Hot Pots Are Very Cool (And Traditional!) 🍲

Hot Pot rotated

With winter’s chill setting in, there’s nothing like a simmering Chinese hot pot to warm you up. Perfect for large gatherings of friends or family, it’s an interactive way of cooking and dining. Think of it as the Chinese version of fondue. The Chinese name for it, huo guo, literally translates to “fire pot”, tracing back over 1,000 years, known to have originated in Mongolia. There, the stew was prepared with hearty red meat such as beef and lamb. Its popularity grew throughout China’s many regions and took on different regional flavors. In southern coastal areas, seafood became more dominantly cooked in the dish. Hot pot continued to gain popularity throughout the rest of Asia as well. Japan’s take on it is shabu-shabu, Singapore has its steamboat, Korea has jjigae, and Vietnam prides itself on lẩu.

Dining hot pot style consists of guests sitting at the table surrounding the steamy pot of broth cooking at the center of the table. Plates full of raw ingredients are at the ready for dunking into the communal broth to cook, and guests cook their own food. Once done, the food is dipped into different dipping sauces.

Traditionally, gas was used to power hot pots, but modern ones sold mostly for home use are either electric or butane-powered. The metal pot itself sometimes has a few separate compartments giving the option of serving a variety of broths.

One of the key flavoring components is the broth itself. The foundation can be as simple as a chicken stock base with aromatic ginger, garlic and scallions. Or, popular among thrill-seekers is the Sichuan mala (麻辣, or “numbing hot”) broth, bursting with flavor from red chilies, Shaoxing rice wine, Sichuan peppercorns, and aromatic spices like star anise, fennel, and ginger. The combination of these bold ingredients lends an unmistakably vibrant red hue to this option. As ingredients are cooked in the broth, they themselves lend more complexity in flavor, resulting in a richly flavored stock that is perfect for sipping on its own at the end of the meal.

The second vital flavor component is the dipping sauce. Chinese BBQ sauce imparting rich umami dimension, soy sauce, and scallions are the trifecta of flavor for the standard sauce. But there are many other condiment and sauce options, which may include cilantro, sesame oil, chile sauce, and even raw egg, for creating a finishing touch to piping hot food coming out of the pot.

Scattered around the pot is usually a variety of raw ingredients to be cooked with a heavy emphasis on meats and seafood – paper-thin slices of beef sirloin, pork loin, shrimp, and beef and fish balls. These are balanced by greens such as napa cabbage or spinach. Other common ingredients include noodles, mushroom, carrots, and tofu. Most ingredients require very little cooking time, so it is important to keep an eye on them for doneness.

For a festive meal, check out a hot pot restaurant or even host a hot pot party at home.

Chinese Charcuterie, It’s A Thing!

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While charcuterie’s association lies primarily with France and its pâté and terrines, China offers its own delicious style of preserved and prepared meats.

One of the most popular sausages is the lap cheong (腊肠) that is made from pork. They can either be fresh or smoked, and their levels of sweetness and dryness can vary. Think of them as China’s answer to American bacon. The sweeter variety more common in Southern China, imparts rich, fatty flavor to composed dishes, like Hong Kong style fried rice, or dim sum turnip cakes. Sausage flavors reflect differences in regional ingredients used. Sichuan province, known for its spicy peppers, presents a chile infused version. While in Northern China, the city of Harbin produces hóng cháng (red sausage, 红肠), which possesses more smoky, savory European flavor notes, a direct influence of Russia when it opened a sausage factory in the city in the early 1900’s.

At Chinese banquets, the first of many courses is the charcuterie or cold cut plate. Considered the welcoming starter to entice guests, it presents an array of meats with a medley of textures, colors, and fragrance – the elegance of the dish is displayed through the balance of these qualities and the precise thin slicing of each component. Beef, chicken, and pork are usually represented, but preparations may differ, and dependent on the restaurant and offered selections, some platters may be more seafood-driven. Five-spiced beef shank is braised with dark soy sauce, rice wine, and aromatic star anise, coriander, cinnamon, clove, and Sichuan peppercorn. Drunken chicken is so literally named as a whole chicken is bathed in Shaoxing wine and either steamed or poached. Once chilled, the chicken releases gelatin, which together with the wine creates an aspic that clings to the chicken. And pork shoulder might be roasted, or a pork knuckle rolled and poached with five spice, accompanied with black vinegar for dipping. Pig ear or chicken terrine might also appear on the platter. Customarily added for texture is a tangle of thinly sliced jellyfish tossed lightly with sesame oil, soy sauce, and vinegar. Sprigs of cilantro, scallions, or curly parsley typically garnish the plate.

Pidan (century egg, or thousand-year egg, 皮蛋), a Chinese delicacy of either preserved duck, chicken, or quail egg is often served with cold cuts, but also pairs with rice porridge served at breakfast, or mixed with chilled tofu as a side. The curiously black hued egg is a result of it being cured in ash, salt, quicklime, and rice husks over a few months. The texture of the egg white becomes jelly-like in texture and the yolks a dark grayish green with creamy consistency. Although to some, pidan may be an acquired taste, it imparts a salty richness that complements many dishes.

Check out the delicious Chinese charcuterie selections from China Live

Chinese Breads, Baos and Bings

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If you’ve ever had Peking duck or a pork bun, then you’re familiar with the soft, spongy vehicle that was meant for enveloping the delectable meat filling. But there are a much larger variety of breads in Chinese cuisine to explore.

Although their ingredients don’t differ much from their American counterparts, made with flour and water, and in some cases yeast and even lard, Chinese breads do stand apart when it comes to texture and flavor as they are fluffier, lighter, and a bit sweeter. Many are even steamed or fried, or even a combination of the two, as opposed to baked.

Baking bread in Chinese cuisine did not come along until late 1200 AD when wheat and rice flour were introduced and Silk Road traders introduced flour milling. Breads around that time were more like flatbreads, or pitas, similar to Indian naan.

Eaten at breakfast, at dim sum, or even as a mid-day snack, there are a plethora of different kinds whether they be biscuits or buns, rolled, or filled with red bean paste or even hot dog. Walk into any Chinese bakery and you might be overwhelmed by the variations in fillings and toppings.

Mantou, one of the more basic in the wheat-based family and popular in northern parts of China, is a leavened bun made of flour, milk or water, and yeast, and is steamed. Plainer in taste, they are similar to American rolls in that they are meant for accompanying stronger flavored dishes.

Another bun ubiquitous in most regions is the bao, which is yeasted. Usually they are steamed, but in some cases baked. A most basic example is the unfilled, folded over, steamed bao that accompanies Peking duck. Offered at any and all dim sum restaurants, the char siu bao, holds a rich, savory, sweet pork filling. Other savory fillings might include lamb, ham and cheese, or bacon. Some of the more popular toppings for the sweet tooth include pineapple, coconut, or lotus seeds.

Bing translates to biscuit and also begins with a wheat base, but are unleavened. These are flat and shaped like a disc, typically seasoned with scallion oil and dotted with sesame seeds. It serves a purpose similar to sandwich bread. One of the most popular is the pan-fried cong you bing, or scallion pancake, made with scallions and oil. Another favorite is the niu rou xian bing, or Chinese meat pie, filled with beef and scallion, also pan-fried.

Look out for Chinese breads on your next visit to China Live!

Chinese Noodles: A Stringy Tale From The Far East

Chinese Noodles

It’s no surprise that some of the most popular and slurp-inducing Chinese dishes include chicken chow mein, wonton noodle soup, and beef chow fun. Noodles are considered an important ingredient in just about every part of China, as it should considering that historically, it dates far back to the Han Dynasty around 200 BC. And helping further prove the historical and cultural significance with the country, in 2005, archeologists discovered the oldest existing noodle in northwestern China that was 4,000 years old, made from millet grains.

Each region has their own style of preparation and differs even in the way they produce the noodle. The ingredients, shape and width vary as well. Noodles are named after the type of flour used to produce them. Wheat flour based noodles are “mian” in Mandarin, or “mein” in Cantonese, the basic ingredients being wheat flour, water, and salt. With the addition of eggs, the egg noodles impart a richer flavor and texture and possess a slight golden hue. The ubiquitous sautéed chicken chow mein is made with wheat based or egg noodles. Hong Kong Style chow mein, made with a thinner egg noodles are fried, creating a crispy, golden crust.

Rice flour based doughs are referred to as “fen” in Mandarin and “fun” in Cantonese. “He fen” or chow fun is a flat, broad rice noodle that is commonly prepared by sautéing the noodle with beef and greens. Noodles can also be made with a mung bean or vegetable base. Egg is never added to this type of noodle. Typical preparations of the mung bean noodle include sautéeing with chicken or beef, soups, and hot pots.

It may be surprising, but the wonton belongs to the noodle, not the dumpling family. Made with wheat flour, recipes call for stuffing the noodle like a dumpling and for steaming, or boiling them in a soup. Popular wonton dishes include boiled wontons in chili oil and the ubiquitous wonton noodle soup.

There are a variety of ways to make noodles. They can be cut, extruded, or kneaded, similar to Italian pastas. But they can also be hand shaved from a ball of dough, or pulled –rolling the dough into a long rope and stretching and twisting repeatedly resulting in thin strands. There even exists a wheat noodle directly translated as cat’s ear, perhaps the predecessor to the Italian orrechiette.

The wide variety of Chinese noodles and their preparations provide an endless array of dishes to explore and relish.

Find your perfect noodle dish at China Live this season!

Rice: The Foundation of Chinese Cuisine 🍜

Chinese Rice

The foundation of any Chinese meal is rice. It is considered more than just a side dish as it might be for most Western meals. Meat and vegetables dishes revolve around rice. It is also usually eaten during all three meals in a day. Even the Chinese term for meal translates to cooked rice or “fàn”.

Rice has been grown in China as early as 10,000 years ago, mostly in the southern regions as the climate is more favorable for cultivation. The warmer weather allows for two harvests per year.

Rice is categorized into three types – short, medium, and long grain, with long grain being the most commonly prepared in China. Jasmine rice is considered a long grain variety and originates from Thailand but is also popular in Chinese cooking. Medium grain rice possesses a softer kernel and the majority of what is harvested is milled into rice flour. And short grain is more prevalent in Japanese cooking. However, it is ideal for making congee (rice porridge).

In China, the texture of traditional cooked rice should be fluffy and the grains of rice should be distinct and separate from each other so that it maintains its bite. This also lends a good chew to fried rice.

Glutinous (or sweet) rice, which can either be short or long grain, has the texture its name implies. It is prepared in some very beloved dishes – nuo mi fan, sticky rice with a variety of ingredients including pork belly and mushrooms, zongzi, the Chinese version of a tamale, an envelope of bamboo or other type of leaf stuffed with a savory or sweet rice filling, and ba bao fàn, or Eight-Treasure Rice – a steamed large rice dome containing eight types of fruits and nuts, served during Chinese New Year or at a banquet.

Rice can also be used as a seasoning for meats as well. Roasted rice is a blend of dry-roasted short-grain rice with Sichuan peppercorns.

Sizzling rice dishes are another example of rice’s versatility in terms of texture. The overcooked kernels at the bottom of the pot in which it is cooked is then deep-fried. As hot soup is poured over it, the rice yields a hissing sound.

Although white rice is still the most widely consumed, other color varieties are also grown in China. Red rice, which is usually fermented is used more for coloring, in char siu pork, Peking Duck, and pastries. Brown rice and black rice have become more popular recently due to their health benefits.

Rice in Chinese cookery finds its way into everything, whether it is traditional steamed rice, a seasoning blend, a classic fried rice, or a steamed aromatic dessert. Also, prepared in different techniques such as roasting, fermenting, or frying, showcases its versatility and complexity.

Explore and you’ll find your perfect rice at China Live, join us in the adventure.

There Are Bubbles In My Tea 😊

Bubble Tea

At first sight, flavored tea with tapioca balls or pearls may seem a very unusual beverage. The color of the tea can range from a pale milky tan to a pastel green or even the hue of orange sherbet depending on the flavor. Dark opaque balls sink and pile to the bottom of the standard plastic cup usually sealed at the top with cellophane or (dome lid). An oversized straw usually patterned in a bright color is punched into the cellophane for drinking the tea and slurping the tapioca balls.

It can almost be considered a national drink in Taiwan where it originated and took by storm in the 1980’s. Since then, it has attracted a following in many other countries including the rest of Asia and here in the states. Hundreds of bubble tea cafes have opened in California alone.

Known by a variety of names including boba tea, pearl tea, pearl milk tea, or boba nai cha, the drink was first served in Taichung, Taiwan. The most accredited story regarding its origin belongs to the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse. Liu Han-Chieh, the owner, took the Japanese concept of serving cold coffee and applied it to tea in his establishment. In 1988, his product developer Lin Hsiu Hui poured her dessert, a tapioca pudding, into her iced tea during a meeting, and behold, a new idea was born. It quickly became the best-selling tea on their menu.

Most tea shops offer two major types: milk teas and fruit-flavored teas. Another variation is fruit smoothies. Beyond this, there are a myriad of options. The tea can be cold or hot, but chilled and served with ice is definitely more commonly ordered. The most popular drinks are green or black tea and milk-based. Milk can be omitted, and even the amount of sugar can be customized to ones liking for sweetness. Fruit flavorings can also be added and include mostly tropical fruits like passion fruit, kiwi, and lychee. Non-fruit flavors such as ginger, mocha, or taro are other options.

The tapioca balls, which come in different sizes and can also be flavored, provide a chewy snack within the drink.

As odd as this creation may seem to those who aren’t familiar with it, try it and you might just hooked on this fun, bubbly beverage.