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Dec 24 2007

Chinese Food Eating Guide
Chinese is a diverse cuisine. A myriad of dishes and snacks are available in China but without the lingo, and knowledge of Chinese food, you can miss out on an awful lot. How To Order Chinese (now defunct –ed) is an English/Chinese glossary of Chinese food. With food terms, dish names and more, all in English, Chinese characters and pinyin, this site helps take the mystery and frustration out of ordering food, and in the process opens up a whole new range of eating options. It also has photos of many of the dishes and foodstuffs. Well worth checking out.



Dec 13 2007

How to Pair Wine with Chinese Food
When it comes to vino, in Taiwan or China we don't have a lot to choose from. Few eateries stock wine, and supermarkets carry little more than a small range of reds. But in other countries where there is easy access to wine and a wide choice, what wine do you drink with Chinese food? Besides the fact that wine was never designed with Chinese food in mind, Chinese is a diverse cuisine, and even in a small restaurant you will likely eat a variety of dishes. How do you match a banquet, a modest meal or even a single dish with the right wine? White, red, dry, sweet, sparkling, French, Australian, German, the choice has never been greater. I enjoy emptying the odd bottle but I am not knowledgeable about wine, so I asked someone who is: Natalie MacLean, author of Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.

Natalie, Chinese cuisine is extremely varied, so let me ask you about some specific styles of food and some common dishes, and what wine should be paired with them.

What should we drink with fried rice or noodles?
A crisp bubbly from California such as Roederer or Domain Chandon will go nicely with both.

A mildly flavoured seafood dish like steamed fish?

A more delicate white wine, such as a bone dry German Riesling or a chenin blanc.

The hot and spicy dishes of Sichuan or Hunan?
Sweet survives heat so look for off-dry styles of Riesling and gewürztraminer.

Something to go with Peking Duck?

Off-dry styles of Riesling and gewürztraminer.

A leafy green vegetable stir-fried in half a fistful of garlic?
A zippy, herbal New Zealand sauvignon blanc would be great.

Oily dishes or deep fried stuff like spring rolls?

A bubbly to cut through the fat, or dry Riesling.

Salty or pickled foods?
Rosé would be lovely and thirst-quenching. Serve it well chilled.

The traditional (in China) dessert of a mixed fruit platter?

Late harvest Riesling: not too sweet, just enough.

You are invited to a banquet, where of course a great range of dishes will be served. You have know idea what they are. What style of wine would be most serviceable?
Two most versatile wines with food are off-dry Riesling and New World pinot noir… loaded with fruit but not heavy on tannin, oak and alcohol.

Is there any other advice you can offer?

Experiment and have fun, and don't give up on wine with Chinese dishes!

For more on pairing wine with food you can check out Natalie's website:



Dec 11 2007

The Chinese Tipple
Alcoholic drinks in China

There are two basic traditional styles of Chinese alcoholic drink. Both are made from grain. Rice is the mainstay in the south. Sorghum and wheat dominate northern brewing and distilling. Yellow wine, the best known being Shaoxing wine, is a fermented drink made with rice and/or other grains in a process more akin to brewing than winemaking. Yellow wine (actual colours can range from quite dark to clear) is commonly 15 or 20 percent alcohol. It is an important ingredient in the Chinese kitchen. The second major style of drink is bai jiu, a strong clear liquor made from sorghum and/or other grains. It is often distilled to a very high level of alcohol.

Shaoxing is a taste that can be acquired (its not unlike sake, its Japanese equivalent), but only the most courageous Westerners willingly take on bai jiu. Some of the cheaper brands are best approached with a peg on the nose and a packet of throat lozenges.

Beer is popular but not among hard drinkers. There was a phase in the Eighties and Nineties when guzzling expensive French brandy like free beer at a college piss-up was a mark of high status. Scotch is popular these days as is wine, particularly red, which in China like elsewhere is perceived as a healthy drink. Large upmarket dining establishments carry a range of beverages including some Western. Small local places usually stock bottled beer and a small range of the more popular traditional liquors.



Dec 1 2007

Red Wine & Lemon Cocktail

Red wine with lemon


At a restaurant last year in Shanxi I was taken aback when our host served red wine with a slice of lemon floating in it. I couldn't take my eyes off this odd cocktail which apparently is quite common in China. It did not taste great, but it might be a good innovation because when I tried the same sweet locally-produced wine without the lemon, it tasted even worse.

I guess it is no more strange than putting lime in beer – thanks for that Corona.

Nov 30 2007

Are Taiwan Green Lemons Really Limes?
A friend of mine from Australia was visiting last week. He happened to mention that one of the nice things about being back in Taiwan (he used to live here) was the low price of limes – he enjoys the odd gin and tonic you see. "They call them 'lemons' but they are really limes."

Well, I was staggered to hear this. Are Taiwan lemons really limes? Lemons here are normally green, low on juice and quite bitter but I had always assumed this was because the Taiwanese picked and ate them green, as they do other fruits like plums, apricots, and peaches. Tellingly, the Taiwanese describe the taste of lemon as 'bitter,' rather than 'sour.'

I sometimes put lemons out in the sun for a couple of days to ripen them. They do become more juicy and sour but only take on a dirty yellow/green hue.

My mate has a solid knowledge of food and I am sure he has been drinking those G&Ts for god-knows-how-many years, so I reckoned he knew a lime when he saw one. Me, I barely know what a lime is. But growing up we had a lemon tree in the backyard so I thought I knew what a lemon looked like. Till now that is.

On the internet I discovered a lot of people confuse lemons and limes, but after finding a photo of a lime that looked like a Taiwan lemon, I began to lean on the side of my friend's contention.

The following day I put the question to the Taiwan forum Forumosa. After reading what others in Taiwan said I was leaning back toward my original assumption that a Taiwan lemon may be green, bitter and mean of juice, but it was still a lemon.

Then yesterday I talked to a fruit and vegetable seller at our local market in Taichung. Although he has thirty years experience I came away more confused than ever. He seemed to be saying that a lemon and a lime are 'more or less' the same thing, and that in any case I shouldn't worry about it.


Maybe someone else can shed some light?



Nov 12 2007

Protein-enriched Rice
Living with Weevils

"In the early years of the camp everyone pushed the weevils to one side, or flicked them through the nearest window, but now Jim carefully husbanded them. Often there was more than a hundred insects in three rows around the rim of Jim's plate, though recently even their number had been in decline."
– Empire of the Sun

If you have ever turned your nose up at people who include bugs in their diet, I've got some news: you too are an insect eater. Yep, and I am not just talking about accidents: like gasping a little too hard and swallowing something more than air, or when at that picnic, a couple of years ago a fly rode into your mouth on a forkful of salad (what, you didn't know about that?). Out in the fields insects, their microscopic larvae, and faeces are all over our food. Our food is their food too, and their home and breeding ground. Some of them are still on our food after it has been cleaned and processed. In fact the United States Department of Agriculture acknowledges this to the extent that it has limits on how many bugs are allowed in frozen and canned vegetables – officially it is OK to eat aphids, just not too many.   rice weevil
Rice weevil on rice Photo: Clemson University - USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series,

These bugs, if they survive as far as your kitchen are normally dispatched by cooking, but some of them or their body parts may remain in your food. If you enjoy salad – no matter how well you rinse – you have probably eaten raw, live bugs at some time.

All this is normally quite harmless, and may even be beneficial considering that insects, if edible, can be an excellent source of protein (if you eat enough of them), a fact well known to Jim, the main character in J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun. Jim makes a point of eating the weevils in his ration of boiled wheat, much to the discomfort of his more squeamish fellow detainees in the Japanese POW camp.

From time to time the canister of rice in our kitchen sprouts a few weevils. When this happens we deal with it by bathing the rice even more thoroughly than normal before cooking, drowning the weevils and discarding what floats to the surface. For the sake of peace at the table, I am always quick to attribute any odd black spot in the cooked rice to 'discoloured' grain rather than arthropod origin.

I never gave much thought to how weevils get into our rice, until I collected a weevil and put it under a magnifying glass. I jumped on the web and discovered that my weevil was, appropriately, the rice weevil (Sitophilus oryzae), rather than the granary weevil, boll weevil or any other weevil. It was about 2 mm long with a distinctively elongated snout. What I read about this common pest of Indian origin indicated that it probably had not flown into my kitchen just to chew on our personal stash of rice. In any case, our rice canister is airtight and (I assume) insect proof. Our rice was likely first infected months earlier in the fields, granary or even at some point during the distribution process.

When people say there are 'weevils in the rice', they mean it in the literal sense, because the little blighters are right inside the grain eating from the inside out. The adult female eats or bores into a grain of rice and lays an egg in the cavity. She then seals the hole with a sticky secretion. The egg hatches three days later and the larva develops within the rice grain. It feeds on the inside of the grain further hollowing it out and pupates. The adult bores its way out of the grain and starts to mate soon after. The life cycle can be as short as one month in hot weather or as long as five months in colder temperatures. Females are prolific breeders and can lay three to four hundred eggs in a lifetime that lasts three to six months. As time goes by that is a lot of hollow rice grains.

They might be called rice weevils but they will happily gnaw on other grains, grain products like breakfast cereals and pasta, and beans, nuts, fruit, and even cotton fabric.

Now, I don't mind snacking on an insect occasionally particularly if it doesn't look too unappetising and is cooked, or at least dead. I have knowingly, even willingly tried creepy-crawlies like grasshoppers, bamboo worms, bees, ants, and other small creatures I could not identify but I am damn sure were not mammalian. So I don't have any problem with the idea of eating insects. The odd weevil doesn't bother me. The odd weevil is one thing, a rice canister seething with tiny black beetles is another. Not a pretty sight. Unlike arch-survivalist Jim, I don't need to have my rice fortified with protein and I would rather eat no more weevil parts or excretions than is absolutely necessary. The longer the beetles remain in the grain, the more they eat, the more they shit, and the more they breed which leads inexorably to more eating and defecating. Theoretically in time you could end up with more weevils and shit than rice. If they can't get out of a container, eventually they would completely consume their food source and starve themselves. Clearly something needs to be done before this happens.

The simple, smart solution would be to toss out the whole container. That never occurred to me. In the past I would take the canister outside, preferably in the sun and give it a shake. The weevils near the surface seemed anxious to get out and and when they did I would try to catch them and toss them into a pot of hot water. (It was while I was doing this once that one of them gave me a sharp nip on the arm, even though they are said not to bite people or animals. Perhaps it mistook me for a grain of rice?) But this was tedious and extremely ineffective considering I only ever managed to get rid of a small percentage of the weevils.

I've also tried heat. I put rice in the microwave and zapped it. This was easier and much more effective but because the microwave heats unevenly I was never sure if I had killed everything or not. I also worried the heat would damage the rice.

The solution, if there is one, starts when you buy rice at the supermarket. Unless you can see adult beetles (which I did once), it is extremely difficult to tell if a bag of rice is already infected. However, you can try this: pick up a bag of rice, give it a few good shakes and see how much dust accumulates at the bottom of the bag. A lot of dust may indicate that weevils have been having a very good time inside. Try another bag, or another shop. If there are weevils (assume there are), the less time they have to do their dirty work the better, so check out the manufacture or use by dates, and buy the smallest bag that is practical. As soon as you get the rice home, set the fridge freezer thermostat to its lowest setting, chuck the bag of rice in and freeze it for a week. (This site contradicts that advice but freezing seems to have worked for me – after three months I have detected no sign of adult weevil life in either whole grain or white rice.) Then get your rice out of that plastic bag it came in – which doubtlessly has microscopic punctures – and pour it into an airtight, insect proof container to prevent further infection. If you are going to keep the rice for an extended time, keep it in the fridge. If you are really worried, just keep it in the freezer.

Freezing kills the weevils and contains the problem but it is highly unlikely that even the most thorough rinsing is ever going to wash out the larvae that is encased in the rice grains, so if there ever were weevils in your rice, you are eating them.

Enjoy your rice: just think about the free, added protein!

Still got an appetite for rice? Try these Rice Recipes



Nov 1 2007

Ginseng, the Divine Root book now in Chinese
Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World by David A. Taylor, a book I recently reviewed very favourably, is now available in Taiwan in a Chinese (中文) edition.



Oct 5 2007

G. K. Chesterton on Tea

"Tea, although an Oriental,
Is a gentleman at least;
Cocoa is a cad and coward,
Cocoa is a vulgar beast,
Cocoa is a dull, disloyal,
Lying, crawling cad and clown,
And may very well be grateful
To the fool that takes him down."

From The Song of Right and Wrong



Sept 28 2007

Oily Chilli Sauce
This week during the Mid Autumn Festival, on the way back from a sodden camping trip, we stopped for lunch at the hamlet of Tian Leng. The only customers, we sat on wooden stools at a table outside a little noodle shop, making small talk with the proprietress. She was a Hakka. In Taiwan, Hakka communities are mostly located in the foothills, in places just like Tian Leng. When I asked why this was, she said only that Hakka people "can't afford to live in the city."

I ordered a bowl of wonton noodle soup, and checked out the homemade chilli mix in a covered red plastic bowl on the table. At the next table sat a big box of fresh chillies. Next door, the local micro-butcher. Strings of sorghum liquor-flavoured sausages hung in the sun by the roadside – the air smelt of strong alcohol and unrefrigerated meat.

The variety of chilli sauces in Taiwan, either homemade or commercial, is almost infinite, and I have rarely met one I didn't like. The one on our table looked interesting.

My soup arrived. Without hesitation I shoveled a heaped spoonful of the oily mixture into my bowl. It was the perfect complement to the original dish, neither overly hot or salty, it melded easily into the soup. I asked the woman how she made the sauce, and she began to explain. But that's when we started to become aware of our legs. Up until then I don't think any of us had been thinking much about them at all. At first it was just squirming and gentle rubbing, but within a couple of minutes at our table there was a total obsession with our uncovered lower limbs: close examination and violent scratching.

Midges! The scourge of the outdoors! I'll take five mosquitoes over a single minute midge any day. At least with mozzies you have a fair chance at hunting them down. Midges, you can barely see them. You don't know they are there until it is too late. "We didn't have any midges before the 9/21 earthquake," said the proprietress, referring to the 7.6 quake that hit Taiwan in 1999. Dubious statement? Considering that the dimensions of the island were altered by the earthquake, not really.

Suddenly the food did not taste so good anymore. All we could think about was escape. But I did manage to get her recipe for the chilli sauce as we paid the bill and hurried to the car.

So grab some chillies, garlic, soy sauce, and vegetable oil, and you can quickly put together a jar of chilli sauce to cook with or as a dipping condiment. Use straightaway or keep – the taste of chillies and garlic will gradually permeate the liquid.

Here is the recipe for Soy and Oil Hot Sauce



Sept 23 2007

Taiwan Beef Noodle Soup
One of the signature dishes of Taiwan is beef noodle soup. It's not native – it washed in with the flood of KMT-led Mainland Chinese in the late 1940s. So popular has it become, that if you had just arrived and were walking around Taipei, and if, within 20 minutes you had not passed a niu rou mian shop, I'd hazard a guess you were in the wrong place. By wrong place I mean wrong country. Beef noodle soup is that popular in Taiwan. Not native, but completely naturalized.

The dish has even established a reputation beyond these shores – the last time I passed through Hong Kong, there at the airport was a restaurant specialising in 'Taiwan beef noodle.'

Living in Taiwan, I've eaten a lot of it. It is one of my old reliables; what I go for when I really don't know what I feel like eating. But I have always been curious about beef noodle soup in China. Was the Taiwan dish anything like the original; how was it different? I finally had a chance to find out last year when I went to Beijing and Datong. There I ate the basic version of the dish three or four times.

Without doubt they have some good wheat noodles in the north, in particular dao shao mian: strips shaved from a big slab of fresh, firm dough, shot with a large blade, straight into a pot of boiling water. But everything else about the dish left me unimpressed. I found the clear liquid almost insipid, and the thin slices of beef dry, tough, and bland. The meat reminded me of roast beef that had been left in the fridge for a week, uncovered. I came away convinced that the Taiwan interpretation, with its robust soup, and succulent, sinewy braised beef was much better than its antecedent.

Taiwan beef noodle soup may be better, but to be fair, I later realized, I was more used to a certain kind of beef noodles that some say is Sichuan-style. Hong shao (beef braised in soy sauce and other ingredients) is the style of beef noodle soup that has come to dominate in Taiwan. Sometimes a little bok choy is added to the bowl, or a couple of chunks of carrot and radish. One version includes tomato, another is spicy, yet another is ma la, hot and numbing.

After plumbing the 'depths' of my memory (which didn't take long) and checking around a bit, it dawned on me that there is another, major style of the soup in Taiwan, one that used to be much more common than it is today. That soup is light and clear – very similar to the soup in China, albeit with much better beef. It seems that the Taiwanese started out with more-or-less the same soup as in north China but over time gravitated towards the stronger tasting, hong shao version.

I have been meaning to learn how to make beef noodle soup for ages. Now I knew I had to start with the clear soup: the Taiwanese rendering of the northern-style beef noodle soup, originally developed by the Hui Muslims. Later maybe I will tackle the hong shao. I found a recipe in a Chinese cookbook, showed it to a friend who confirmed it looked 'chabuduo', about right, which I took to mean 'authentic,' and that is what I have been cooking lately.

It is normal to have a side dish or two with hong shao beef noodle soup. I did the same with the clear soup but realized straightaway that my choice of side dish – bamboo shoots in chilli oil – had been a bad one. No sooner had the bamboo touched my lips and the soup flavour simply vanished – there was no way it could compete with all that fiery capsaicin.

The soup is based on a beef stock flavoured with carrot, radish and onion. If your tastes run to strong and spicy like mine, it might take a couple of sittings to appreciate it. Stick with it, and you should come to enjoy the natural cleanliness and relatively pure flavours.

At my house no one has complained about the soup, only about the frequency I have been serving it. "Oh God, not beef noodle soup again!"

Here is the recipe for Clear Beef Noodle Soup



Sept 19 2007

Drizzle, drizzle, drizzle (who'll stop the reign?)
I don't know about you, but if I hear another TV chef say the word drizzle I am going to chuck my guts. Sometimes I think that dreaded word is the only thing that separates a good home cook or a real chef from the TV chef. Interview for the position of TV chef, drop the word drizzle seven or eight times and you are likely to get the job. But what is really puzzling is why aren't the TV weather guys complaining? Drizzle is pure plagiarism.



Aug 19 2007

Tofu and Soybeans
On an ironwood chopping block. Tofu and Soybeans

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