips of layered lard and lean pork cured with sugar, soy sauce, nitrates, and dehydration.

Ham, if used, is slivered or chopped - it's presence will be an accent. Same goes for soysauce cured pork belly and lap cheung.

Ginger: 薑 or 姜 keung - fresh ginger is smashed and added to the hot wok before anything else, which will aromatize the oil. Ginger juice may be added to any meats or fish beforehand to denature a strong smell.

[The first character by its phonetic element indicates that ginger originally was not a Chinese product but came from beyond the frontiers. The second character is also the surname Jiang, originally referring to a clan whose women had married into the imperial family during the Shang period. It shows a woman raising aloft a sheep.]

Garlic: 蒜 syun - used in lesser quantity than ginger.

If there is only a minor amount of soaking liquid from dried ingredients, the vegetables can be sizzled with rice wine (酒 jau, or 米酒 mai jau) after gilding in the hot oil. The addition of moisture to the pan releases a burst of steam which further cooks the vegetables.

Both lard and chicken fat are favoured cooking greases - they add flavour and lend a glossy appearance to the dish.

In many cases a little cornstarch water is also added near the end of cooking to make the food look velvety and extend the gravy.

For meat dishes, especially those using pork belly (五花 腩 ng-fa naam: five flower fatty abdomen, also called 五花肉 ng-faa yiuk), which is the favoured cut for most Chinese, the salt vegetables will often come into play. The meat is gilded in the pan, or briefly deep-fried, or even blanched for five minutes in boiling water ere use - this both cleans it and reduces the fat content slightly. Most often it will then be slow-cooked or steamed with a little soy sauce and rice wine, with scallions, ginger, and salt vegetables. Whether or not it is whole while cooking and cut after, or already chunked or sliced before being cooked, is up to you and your recipe. Salt vegetables are rinsed to remove the excess salt and added towards the end, to function as a foil for the rich fatty meat.
Beancurd (豆腐 taufu), beancurd skin (豆皮 taupei - must be soaked before use), or black mushrooms can be added for a most delicious effect, too.

Salt vegetables can also be used in small quantity to add flavour to other dishes. They are very versatile. Even so, whenever I use them I often end up throwing out most of the container, because I don't use them often enough. Ja tsoi, however, keeps nearly forever.

Shrimp paste: 鹹蝦醬 haahm haa jeung - a moist odoriferous goo sold in jars. Many White Anglo-Saxon Protestants have an antipathy towards this, I do not know why. You may substitute anchovy paste if you are delicate.
For a more robust flavour, use shrimp-paste instead of both the salt vegetables and the dried ingredients. Fatty pork steamed with shrimp-paste and ginger is utterly delicious, fresh vegetables sautéed with shrimp-paste and chilies are divine.
Your house-mates may disagree. They're probably a bunch of prods.


I realize that not everyone can have a vivacious Chinese miss in the house, which is a great pity - they add so very much to the quality of life - but most of the other things I have mentioned are easily available, and, like the teenager, it takes a while before they go bad.
So if you do not cook as often as you would like, you should consider acquiring them.

If you ever intend to have a lively young thing in your life, it is probably also a good idea to learn how to cook a more varied selection of dishes than typical bachelor chow. Trust me, grilled cheese sandwiches made with processed yellow slices and pop-tarts may be perfect late at night.... but they are hardly candlelight supper quality.
Even with Branston Pickle and hot sauce.



The characters for dried shrimp (蝦米 haa mai) literally read 'shrimp rice'. But that needs a little elucidation. Rice, you see, is not always rice.
In China and South-East Asia, people make distinctions which are not well-expressed in English.

Rice starts of as 'dou' (稻), which is rice in the field - padi ('paddy') in Malay ('palay' in Tagalog) means both the growing rice and where it is grown, which is a 稻田 (dou tien: rice field) or 水田 (sui tien: water field) to the Chinese.
Once harvested and processed, it is 米 (mai: raw rice), called 'beras' in Malay and 'bigas' in Tamarao and most Philippino languages (Jalan Beras Basa in Singapore is 'wet rice road').

After cooking, it is 飯 (fan: cooked rice), which is the basis of almost all Southern Chinese and South-East Asian meals. Without cooked rice you are eating a mere snack. That's what that foot long hoagie with meats and cheeses really is, just a snack. Your mother may never have believed you when you said that, but over a billion Asians know that you were right. Same goes for the extra large pizza. Snack.

There are two other useful terms which you should also learn: 糯米 (lo mai) glutinous rice, used in a number of wrapped steamed dishes, and 飯桶 (fan tong), meaning a rice bucket - but charmingly also a wastrel, dummy, or dimwit.

NOTE: The rice that Chinese and many others prefer is 籼稻 (sin dou: long grain non-glutinous rice).
Sin ( 籼) is a homophone for sin (秈): common rice, non-glutinous rice.
Long grain rice is also called 籼米 (sin mai).

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:

All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


The back of the hill said...

Please note - new shark fin post: http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/2011/05/shark-fin-soup-delicious-and-refined.html.

Mmmm, delicious shark fin!

Boulah said...

WHERE are the fat girls?!?!?

You PROMISED fat girls.

Where are they?


The back of the hill said...

Il n'y en a pas des grosses filles ici. Je suis très désolé pour le ommision.

The back of the hill said...

January 7, 2014

For more on Chinese foods that you really should have on hand at all times, please visit this post: CANTONESE INGREDIENTS: A SHORT LIST OF ESSENTIALS.

Comments welcome.

The back of the hill said...

Sorry, Boulah, that post likewise doesn't provide what you came here looking for.

Search This Blog


There is a new sign at the front desk at my eye-doctor's office begging people to not abuse the staff there. Subtext: if you're goin...