Then and Now

My mother’s auntie (I call her grandmother, lao lao, for some reason) lives in the Daxing district of Beijing, some 31 kilometres away from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. Beijing is divided into 6 “ring roads”, with central Beijing (i.e. Tiananmen Square) as Ring Road 1. Daxing is on the 6th ring road. By the extremely efficient and cheap Beijing subway, it takes 45 minutes to get from my grandmother’s house to the push and shove of the middle of town.

When I visited in 2003, all of the area in which my grandmother lives – all of the apartments, broad multi-laned roads and giant supermarkets – was all fairly undeveloped land. Back then, she lived in what I would describe as a big courtyard with three buildings: one for the bedrooms and living room, the other for cooking and another for the “toilet”. By “toilet” I mean “hole in the ground”, but let’s not get into that discussion.

It definitely didn’t feel like we were in the 21st century. The pillows weren’t filled with soft goose down or foam that moulds to the shape of your head, but rather, uncooked rice. We used bed pans if we needed to go to the toilet during the night – either that, or we had to carry a torch with us to go to the outside toilet. I went to my mum’s cousin’s work every night to shower because a shower at my grandmother’s house was literally getting water in a tub of some sort and washing yourself with it outside, regardless of whether it’s in the middle of Beijing’s stifling summer or bone-chilling winter. Oh and the water? Pumped straight out of the ground with questionable cleanliness.

But meandering along the dirt roads, I found a bustling community. Make-shift BBQs lined the streets, letting off clouds of smoke and filling the air with the smell of spiced, chargrilled meat. Locals sat around on old tables and chairs playing cards or just hanging out. Bicycles, mopeds and scooters zoomed in and around each other, adding to the chatter of passionate conversation. Just like the city, the countryside never really slept.

Leap forward to today and it’s all gone. The dusty roads, the droopy trees that were a grey-green hue, the atmosphere, the general openness. The government approached the residents of Daxing, as they did with all the other areas they’ve now urbanised, and bought out the people’s properties, giving them a place in one of the many apartment blocks they built instead. It wasn’t so much an offer as it was a notice of their intention to take away the people’s land, knock down their homes and build up from the soil, rows and rows of mid-rise apartments.

I visited again in 2011 and stayed with my grandmother for the time that I was in Beijing. For someone like me – a complete city slicker – it was at the high end of the comfort scale. The floor was marble, the furniture was polished wood, the toilets had bidets, there was air con in every room and the kitchen is bigger than the one I have here in my quarter acre home. From that kitchen came dumplings and various stir fries, as well as iced green tea drinks and weird yoghurt drinks that tasted like sour milk.

My relatives always joke that my grandmother’s cooking all tastes the same – oily, slightly tangy and very salty – but to a foreigner, it’s always delicious. I guess when it comes down to it, my mum’s cooking is similar in that most of her dishes all taste the same. This is because she uses the same seasoning products – mainly soy sauce – for most of her dishes unless she’s making something with a unique flavour, such as satay beef or Ma Po tofu.

I’m sure I’ve written about this already but there are several different cuisines in China, which isn’t always represented by Chinese takeaways or restaurants that all serve the same fried rice and wonton soup. Contrary to popular belief, rice isn’t eaten everywhere in China, nor are noodles. And sweet and sour pork? Not really a thing north of Canton, although I’m sure people would know about it regardless.

About two weeks ago I made a tofu and prawns version of General Tso’s chicken, which is also not traditionally a “thing” in China – it was created in the US. The recipe I based it on can be found here. I just half-cooked the prawns before adding it to the mix and then let it cook the rest of the way as everything was being mixed together with the sauce.

It tasted fine but not sure I’d make it again. There is a suggestion from a reviewer to marinate the tofu, then bake it after dunking it in some egg and cornstarch mix. I personally think this is unnecessary unless you are after that crispy fried tofu. There is enough sauce to coat the tofu and veges quite generously.

Photo: Tao Lin

Photo: Tao Lin

Alternatively, you could just stir fry everything with some garlic, ginger, soy sauce, maybe some oyster sauce too, and cornflour and it’ll still taste amazing.

As much as I am all for change and thoroughly enjoyed the more modern lifestyle in present-day Beijing, I couldn’t help but feel forlorn for the loss of its more rural areas. These people who now live next door to a hyper-efficient public transport system and newly sealed roads didn’t ask for their homes, or their lives, to change.  They may have lived a harder life, though maybe not as hard those begging on the city’s most inner streets, and they lived with little. But despite having little, they were in want of nothing. They had open air and space, food and water, electricity, the freedom to cook, drink and play whatever they liked out on the neighbourhood paths, and they weren’t restricted from each other by metres of concrete and cold security gates.

As my grandmother gets older, she certainly enjoys the accessibility and modernity of everything that surrounds her now but at the same time, I think she also looks back on those less-privileged times with fondness and a touch of wistfulness too.

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Melt-in-your mouth tofu stir fry with oyster mushrooms

When I hear people talk about how gross/bland/weird tofu is or how it’s something that only vegetarians and vegans should eat, I think it’s a real pity that they haven’t had a good experience with it. Yes, it is bland if you just have it by itself with absolutely no seasoning whatsoever but for those who have had it done well, you will know that tofu can taste fantastic.

In terms of mushrooms, champignon/button mushrooms have never been my vege of choice, although I eat them happily enough. I much prefer the textures and tastes of shitake, enokitake, straw and oyster mushrooms; I think this comes down a lot to the fact that I grew up eating predominantly Chinese food and I take a particular fancy towards Asian foods.

My mum’s tofu and oyster mushroom stir fry puts together two ingredients that some people may find foreign but once you try it, you’ll see there is nothing gross, or bland, or weird about it.

Ingredients consist of the Holy Trinity (sliced ginger, sliced garlic and diced spring onion), soy sauce, oyster mushrooms, fresh tofu of medium firmness (not silky or dried tofu), cornflower/starch, water, salt and vegetable oil.

The oil needs to be heated in a wok (just enough to cover the bottom of the wok) and the garlic, ginger and spring onions should be cooked in the oil for a minute or two. Cook the tofu first, moving it around in the wok regularly. It should start to get softer the more it cooks and as you move it around the wok, it should start to break apart a bit. Once this happens, add in the mushrooms. My mum sometimes takes the tofu out of the wok to cook the mushrooms and then adds the tofu back in later but either way works.

Tofu and oyster mushrooms 1

Fry the mushrooms for a couple of minutes until they are tender, gradually adding in a bit of water (only a couple of teaspoons) during the process. Lastly, add in salt and soy sauce to taste and then enough cornflour/starch to just slightly thicken the sauce. When cooked right, the tofu should be slightly browned on the outside and melt in your mouth – or if you’re like me, it’ll fall apart when you try to pick them up with chopsticks because you fail at the delicate art of chopstick holding (spoons essential).

Serve with freshly steamed rice and a drizzle of sesame oil 🙂

Bringing Mum’s traditional Chinese cooking to the far west of Australia…

Two flights and 10 hours later, we’re back in Auckland with weather so humid that it feels hotter than Western Australia, even though temperature-wise, it’s nowhere close. For our last meal before we left, I gave everyone a bit of a taste of how I do Chinese food; or rather, how my mother does Chinese food and how I try to follow her instructions as closely as I can. There were three stir fry dishes:

  1. Beef, bok choy and snow peas
  2. Black bean beef and broccoli (inspired by Gok Wan’s stir fried beef in fragrant black bean sauce recipe)
  3. Tofu and oyster mushrooms

The first and third dishes are very common in our family’s kitchen and all three are far better options than going down to the local Chinese takeaway shop. Not only are these recipes healthier and tastier but they’re also ridiculously simple to make; the hardest thing about any of these is the prep.

Note that these measurements below are rough estimates; how much or how little of these ingredients you put in depends very much on personal preference i.e. whether you want more meat or more veges, how salty or dark you want it, etc.

Beef, bok choy and snow peas stir fried with light soy and oyster sauce
(Serves 6)

Ingredients

  • 300g good quality beef steak, sliced into 2-3cm strips.
  • About 2 bunches of fresh bok choy, pulled apart at the stem. You can chop these into smaller pieces if you like but I prefer them whole
  • 500g snow peas – pretty much any other green leafy vegetable works as well though
  • Soy sauce and oyster sauce to taste – NOTE that you can use either light or dark soy; light soy is what we always use and this is saltier than the dark soy but doesn’t colour the food as much. When used in the right amounts, both give the same results in terms of taste; it’s just a matter of whether you want your food coloured darker or lighter.
  • A couple of teaspoons of water – from what I understand, my Mum does this primarily to stop the food from sticking to the wok as well as to help cook the veges through the steam that the water and heat provide
  • Vegetable or sunflower oil
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, sliced finely
  • About 3cm of ginger sliced finely
  • 1 spring onion diced
  • Cornflower/cornstarch to thicken further if needed
  • Sesame oil

Method

  1. Marinate the beef in some soy sauce and cornflour/starch and leave for a couple of hours before cooking.
  2. Heat oil in a wok; the oil should just be enough to cover the bottom of the wok. Make sure the oil does not smoke.
  3. Add the ginger, garlic and spring onions and cook for a minute or 2, or until fragrant.
  4. Toss in the bok choy and cook for a couple of minutes before adding in the snow peas. Note that the contents of the wok must constantly be stirred and moved around to ensure even cooking. Slowly add in some water but only just enough to keep everything fluid and moving i.e. don’t let the contents become runny.
  5. Add in the beef and sear on all sides; don’t overcook.
  6. Add soy and oyster sauces to taste. Remember that the darkness of soy sauce is not an indicator of how salty it is – always taste!
  7. If you wish, you can thicken the sauce with some cornflour (around 2-3 teaspoons) mixed with a bit of water
  8. Plate up and drizzle with a little bit of sesame oil

Through the haze of my jet lag I’m not sure if all of that made sense but there really is nothing to the stir frying. The essential foundations of flavours in Chinese food lie in the “Holy Trinity” of Chinese cooking: ginger, garlic and spring onion. Get these right and it’s incredibly easy to cook a great-tasting Chinese meal.

Recipe for tofu and oyster mushrooms coming up next time!