Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Gongbao Chickpeas

Westernized Chinese food has an unfair reputation, I think.

I concede that in the worse case, e.g. any 'Chinese' food court meal, it's an overly salty, under-flavoured, dubiously-sanitary and utterly forgettable codswallop. Every late-night-we-deliver-until-2AM food item served in a disposable foil tray, thickened with too much cornstarch and supersaturated with MSG certainly fits into this category, too.

But what about the more competent expressions of the cuisine? One could easily be forgiven for believing that Moo Shoo Pork, Egg Fu Yung and Ginger Beef come from an entirely different universe than does the tender steamed dumplings, squid in black bean sauce, and turnip cakes that you'll find at even a modest, though decent, dim sum house. This is Westernized Chinese food, certainly, and while the hipster har gow may be somewhat embarrassed by the dowdy deep-fried chicken balls, nonetheless they share DNA.

Of course foodies and ex-pats will argue that nothing made outside of China can qualify as Chinese food. Certainly anything we get in Canada is not 'authentic' in the sense that it's not made (a) with Luciferian quantities of chiles and garlic, (b) by a wizened old Chinese man standing shirtless and sweating over a wok seasoned by 40 years of 1400-degree heat,  or (c) in China, but that doesn't necessarily render the food worthless.

I have said many times that I never had a single bad meal in China, and I stand by that statement. My 18 months of living in central China was full of amazing new tastes, but one scarcity was chicken. We were there during the height of the 'bird flu' panic -- the first one, not the most recent one -- and so the Chinese government was apparently cracking down on so-called 'backyard' chickens, despite the fact that most virologists had traced the outbreaks to poorly-managed factory farms (duh). The lack of 'backyard' chickens meant that chicken was expensive or non-existent on most menus. Curiously enough, we did see a fair number of chickens wandering around the streets and yards of homes as we walked to and from work each day.  The chickens informed us that they were, in fact, front yard chickens, and hence could not be held responsible for any flu epidemic whatsoever.

Chicken dishes were thus uncommon, but when it was available we almost always ordered Gongbao Jiro, aka Gongbao Jiding, aka Kung Pao Chicken.

We first had it at a dive-y (which is saying a lot) place in Xiangfan just off a roundabout. It came to the table and at first I thought we'd mistakenly ordered something that was 48% chilies, 48% garlic and 2% green onions. I confirmed that the dish was, indeed, Gongbao Jiro, and after receiving an affirmative grunt we proceeded to try the dish.

The reason it looked like it was all Gongbao and no Jiro was because the chicken was all chopped up into little bite-sized pieces, bone and all. It was a long-ish process to eat the dish, actually, because of the necessity of spitting out the bone splinters, but the flavour was incredible and we were instantly hooked.

We ate GBJ as often as we could find it but all of our attempts to make it at home were miserable failures. I tried back in Canada, too, but I just couldn't seem to replicate the exact flavour profile. After considerable experimentation I simply gave up and consigned it to the list of foods* that I just couldn't make at home.

I recently had a small satori.

Instead of trying to replicate the exact flavour of the remembered dish -- an exercise that is usually futile anyway due to a whole whack of reasons, not the least being the non-availability of the components -- why not use the themes and conventions of the dish as a jumping-off point for a new dish?

It is this articulation that can, when exercised with diligence, craft, care and restraint, legitimatize the medium of Westernized Chinese cooking. Of course Red-cooked Chicken made by a Canadian cook with Canadian ingredients will never be the same as the dish created by a Chinese cook with Chinese ingredients, but nevertheless both dishes can be delightful and delicious.

With that lengthy preface aside, I thus present

GONGBAO CHICKPEAS (modified from a version at www.theveglife.com)

Time: 24 hrs marinating, 4 hrs to cook chickpeas (both unattended); 1 hr for final dish.

2 TBSP dark soy sauce
2 TBSP white vinegar
1 TSP sugar
1/2 TSP salt
1 TBL cornstarch
1 TSP oil
1 TBSP chile oil**
Stir well and remember to re-stir before using.

Cooking Sauce:
Into 1/2 cup water mix:
2 TBSP regular soy sauce
1 TBSP balsamic vinegar (you may substitute rice vinegar for this, but in that case don't use the sugar and salt in the cooking sauce unless you taste it and they still need it, in which case do; but balsamic is awesome here)
1 TBSP white vinegar
1 TSP sugar
1/4 TSP salt
1 TSP pepper powder (I used pilli-pilli, which is about as hot as dried birds eye chiles; you could use cayenne or another hot chile powder, or alternately chile flakes, in which case increase to 2 TSP).
Good honking dash white pepper (I just use powdered but you can always use freshly-ground if you like, Martha, though most grinders don't actually create the right texture with white peppercorns)

1c dried chickpeas, rinsed and picked over for stones (alternately use 1x19oz can of chickpeas but they won't taste as good or hold texture as well)
1 penis-sized carrot, oblique cut
I onion-sized onion, quartered and sliced down the grain
5 cloves garlic, crushed
2" piece fresh ginger, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup peanuts (salted or plain doesn't matter but best to avoid the honey-roasted or chocolate-covered varietals)


In a small saucepan cover 1 cup dried chickpeas with water. Bring to a boil, hold for 2 minutes, then turn off burner, cover, and rest 2 hours. Taste a chickpea for doneness. If it's ready -- which, honestly, it likely won't be -- add salt and drain. In the rather more likely event that the chickpea is sorta but not totally done then cook over medium heat for the needed time. Honestly, you're probably an adult, and you can probably figure this out. While you're waiting, check Facebook, read the latest xkcd post, and/or prep other dishes.

Make marinade, and cooking sauce if desired, and add the chickpeas to the marinade (which you've cunningly placed in a plastic container) and refrigerate for at least 19.2 hours but preferably 24 hours.  Go do something else.

To cook:

Sauté onions and carrots until softened slightly, then add chickpeas. If you've forgotten to shake/stir these before you try to dump them into the pan then you'll have an unsightly mess from the cornstarch. You should have read the instructions first.

Use a rubber spatula to move the chickpeas around the pan and watch the sauce slowly thicken and darken. The addition of occasional 2oz splashes of water will not go unrewarded. The idea is to have a lava-esque cooking fluid which finishes the carrots and thoroughly heats the chickpeas. This part can be a bit fiddly because the cornstarch wants to thicken everything and then rather annoyingly burn.

Add the garlic, ginger, and another spludge of chile oil. Cook two minutes or so. Add the cooking sauce, stir well, and let cook until reduced by half.

When the carrots are cooked and the chickpeas hot, taste and correct seasonings***. Add in peanuts, stir briefly, and serve with rice.  I advocate adding a heaping helping of chopped green onions but my lovely wife dislikes them and so I refrain from putting them in recipes. Still, if you added them and then served it to me I wouldn't complain.

*tofu; kimchee; fermented pepper mash (though I've recently been experimenting and may figure that one out yet...); anything at all involving canning. Note that I'm not saying you can't make these at home; I have made them all, with varying degrees of success. It's of my opinion, though, that you can just as easily, and perhaps more easily, purchase a pleasing, consistent and wholesome product.

**I use my own homemade chile oil, the recipe to which is forthcoming. You can use any purchased variety you like, or just make your own. 

***It amazes me how often this is overlooked.  In cooking school we were drilled constantly to remember to taste and correct seasoning, and it's amazing how much of a difference it makes. Here's the basic way to do it:
Taste. If it's not in balance, add salt until you can taste the salt.
Add sugar until you can taste  the sugar, and then
Finish it off with just a dash more salt.

Note that you have to do this just before you serve the dish because if you cook it much longer then the dish can become overly salty (likely) or sweet (less likely but possible). Also please realize that we're talking about a (generous or not) pinch of salt or sugar here -- not a lot.

This is the basic, most easiest way to correct seasoning.  You can also add a splash of an acidic ingredient if the dish needs it, but this particular dish has enough acidity that you usually won't need it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Punk Rock Garlic

Because everything (even fresh and still dirty from the garden garlic) is cooler when you put "punk rock" in front of it.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cooking for Bob

Not pictured: 10lbs potatoes, 2kg rice, 1.8kg macaroni (and, fyi, that's a helluva lot of macaroni) and assorted condiments and snacky things (olives, pickles, etc).
Busy prepping this weekend for Bob's big 80th birthday. We made a whole whack of food for the 36 expected guests and then were a bit surprised when only 29 showed up. Lots and lots and lots of food left over.

He's not a vegan, of course -- though his favourite food is rum, which is kind of from a vegetable -- and so we went vegetarian for most things and vegan where we could.

All the pictured vegetables were used in the meal. I made two big crudité platters plus assorted salads using the rest of the veg. I sneaked in the chilies in a sambal that I left on the side -- didn't want to kill the old folks -- and the garlic was roasted and tossed into the pasta salad and the dip for the veggies. All in all it was a success and people seemed pleased.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Htamin Lethoke

The half-devoured bean sambal

Eating with your hands?

The overview pic about 75% of the way through the meal

 Before last week, I knew very very little about the country of Burma -- aka The Republic of the Union of Myanmar -- aside from their most famous export, shaving cream, of course. There are so many of these little foreign places to know about, and really one can't care about them all. After all, there are hockey playoffs this week.

One would expect that after preparing a meal in the traditional style, though, one would know more, especially about the cuisine.

One would be wrong.

I still know very, very little about the cuisine -- or the country -- of Burma. 

Despite my ignorance (and that could be my life's motto, by golly), I pulled off a meal last week that was somewhat tasty, marginally entertaining and whimsically surreal all at once.

Htamin Lethoke is a traditional Burmese dish. It translates out to "rice mixed with fingers" but perhaps a less-alarming translation would be "finger-mixed rice". It's akin to many non-Western meals wherein a starch -- or, in this case, three: rice, noodles and potatoes -- is the main ingredient in a meal and multiple tiny dishes of more expensive or intensely-flavoured dishes are eaten in little bites on the side. Indonesia has its sambals, India its thali. If you've ever had a rijsttafel you're halfway there. Except for the whole "eating with your fingers" bit, that is.

I prepared for four people -- EvO and myself plus two guests -- but as it turned out we only had one guest and so there was a hell load of food left over. I made ten little sambals (which, I realize, is probably NOT what the Burmese call them. Good, fine, I'm wrong; I don't care. Please don't bother to send me emails telling me the correct term. I. Don't. Care.) :

  • coconut sambal (the orange-red thing; it's flavoured with chilie powder)
  • shaved onion and chilie sambal
  • roasted onion and garlic
  • bean sprout sambal with red and green chilies
  • preserved lemon sambal (using my preserved lemons)
  • green bean sambal (pictured above)
  • cucumbers in coconut milk
  • tofu in black curry
  • tamarind sambal
  • vinegared chilie sambal
I also had two kinds of noodles -- wide rice noodles, like the kind in Pad Thai but bigger, and bean vermicelli like in salad rolls.

From what I've read and seen on the Internet, the more accurate way to eat it would be have a plate of rice and noodles per person onto which little bits of sambal-thingees would be placed and then mixed. Of course I read this AFTER we ate, so we just improvised. As you can see from the pics, we essentially placed a scoop of rice in the centre of the plate and then put little scoops of the sambal around it.

Eating with the fingers was initially a novelty but it soon became invisible and we all forgot that we were doing something so different for our culture. Near the end of the meal I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the cucumbers in the fridge. I pulled them out and gave everyone a scoop of them to try, and what I found very interesting was that we all just casually dug our fingers into a dish of sliced cucumbers in coconut milk without a second thought.

I thought of putting recipes with this post but I don't think you need them, really; it's more of a process than anything. The rice was special, though, and so here's a recipe for it.

Htamin Lethoke style rice
serves 3-6, I guess... normally we'd eat it all but there was lots left over
  • 2 cups long grain white rice (I used Jasmine; you could use basmati)
  • 4 cups of water
  • 2 red Thai chilies, seeded and crushed in your mortar
  • Oil and water, about 2 tbsp each
  • Salt, to taste, afterwards
Cook rice in rice cooker. If you don't have one, you really should buy one.

Place the smooshed chilies into a small saute pan and add oil and water. Cook until it's all smooshy soft and add to cooked rice. Let rice sit for a while as you converse with your guest(s) or prepare more dishes.

Flip and fold the rice until the chile/oil mix has coated each grain of rice equally. Turn out onto a plate. Salt before you do this, of course -- and this will teach you to read a recipe to the end before starting it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pre-game intelligence

Though this may give away a bit more than I'm comfortable with, I'm posting a few pics from today's marathon cooking session.

 Green bean sambal with chilies and garlic. Yummy.

 Bean sprout sambal with red and green chilies. Weird but good.

Chilie sambal. Yummmm but very hot. I picked up these awesome little red Thai chilies at the grocery store today and the cashier was quite concerned that I was buying so many of them. "Most people only buy two or three at a time," she said. "I've never seen anyone buy 250gr before!" Yeah, well, I only bought so few because I already have habaneros and green chilies in my fridge at home.

So far I have ten dishes ready and three more on the back burner, as it were. Should be enough for four people, I hope. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A little K & A

My favourite nudity-optional group activity -- aside from throwing rocks at children in playgrounds, of course -- is dining. Dining with friends, done properly and thus well, is a perfectly blended masala of personality, food, music and setting.

The reality, though, is that if a good dinner party is like a masterfully mixed curry, a bad one is like a re-heated TV dinner slathered with ketchup packets left over from breakfast. The minutiae of deciding whom to invite, and what to serve, and which wines to drink, and how many grams of hallucinogens per person, is simply exhausting. Add an unknown to the mix -- will Marc bring his new boyfriend? Is Stephanie still off yellow foods? -- and it's no wonder dinner parties are rare and frequently disappointing.

If logistics makes having an omnivorous dinner party difficult, having a vegan dinner party is even harder.

It's easy enough for the carnivorous. They just buy an obscenely large hunk of dead animal and cook it. Give the flabby-florid-faced-flesh-eaters enough medium-rare dead cow and they'll forgive over-cooked previously-frozen vegetables, uninspired starches and bottled salad dressings.

Vegans tend to be a snivelling and flatulent lot, and they're bitter to boot, so a bit more effort is needed just to break through the sullen shell of self-righteousness that protects most of us from reality. At least feeding vegans or vegetarians allows the host to touch base on tradition and ring the changes across the canonical dishes of our sub-culture.

"Oh, I just love what you've done to this Lima bean and cabbage casserole, Susan. And that braised tempeh is just perfect!"


The few whom I call my friends, though, would be most unimpressed by such lacklustre efforts whether the food was vegan or not.

It's simply stressful when one invites people into one's home and offers them food from one's own hands. My lovely wife will laugh and tell me that "normal" people don't think like this -- what do you mean, people don't care about the depth of their soup bowls? How can they not? -- but for me, cooking for my friends is performance writ small, a tiny theatre of the senses where every technique is judged, every choice critiqued and every bite assessed. It's intimate and yet frighteningly impersonal, like having sex in front of a panel of Olympic judges with those score card things. My lovely wife says this, also, is not how normal people think. She may be right.

I was a cook and a chef for many years. I have fed five course meals to groups of 300 people and 12 course meals to groups of 40. I have fed governor generals, movie stars, mobsters and tax accountants.

But when I'm feeding my friends, I stress. This might be because I have profound yet un-diagnosed mental health issues or -- or! -- it might be because my friends are sophisticated and amazing and generally high maintenance freaks who expect and deserve a culinary experience worthy of my love for them.

In addition, I am unwilling to entertain the idea that any of my friends might actually not care about what I feed them or -- quelle horreur! -- actually prefer a simpler dish. Such people would certainly never have made it past the background checks and interviews.

Case in point: whereas the ideal recipe for obese meat-eating sweaty-armpitted plebeians might include:

  • three to five easily bought ingredients,
  • five or six minutes of prep time,
  • one pot or pan maximum, and,
  • no more than 30 minutes of total effort,

dishes for my food-obsessed bons amis shall instead consist of
  • many obscure and/or illegal ingredients,
  • several days/weeks/months of prep time,
  • two or more new cooking utensils and/or single-use gadgets (preferably purchased in situ), and,
  • at least -- at least -- a working knowledge of Urdu, Mandarin, Thai or Hmong.

A demanding crowd, one might suggest.

Some of my friends might object to this characterization.

"No, no, not us... we're simple folk with simple tastes," they'll purr, manicured fingers knowingly caressing a fig.

Ha. Liars. One may not choose one's family, only one's friends, it is said. This is simply wrong, an inane aphorism coined by a moron. One's friends are not chosen but are instead an inescapable consequence of one's life. I'm thankful that my life choices have led me to the friends I have, and I treasure my friends, but simple they are not.

I am having two amazing and sophisticated women over for dinner this week -- which will simply add to, but not overshadow in any way the amazing and sophisticated babe-a-licious wife I am blessed with -- and I'm stressing about the menu. I want to serve something that will be absolutely perfect for the occasion and I vacillate between tried-and-true (that I know will be good but also runs the risk of being predictable) and never-before-tried (that might entirely flop BUT could also be a totally perfect orgasmic degustation).

Both are complex meals, of course, and both involve lots of prep work. Since I'm having them over on Friday, and today is Wednesday (okay, actually really early Thursday morning), I had better get on with it.

More afterwards...

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Well of course one could have called it Faux Pho, but really... too easy.

The lifestyle choice that we have made has downsides, of course, not least of which is enduring disapprobation from fleshy flesh eaters. We are forced to defend or explain our eating habits to persons for whom "balanced diet" means a side of coleslaw and who feel compelled (despite having virtually no understanding of the science behind it) to query our daily consumption of protein. We get the gamut from "Oh, my kids won't eat it," (to which I cheerfully suggest, "Well, put your kids up for adoption then! Or have them put to sleep!") to "I'd miss meat too much."

Strangest, perhaps, is when people try to justify to me why they aren't vegan.

"Oh yeah, like, I tried a vegan diet for like... three hours and man! My stomach was killing me, y'know, and so I, like, had to go back to meat, man. It was brutal, y'know? Yeah, I just don't think it's for me."

When all the arguments are said and done, though, there remains a great gulf between those who will and won't go vegan. Even if it was only one day a week, the health and environmental benefits would be astounding, and the scientific evidence of the benefits of a plant-dense diet is overwhelming. It leads me to the conclusion that those who refuse to go at least part-time vegan are socially irresponsible, morally lax and unworthy of voting privileges, health care and access to clean water. At the very least, they should be spit upon at every possible convenience.

That being ranted, though, there are some things that a vegan diet does not provide. Chief amongst these is excellent pho.

I have been a phan of pho forever. What's not to like, really? A huge bowl of rice noodles, bean sprouts, chilies, lime, cilantro, rare beef, beef tripe, beef balls... ooops. Yeah, that's the problem. In my mind, at least, the experience of pho is the experience of beef. The soup itself is always beef broth, anyway, so having it at a restaurant has never been an option.

But on a cold April evening, with the temperature dipping to a chilly 4 degrees (hey! for Kelowna, that's cold. We had to cancel the outdoor yoga), a steaming bowl of pho was calling to us. And so we (finally...) get to:

Vegan Pho Version 1.0
serves between 2 and 6, depending on level of piggishness. We ate it all with a bowl left over for Erika's lunch the next day, but then we eat massive amounts of food. Just sayin'.

For the soup:
  • 6 cups lovingly hand made veggie stock*
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1 cup dried sliced mushrooms you bought during your Chinese phase
  • 12 (yes, a full dozen, don't be a wimp) cloves garlic, whole
  • 3-5 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 3" piece of ginger, peeled and grated (or ~3 tbsp ground ginger in a jar)
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • good sploosh of rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp peppercorns
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 star anise (you have some in the cupboard behind the agar powder)
  • a handful or two of cilantro stems
*or, 6c water and stock powder, stock cubes, or packaged stock. Don't suffer for this meal; just use what you have.

For the meal
  • diced tofu (extra firm or soft only. You may not use medium tofu for this)*
  • bean sprouts, blanched for 10 seconds in boiling water and then shocked
  • 1 package 1/4"** rice noodles, soaked in boiling water until soft (about 20 minutes or more; start it when you begin this whole process or your noodles could be crunchy, and it's not like they'll get too mushy)
  • diced green onion
  • fresh cilantro leaves, shredded
  • mini bird's eye chilies, or sambal oelek
  • lime wedges (not lime juice from a little plastic bottle)
  • fresh basil leaves, if you must
*Yes, you may. I. Don't. Care.
**I initially used the wider 1/2" noodles but really don't like them so I recommend the smaller ones -- about the width of fettuccine. Your call, but don't blame me if you don't follow my directions and thus make an utterly inedible mess of my beautiful recipe.


In Mr. Food Processor, place onions, soy, ginger, sugar, and rice vinegar. Pulse, pulse, pulse. Put into stock pot to which you have, fittingly, added the stock. Add mushrooms, cinnamon sticks, star anise, garlic cloves and cilantro. Using your lovely mortar and pestle, crush the peppercorns into dust and add. You may also use that ridiculously long pepper grinder you received as a wedding gift. I won't tell.

Simmer until nice and, umm, simmered.

Meanwhile, soak rice noodles. Dice tofu, keeping at least some of it out of the clutches of your raw-tofu-mad wife. Prepare everything else in the usual manner by carefully plating it onto your finest Asian supermarket serving ware.

Once your noodles are well soaked and thus limp (ahem), prepare a bowl of pho in this fashion:

  • Bring soup to a boil after straining solids.
  • Boil a kettle of water and cover the drained noodles with it. This will heat up the noodles.
  • Place a scoop of beansprouts in the bottom of a nice large bowl, preferably with fish decorated on the side of it
  • Cover with a generous scoop of noodles, even if your wife complains that she only wants half that amount. She'll eat it, don't worry.
  • Cover with boiling hot stock, just until the noodles are submerged
  • Toss a few chilies and cubes of tofu onto the top of the stock
  • Sprinkle with green onions, cilantro leaves, optional basil and a lime wedge