A foray into Ethiopian flavors

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Today’s attempt at a plate of wot and vegetables

Please allow for a temporary distraction from the great Asia-focused food in Philadelphia. Don’t get me wrong, this is an exciting time for new Asian food items–it seems every day there is something new–but I’d like to share a recent revelatory food experience I had at an Ethiopian shop in West Philadelphia. As many of you know, West Philly is a place where Ethiopian food is well represented, with restaurants and store supplies of spices, unroasted coffees and piles of injera (on that last item there was a really nice highlight by Alex Jones on the “West Philly’s injera lady” in the summer issue of Edible Philly).

For several years I have been fascinated with Ethiopian food, and particularly with the rich meat-based stews and various vegetable and lentil sides. I sought out insights on basic recipes in any English-language book I could find (often through interlibrary loan) and I ended up with a lot of respect for two books: the 1970 TimeLife book on African Cooking, and Daniel Mesfin’s 1993 Exotic Ethiopian Cooking. I was pleased with the recipes from those books for the most essential Ethiopian flavors: spiced red pepper powder berbere, and for the spiced clarified butter niter kibeh. While those key ingredients produced delicious stews, there were always a puzzling difference in flavor notes when I compared my dishes with Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants. Today I finally learned why that was, and about the spices that had previously eluded me…

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Some of today’s shopping: Berbere spicy blend of chiles and spices top left, korerima Ethiopian “false cardamom” seeds right, and besobela and kosseret bottom left

The Rift Valley Grocery Store (715 S. 52nd St) is a small corner store that looks like many others in Philadelphia neighborhoods. A bulletproof glass cage surrounds the cashier with cigarettes and lottery tickets, and that enclosure is accompanied by two racks of non-perishable goods and a cooler. Those non-perishables though–there are some rare items! I started my exploration with the ground berbere and other unmarked spice blends, and I ended up getting schooled a bit on my very narrow understanding of Ethiopian spices.

I questioned a plastic container of something that resembled dried thyme, and the shopkeeper said it was besobela, something important for clarifying butter (i.e. for preparing kibeh). After getting into a discussion about the way I had been doing it (i.e. by simmering butter and hard spices like fenugreek, clove, cinnamon, [green] cardamom), the shopkeeper was amused and surprised. She said, “some of those secondary ingredients are fine, but you should have at least the three key components for clarifying butter: besobela, kosseret, and korerima.”

I assumed these were probably Amharic translations for some of the things I was already using. But then she started opening containers and having me smell them. I was dumbfounded by a strong aroma of these extremely fragrant herbs and surprised I hadn’t encountered these before in books. The strong smell of Kossaret reminded me immediately of hops, and besobela had a sharp smell of Ethiopian holy basil. She asked how much butter I was clarifying, and she graciously prepared me a mixed batch of kosseret and besobela to take home to correct my kibeh. I had already located the third spice korerima at an Indian grocery in University City (International Foods & Spices at 4203 Walnut).

As soon as I got home, I started scouring the internet to make sense of what I had experienced. I quickly found the excellent site How to Cook Great Ethiopian Food, and confirmed Rift Valley Grocery’s suggestions. I happily went forward with correcting my kibeh.

I also went forward with preparing a decent dorowat (chicken stew with onions and berbere). Again, following the advice of the site How to Cook Great Ethiopian Food, I first prepared a garam masala like spice mix used to finish wot stews called mekelesha:

Here are the ingredients I used to make my dorowot:

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Ingredients for doro wot, from clockwise from top left: Chicken, onions, ginger, garlic, olive oil, mekelesha, lemon, eggs, kibeh, and berbere in center

I blended a whole bag of onions, which are one of the key base flavors for many Ethiopian dishes, especially for dorowot. The first cooking step for dorowot is quite unlike any other cuisine culture that I know of: the finely shredded onions are dry-fried without oil for upwards of one hour (caution: this will make your house/apartment smell strongly of onions for some days!):

These onions need to be frequently stirred to keep them from burning. When they have changed colors to an earthy ochre, other ingredients can be added to build up the stew. It is very interesting how these onions set the stage for the wot.

I suggest checking out HTCGEF’s video on dorowot for suggestions on the typical effort that goes into this stew (i.e. the many hours). Basically after the onions are ready, a lot of oil and kibeh are added and then garlic, ginger, berbere. The onions are further melded with these flavors for another hour. Finally lemon-marinated chicken and shelled hard boiled eggs are added. The stew is finished with a sprinkling of mekelesha.

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My dorowot, to be included in a broader collection of dishes with injera later

I didn’t attempt to make my own injera–but I do see this as a key complimentary flavor to dorowot. As many of you know, that is a multi-day process that also is best done on a special griddle. Fortunately for me, injera is pretty easy to come by in West Philly. I got a bag at International Foods & Spices on Walnut St. To accompany injera and wot I also boiled some split yellow peas (yekik alicha) and fried some cabbage, onions, and carrots, as sides, along with some leftover sweet potato greens and pickled beets, and a dollop of sour cream:


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Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, - Unique food traditions, Non-Asian | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Grilled long eggplant, two ways

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Cambodian-style grilled eggplant with fried pork

It is a nice day for grilling, and I’d like to use up a few ugly vegetables I have kicking around in the fridge. Some lovely hardwood smoke will do wonders to make these guys shine, and the preparation couldn’t be simpler. I’ll do two dishes featuring grilled long eggplant (sometimes called Japanese eggplant): a dish based on a popular night market street food in Cambodia, and another based on a simplified Lao jaew dip to eat with vegetables and sticky rice.

Long eggplant is pretty versatile. It is excellent stir fried or braised, either together with meat or on its own, and it doesn’t require any special preparation to remove bitterness like its larger Western cousin often does–you can simply cut it up and toss it into a pan. Grilling long eggplant is even easier–just put it over the coals.

Create a street food ambiance–use hardwood charcoal

I really like using hardwood charcoal. Once it is lit, memories come flooding back. I am reminded of nights around a campfire, winter in Northern Asia, and best of all, night markets of China and Southeast Asia. Wood coal is one of the most common cooking fuels in Asia for many amazing street foods.

This preparation is incredibly forgiving. The skins of the eggplants, tomato, shallots, garlic, and chiles will be discarded. The inside bits are what we’ll be using. That means these items can even be a bit charred on the outside and still pick up positive smoke elements while they have cooked through on the inside.

My coals are probably too hot for these items (especially for those Thai chiles–which I couldn’t salvage in the end). If I was grilling meat, it’d be burnt. I keep the grill covered to get some nice smoke going, and grill these things for about 15 minutes. The eggplants and tomatoes should be nice and soft. The garlic and shallot may need more time.


Cambodian grilled eggplant (with fried pork) – dot trab ដុតត្រប់

This popular Cambodian street food seems to be commonly prepared two ways. It can be grilled and then halved and topped with a fried minced meat (here is a nice video example from Luke Nguyen’s Greater Mekong from SBS, and here is another video in Khmer from 2Day Cooking for comparison). The other common preparation is to coarsely chop the grilled eggplant flesh to mix together with fried minced meat. I am cooking this one. There is a video from Khatiya Korner that you can see that follows the second preparation. My other source for this dish came from a long conversation with a shop keeper at my favorite Cambodian market (thanks Molina!)

Fry shallot, garlic, and chile in some oil and add pork. Break up the meat small and season with palm sugar, oyster sauce, fermented soy bean sauce (optional), and fish sauce. Taste for seasonings. When flavors are strong, toss in the chopped eggplant, mix to finish, and plate with some chopped cilantro on top.


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Lao-style grilled eggplant dip – jaew makeuayao แจ่วมะเขือยาว

Jaew is a perfect accompaniment to fresh or blanched crunchy vegetables and sticky rice. A few years ago I posted on two other equally delicious jaew preparations: a grilled oyster mushroom jaew, and jaew bong. Today’s jaew is modified slightly from a more common grilled tomato jaewjaew makeuatet/jaew maklen (แจ่วมะเขือเทศ/ແຈ່ວໝາກເລັ່ນ). I really like the addition of eggplant. This preparation is incredibly simple. Char eggplants, shallots, garlic, tomatoes and chiles over coals (or under the broiler, or even over a gas flame). After grilled soft, take off skins. Bash aromatics in a mortar and pestle. Coarsely chop eggplant and tomato and add that to the mortar and pestle and continue to bash/combine. Season to taste with fish sauce and lime juice.

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Lao-style roasted eggplant and tomato dip–a perfect accompaniment to sticky rice and crunchy vegetables

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, Cambodian food, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sino-Thai Sunday brunch: bakuteh and batonggo

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Today I recreated a food experience from last summer in Bangkok, when my sisters-in-law took me out for a Chinese-style brunch at a place that specialized in “meat bone tea” (肉骨茶), or as locals in Thailand/Malaysia/Singapore/Indonesia refer to as bakuteh บะกุ๊ดเต๋. The meat and mushroom stew was savory and delicious, and interestingly, it was served together with deep fried dough known as batonggo ปาท่องโก๋, which I’ve only ever eaten with a sweet accompaniment of soymilk or sweetened condensed milk. I preferred it with the savory stew!

Here are a few images from that experience:

A story about Batonggo ปาท่องโก๋

Deep-fried dough is a classic breakfast item among Chinese communities all throughout Southeast Asia (and also China of course). I referenced these cousins of batonggo (the Chinese youtiao and the Indonesian cakwe) last year in my post on the incredibly indulgent Javanese-style chicken and rice porridge. Like the name of that item, in most other Southeast Asian communities this is referred to as “oil-fried devil” in Chinese dialects, sounding something like “yaujagwai” เหยาจากวั๋ย 油炸鬼. This is supposedly a reference to a traitor to the Song Dynasty. Apparently Chinese patriots revel in eating effigies of that person. In Thailand, these do often look strangely people-like…

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Today’s first batch of batonggo–they were crisp and perfectly chewy


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Storebought youtiao 油條 for comparison

In Mandarin Chinese and in mainland China, it is now generally referred to as youtiao 油条 (i.e. oil-fried strip).

Strangely, in Thailand the name of this food was originally meant for another food altogether. Supposedly (wiki reference–FYI) vendors used to sell youtiao and another sweet fluffy cake, baitangguo 白糖糕 together. Their shouts advertising their products ended up making the name for the fluffy cake equal to the name of the fried cruller. So now the name batonggo is widely understood to be the youtiao or cakwe cruller.

IMG_6753While I was in Thailand last summer I found a cookbook specializing in batonggo (left). I’ve long been planning to test out some recipes (freshly fried crullers are light years better than the ones in the freezer section), but there was one ingredient in recipes that I had some trouble finding: ammonia bicarbonate. This is a type of baking powder that has a pretty strong odor out of the jar, but that odor dissipates and the chemical helps to make a crispy texture for the fried dough. I ended up accidentally stumbling upon this ingredient while I was browsing for Lebanese spices at Makkah Market in West Philly last week.

Batonggo dough has three leaveners: baking powder, yeast, and ammonia bicarbonate. The other kind of unusual thing in batonggo recipes is after the preliminary mixing and kneading, dough needs to rest for at least three hours. As batonggo is generally a breakfast thing, I decided it would be good to mix and rest the dough the night before, and then chill it in the refrigerator until it was time to shape and fry.

As usual for specialty Thai meals/dishes, the YouTube series MrFoodTravelTV had great instructional videos on both of these foods: batonggo and bakuteh. These programs are in Thai, but they should be pretty easy to follow if you recognize the ingredients (which are usually posted on their page in Thai and English).

IMG_6747After I prepared my batonggo dough, I decided I should also do the “meat bone tea” the night before too. It was late and I was lazy–so I cheated and used a pre-mixed set of spices that La brought back from Malaysia (see right). To mix your own spices, see that MrFoodTravelTV video above for suggestions. Key flavors of the broth include garlic, white peppercorn, and “Chinese medicinals” (most commonly including dried sliced roots and barks–similar to my lushui recipe for guilin mifen stock). If you prefer to try the instant route, Southeast Asian markets may have a pouch of spices marked with the characters 肉骨茶. You still need at least one whole head of garlic, meat with bones (I used pork short ribs), mushrooms/vegetables, dark and light soy sauces, sugar, and oyster sauce (these create that dark broth that is well-known in Klang, Malaysia (and is similar to my restaurant memory from Bangkok).

 

This fried dough is not rocket science. To get perfect shapes though, you’ll need to play with it a bit. ANY shape dough will taste the same though, and keep in mind that for serving with something like bakuteh, even the ugliest of these “oil fried devils” can be sliced into a bowl and be made quite attractive.

The traditional “X” shape is done by pinching two flat strips of dough together in the center with a dab of water. I found that dough strips of one inch became two inches when I pulled them off the counter. Approximately two inch-long is what you are shooting for.

I have to say, about half of my effort did not look as nice as the ones above. They did well enough to sliced in a bowl next to the finished set (top image) though.

Measurements: 3 cups of flour (I ended up with at least 3 1/2 cups due to an extremely sticky dough), 1.5 tsp sugar, 3/4 tsp yeast, 3/5 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp ammonia bicarbonate (or carbonate), 1 tsp salt, 1 3/4 cups water.

The steps were simple. Add all leaveners, salt and sugar to the water. Dissolve well. Mix in the flour until you have a consistent dough that can be rested. Mine was stickier than typical bread or noodle dough, for example. Let rest for 3-4 hours (or overnight in the fridge). Flour the counter and form into a flat strip about 1/4 inch thick that you can slice into smaller strips. Again, shoot for 2″ pieces to go into the hot oil. Fry until golden–pieces will need to be flipped (I use chopsticks for that).

By morning my stew was perfect for preparing an individual portion. I put some of the stewed ribs into a shaguo 砂锅 clay pot with reconstituted shiitake mushrooms and bone broth. I topped that off with enoki mushrooms and cilantro and sliced batonggo to serve.

 

A classic food of the Chinese emigre communities of Southeast Asia! Hope you try it and enjoy it!

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Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, Chinese food, Malay/Indonesian food, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The pleasures of sour kimchi and kimchi stew

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Kimchi is a great accompaniment to rice, soup, and stir fry dishes. After a jar (or tub) has been kept for several weeks however, it starts to get sour. That can also be delicious as it is, but many would use it only for cooking after it starts getting sour. The flavor on its own is very intense, but in cooking, a deep flavor is added to soups, pancakes, and stir fried dishes.

Kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae 김치찌개) is one of my favorite things to eat. Sour kimchi and kimchi brine impart a deep base flavor to the soup, and chile powder and gochujang add a nice spicy bite. This stew is a perfect meal with rice. Best yet, the dish can consist of pantry ingredients and “this and that” that might be around the fridge. Pork, fish, and even canned tuna are delicious in this soup, and soft tofu adds a nice texture.

I had a jar of kimchi in the fridge for about a month, and the flavors were getting strong. It was time to assemble a nice stew.

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Key ingredients in today’s kimchi stew, clockwise: egg, tofu, sugar, gochujang (red tub), doenjang (brown tub), old kimchi, chile flakes, sliced onion, chopped garlic, green onion, chopped pork belly

I love cooking in clay, and I have enjoyed my Korean black clay pots (ttukbaegi 뚝배기) for some years now. These pots can be found at Philadelphia Korean markets (Hmart, Saehan, Ko Ba Woo) and can be comfortably used on top of a gas ranges and even electric tops, and they really hold onto heat. I think this dish is best customized based on size of pot, items available, and personal preference. Today this is what I had:

  • 1/3 lb coarsely chopped pork belly
  • 1/2 medium sized white onion, sliced
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped sour kimchi and 1/3rd cup juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp+ Korean chile flakes (gochugaru)
  • 1/2 block of tofu
  • 1 Tbsp doenjang
  • 1 Tbsp gochujang
  • pinch sugar (if necessary), salt (if necessary), vinegar (if necessary)
  • egg
  • green onions, chopped

This is such a forgiving stew that you can put these items in nearly any order and the outcome should be good. The egg should be last though, unless you want it hard cooked.

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I started with some oil in the bowl, and frying the onions, garlic, and pork belly. Add in the chopped kimchi and kimchi juice. Add some stock. I used a basic Korean-style anchovy, kelp, and radish stock as suggested by Maangchi. Maangchi is a pretty well-known food celebrity at this point, but if you are not familiar with her and common home-style dishes like kimchi jjigae, she has some terrific videos for making most things. Check out her page on kimchi jjigae for reference.

I hope you try this very simple and delectable dish!

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Fenugreek, a delicious herb/vegetable

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Spiced potatoes fried with fenugreek leaves (aloo methi) a South Asian classic

Fenugreek has long been used in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia in cooking and medicine. Today in the US it is perhaps best known as a spice component of cuisines of India, but it also has an important place within Ethiopian, Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Jewish cuisines. When visiting Philadelphia’s Sino-Southeast Asian markets on Washington Ave, as well as Indian and Pakistani markets in the West and Northeast, fenugreek seeds will be easily spotted in the spice aisles by the oddly cubic shapes of the seeds. These seeds are slightly bitter and sweet and have a lingering taste that is an essential ingredient in many curry and masala spice mixtures.

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Fenugreek seeds and vegetable

The vegetable that these seeds come from is an interesting one to cook with, and lately I’ve been seeing some nice fresh bunches of leaves in my explorations of markets in nearby Norristown (Northwest of Philadelphia).

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a bunch of Fenugreek leaves, found at West Norriton Farmers Market in Norristown

If you aren’t familiar with the West Norriton Farmers Market (aka Super Gigante-located at ), I highly recommend checking it out. It is a huge and fascinating  international grocery store that caters largely to Mexican and broader South American and Caribbean tastes, but also has substantial East and South Asian representation with some unusual finds in the produce section.

For example, do you know what a chayote is? Well they had three different kinds of fresh chayote, including the thorny one. Pretty well-stocked for tropical produce.

Fenugreek (often labeled with the Hindi name methi) leaves seem to be a standard offering at this market, and they are sold in bunches with the roots submerged in water. I find this to be a very interesting food that kind of crosses the line between herb and vegetable. I’m only just getting to know how to use it, but today I’ll share two dishes that highlight this flavorful green. In both cases, the tender leaves and stems are first taken off and washed before adding to the dish.

Fenugreek leaves with brown lentils

This first version I based on an interesting recipe that I found here for a Maharastrian Style moong dal salad (मेथी भाजी). I had regular Canadian brown lentils available and decided to substitute. It was delicious, and I feel like the leaves added a slightly tangy note to the salad.

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For an approximate recipe please visit that link–as you might be able to tell, the active ingredients in this salad were sliced shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, ground toasted spices, asofetida, and chile.

 

Another popular way to use fresh fenugreek leaves is to cook them with bite-sized spiced potatoes. Young potatoes were also an attractive purchase at the store today, so I made some aloo methi (i.e. potatoes a la fenugreek).

Aloo methi आलू मेथी

This dish’s preparation is even simpler than the lentil salad, and all the steps can be done in one pan. This looks like a recipe that has some pretty standard components (after a quick survey). Usually the fry starts with some whole cumin seeds, chiles, and potatoes in oil or ghee, and powdered spices are added (usually turmeric, asofetida, chile, salt and ginger or garlic). Add a touch of water if the potatoes are going to burn. Add in the whole bunch of cleaned detatched fenugreek leaves and cook until the potatoes are done and the leaves are wilted. Finish off with powdered mango powder or a squeeze of lemon/lime juice.

 

Some recipes used more greens than potatoes. I think next time I’ll go that route. While I enjoyed these results–it was perfectly spiced and addictive, more greens would better balance that starchy potato (as I was also planning to eat this with rice).

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I already had prepared a few Nepali-inspired dishes, a fried mustard greens with ajowan seeds and a black dal with jimbu (which I posted about a few years ago). Altogether, it was a nice weekend meal.

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Aloo methi, eaten together with otherwise Nepali-inspired black dal, fried mustard greens, and chickpea tarkha

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A Chinese pan-fried flatbread and “Chinese hamburger”

IMG_6188As the cuisine of China’s interior becomes popular in US cities (i.e. among the popular Xi’an-themed restaurants in NYC and Philadelphia–see here for my past post on that topic), items like “Chinese hamburger” are slowly becoming commonplace on menus at Chinese restaurants.

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A Chinese food cart selling baozi and roujiamo in Madison, Wisconsin in 2013

Roujiamo 肉夹馍 is a popular street food in China’s north and northwest (but it is now pretty much everywhere), consisting of a bland wheat flour flatbread–the “mo” in roujiamo–sliced into a pocket and packed with a coarsely chopped slow-cooked fatty marinated meat. The finished product is a very satisfying greasy snack: a slightly crispy exterior filled with a juicy and savory punch of intensely seasoned fatty meat.

If you want to try a local restaurant version of this Chinese street food, Xi’an Sizzling Woks has a pretty good standard. The new Henan restaurant (that has “Authentic Lanzhou Pulled Noodles” on its sign at the corner of Arch and 10th) also has a delicious version. All the local versions I know in Philadelphia are with pork. In the Muslim Chinese heartland, a fatty mutton version is preferred.

If you want to try to prepare this at home, read on. I’ve been working on my ideal roujiamo and today I had pretty satisfactory results with a slow cooked pork belly.

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I think the hardest part to a great roujiamo is getting the bread right. In China this style of bread is called baijimo 白吉馍. In Shaanxi, it is occasionally prepared in an oven, but it is perhaps more often witnessed street-side frying on charcoal-fired griddles. You can see some gorgeous examples in the popular Chinese food tv program A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国), via this link to CCTV’s youtube post. While you are at it, watch this sublime  example of homemade roujiamo session from the beautifully edited Chinese video series “daily food diary” 日食记.

Recipe: Baijimo lazhirou (aka “Chinese Hamburger”, or roujiamo) 白吉馍腊汁肉 (肉夹馍)

Making baijimo at home can be done by frying breads in a dry heavy-bottomed pan, over low heat and for a prolonged period. Today I had some decent results using a small stainless steel frying pan.

In my research for best practices in making the baijimo flat bread, I came across several Chinese videos, one of the best of which was produced by video food cook “Shaanxi Kitchen Beauty” 陕西美厨娘 (click to see video on YouTube). The video is in Chinese, but you can get a good sense of the kneading technique and the appreciated qualities of a good baijimo. The video’s host outlines the attractive characteristics of a successful baijimo step-by-step: the “tiger’s back” hubei 虎背 is created when the bottom of the concave dough is placed on the hot pan (at approx. 5 minutes into the video). This creates a browned center on the bread. When the bread is flipped, the edge of the bread will crisp first, creating an attractive ring that is often referred to as and “iron circle” 铁圈. The host points out that on the flip side a “silver border” yinbianr 银边 is created, and finally, by pressing the bread flat, a “chrysanthemum flower” juhuaxin 菊花芯 pattern is formed. These terms are often used by other Chinese food bloggers in Shaanxi to describe the qualities of a great baijimo.

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Some of my more attractive examples from today’s experiments

A few points on making baijimo:

1. The bread is a simple dough of all-purpose flour, yeast, water and often a sprinkling of some jianshui 碱水 (potassium carbonate+sodium bicarbonate) or baking soda. Traditional recipes don’t include salt or sugar. I used about 2 cups of flour, 1 tsp of yeast, and 1 tsp of baking soda to approximately 3/4 cups of water. After mixing, let dough rest for an hour or so before sizing and shaping concave discs for frying.

2. Size dough balls approximately the same size as English muffins or small hamburger buns.

3. When preparing the concave discs for frying, first roll out the pre-sized balls into long flat torpedoes, then roll flat with a rolling pin. Roll this strip into a tight coil. That will help ensure the edges of the dough disc to turn into a concave shape after you press it flat with the round bottom of your palm or your rounded rolling pin.

4. No oil is used in the dough or on the pan, and a heavy-bottomed pan is put on low heat. I used a cover to help my breads rise at the beginning of the frying process. The took about 10 minutes to cook (each). If you use a larger pan, you can do several at once.

Lazhirou 腊汁肉

For roujiamo in Central China, the long-simmered fatty meat is referred to as lazhirou 腊汁肉 (i.e. “stew-preserved meat”). The preparation is similar to other five-spice preparations (i.e. the kinds of slow simmers that help to enhance a meat braising stock of lushui 卤水–discussed in my past posts on Guilin mifen noodle soups). This process requires time, but there is otherwise little fuss. If you are doing this all the same day, start this part before the bread.

Before filling the bland bun with the chopped meat mixture, taste for seasonings. Drizzle the chopped mixture with the lushui stock to refresh and intensify the flavors. Add a touch of soy sauce or vinegar if necessary, and pack into an opened baijimo. Enjoy.

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Delicious greens: water spinach

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Water spinach is one of our favorite vegetables. It is a popular vegetable to stir fry in Southern China and Southeast Asia. When quickly fried at high heat, its leaves wilt and the stems stay crunchy. Its flavor is like a cross between spinach and watercress.

This Vegetable grows in wet subtropical areas and has several names in English: water spinach, water convolvulus, Chinese watercress, and sometimes morning glory. In Chinese this is generally known as “empty heart vegetable” (kong xin cai 空心菜) or “open heart vegetable” (tong xin cai 通心菜), as in hollow stem. In Chinatown you might hear it referred to by the Cantonese name, Ong choi (蕹菜). In Philadelphia it is available year round, and can be found in two or three varieties: A green version like the one I’m using today, a pale green variety, and a variety with very thin stems can sometimes be found at Cambodian markets.

Seasonings for cooking this vegetable can be as simple as salt or soy sauce, but they often include a funky fermented paste of some sort, and a touch of sugar. In China and Taiwan, fermented tofu (doufu ru 豆腐乳) is often broken up and added to the this vegetable as it is quickly sauteed. The pairing may seem odd, but the pungent creamy tofu really pairs well with the grassy crunch of the vegetable.

Likewise in Indonesia and Malaysia, it is common to fry this (which they call kangkung) with fermented shrimp paste. See here for a Google image search of that dish kangkung belacan. That is a very similar flavor pairing to the pungent tofu (and to the bean paste version I’m making today).

This is also delicious in Southeast Asian soups and curries. For example, it is delicious in place of eggplant in a Cambodian sour beef soup that I posted on a few years ago.

I will prepare this today our favorite way… a typical Sino-Thai style with fermented soy bean paste, garlic, and chile. In Thailand this preparation is popularly called “red fire fried water spinach”, referring to how this is often prepared at street carts, starting with a big ignited flame in the wok as the pile of seasoned and sauces vegetable is thrown in–not recommended for home kitchen stoves with a low overhead.


Red fire-fried water spinachผัดผักบุ้งไฟแดง

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Get yourself a nice bag of water spinach. Chinese markets tend to sell these in big quantities. I usually do a big wok full at a time (about 1/2 a bag) for a nice accompaniment to another stir fry and rice. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last as long in the refrigerator as most other long leaf greens (like Chinese broccoli, bok choy, yu choy, or kale), so you need to try to use it sooner than later.  Trim wilted stem ends off of the bunch and remove any blackened slimy leaves, then wash well in a big bowl. Next, cut the vegetable up into about 2-3 inch long pieces (including the leaves). I usually wash them again at that stage and drain:

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Finely chop 3-4 cloves of garlic, and slice a few chiles into large chunks (depending on how spicy you want to make it). Today’s chiles were relatively mild, I used some large red Korean chiles.

There are two ways to do this dish. Some people fry the vegetable in the garlic and chile and add sauces/seasonings one by one. Today I did the flash fry method where I added the seasonings right into the bowl of chopped vegetable and tossed it all in the hot pan at once. My seasonings were pretty standard: about 1 Tbsp Thai fermented bean sauce (here is a link to an image of the kind commonly available in Philly), 1 tsp oyster sauce, 1 tsp fish sauce, just a touch of sugar. I put those right onto the chopped vegetable in the bowl.

Start a large wok or pan on high or medium high heat. When the pan is ripping hot, add enough oil (1 Tbsp or more). Throw in the vegetable and sauces, chiles, and garlic into that hot pan, and stir constantly. Add a little water to keep the mix from burning. The vegetable will cook very fast, likely in about a minute or so. If you are unsure if it needs more salt, taste for seasoning and add a squirt of fish sauce or soy sauce if you need to. When all the leaves are wilted, turn off the heat and plate the vegetable. Enjoy.

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