Friday, April 01, 2005

Friday Supper and Zen: the Art of the Noodle.

Red-Braised Gammon Shank Noodle Soup with Sweet and Sour Tofu and Mangetout.

I rarely cook noodles. The overriding importance in any noodle soup I find, rests not on the wheat/rice component but on the quality of the stock its cooked in. A great stock can elevate the lowliest of noodles to a major eating experience, of which raises the level of competitiveness between noddle stalls all over SE Asia (Watch the film 'Tampopo'!). I've read of a Vietnamese beef pho noddle stand that has kept its beef stock going for over 40 years. I can't imagine how rich that must taste. But how wonderful for someone visiting the same stand after a decade and re-discovering a taste of the past..

Tonight's efforts began sometime yesterday afternoon when I made Red Cooked Pork Shank, a stew made with the hock end of the pig, an animal much loved by the Chinese. Its very much a comfort food thing for me, the long-cooking time and the subsequent and unfashionable gelatinous nature of the casserole really bring back smells that fill my home with a fragrance of somewhere and sometime else. The key ingredients are: star anise, ginger, chili bean paste, soy sauce (dark and light), salt and sugar and water. All in a pot with the lid on and simmer for at least 4 hours..or 4 days. Its failsafe cooking and the meat falls away from the bone and goes deliciously soft. Its not much to look at, so decorate with some chopped scallion before bringing to the table.

Left over from a pot of shabu shabu the other night, I also made sweet and sour tofu stirfried with mangetout. Chinese cooking and the 'stirfry' seems to be some kind of holy grail of quick cookery, and rightfully so. But the crucial ingredient lies not in MSG or any secret marinade, but more in the use of FIRE. I have an electric hob in the kitchen, being a student and renting means that installing gas would be like waving a red rag at a chip pan fire, this doens't bide well for really great stir-frying. Getting the wok insanely hot and flavouring the oil with ginger and garlic means everything gets chopped and prepared beforehand is pretty much all the secret preparation there is. And as for the mysterious ingredient behind the 'sweet and sour' restaurant flavour? Tomato ketchup. Takeaways often try to replicate 'homestyle' dishes, lemon this, sweet and sour that, black bean everything. Its really not very nice, at least as it is sold in this country where Chinese food really doesn't have the same status as the exoticism of Thai cuisine and you get the feeling that these businesses wouldn't be eating anything like what they sell in their homes.It all comes down to what sells though and I think that attitude rests on basic ignorance of the variance of cuisine within a landmass larger than Europe. Like anything it will slowly change as developments in the East get under way in the next few decades and food knowledge becomes more egalitarian and not just hte preserve of the well-travelled and epicurious.

Fail-safe Sweet and Sour Tofu with Mangetout

  • Firm tofu, cubed.
  • Trimmed mangetout
  • 1 tbsp ginger and garlic/spring onion
  • 3 tablespoons of each: vinegar, tomato ketchup or puree, sugar
  • 1 tbsp of water
  • salt and white pepper
  • 1 tsp cornflour mixed with 1 tbsp water(optional)

Heat wok as high as it will go with some oil, put tofu into the pan and cook on all sides until brown, the patterns that begin to form on tofu start to go doily like and start to look chintzy, which is your cue to lift it out and put somewhere safe. Re-heat the wok and briefly fry the ginger/garlic/spring onion alliums until fragrant. Chuck in mangetout and stir fry, the colours really come alive at this point. Tip in the cooked tofu and add the mixed marinade of vinegar, tomato, sugar. Mix until everything takes on that reddish colour we all know and love, at this point you can add the cornflour to thicken into a sauce, but I often find that it doesn't need it. But if you must, the longer you cook it, the goopier it becomes with the flour addition.

I love these bowls, they cost around 2 pounds from most Chinese supermarkets and the fish motif always makes me smile.

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