We packed our first born off to college this past weekend. Even though we are still here with our son, the house is eerily quiet. My daughter was noisy enough to be twins, or even triplets. No more loud music and singing her lungs out – she has practice rooms at college for that now. Despite her devil-may-care attitude, and generally gregarious nature, she has never really been adventurous with food – except for chili sauces – which she puts on everything. She never really showed an interest in any of the Silk Road foods that came across the family table, until a couple of weeks before she left, when she started to eat my South Indian Lemon Pickle by the spoonful.
Now, my South Indian Lemon Pickle is a wondrous thing. A balanced salty and sweet citrus base flavored with roasted whole spices, and ground fenugreek. It makes a great condiment in an Indian meal, or can even be spread on naan or a bagel with a bit of yogurt or labne to compliment the flavors. Or like Miranda, you can eat it by the spoonful, if your tastebuds can take it.
The pickle is easy to make, but takes several weeks from start to finish. First you have to salt-cure the lemons on a sunny window for at least two weeks. Then you rinse the lemons and combine them with roasted spices. Then, you have to wait another excruciating couple of weeks for the flavors to blend and the magic to happen. I currently have a batch in the last stage, and will send it as part of a care package to my girl by the end of the month.
For those not already in the know: homemade chutneys and pickles are far superior to their commercial counterparts. The ingredients for homemade are of course fresher than store-bought brands, but for me, the greatest difference is the lower amount of salt in condiments made at home. That and the lack of preservatives like ascetic acid, which greatly change the flavor of these dishes.
In a Facebook thread recently, someone asked me for the recipe. So Marlena, this one’s for you:
South Indian Lemon Pickle
3 pounds lemons
½ – ¾ cup salt
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cilantro seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons red chili peppers
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
½ cup mustard oil
¼ cup light sesame oil
¼ cup grape-seed oil
½ teaspoon asafetida
¾ cup lemon juice
½ cup sugar (demerara or jaggery)
A pinch or two of salt to make the flavors pop (optional)
Start by placing about half of the salt into a deep bowl. Then, cut each of the lemons into eight pieces, and coat each piece in salt. Place slices into a jar and tamp down or squeeze as you go to release most of the juice in the lemons. Leave an inch or two at the top of the jar to allow space for lemons to shift.
Cover and place on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks. Shake daily for about 1 minute to mix the salt and the lemons. When the curing time has elapsed, the lemons will have softened significantly and reduced in volume. The lemons are ready when the peels are soft and pliable. Some lemons grown in drier climates may have very thick skins and may need a bit longer than two weeks to soften.
Once the lemons have cured, remove them from the jar and rinse to help remove excess salt. Then soak in fresh water for about 15 minutes and strain. As the lemons are draining, lightly roast each of the spices separately in a dry sauté pan. They should be fragrant and just beginning to color when done. Be careful not to burn them or your pickle will have a scorched flavor instead of a lightly roasted one. Set aside to cool. When cool, grind the chili peppers and the fenugreek seeds.
It is traditional to leave the lemons in large chunks, but I recommend slicing them into thin strips of about 1 by ¼-inch. It is also traditional to leave the pith on the lemons, but you can remove it if you desire.
Heat the oils in a sauté pan. When warm but not sizzling hot, remove from the fire, add the asafetida. Stir and cover the pan. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the whole roasted seeds and the ground spices; mix well. Cool for another 30 minutes to 1 hour, so the mixture is barely warm.
In a large bowl, mix the salted lemon slices, the lemon juice and the sugar until blended. Add the oil and spice mixture; mix well. Let sit covered for an hour or even overnight. When almost ready to bottle the pickle, spoon off the excess oil for a cleaner pickle. Taste the pickle and add a pinch or two of salt if desired.
Spoon the mixture into jars, cover, refrigerate 2 weeks before serving. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.
As a condiment or a spread, this pickle is delicious. Give it a try and let me know what you think! (Words, recipe, and photograph by Laura Kelley.)
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.)
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.
We’ve come to the end of our current exploration of Century Eggs – from making them from scratch, to mixing them with other ingredients and preparing dishes with them. This is recipe number ten of ten, and what a nice way to end a series it is. This is a soup – a homestyle recipe – that is enjoyed across China as well as in East and Southeast Asia. It uses Chinese Spinach, also called Yin Choi or Yin Tsai, to flavor a delicate, egg-drop style soup that is savory, delicious and filling.
The soup is also very quick to make, and takes about 20 minutes from the beginning of preparation to serving. It could be a bit more time if you chose to let the wolfberries stew in the chicken broth a bit, for a sweeter soup.
The Chinese Spinach or Yin Choi (Yin Tsai) is really a form of edible amaranth that comes in a variety or shapes and colors. My favorite is the type with a purple blush up the center of the otherwise green leaf, it makes for a beautiful presentation. Alas, this form is not always available around here, so for this dish, I used one of the all-green varietals. Yin Choi is delicious, and very nutritious. It is extremely high in Vitamin A (2770 IU/100g) and is also a good source of Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and iron. Other greens are sometimes substituted for amaranth, and it is not uncommon to see the thin, spear-like leaves of water spinach used in variations of this dish.
Another interesting thing about the soup is that it makes use of goji berries – also called wolfberries in English – and can thus be considered a medicinal soup as well as just a dish that is comforting and good to eat. The goji berries are high in iron, selenium, riboflavin, Vitamin C and other antioxidants, as well as a wide variety of phytochemicals such as beta-carotene. and amino acids. They also contain small amounts of atropine, an acetylcholine receptor antagonist. In plain English, this means that the atropine in goji berries binds at the receptor sites used by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and dilates the pupils, increases heart rate, and reduces salivation and other secretions. In much larger doses than those provided by goji berries, atropine is used as an antidote to a number of toxins, including organophosphate insecticides and some chemical nerve agents such as tabun, sarin, VX and soman.
So you have a recipe using Century Eggs that make a delicious, medicinal soup that also protects you from chemical weapons. Does it get any better than this?
Chinese Spinach Soup with Century Eggs
1 pound Chinese Spinach (also called yin choi or yin tsai)
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup plus 1/3 cup water
3 tablespoons wolfberries
1-2 teaspoons light soy sauce
2-3 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 century egg, quartered
1 cooked salted egg, quartered
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon of sesame oil (or to taste)
Wash spinach and drain well. Separate leaves from stalks, and cut stalks into 2-3 inch sections.
In a large saucepan, bring chicken stock and 1 cup of water to a rolling boil, and add the wolfberries. Lower heat to a low simmer and cook for 2-3 minutes. (If you desire a stronger wolfberry flavor, remove from heat and cover the pot to allow berries to stew a bit.)
Return broth to a boil and add soy sauce and garlic. Then add the spinach stalks. Cover saucepan and boil for about 2-3 minutes. Pour cornstarch and water mixture into pan a bit at a time, stirring constantly until desired thickness is achieved.
Add the leaves of the Chinese Spinach and after the leaves begin to wilt, add the sliced century and salted eggs. Boil for about 1 minute Add salt and pepper.
Turn off heat and slowly pour in the beaten egg and stirring vigorously to thread the egg as you do. Add sesame oil, and mix. Serve immediately with extra sesame oil and other condiments as desired.
Variations: There are many variations of this dish. One of the most popular is a spinach in sauce that can be achieved by reducing the chicken broth and water by half and adjusting the seasonings accordingly (reduce soy, reduce pepper). One can also omit the garlic and add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to emphasize the goji berries in a less savory broth. The dish can also be made suitable for vegetarians (assuming they eat eggs) if a strong vegetable broth is substituted for the chicken broth.
I really like this recipe. It is as comforting and homey as an egg-flower soup can be with the added flavor of the amaranth, goji berries, and of course, the Century Eggs. In truth, the Century Eggs provide something of a foil to the rest of the soup with mouthful blasts of lightly sour, pungent flavor within the delicate broth. It is indeed good to the last, but the white pepper has a tendency to aggregate at the bottom, so be careful of those last couple of spoon fulls – they might pack a wallop of spice.
There are many other ways to prepare pidan or Century Eggs, but the ones presented here are my favorites. They can be coated with fish, shrimp or squid paste and deep fried. My favorite form of this recipe is found most frequently in Thailand where they flavor the fish paste around the eggs with lots of Thai Basil. There are also a whole family of steamed Century Eggs recipes – usually coupling the pidan with salted eggs or occasionally with tea eggs or the intriguing soy-soaked iron eggs in a ground of regular chicken or duck eggs.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of Century Eggs, and that you try (and like) some of the recipes presented. If you were familiar with and like Century Eggs, I hope that these recipes give you some great ways to enjoy the eggs. If you were unfamiliar with the eggs to start, I hope also that the recipes and discussion gives you some perspective when viewing all of those “most horrible food ever,” videos out there on the internet of young men proving their bravery by eating a Century Egg. They really aren’t any worse than a bit of strong cheese, and when prepared correctly, their flavor brings a delicious savoriness to a wide variety of dishes. Its been an interesting journey for me, and as always, I am grateful for having the opportunity to share it with you. (All words and photos by Laura Kelley.)