Authentic Mapo Tofu

Literally meaning “pock-marked old lady tofu” this dish has to have one of the least complimentary names in all of Chinese food. It uses Chengdu’s famous Pixian chilli bean paste -豆瓣酱, sold in English as tobanjian, doubanjiang or other variations, this has become a classic of Sichuan cookery. It’s very easy to make, too.

Ingredients

600g firm tofu

200g beef mince

4 tbsp canola or peanut oil

¼ cup doubanjiang (Sichuan chilli bean sauce)

2 tbsp salted black beans

1 tsp chilli powder (optional)

4 cloves garlic minced

1 tbsp grated ginger

6 thick spring onions, cut into 5cm lengths

salt and sugar, to season

1 tsp cornflour mixed with 2 tbsp cold water

1 tsp ground Sichuan pepper, to serve

Method

Bring a pot of water to just below a simmer and season lightly with salt. Cut the tofu into 2.5cm cubes and add to the water. Heat gently for about 10-15 minutes.

Heat a wok over high heat and add a tablespoon or two of the oil. Fry the beef mince until well browned then remove from the wok and set aside. Add the remaining oil to the wok and fry the tobanjiang until the oil turns red. Add the black beans, chilli powder (if using), garlic and ginger and fry for about a minute until fragrant.

Drain the tofu and add it to the wok, along with 1-2 cups of water. Stir gently and bring to a simmer. Add the fried beef and spring onion and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the onion is softened. Adjust for seasoning with salt and sugar as required, and then thicken the mixture with the cornflour slurry, adding a little at a time so that the sauce is thickened and silky, but not gloopy. Transfer to a serving boal and serve scattered with ground Sichuan pepper.

 

Top Tips for Mapo Tofu

  • You can use pork mince if you prefer, but beef is more traditional.
  • Try to use a firm tofu that holds its shape but is still tender. You don’t want the tofu to be too hard, but you also don’t want it breaking apart to much in the dish.
  • The doubanjiang chilli bean paste can vary a lot between brands – both in texture and in taste. Make sure you adjust the seasoning with salt and/or sugar if needed before serving.
Apricot kernel pudding (Almond pudding) with stewed longans

You may have seen similar dishes to this called ‘almond tofu’, ‘annin doufu’ or ‘almond pudding’. These are usually made with milk or cream flavoured with almond essence, or from almond milk. Those modern versions are delicious, but this Chinese dish is traditionally made not with almonds but with apricot kernels of two different varieties.

Both northern and southern apricot kernels have a strong almond-like aroma, but southern apricot kernels are sweeter, while northern apricot kernels are more bitter and aromatic. Use a blend of kernels to get the best flavour.

Although they are a traditional food and medicine in China, northern apricot kernels may contain potentially dangerous natural compounds, so they must be heated before eating. Don’t be tempted to snack on the raw kernels.

Ingredients

160 g southern apricot kernels

50 g northern apricot kernels

1 L water

100 g sugar

3 tsp gelatine powder

Stewed Longans

80 g dried longans

500 ml water

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp sugar

2 pcs dried tangerine peel

Method

Combine the kernels and water together in a Vitamix high-performance blender and blend for 1 minute. Allow to stand for 5 minutes then blend again for 30 seconds. If using a normal blender, soak the kernels overnight (or for at least 1 hour) before blending.

Pour ½ a cup of the mixture into a small bowl and mix through the gelatine. Transfer the remainder to a saucepan and add the sugar. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often and taking care that it doesn’t boil over. Add the gelatine mixture into the hot liquid and whisk for a further 5 minutes until the gelatine is dissolved. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve or muslin, pressing to remove as much liquid as possible. Divide the liquid between i4 serving bowls and refrigerate for around 4 hours or until set.

For the longans, combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, then allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until ready to use.

L: Northern apricot kernels, R: Southern apricot kernels

How to make Yum cha-style Siu Mai

Meaning “cook-sell” these dumplings are said to get their name from being so delicious they are sold as soon as you cook them. The key to a good siu mai is having the pork filling in large enough pieces to give them a meaty, instead of a mince-y texture, and enough fat to keep them moist. Often made with a mixture of chopped lean pork and pork fat, using pork belly gives you the perfect combination. Roughly chop it, don’t mince it.

Ingredients

800g skinless pork belly

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tbsp Shaoxing wine

3 tsp caster sugar

¼ cup chicken stock

400g raw peeled prawn meat, roughly chopped

2 spring onions (white and light green part), finely chopped (about ½ a cup)

6 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water and finely diced

2 tbsp minced ginger

50 square wonton wrappers (yellow egg pastry)

flying fish roe, crab roe or finely diced carrot

 

Method

Slice the pork belly in 1cm wide slices, then cut across the slices into 1cm pieces. Roughly chop the pork with a cleaver. There should still be large pieces of pork visible, rather than a mince. Add the pork to the bowl of a stand mixer with the beater attachment. Add the salt, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sugar. Beat the pork at low speed at first, gradually increasing it so that the mixture doesn’t spill, for about 10-15 minutes. Gradually add the stock to the pork mixture.

Add the prawn and mix through the pork at low speed. Then add the spring onion, mushrooms, and ginger, if using. Combine at low speed. Rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. Taste the filling and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If you don’t want to taste the raw filling, just steam a little of it and taste that.

With a circular pastry cutter that just fits inside the square wrapper, cut a circle and discard the outside. Take a wonton wrapper and with a butter knife or small spatula, place a small amount of filling in the centre of a wrapper. Gather the pastry around the filling and continue adding more filling with the knife or spatula, pushing the filling down tightly to ensure there are no air bubbles. Once the wrapper is gathered into a filled cylinder shape, tap the base against your board to flatten it, and place onto a baking tray lined with baking paper. Top each dumpling with a little roe or a small piece of carrot. Rest the dumplings in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before cooking. Repeat until all the filling is used up. Sit a steamer over boiling water and steam the siu mai for 8-12 minutes.

Top Tips for Siu Mai

  1. Use pork belly to get the right mixture of fat and meat in the dumpling to give it it’s signature texture. Kneading the filling in a stand mixer will help it stick together and stay moist by helping to create a net of proteins released from mixing the meat.
  2. This is traditionally a very simple dumpling, so you can leave out the aromatics like ginger and spring onion if you like. You can even leave out the mushrooms and just keep the filling as meat and prawn.
  3. Freeze the siu mai while raw, and to cook you can steam them directly from frozen. It will take 12-15 minutes if steaming from frozen.
Chengdu Zhong Dumplings

Zhong dumplings are named for the family who first made these in Chengdu around 100 years ago at their stall in Lychee Lane. Today, they’re officially recognised as one of Sichuan’s most famous snacks. They’re a VERY simple meat-only boiled dumpling served with a sweet, aromatic soy sauce and red chilli oil. They are a PERFECT beginner dumpling!

Ingredients

approx. 50 round, white dumpling skins (gow gee), or homemade skins

Sweet aromatic soy sauce

¼ cup dark soy sauce

2 tbsp light soy sauce

appprox. 5 tbsp yellow rock sugar

2 bay leaves

1 tsp Sichuan peppercorn

1 star anise

1 stick cassia

4 slices ginger

¾ cup water

Dumpling filling

¾ cup cold water

1 tsp white peppercorns

1 piece ginger

500g pork mince

1 egg

1 tbsp Shaoxing wine

½ tsp salt

To serve

Minced garlic

Sesame seeds

Red chilli oil

Method

Combine the ingredients for the sweet aromatic soy sauce in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes until aromatic and reduced, then allow to cool. Strain to remove the solids. This soy sauce can be kept in a jar or bottle at room temperature indefinitely.

For the dumpling filling, first combine the ginger and peppercorns with ¾ cup of cold water and allow to infuse for around 10 minutes. You’ll be surprised how much of the ginger and bitter pepper flavour infuse in such a short time.

In a bowl or medium saucepan (my preference) combine the pork mince, egg, Shaoxing wine and salt. Stir in one direction until well combined, then add the infused ginger-pepper water a little at a time, continuing to stir until the mixture is a wet and floppy paste. Refrigerate for 30 minutes before folding the dumplings.

For folding the dumplings, wet the edge of a dumpling skin and place around 1 tsp of the filling in the centre of the skin. Fold into a half moon and seal the edge well. You can freeze these dumplings raw at this stage if you aren’t cooking them fresh.

To cook, place the dumplings in boiling water, and then each time the water returns to the boil add about ½ a cup of cold water to reduce the temperature. When the dumplings float to the surface, cook for a further 1 minute and then remove.

To serve, drain the dumplings, pour over a generous amount of the aromatic soy sauce and chilli oil, and serve with minced garlic and a few sesame seeds.

Top Tips for Zhong Dumplings

  1. Always stir the filling only in 1 direction. This will help to capture the ginger-pepper liquid added to the filling (as well as the liquid released by the meat during cooking).
  2. To freeze the dumplings, lay them in a single layer on a lined sheet in the freezer until they are firm to the touch, then you can transfer them to a Ziploc bag.
  3. Be generous with the sauces. They are essential.

 

Red Chilli Oil for Dumplings

This red oil is great for serving with dumplings, but it is also an essential ingredient in Sichuanese food. Combined with soy sauce and sugar it becomes “Red Oil Flavour”, one of the key flavours of Sichuanese cuisine. It may look spicy, but the level of heat will depend entirely on the chillies you use. Chinese dried chilli flakes (available from Asian grocers) are often much milder than those found in the West. I’d strongly suggest finding them if you’re making this oil, as you’ll get a stronger chilli flavour and colour, without as much of the heat.

Ingredients

1L peanut or canola oil

4 star anise

4 black cardamom, bashed

2 large pieces cassia

5 bay leaf

6 spring onions, cut into 5cm lengths

1 red onion, peeled and sliced

5cm ginger, thickly sliced

2 cups Chinese dried chillies flakes

Method

Heat the oil to 200C and add the star anise, black cardamom, cassia and bay leaves. Then add the spring onion, onion, and ginger and continue to fry until the wet aromatics appear dry and lightly browned. Remove all the ingredients from the oil with a strainer scoop and remove the oil from the heat.

Allow the oil to cool for about 10 minutes to around 120C, and then add the dried chilli flakes. Allow the oil to cool completely for about 1 hour, and then transfer the chilli oil to a jar. The chilli oil will keep at room temperature for years.

Top Tips for Red Chilli Oil

  1. You can make variations on this by including Sichuan peppercorns, sesame seeds or other ingredients you might like. However, I prefer to keep mine simple, as the more simple it is the more versatile it will be.
  2. Definitely try and source Chinese chilli flakes rather than using Western dried chilli. Western dried chillies are made from different varieties of chilli and tend to be over-dried, contain too many seeds, and have less colour and flavour than Chinese chillies.
  3. This kind of chilli oil can be made with a mix of chilli varieties, providing heat, flavour and colour separately.
How to Make Basic Dumplings

Just about every Chinese family will have a freezer stocked with homemade dumplings. Jiaozi are the classic homestyle dumpling found all over China. You can customise the filling to be whatever you like, and make different batches depending on your own personal preference.

The first time you try your hand at homemade dumplings, it may seem like a chore to do, but they taste so much better (and cheaper) than ones that you would buy in the supermarket. Don’t worry, the second time you’ll make them better and faster, and if you persevere making your own dumplings will soon become a breeze (and actually a great way to relax too).

Makes about 100 dumplings

Ingredients

¼ Chinese cabbage

1kg fatty pork mince

2cm ginger, peeled and grated

2 cloves garlic, finely minced (optional)

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp Shaoxing wine

½ tsp sugar

¼ tsp white pepper

½ cup garlic chives, cut into 1cm pieces

Hot water dumpling skins

3 cups plain flour, plus plenty of extra for dusting

1-1½ cups boiling water

Method

For the dumpling skins, place the flour in a the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook. Add the hot water and knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is smooth. Remove from the stand mixer and wrap in floured cling film and rest for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling, first bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add the cabbage and cook for about 5 minutes until tender. Drain well, refresh in cold water and then drain again. With your hands, squeeze out as much liquid from the cabbage as possible and finely chop it, squeezing out the liquid again after it’s chopped.

Combine the pork, ginger, garlic, salt, Shaoxing wine, sugar and pepper in the bowl of a stand mixer with the beater attachment and beat for about 10 minutes until the mixture is springy. Fold through the chopped cabbage and garlic chives at low speed. Refrigerate the filling for 30 minutes. If you don’t want to use a stand mixer both the dough and the filling are easily made by hand. Just knead the dough by hand, and mix the filling in a large bowl.

Refer to the video for the process of rolling and folding. Cut about a quarter of the dough from the piece of dough and roll it into a cylinder around 2cm in diameter. Cut the cylinder into 1cm lengths and roll into a circle around 1mm thick and 7cm in diameter. Add about 2 tsp of filling to the centre of the skin and fold the dumpling as you like.

You can freeze the dumplings in batches on a tray lined with baking paper, or cook them by boiling, steaming or fry-steaming them. For boiled dumplings, place the dumplings in boiling water, and then each time the water returns to the boil add about ½ a cup of cold water to reduce the temperature. When the dumplings float to the surface, cook for a further 1 minute and then remove.

Top Tips for Basic Dumplings

  • Don’t worry too much about folding. The technique shown in the video is very simple for homemade skins, but if you’re using commercial skins I’d suggest just folding them in a half-moon just to get started. You can go onto fancier folding techniques later as you get more confident.
  • Tasting the filling is all-important. You don’t want to fold 100 dumplings and find out that they don’t taste any good. Taste the filling and adjust the seasoning if necessary BEFORE you start folding.
  • Y0u can customise the filling however you like. Try adding herbs like dill or coriander, additional vegetables and egg, prawns, spices like Sichuan peppercorn. You can really add just about anything here.

 

How to Make Sweet and Sour Pork

Sweet and sour pork gets a bad rap for being a non-authentic Westernised imitation of Chinese food, but it is actually a very common dish in modern Cantonese cuisine, even in China itself. There are many variations of sweet and sour pork dishes across China, but the Cantonese version is what is most commonly found in the West.

Ingredients

500g pork belly, neck or loin, cut into 3cm pieces

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp Shaoxing wine

1 egg

½ cup cornflour

canola oil for deep frying (approx. 1L), plus extra

1 small carrot, peeled and cut into irregular chunks

1 red capsicum, cut into irregular chunks (or a mix of different coloured capsicum)

1 onion, cut into large chunks

3 cloves garlic, crushed

8 cherry tomatoes, cut into wedges

150g fresh pineapple, cubed

Sweet and sour sauce

¼ cup chicken stock (optional)

¼ cup white vinegar

2 tbsp Shaoxing wine

2 tbsp white sugar

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp tomato sauce

1 tbsp grated ginger, juice only

½ tsp cornflour (optional)

Method

Combine the pork with the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and egg, and allow to stand for 10 minutes. Toss the pork in the cornflour to coat.

For the sauce, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.

Heat your oil to 180C and deep fry the onion, carrot and capsicum in separate batches for just a minute or so each until just barely tender. Deep fry the pork in batches for 1-2 minutes until golden brown.

Heat your wok over high heat and add about 2 tbsp of oil. Add the garlic and toss for just a few seconds. Add the sauce and bring to a simmer. Allow the sauce to reduce by about a third until it is thickened and glossy. Add the vegetables, pork, pineapple and tomato to the wok and toss to coat in the sauce.

Top Tips for Sweet and Sour Pork

  • The more concentrated the sauce is, the crispier the pork will be. If you really want crispy pork, you can leave out the stock and make sure the sauce is very reduced so that there is less water to soak into the pork coating.
  • You can use other fruits such as dragonfruit, kiwi, peaches, or lychee instead of pineapple.
  • The sauce will thicken further after the pork is added and absorbs some of the liquid, so bear that in mind when reducing the sauce.

 

Red Wine Teriyaki Steak Donburi

This variation on my easy homemade teriyaki sauce uses red wine instead of sake, so it’s a great option if you can’t get hold of many Japanese ingredients. A donburi is a rice bowl and it’s just as it sounds – rice with a simple topping that makes a easy one-bowl meal. This version is slightly fancy with garlic chips and chopped wasabi stem, but you could use a little horseradish or ordinary wasabi instead.

Ingredients

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 tbsp vegetable oil or olive oil

400g good quality sirloin or scotch fillet steak

salt and pepper, to season

3-5 cups cooked Japanese rice

1 piece nori, cut into fine shreds

1/2 tsp wasabi or horseradish, or 1 tsp prepared wasabi stem, to serve

Red wine teriyaki (Makes 600ml)

250ml light soy sauce

200ml Australian shiraz

200ml mirin

80g sugar

Method

To make the red wine teriyaki, combine the ingredients in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Transfer to an empty wine bottle and store in the pantry until ready to use.

Heat a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the oil and garlic. Fry the garlic, stirring frequently, until golden brown. Remove the garlic from the pan, leaving the oil in the pan. Increase the flame to high. Season the steak with salt and black pepper, and fry the steak until cooked to your liking. Remove and set aside to rest.

Add about 1/2 cup of the red wine teriyaki sauce to the pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce the sauce until it is the consistency of maple syrup, then return the rested steak to the pan and turn briefly to coat.

Place the rice into a serving bowl and scatter with the nori. Slice the steak and place it on top of the nori, pouring over a little more of the reduced sauce. Scatter with garlic chips and add little wasabi or horseradish on top of the beef.

Top Tips for Red Wine Teriyaki

  • I used a shiraz for this but any dry red wine will work perfectly well.
  • The key with all teriyaki is controlling the reduction. If it is too reduced, it will be too thick and salty. If it is too thin, the sauce will be insipid. Luckily, it’s easy to get it right. If it’s too thin, keep simmering. And if it’s too thick, add a little extra teriyaki sauce to thin it out.
  • Of course, you don’t need to search for wasabi stem for this. A little ordinary wasabi (like for sushi), horseradish or even English mustard would be totally fine. You just need something a little pungent to lighten the dish.
Salt and Pepper Squid

Salt and pepper squid might be the most popular dish in Australia. With origins in Cantonese cooking, it’s a dish that has moved from Chinese restaurants to everything from local pubs, Italian cafes, Thai or Vietnamese restaurants and the corner fish and chip shop.

It’s simple to make at home, too. It’s a double cooking process, which has the squid being deep-fried first and then stir-fried with aromatics and tossed with salt and pepper.

Ingredients

500g squid tubes, cleaned

¼ cup plain flour

¼ cup potato starch or cornflour

about 2L vegetable oil, for deep frying, plus extra for stir-frying

4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

1 large red chilli, sliced

2 spring onions, sliced

½ tsp salt

freshly ground black pepper

lemon wedges, to serve

Method

Score the squid in a cross-hatch pattern, taking care not to cut all the way through. Cut the squid into bite-sized pieces and toss in the plain flour and potato flour.

In a wok, heat the oil to 180C. Shake off any excess flour and deep fry the squid in batches for about 3 minutes until golden brown. Drain well and remove the oil from the wok.

Brush out the wok and return it to medium heat. Add about 1 tbsp of clean oil to the wok and add the garlic, chilli and spring onion. Fry for about 2 minutes until fragrant and lightly browned. Return the squid to the wok, season well with salt and plenty of ground black pepper and toss to combine. Remove from the wok and serve with lemon wedges.

Tips for Salt and Pepper Squid

  • Try to use fresh squid rather than frozen. Frozen squid can retain too much water, meaning that when you fry it it will be a little more soggy.
  • If you want really crispy squid make sure the squid is golden brown before removing it from the oil.
  • You can use other flours if you prefer. Rice flour works well, as does sweet potato starch or corn starch.
  • You can add dried spices to the salt and pepper mix if you want to be a little more adventurous. Spices like fennel and Sichuan peppercorn work well.
Shandong Roast Chicken

Shandong (or Shantung) chicken is a popular Chinese restaurant dish. Despite the name, however, it is not really a dish from Shandong Province. Shandong’s Lu cuisine is often considered the most famous and influential in China, known for its refined technique and balance of tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy. It is also famous for its fragrant dark vinegars, and it is the balanced taste of the vinegar that gives this dish its name.

The dish itself is a combination of a fragrant sweetened vinegar sauce characteristic of Shandong’s Jinan style of cooking, with a crisp-skinned fried chicken, more common in Cantonese cooking. It was in Cantonese restaurants that this dish was popularised.

Deep-frying a whole chicken at home can be difficult (and dangerous). My version uses a roast chicken topped with the same sauce. It makes life a lot easier and tastes fantastic.

Ingredients

1 whole free-range chicken, about 1.6kg

1/2 tsp salt

1 tbsp dark soy sauce

1 tbsp Shaoxing wine

1 tsp grated ginger, juice only

Shandong sauce

1/4 cup black vinegar (see Tips below)

2 tsp soy sauce

2 tsp sugar

2 bird’s eye chillies

1 coriander root, stalk and root finely chopped, leaves reserved

4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

Method

Rub the chicken all over with salt, inside and out, taking care to exfoliate to remove any dead skin from the chicken. Pour boiling water all over the skin of the chicken to tighten it. Combine the dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, ginger juice, and rub all over the chicken as well. Marinate uncovered in the fridge overnight. Alternatively, use a hairdryer to blow to skin of the chicken until it is dry and tightened.

Heat your oven to 200C. Place the chicken on a sheet of baking paper in a roasting pan and roast the chicken for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and rest for 15 minutes.

For the Shandong sauce combine all the ingredients together and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add a few spoons of the rendered chicken oil and juices from the pan. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve smothered in the Shandong sauce.

Tips for Shandong Chicken

  1. For a super easy version of this you can just buy a pre-roasted chicken (without stuffing), make the sauce and pour it over the top.
  2. The most popular Chinese black vinegar is actually Chinkiang vinegar from Jiangsu province, not Shandong. Most Shandong chicken recipes will use this vinegar, but if you can find an authentic Shandong-made vinegar it will be a little bit more interesting. You may need to adjust the proportion of sugar.
  3. If you do want to make a deep-fried version of this, poach the chicken first in a soy-based stock, then hang it to dry completely so it won’t spit when it’s deep frying.