Souvenirs of Asia
Cruising the streets of Shanghai on my bicycle is one of my favourite memories of living in China. The French Concession where I stayed lived up to its reputation: beautiful plane tree-lined streets, speckled sunlight, art deco architecture in abundance. The buzz of the street life was intoxicating.
The interaction between car and bicycle was usually safe and friendly and the traffic in the city had a rhythm of its own. I would follow the pack and go with the relaxed flow, which gave me some comfort and a naive sense of security.
It was the 1990s, the pace of the city was more relaxed, at ease. Consumerism as we know it had not taken hold, but the new Shanghai boom was imminent.
The streets were not always this romantic, however, and were even a bit dangerous sometimes. After the United States bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, I was mistaken for an American and narrowly avoided a lynching by an angry mob of university students. Terrified, I stayed off the streets for a few days. Once I collected myself, people were friendly again and the atmosphere as inviting as before.
A multisensory and engaging city, the smells and sounds grew more exotic and intense as I gained confidence and made my way deeper down the lanes, getting terribly lost along the way. The lack of signage and English-speaking locals added to the thrill and challenge of getting about.
Some of the most interesting food I have eaten I discovered down these back alleys dotted with makeshift restaurants. It was usually presented in colourful, deep enamel metal trays tempting passers-by. Food freshly cooked that morning, unrefrigerated display, marinating in various vinegars, sauces and oil slurries, and often getting better as the day went on. (Although I was somewhat more cautious in the summer.)
An array of vegetables, tofu, seafood, meat and offal preparations: up to 30 different items on display in some stalls, much of it unidentifiable to me. Fried whole pomfret dressed with black beans. Eggplant steeped in black vinegar. Cucumber swimming in garlic. Fried beans with pork. Small school prawns with chilli and garlic. An assortment of drunken fish, prawns, chicken and crab, marinating in Chinese wine. Cold noodles and sesame in the summer. Frogs were a favourite for many locals; and fried fermented tofu whose stench would bring tears to my eyes.
The concept of Chinese food being regional, seasonal and local first presented itself to me here. Having grown up dining on regular Cantonese fare in suburban restaurants in Melbourne, the variety in Shanghai was astounding to me. The flavours I discovered I grew to love and now miss.
Two favourite dishes that I have brought back with me and adapted are the marinated eggplant and the garlic and cucumber recipes. The addition of tofu and Sichuan pepper to the eggplant recipe is how I now like to eat it at home, the silken tofu tempering the fire of the chilli oil. The cooked eggplant I like to leave on the kitchen counter for a few hours to macerate before serving.
The cucumber dish I prefer to served chilled as it maintains an incredible texture at the start of a meal, the tang of the raw garlic awakening the palate.
Silken tofu and marinated eggplant
– 2 eggplants
– Yuxiang sauce (recipe below)
– 250g tube of silken tofu (I like Yenson’s)
– 1 tbsp chilli oil
– 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
– 5 sprigs coriander
Peel the eggplants and place in a steamer over a pan of vigorously boiling water, steam for about 15 minutes or until a knife easily penetrates the flesh. When cooked, immediately transfer to a plate and leave in the fridge to cool. When cool, slice the eggplant into 1½-centimetre dice. Spoon four tablespoons of the Yuxiang sauce over the eggplant and leave to marinate for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, slice the tofu into discs and arrange on a plate. Spoon the eggplant over the tofu. Finish the dish with a dose of the chilli oil, a good pinch of ground Sichuan pepper, and a few coriander leaves.
This recipe makes twice as much as you will need but the remainder will not go to waste; it will last in the fridge for a week if it is not eaten first. The sauce is versatile – delicious spooned over cold roast pork as a cold cut to start a meal, or tossed with cold cooked chicken and cucumber to make a striking salad.
– 2 tbsp vegetable oil
– 6 spring onions, finely sliced
– 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
– 2.5cm ginger, finely chopped
– 30g white sugar
– 1 heaped tsp Sichuan peppercorns, ground
– 1 tsp black peppercorns, ground
– 80g light soy sauce
– 80g Shanghai vinegar
– 1 tbsp black bean chilli paste
Warm the oil in a saucepan, sauté the spring onions, garlic and ginger until soft and aromatic. Stir constantly. Add the sugar and both peppers, cook for a further two minutes. Reduce heat and add the soy, vinegar and chilli paste. Bring to a simmer and immediately remove from the heat. Store in the fridge until ready to use.
Marinated cucumberand radishes
In China, variations of this marinated cucumber theme are often served at the start of a meal. I don’t usually enjoy marinated food straight from the fridge, but this is an exception. This dish is terrific served cold with the chill of the fridge exploiting the crunch of the cucumber.
– 8 baby cucumbers or Qukes (Qukes are a brand of baby
cucumbers now widely available) or 3 Lebanese cucumbers
– 1 bunch French breakfast or red radishes
– ½ tsp sugar
– ½ tsp salt
Cut the cucumbers into one-centimetre discs. Halve the radishes if they are small or quarter if they are larger. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over the vegetables in a bowl and leave to marinate in a colander in the fridge for half an hour. Drain, pat dry and then marinate in the dressing. Place in the fridge for an hour before serving.
– 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
– 1cm ginger, finely chopped
– 2½ tbsp light soy sauce
– 2 tbsp sesame oil
– 1 tsp sugar
Soak the chopped garlic and ginger in water for five minutes, changing the water three times. Strain and dry on paper towel. Mix all ingredients together, before dressing the cured cucumber and radish. Leave to marinate for a minimum of an hour before serving.
2013 S.C. Pannell Aromatico gewürztraminer riesling from the Adelaide Hills ($28)
– Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Souvenirs of Asia". Subscribe here.