Sunday, October 31, 2010

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper--and "fish-fragrant" aubergines

I have a confession to make. I have lived in Hong Kong for seven months, and I have not yet come to love Cantonese food. I do enjoy Hong Kong as a place to live, and I am starting to feel comfortable here as we make friends, start to fit in at work, and become more settled. But the cuisine has been a more difficult matter.

The simple Cantonese dishes I really like: such as steamed prawns with garlic, or green vegetables lightly dressed with soy sauce. But quite a lot of the main dishes are too slimy for me. I have tried chicken feet, for example, for bragging rights, of course. After popping the foot into my mouth and eating off the sauce and cartilage, I spit out the bones like any Hong Konger. I ate a serving, but did I like them? No, much too strange to be eating those slimy and gristly bits by choice. Will this feeling of aversion ever change?

October's Kitchen Reader selection hit me head-on. It's the memoir of Fuchsia Dunlop, an English food writer, and her career-forming experiences living in China. When Dunlop moved to Chengu, in the Chinese province of Sichuan, she dove headlong into the cuisine. She had a few queasy moments, but about half way though her book, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, she realises she has come to enjoy Chinese food like a local. She no longer is phased by the "grapple factor" of the dishes she is served. "Texture is the last frontier," she writes, "for Westerners learning to appreciate Chinese food. Cross it, and you're really inside." After more than five years delving into Chinese cookery, she had crossed the threshold into relishing differing textures. Dunlop describes a dinner with her parents when they came to visit her in Sichuan, in which she ordered without thinking--and found her mum and dad struggling to take pleasure in the goose intestines, ox throat cartilage, and rabbits' kidney as she was doing.

I can't pretend to have crossed the frontier of texture. I find Chinese food contains strange ingredients--such as intestines--and tends to be more gelatinous than I would choose. For example, chicken dishes are usually made not with breast meat, but with the dark meat along with its fat, tendons, cartilage, and skin still attached. Hong Kongers love those rubbery bits; I find them unappealing (though this is an improvement from my opinion of "disgusting" a few months ago).

But Dunlop chronicles her journeys through Chinese food with fascinating anecdotes and honesty. She made me feel more dedicated to the idea of getting to know the Chinese, their language, and their culture more. Her stories are engaging and fascinating--and most surprisingly of all, I found myself wanting to try some of the recipes in her book.

My first seemed the most accessible--"fish-fragrant" aubergines. In fact, this is a vegetarian side dish. "Fish-fragrant" is a name for the flavourings used in tradiational fish cookery: a bit of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. According to Dunlop, it "engages the palate simultaneously on several levels." And I was pleasantly surprised--both Ant and I enjoyed our side dish of fish-fragrant aubergines, and I would even make it again.
Fish-Fragrant Aubergines
adapted from Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop
serves 3-4 as a side dish

600-700 g aubergines (2 medium)
4 T groundnut oil (or vegetable oil), divided
1 1/2 T Sichuanese chilli bean paste
1 T finely chopped garlic (about 3 cloves)
1 T finely chopped ginger
150 ml stock or water
1 t fruit sugar (or 1 1/2 t white sugar)
1/2 t soy sauce
3/4 t corn starch (or potato flour), mixed with 1 T cold water
1 1/2 t rice wine vinegar (for example, Chinkiang)
4 spring onions, green parts, sliced into rings
1 t sesame oil

Chop the aubergines into large bite-sized pieces. Toss with some salt and set aside for up to 30 minutes. Rinse and drain well.
In a wok or large frying pan, heat 2 T groundnut oil until very hot. Add the aubergine and toss frequently to cook through until soft and buttery with a crispy skin. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add 2 T more oil and heat. Add the chilli paste and cook for 3 minutes, until the oil is red and fragrant.
Add the garlic and ginger and cook for one further minute. Add the stock or water, sugar, and soy sauce, along with the aubergines. Bring to the boil and let simmer for a few minutes for aubergines to become well flavoured.
Add the corn starch and water and stir to thicken the sauce. Add the vinegar and spring onions and cook briefly to allow spring onions to lose their rawness.
Remove from the heat and stir in the sesame oil.

I'm curious to see what the other Kitchen Readers thought of Dunlop's book and her descriptions of the enjoyment of (or repulsion from) Chinese food. Please visit the group's blog to read their reviews.


Anonymous said...

The aubergine recipe sounds good! I would imagine that it's a long process to adapt to and then enjoy a new cuisine. Good for you for trying - especially for trying chicken feet!

I ran out of time and didn't get to read this book, but it does sound interesting and enjoyable. Are you in Hong Kong permanently or temporarily?

Sarah said...

Hi Jill, we are here for two to five years, I think. I'm trying to think of it as permanent. Feeling at home is a slow process, though, and the food isn't making it easier. But I'm making small steps. :) I'm not quite done the book yet, but I'm really enjoying it. There are some grim bits, though, and some of the descriptions of the food that the Chinese eat is scary.

The next month's book doesn't appeal to me much: Heat by Bill Buford, a restaurant kitchen one. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Hi Sarah, what an experience it must be to live in Hong Kong! I'm sure there are pros and cons, but I hope to have the opportunity to live in another country someday.

I haven't looked into the next book yet, but I enjoy reading about restaurant kitchens, so it sounds promising to me. I better get going so I get that one done next month.

Jennifer said...

I have lived just outside Boston for 3 years-and I can't stomach clam chowder. I know that is totally different, though!

I love your review and am so glad that you took the time to read it and that it resonated with you!-I have been a slack leader these last two months and didn't get to this book, I'm even late in my comments-my apologies!!!

Sarah said...

Jill, I am thinking about skipping November--and then it's my own selection in December. :) Let me know what you think about Heat.

Jennifer, it's funny, isn't it, about regional food. I hope I can maintain a sense of adventure as Dunlop did in China. There are far too many opportunities for disgust, otherwise!

Hilary said...

Sorry to hear you're not wild about the local cuisine, Sarah. I would be in HEAVEN in HK! In fact, I simply can't wait to make this after the holidays as an excellent antidote to all that turkey and rich Xmas food.

Sarah said...

Hilary, you should come visit, then! :) (I am actually serious; let me know if you want to...!) I usually choose vegetable dishes (like this one) at Chinese restaurants since they I avoid the funny textures of meats there. Please let me know if you try the recipe.

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