Wherever I go, for work or for personal travel, I like to hit a good restaurant during my trip. If that restaurant can be a Silk Road restaurant, all the better. I had the chance this past weekend to find a little gem of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York. Spicy Asian restaurant is a small place on Elmira Road, that delivers a knockout of a great dinner.
The restaurant has two menus. the first is packed with Chinese-American standards like General Tso’s Chicken and Orange Chicken as well as Egg Rolls and Wonton Soup. The second menu, and the reason I chose to dine there, is a menu filled with authentic Szechuan specialities featuring sour cabbage, tripe, frog, pig trotters, and fish prepared in a myriad of different ways.
I started with a couple of appetizers I just couldn’t resist: peanuts in black vinegar and a tea egg. The peanuts were boiled to perfection and mixed with black vinegar, Asian cucumbers and spring onions, and the tea egg was fragrant with star anise and cinnamon with a gentle flavor of strong black tea.
For the main course, I chose the Sliced Fish with Sour Cabbage. The fish was tender but firm, and easy to eat with chopsticks, in a savory and lightly sour brown sauce. The cabbage was sliced into long ribbons that provided a strongly sour accent to the mild white fish.
I sipped green tea throughout the meal and afterwards got to chat with the owner’s mother and beautiful young daughter. I wish I had more time to spend with them and their little gem of a restaurant, and I have only one regret – that I wasn’t dining with a group of people to sample more of their wonderful food.
If you are in Ithaca and looking for some really good Szechuan specialities, Spicy Asian is highly recommended.
Natto, or fermented soybeans, are everywhere in Japan. There are natto burgers, natto bruschetta made with heaps of natto mixed with melted cheese or tomatoes on toasted bread, and even natto curries and sushi. But the most common way Japanese people eat natto is for breakfast over steamed rice with condiments, such as pickled fruits and vegetables. To me, one of the most interesting things about Japan’s beloved, traditional natto is that there is nothing uniquely Japanese about it. . . [MORE HERE from Zester Daily]
This bowl is a fine example of pinched-glass craftmanship. It is of Roman (possibly Byzantine) origin and is believed to be dated to the 5th Century ACE (based on the age of the tomb which is from the Hunnu period.) It is also proof of the power of the Silk Road on both trade and politics, because it was found a few years back in the tomb of a Mongolian noble family. In Tuv province, not too far from modern Ulaanbaatar, the tomb of a wealthy, noble family yielded two similar bowls that were unfortunately broken. Also found in the same tomb was a jade seal of the Xiongnu Emperor.
Scientists are undecided as to how the bowl came to Mongolia. Some believe that it could have come through trade routes, and other believe that it was such a special object that it was probably a present from a Roman noble family to a Mongolian family in the Far East. The style of ribbed glass work was all the rage in Rome from the 1st C BCE to around the 1st C BCE, so it may have been a precious object of the Mongolian family for several centuries before it became part of their grave goods. It is difficult to know. Treasures tell no easy tales.
(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of the Roman Bowl from the Mongolian Tomb borrowed from Ulaanbaatar Post.)
One of the difficulties in understanding history and historical works, is to imagine the world truly differently than it is today. We are so confident that our senses provide us with the, “truth,” that many of us cannot really fathom that the world of the past was different from the present. Modern audiences recoil at the anti-Semitism expressed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and laugh when Fletcher’s Jacobean women demand, “liberty and clothes,” from their estranged husbands in exchange for sex. Moving beyond the text, though, is difficult, for the worlds these works were written in were so very different from our own.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting things that has happened in the world of food recently has been the publication of a website devoted to the cuisine and food culture of North Korea. It has hundreds of recipes indexed by regions, events, and main-ingredient categories and is well illustrated. In short, it is fascinating. I have spent many hours there delving into the information and recipes.
But North Korea is a, “socialist monarchy,” with almost one-third of its population in military, para-military, or reserve service! There are periodic famines! People are starving! This is what our senses tell us about North Korea today. To a certain degree, these impressions are correct. However, what the site tells us is about the food culture of the northern peninsula, before partition and war, and even before (or during) Japanese occupation. It also sheds some light on what the elite and prosperous of the north – those who are not starving – might eat today.
Be prepared to be surprised. The recipes I have tried are all interesting, and some of them are truly delicious. Regional specialties from Pyongyang include soups with mullet and soft-shell snapping turtle, rice in chicken stock stacked with mushrooms and pickled daikon, and cold buckwheat noodle soup stacked with condiments of sliced meats, kimchi and tofu – a summer dish that is cooled with ice cubes.
I’ve been experimenting around with game recipes from the site that include ways of preparing venison and wild boar as well as grilling fish and eel. One of the most delicious of these I found so far is pictured above. A spiced venison fit for Kim Jong-il, that is to say, North Korean style.
Spiced Venison North Korean Style (Adapted by Laura Kelley from North Korean food website)
1 pound venison (I used tenderloin)
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons flour
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 cup meat stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 spring onions, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
1 teaspoon corn syrup
1 cup mountain yam (Dioscorea Japonica), peeled and roughly chopped
Optional garnishes for yam (bonito flakes, soy sauce)
Slice the tenderloin into ¼ – ½ inch steaks. Tenderize slightly by hitting meat with the back of the knife. Place slices in a small bowl and season with salt, one-half of the pepper and nutmeg. Cover and refrigerate or place in a cold place for several days. Stir a few times a day to ensure even coating of the meat with the spices.
When ready to cook, spread flour thinly out onto a plate and lightly dredge meat. When all of the pieces are coated, heat the oil in a sauté pan and when warm, place deer meat into pan. Cook about 3-4 minutes per side, depending upon the thickness of the pieces. When done, remove from pan and drain on paper towels briefly and then set aside in a bowl or on a plate.
Peel and chop yam. If you have sensitive skin, you may wish to wear gloves while doing this, because chemicals in the skin of the yam can irritate some people. Alternately, if gloves are not your style when cooking, soak the yam in a solution of weak vinegar and water for about 15 minutes to neutralize the offending chemicals. Also, the meat of the yam is very slimy when sliced. Better quality and younger roots have less slime, but this is normal. After the yams are chopped, rinse well with water and let drain in a colander. Yams are served raw.
Make the sauce for the venison. In a small sauce pan, combine meat stock and soy sauce and heat over medium flame. Add the chopped onions and garlic and stir well. Bring to a boil and reduce heat till stock simmers. Cook for 20 minutes or until it reduces and starts to thicken. Add red pepper flakes and corn syrup and stir well. Cook for another 5-10 minutes until a thicker sauce emerges.
Plate the venison and the yams. Spoon sauce over the meat, but not the yams. If desired, crumble some bonito flakes over the yams.
Serve with rice or noodles. I used Korean corn noodles which are regional specialties in Pyongyang and in the mountainous areas of the north. I seasoned these with just a touch or sesame oil and soy. The garnish was a hastily cut up separated and cooked egg, sliced red bell pepper, and spring onions. (I had to work quickly, the troops were hungry! That’s my excuse for the sloppy presentation.) For those that read Korean, the original recipe follows. I did adapt from the original a bit, mostly because the directions were so vague, but I did try to cook as specified.
노루고기는 도톰한 편으로 썰어 소금, 후추가루, 육두구가루로 재운다. 2. 국물에 잘게 썬 양파와 고추, 다진 마늘, 간장, 조청, 소금, 후추가루를 두고 양념즙을 만든다. 3. 재운 고기에 밀가루를 묻히고 기름에 지진 다음 양념즙을 두고 졸여서 접시에 담고 참마볶음을 옆에 놓는다.
So, how does this dish taste? Well, I served it a few nights ago, and both my husband and I found it quite good. The venison was tender and wonderfully gamey and the red pepper sauce was an interesting foil to the natural flavor of the deer meat. We both found it quite mild when compared to many south Korean meat courses we have had, so don’t be afraid to try it if spicy or hot foods are not your thing. I found that the strong undertones of nutmeg and pepper further help make this dish unusual and delicious. We both voted it, “a keeper,” and will welcome it to our table in the future.
Honestly, neither of us loved the yam, which was more texture (but healthy for you) than flavor, even with the bonito crumble on top and a dip in soy. For those a bit sensitive to spice or heat, however it will provide a gentle rest for your palates between bites of spiced venison.
The corn noodles, on the other hand, were really good. Even in the wide spectrum of Korean noodles – where noodles can be made from acorn starch or fern shoots – corn noodles are rare. They are mostly enjoyed in Pyongyang and in the mountainous regions of the north. Like a mild millet, they bring a gentle, but savory taste of corn to the dishes they provide a ground for. In the case of the spiced venison, they worked nicely and gave a depth of flavor that would be lacking if white rice or if plain rice, egg, or wheat noodles were served. Other North Korean uses of corn include small corn pancakes – sort of like the hoe-cakes found here in the southern USA, only thinner, and cornbread topped with corn meal rubbed with sesame oil until it forms flakes.
An interesting thing that I noticed about the ingredient list is that only the smallest amounts are used, and there is little wasted. A South Korean (or western) recipe might use more liberal amounts of flour for dredging and have lots of leftover flour on the plate. Similarly, more oil would probably have been used. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but economy often fuels adaptation.
So, this North Korean food website opens a window into the world of food from the northern peninsula. In terms of my speculation about the site offering information about what the elite might eat, we have, in the past, been treated to information about Kim Jong-il’s gustatory excesses by his personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto. Fujimoto has the unusual honor of defecting from North Korea back to his native Japan, and then being invited back for a two-week visit ten years later by Kim Jong-Un.
Although he has since become something of a spokesman for improvements in living conditions in North Korea, after his defection, he told the world of Kim’s cellars stacked with rare wines and liquors from around the world, and of traveling widely in Asia on behalf of the Great Leader to procure unusual ingredients for the leader’s meals. His travels to buy food for the first family included trips to Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar, Western China for Hami melons, Thailand and Malaysia for durian, papayas and mangoes, and Japan for sea urchins, other fish and seafood, and rice cakes filled with mugwort. European trips were also made to the Czech Republic for beer, Denmark for pork, and France for Kim’s favorite Hennessy cognac.
Another Fujimoto tidbit of interest to foodies is how Kim’s rice was prepared. Each grain of rice inspected before it was cooked, and that only, “perfectly shaped,” grains were permitted. Then the rice had to be cooked over wood gathered exclusively from the sacred mountain, Mount Paektu.
I hope that some of you will explore the website and try some of the recipes. But I just wanted to warn you that it is almost exclusively in Korean and that Google translate leaves a lot to be desired. More often than not, it offers comical translations that have little to do with food. For example, direction number one on the Venison Bamjim recipe (not the one featured in this post) is written in Hangul:
사슴앞다리살은 토막으로 썰어서 기름에 지져 색을 낸 다음 밤, 버섯, 은행, 동글게 깎은 홍당무우, 생강을 두고 푹 찐다
Google translates this to read:
Forelegs deer flesh colors to embellish the oil and then sliced into pieces JESUS night, mushrooms, banks, dongle to Clippings hongdangmuwoo, hooked steam with ginger.
I keep hearing Stephen Fry ironically reciting the bit, “dongle to clippings hongdangmuwoo,” in my mind and continue to foolishly chuckle. The actual translation of this is, “Slice the carrots,” but somehow this eluded the great machine.
Another warning is that the site is often down and that it is simply impossible to connect at those times. If neither of those obstacles put you off, good on you. The site is fascinating and it is interesting to see what dishes and recipes are shared with the south and what are uniquely northern or influenced by neighboring countries. (Words, recipe adaptation and photos by Laura Kelley.)
Its been a few months since I put up my salted eggs, and over the holidays I noticed that the water they were in had turned a rusty brown from the spices used in preservation. This meant that it was time to harvest them.
I carefully removed a few raw (but preserved) eggs from the jar. A gentle shake of the egg allowed me to feel the hardened yolk inside the shell, but just to be sure they were done, I broke it over a bowl and watched the solid, dark orange yolk spill out of the shell. A lovely site for anyone into preserving and fermenting foods!
There are many ways to enjoy salted eggs, but an omelette of mixed eggs is a great way, and one of my favorites. I hardcooked a couple of salted eggs by cooking them for 3 minutes in rapidly boiling water, and set them aside until they were cool enough to handle. Then I peeled the eggs, and chopped them for inclusion in the omelette.
I beat a few, “regular,” eggs, diced some spring onions, and ground a dash of white pepper. Combine the salted and the unsalted eggs and stir to mix. Now, salted eggs are salty. No strike that, they are EXTREMELY salty, so I recommend using one or two salted eggs per 3-4 regular eggs per omelette. A higher ratio of salted egg to unsalted egg, and the resulting dish may be to salty to enjoy.
On the subject of salt, some recipes flavor salted eggs with copious amounts of soy sauce. I recommend caution on this because of the saltiness of the eggs. One option is to serve a bit of soy sauce in dipping bowls as part of the meal so diners can dip a bit of omelette into the soy sauce or sprinkle a bit over their portion. Other ways to introduce flavor is to add a bit of minced shrimp or other shellfish, some minced and pickled mustard greens for a bit of pucker, or some fresh or dried ginger for a bit of sweetness. Be creative – think outside the salt box on this one – you’ll be happier if you do.
Just heat a tablespoon or two of sweet butter in a pan and saute the spring onions and any other ingredients you wish to add over medium heat until they are mostly cooked. Add the eggs and the white pepper and stir quickly with a fork to evenly distribute the salted egg pieces and pepper. Cook as usual and, if desired, finish under a preheated broiler. When done, loosen the omelette from the sides and bottom of the pan and invert onto a serving plate. Serve with condiments: minced spring onions, minced pickled mustard or ginger, soy sauce, or even lavender flowers. It is especially good when served with a selection of steamed Chinese sausage. If you have a larger group to feed, you can make this dish along with the Eggs with Shrimp and Pidan for some variety of egg dishes at the meal.
Salted eggs in one form or another are eaten all over eastern and southeastern Asia, from China and Vietnam to the Philippines in the east and Sri Lanka in the west. (Geographically, Sri Lanka is part of south Asia, but so much of its food culture is influenced by southeast asian cuisines that I’m including it in this list.) The process to make them in the Philippines is a bit different and is more like the pidan-making process than the Chinese method of preserving eggs in salt. In the Philippines, they mix salt with a thick, clay-based mud and coat the eggs with it to salt-cure them. Other ways of salting eggs that are sometimes confused with this type of salt-preserved egg are eggs marinated in soy mixtures that make the egg taste salty, but do not preserve them. (Words and all photos by Laura Kelley.)
I grew up in a very closely knit Italian-American community in the suburbs of New York City. Nearly everyone I knew as a child was related to me by blood or marriage. It was a world of cousins. There was an Italian-American club where old men played bocce, crazy car-horns that played the tarantella, and there was the great, carnival-like Summer Festa, that seemed to bring the whole town out to Saint Anthony’s school to gamble, play games, and, of course, eat. Food was everywhere, and people loved eating – not just at the Festa but in everyday life. Sunday dinners were serious business, and you didn’t skip them without a really good excuse.
So, when Sasha Martin, of the Global Table Adventure, asked me to participate in her Feast of Seven Fishes event, I had to pause and wonder how I had missed out on this wonderful Christmas-Eve tradition growing up. A little research and I found out that it is specifically an Italian-American Christmas-Eve event that is practiced by people who came from southern Italy. (That would rule out my ancestors who were from an area between Bologna and Ravenna.) It also is a relatively new concept that has been quickly growing in popularity since Mario Batali and other Food Network stars started demonstrating recipes for special Christmas Eve fish-only dinners. There are even restaurants that now offer special menus for people wishing to celebrate the Feast.
The seven fishes that either stand for the seven sacraments or the number of days that it supposedly took God to create the universe. Sometimes, there are more than seven dishes – nine for three times the holy trinity, or 13 for the apostles plus Jesus. No matter the number of dishes, there always seems to be an effort to couple them with an element of religious symbolism. A Christmas Eve fish-themed dinner. It must be an American concept. Americans love theme dinners.
On to my own recipe for Sasha’s Feast: Sweet and Savory Eel – Chinese Style. What is a Chinese dish doing at an Italian-American feast? Well, Silk Road, Marco Polo . . . it fits, in a loosely-tight sort of way. Actually, Italians of all varieties love eel and eat it when they can, and there are loads of wonderful recipes for it from the Mediterranean and beyond. Its my job to focus on the beyond. So, Sweet and Savory Eel. This recipe is adapted from a Chinese homestyle recipe, generously shared with me by my friend Dimon. It is delicious, easy to prepare, and well worth the effort of handling the slimy beasts. Lots of ginger and garlic form the base of the savory brown sauce with tangerine peel, maple syrup, and a few chili peppers providing the grace notes.
Sweet and Savory Eel
1.5 – 2 pounds fresh eel, cut into 1.5 inch sections
Tapioca flour as needed (for dusting)
3-4 tablespoons of corn oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 small bunch (4-6) spring onions, chopped
2 -3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Peels from 2 tangerines, dried and thinly sliced, or minced
3-4 dried red chili peppers, diced (I use Japones)
2 cups of brown rice wine
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (or a mix of dark and light)
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup water or fish stock
1 sweet, red bell pepper, thinly sliced
Dust the eel slices with tapioca flour, and tap on the edge of a plate when done to remove excess flour. Heat corn oil in a large sauté pan until smoking hot. Add the coated eel slices and sauté until golden. Remove eel from the pan with a slotted spoon and let cool on a plate.
Drain off most of the corn oil and add sesame oil to sauté pan and warm it up. Add spring onions and sauté until they start to soften. Then add the garlic and ginger slices and cook on low-to-medium, stirring often, until the ginger colors or the garlic swells. Add the tangerine peel and chillies and cook well, adding part of the rice wine to moisten as needed.
Add the rest of the rice wine and heat to almost boiling. Reduce the heat, and immediately add the eel slices. Cook on a low-to-medium simmer for five minutes, then add the dark soy sauce and the maple syrup, cover, and lower the heat to a low simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Then add water or fish stock to moisten the sauce and bring back to a simmer. Add the sliced peppers, then cover and cook for another 15-20 minutes until the eel is beginning to soften. Stir well and cook for another 10 minutes or so until eel is soft, and peppers are cooked. Depending on the desired consistency of the sauce, you may cook uncovered if you want a thicker sauce.
Serve with rice, tangerine slices, more spring onions, or the condiments of your choice.
NB: To be authentically Chinese, the eel should be a river eel or swamp eel. The salt-water eels often used in other cuisines would offer a much sharper flavor and change the recipe significantly. The right type of eel are usually sold live at larger Asian markets. You can ask the fish mongers to cut and clean the animals to order, to minimize handling them. This is an important bit of advice to consider, because when eels get stressed (like when a fish monger reaches into a bucket, grabs them), they get even more slimy than usual. If you ever taken a graduate genetics lab, and know what its like to handle stessed hagfish – this is exactly the same.
The Feast of Seven Fishes undoubtedly has its roots in the traditional Italian vigil feast, which is celebrated all over Italy. However, unlike those feasts, the Feast of Seven Fishes is a fish-only extravaganza with the number of dishes symbolically tied to Catholic themes. At a traditional vigil feast, for example, one would be unlikely to find meat dishes (at least in a strictly Catholic home), but you would find meat-based soups (like a chicken broth with tortellini or “cap-lets” as we grew up calling them), sauces with meat stock or broth in them, butter, cheese and eggs – all meat products.
Also, how the Church has defined, “meat” over the years is really fascinating. Generally, the prohibition extends only to terrestrial mammals and birds; whereas aquatic animals of all types were allowed. At different times in history, the Church has also allowed Catholics to eat mammals that spend a lot of time in water during lent and other no-meat fast and vigil days. This means that Catholics in Quebec ate beaver and Latin Catholics ate (and still do eat) capybara on no-meat Fridays or in times of fasting. Likewise, reptiles and amphibians are on the Lenten or fasting menu in places where it is traditional for the secular populous to eat them.
What I suspect is the Feast of Seven Fishes was a tradition in a very local part of Southern Italy – probably somewhere deep in the foot of the boot – that immigrants brought with them. It spread within the neighborhoods they emigrated to and is now being projected back as broadly, “Italian,” by their descendants and others who have adopted the practice.
Although I am a stickler for detail, to me its wonderful and interesting that the Feast of Seven Fishes is taking on a life of its own in the New World of the 20th and 21st Centuries. It is the birth of a new food tradition, right before our eyes! And another example of how cuisines are constantly evolving. Whenever you try this recipe, whether for the Feast of Seven Fishes or at some other time, prepare it and share it with loved ones – now, that’s Italian!
Expand your Feast of the 7 Fishes menu with these delicious ideas:
When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats. What most people don’t realize is that settlers in colonial America had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America. . . [MORE HERE]
I love to be of use. It turns me on to help people and to help them figure things out. To that end, this recipe is a request from a colleague who loves Chinese culture and cuisine and who is learning how to make some delicious and interesting dishes. Earlier today she asked me if I had a recipe for Chinese salted eggs. Wouldn’t you know, I put up a bunch only 6-8 weeks ago and the are about ready for harvest! I am happy to oblige the request, so here it goes. . .
Salted eggs are usually duck (tho’chicken eggs can be used as well) that are preserved in a flavored brine for 6-8 weeks. There are many ways to flavor the brine, but the most common way is to use Sichuan pepper and star anise along with some chilies (and of course lots of salt). A couple of months in brine firms the yolk and darkens it significantly. It also deepens and changes the flavor of the egg and makes it stand out in when used in congees, stir fries with shrimp or more often with pork, in dumplings or even occasionally in soup. As some of your may have noticed, salted eggs were used in several of the thousand-year egg recipes that I featured a couple of months back. Without further ado, the recipe:
6 cups water
1.5 cups coarse sea salt
2 Tablespoons Szechuan peppercorns
4 Star anise corms
4 Red chili peppers
12 chicken or duck eggs
Five to six hours before you wish to make salted eggs, bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. As it heats, dissolve salt into the water in batches, taking care that all of the salt dissolves into the water (the water should clear as the salt dissolves). Bring to a full rolling boil and let cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and cover. Cool the salt-saturated water to room temperature.
Clean and sterilize a couple of pint size mason jars if salting chicken eggs. You may need a third jar if salting a dozen duck eggs or any larger egg. It’s fine to reuse lids and seals, because an airtight seal is not required. Just make sure that all parts of the container are clean.
Place 1 tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorns in each jar. Then add 2 star anise corms and 2 chili peppers to each jar as well. Then take each jar in hand and tilt it horizontally. Slide the uncooked eggs gently into the jar. I can usually fit 6 chicken eggs into each jar. I leave at least 1 inch of space from the rim to ensure that the brine covers the eggs completely. There will be leftover brine.
When done fitting the eggs into the jars, place the jars on the counter and fill with brine and seal. Let sit for 15 minutes or so, as the brine begins to permeate the egg shells. Then place in a cold place – refrigerator or cellar/garage in cold weather and leave for at least 1 month.
After 4-6-weeks has elapsed, remove 1 egg from the brine and crack the shell over a bowl. If the eggs are properly brined, the yolk will be firm and oftentimes a bit darker in color from uncooked eggs. If the yolk is as runny as that in an uncooked egg, the eggs need more time to brine. Reseal the jars and leave them for another couple of weeks.
Once the eggs are done, they must be cooked before one eats them. They can be cooked as an ingredient of a dish (as in steamed three eggs) or hard boiled before using.
Variations: There are many ways to flavor the brine. Szechuan peppercorns and star anise are just the most commonly used traditional ingredients. Other ingredients to add include, a bit of peeled garlic or ginger, or a different spice mix. Some people also add a bit of rice wine to reduce the odor of the eggs and to keep bacterial growth to a minimum.
One of the important holiday uses of salted eggs in Southern China is as part of the filling for moon cakes along with red bean or lotus seed paste. These moon cakes are eaten as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival which is a harvest festival that in many cases honors the moon. There are myths told from ancient times of husbands and wives separated by magical elixirs and of women (like Chang’e pictured here) who become part of the moon that are part of this festival as well. But the salted egg with its dark, salty yolk is the archetypal symbol of the moon in Southern Chinese culture and in many of the cultures along the Mekong as well. When you eat a salted egg, you consume the moon and with it its powers of renewal and rejuvenation.
This five-spice mix forms the backbone of Uyghur cuisine – at least that part of it that deals with roast meats. Variations of this mix are used to flavor many Uyghur dishes, with other ingredients – salt, garlic, onions, etc., added to the mix as needed.
The flavor of the Uyghur five-spice blend is robust and smoky with light spicy bites from the Sichuan peppercorns, and the effect it has on roast meats is phenomenal. Feel free to use it on kebabs and roasts like the Uyghurs do, or just on regular old steaks like I do. My kids love when I use it on beef and lamb, and miss it when I don’t.
It has a great deal in common with other five-spice mixes from East Asia, and also with some of the masalas from the Himalayas – especially those from Tibet and Nepal. (To read a post about the variations in these spice mixes, follow this link.) In fact it is sort of a combination of both sets of spices. With the east, it shares Sichuan pepper and star anise, and with the Himalayan masalas it shares black peppercorns and black cardamom. Interestingly, the base of the Uyghur five-spice blend is made up of roasted cumin, which is found in abundance with Western and Southern Asian spice mixes. So once again, the Uyghur recipe blends ingredients from across the Silk Road with unique results.
As to chili peppers, there are a number of them used in Uyghur cooking that range from mild to blazing hot. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any of these in the US, and thus turned to the familiar and widely available Japone. If you can find Sichuan chilis, these are a good moderately-hot substitute for Uyghur chilis.
I need to stress that there is no set recipe for these mixes. They vary by region, city or even by household, depending upon individual and familial tastes. That said, however, the roasted cumin is always there as are the Sichuan peppercorns to some degree or another. The smokiness, however, can sometimes come from black cumin instead of black cardamom, and sometimes I have had versions that distinctly had cinnamon as part of the mix. Here’s my favorite blend:
Ingredients 1/4 cup cumin seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3 tablespoons black peppercorns
10 dried red chilies (Japones will work but Sichuan is best)
Seeds from 4-5 black cardamom pods
3-4 star anise pods (pieces are fine)
Method Dry roast spices separately until fragrant (do not scorch or burn)
This is a quintessential Uyghur Dish. Stir-fried chicken, potatoes and bell peppers in a rich, savory sauce redolent with star anise and cinnamon. Roasted cumin flavors the base of the sauce, with black cardamom lending a smoky taste, and Sichuan pepper offering up a few bright, spicy lights. Interestingly, the heat of this dish is extremely variable and ranges from mild to four-alarm hot, although most people prefer the dish with moderate to high heat. As written, the dish is moderately spicy and sure to please anyone who desires a taste of The Silk Road.
2 cups water
¼ cup light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 cinnamon stick
3-4 whole black cardamom pods
2 star anise pods
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
2 pounds of chicken (bone-in pieces or boneless breast meat)
3 tablespoons hsao xing rice wine
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons black rice vinegar
1 tablespoon broad bean paste (Doubanjiang) *
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper
3 – 4 star anise pods
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small bunch spring onions (6-8 stalks) roughly chopped **
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1½ – 2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced or minced
1 heaping tablespoon Uyghur five-spice mix
6-8 dried mild-to-moderately hot red chili peppers ***
1 cup water
2-3 medium golden potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ -inch chunks
2 medium red bell peppers, cored and cut into chunks
2 tomatoes, diced
Method Marinate the chicken. Mix the liquid marinade ingredients together in a large bowl. Break the cinnamon stick into pieces and lightly crush the black cardamom and the star anise pods before adding to the marinade. Add salt and stir well. Add chicken pieces and stir well to evenly coat the chicken with the marinade. Cover and rest at least overnight, stirring occasionally.
Preparing to cook. In a small bowl, mix together the hsao xing, light and dark soy sauces, black vinegar, bean paste, sugar and salt. Stir well until sugar and other solids are dissolved. Lightly crush the Szechuan pepper and the star anise pods and stir into the mixture. When other ingredients and prepared, drain chicken but do not rinse.
Cooking. Heat the oil in a wok on high heat and when the oil begins to smoke add the drained chicken pieces and stir fry for about 3-4 minutes or until the chicken becomes opaque and starts to color. Remove meat from the wok with a slotted spoon or strainer and set aside.
If necessary add a bit more oil to the wok and when it smokes, add the spring onions and stir fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic begins to swell and color. Add the ginger and stir for another minute or two. Add the Uyghur 5-spice mix and the whole chili peppers and stir well to coat the onion mix in the wok. Cook for 1 minute to warm the spices.
Add about 1/3 – to ½ cup of the water and stir. When the water has heated up, add the potato slices and stir well. Cover and cook for 6-8 minutes stirring occasionally. Add more water as necessary to keep the potatoes from burning.
Now add the bell peppers and tomatoes and stir – lifting more than stirring to keep the partially cooked potatoes intact. Give the hsao xing and soy sauce mixture a good stir to bring the solids back into solution and then pour into the wok and stir once more. Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes then add the chicken back into the wok and stir. Cover and cook another 3-5 minutes or until the chicken has warmed and the rest of the vegetables are cooked but still firm.
Plate and serve with rice, noodles, or naan flatbread.
My favorite things about Big Plate Fried Chicken – called “Chong Tahsilik Tohu Qorimisi,” in Uyghur – are the clear links the recipe has with Central Asian and Himalayan cuisines. In particular, the rich star-anise laden sauce has many variants across Central Asia and the use of black cardamom is common in the Himalayas and parts of Central Asia. That said, however, there are several clearly Chinese ingredients as well, such as black vinegar, broad bean paste and hsao xing rice wine. Although Chinese in origin, Sichuan pepper has many close relatives (same genus, different species) that impart similar flavors in Himalayan cuisine as well, so it is difficult to know whether this ingredient links the recipe to China, or to the Himalayas. The bottom line is that this is a UYGHUR dish, and as such it is a product of the Silk Road that joins ingredients and preparation methods from a variety of cultures to form its own unique recipe. Uyghur cuisine is a one of the world’s lesser-known fusion cuisines.
Big Plate Fried Chicken is available everywhere in Xinjiang Province. It is a standard in restaurants and is also a commonly prepared home-cooked meal. It can be served as single main course – which is the most common presentation at lunchtime – or it can be part of a larger multi-course (usually) evening meal. With only a couple of changes, the sauce is used with lamb or mutton as well as chicken.
Some adjustments have been made in cooking to adjust for vessel shape and material. Uyghurs usually prepare stews in a large cast iron pot with slightly slanted sides very much like the Uzbek qozon or cauldron. These vessels can get blazingly hot, but like any cast-iron pot or pan, they take a long time to heat up and to cool down. The meat and the potatoes cook much quicker Uyghur style than they do in a steel wok. Because of this, I suggest stir-frying the meat first, then removing it from the stew while the vegetables cook, and then returning it to heat up before serving.
* I used the kind that has few (if any) chili peppers in it (low heat).
** If you use the giant Asian spring onions, 1-2 should suffice.
*** Any mild-to-moderate red chili will work, but I used Japone chilies.
(Words, recipe and photograph of Uyghur Big Plate Chicken by Laura Kelley.)