Putting together my contribution for the latest Cook the Books was challenging. Nicole Mones' novel The Last Chinese Chef has many layers - there is cooking (of course), there is grief, love, dispossession, betrayal, nostalgia - the whole box and dice.
One aspect of the book that I really loved is the lack of a villain. It would have been quite easy to write a scheming woman pursuing a paternity suit, or rival chefs plotting sabotage. But Mones has avoided the facile and has given validity to conflicting motivations. Where disaster strikes, it isn't through enemy sabotage, it is through the agency of a much-loved uncle. I wanted to do justice to the book by having a many-layered menu and somehow show some of those themes in my food.
I didn't decide the menu in a straight line, but it is easier to write about in serving order.
Vegetarian Appetiser Platter
I knew my main course was going to be meaty and fatty, so to begin my menu I wanted something quite light. Full-flavoured, but delicate, and with a bit of a crunch and preferably some vegetables. I also very much wanted to cook something from Savouring China, by Jacki Passmore. I love this cookbook! The recipes I have made from it before have worked very well, the photographs in it are gorgeous and her stories about her experiences in China are fascinating. When I picked it up again to choose some recipes, I was also hit by a reference to Empress Cixi's taste for corncakes, familiar from The Last Chinese Chef.
I eventually settled on a vegetarian appetiser platter - dried black mushrooms simmered in rice wine, soy and ginger, boiled peanuts flavoured with Szechwan Pepper and star anise, and cucumber marinated in sugar, vinegar, garlic and chilli. Paul and I often ate at a restaurant in Sydney that served boiled peanuts as an appetiser. We liked the taste, and also found it useful as a warm up for our chopstick skills before anything messier came to the table!
I decided to serve the platter on a dish my grandmother gave me - as a child I always loved the almost bottomless blue green glaze on the heavy earthenware - and I thought the rich colour would look nice with the brown, cream and green of the food. And then when it came to the crunch I couldn't actually find where Paul had stowed those plates, and I used a big blue-glazed dish (year 10 art project) that still looked pretty good.
Pigeon Sang Choy Bao
For personal nostalgia, rather than a specific connection to the book, I had to have Sang Choy Bao on my appetiser platter. You don't see it so much on English Chinese restaurant menus, but in Australia every restaurant serves this richly flavoured mince (sometimes pork, sometimes as the second course of Peking Duck) wrapped at the table into crisp lettuce-leaf "buns". I also thought the crisp green element would provide a good balance in the meal. I wanted it to be leaner than usual, so I used finely chopped pigeon breast instead of pork or duck, and I left out the lup cheong that you often get in it.
Serves 2 as part of a banquet
6 little gem lettuce leaves
3 skinless, boneless pigeon breasts
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1tsp grated ginger
1tbs oyster sauce
1tbs soy sauce
1tsp cornflour slaked with shaoxing rice wine
Brown the finely diced pigeon breasts in the oil with the garlic and ginger. Add the soy & oyster sauce and stir for a minute or two, then add the cornflour slurry and stir until the mixture thickens and is quite dry. Serve a teaspoonful or so of the meat cupped in each of the lettuce leaves.
Trotters in Black Vinegar
I have a book called Mumma's Kitchen (ed. Helen Addison-Smith & George Papaellinas), which is a collection of recipes and stories shared by Australian writers, cooks, comedians and politicians. A recipe that I have been particularly drawn to try is Annette Shun Wah's stepmother's pig's trotters, slowly braised in sweet black rice vinegar. Her stepmother loved this dish, and would make it for her friends even though that traditionally would have meant that she was signalling a pregnancy. I thought that nuance - a dish that tells a story - would be something Sam's Uncles would approve of. And it was a slow cooked dish that I could prepare ages in advance and not have to get too stressed about.
It was, sadly, pretty disgusting. I have never prepared pig's trotters before and now that I have no one can make me do it again. I stripped the "meat" - or rather, fat and skin - from the bones to try and divorce the dish from the memory of toenails and hair, but to no avail. The hardboiled eggs cooked along with the trotters were nice though. I garnished it with some carrots cut into flower shapes, but alas I don't have the talent for vegetable carving that Sam's Uncles have.
Spring Onion Flower Rolls
When it came to the starch, the fan element of the meal, I thought about rice and noodles, but then I decided that I wanted to do a bread. Partly, it has to be said, because I wanted something that I could serve in my bamboo steamer. I like my bamboo steamer. The power of Youtube made shaping flower rolls look much easier than I had thought, so I decided to follow this recipe but shape it according to the youtube tutorial. It was unexpectedly easy. I was very sceptical about kneading the baking powder slurry into the risen dough, but I did it and ended up with a texture exactly like the bao at yumcha, so it can be counted a definite success.
Lapsang Souchong Pannacotta with Star Anise Plums
As my final course, I wanted to take Chinese elements but move it back into the West. I thought that pannacotta (my fail-safe, go-to dessert) infused with smoky Lapsang Souchong tea, and served with some roasted plums flavoured with star anise would fit the bill. There are some nice British plums in the shops right now, and a firm-ish custard is reminiscent of the agar-set almond or coconut desserts you often get at yum cha. And of course, plum blossom is one of the national flowers of China, and my pig's trotter was served in a dish decorated with plum blossom (although Japanese) so I thought that gave another little nod to the sort of menu planning Sam goes through for the competition in The Last Chinese Chef.
1 tsp vanilla extract
1tsp lapsang souchong tealeaves
1tbs caster sugar
1 sachet gelatine
2tbs sugar, extra
1 star anise
Make a strong cup of lapsang souchong tea, strain and measure 75ml into a small bowl. Sprinkle the gelatine over the surface and set aside. Put the cream, vanilla and sugar into a saucepan, stir until the sugar dissolves and the cream is just about to boil. Add the gelatine, stirring until the gelatine has completely dissolved (turning the heat back on under it briefly if necessary, but don't allow to boil). Divide between 2 wetted ramekins, cover with cling film and refrigerate for 3-4 hours.
Cut the plums in half and remove the stones. Place cut side up in a small oven-proof baking dish. Sprinkle well with the sugar. It is a strange thing I have noticed that plums which are very sweet when raw take on a bitterness from the skins when cooked, so don't skimp on the sugar. Break the star anise into petals and scatter those over the plums. Bake at 170C for half an hour or so until the fruit is caramelly and smells gorgeous.
Turn the pannacottas out onto small plates (which should be quite easy because this is quite a firm set pannacotta) and surround with still-warm roasted plums.