The Cookbook Review: Exploring China by Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang
I am not a proficient cook. It is with this thought that I discover that Ken Hom is not just some young upstart attempting to break into the British cookery scene with his Chinese recipes. He is in fact the famed culinary king of Chinese cuisine and has been known on these shores for many decades. Along with Ching He-Huang (also, I find out, very famous), Hom has teamed up to bring us a culinary journey across China, which is described as a ‘story, told through food, of the old and the new’. Big boots to fill.
In my opinion, this book should ultimately be about the recipes. If I want a story I will buy a novel. Pleasingly then, I discover that the narrative is not pervasive, and could be seen more as a bonus on top of the recipes; a treat for those wishing to get a little more out of their book. Regarding the recipes, I was presented with a vast selection to choose from. I genuinely feel that within the pages there will be something to please even the most traditional, or stubborn, of eaters.
Despite the attractiveness of much of the menu though, Chinese cooking (at least Ken and Ching’s) is not the most accessible to students. If embarking on this Asian adventure for the first time, you should expect a significant initial outlay; the cost of the many important oils and pastes required. Chinese cooking is also fairly fast paced (at the business end of cooking), requiring you to pour a bit of this, then a bit of that, into the dish in quick succession, it is not for the shaky novice chefs amongst us.
All in all, the recipes in the book are very tasty. Ken’s ‘Twice cooked pork’ and ‘Dan Dan Mian spicy Sichuan noodles’, were beyond delicious, despite perhaps showing a Chinese over-reliance on peppercorn. The book, too, has a major issue with portion sizes, and every amount was required to be doubled in size at least. It strikes me that, through my complaints regarding portion sizes, people may simply think that my guests and myself are obese, but I can assure you that that is not the case. This problem with portion sizes is the book’s real detriment, taking something away from what would otherwise be a wonderful addition to a cook’s (though perhaps not a student cook’s) recipe book collection.
Starter: Braised Beef Shank in Sichuan Dressing
Ching says: ‘This is one of those dishes where beef shank, a cheap cut of meat that is full of muscle, is transformed into an elegant, tasty dish. I cook it slowly for hours until tender in a rich braising liquid. Once cooked, it is left to cool and then sliced, dressed and garnished. This makes a great cold starter, perfect for entertaining as it can be made hours ahead.’
Brendan says: The braising liquid is indeed rich and tasty and the dish can be made hours ahead. In fact it has to be, as you need to cook it for 3 hours. Despite increasing the seemingly-small amount of beef in the recipe, the results were still sparse. But impressively, despite my inability to properly shred beef the dish was very tasty – it was wonderfully tangy.
Serves 2-4 to share
300g piece of braising beef (shank or shin)
For the braising sauce:
2.5cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and sliced
2tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)
1tsp Chinese five-spice powder
1tsp Sichuan peppercorns
3 pieces dried tangerine peel
1tbsp dark soy sauce
3tbsp light soy sauce
20g Chinese rock sugar (or 2 tablespoons soft brown sugar)
3tsp caster sugar
½tsp sea salt
For the Sichuan dressing:
2tbsp chilli oil
¼tsp toasted and ground Sichuan peppercorns
1tbsp Chinese clear (plain) rice vinegar (or cider vinegar)
2tbsp braising liquid
1tbsp toasted sesame oil
For the garnish:
toasted white sesame seeds
1 spring onion, finely chopped
Slicing along the grain, cut the beef into four rectangular chunks. Blanch it in a pan of boiling water for 2 minutes and remove any scum. Rinse the beef, place it in a pot with all the ingredients for the braising sauce and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer on a low heat for 3 hours until the beef is tender and juicy. Remove and leave to cool, then keep refrigerated until ready to serve. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the braising liquid for the dressing. (You can combine the remainder with stock to make a delicious broth for soup noodles.)
Combine all the ingredients for the Sichuan dressing in a bowl and put to one side.
To serve, shred the beef and place on a serving plate. Drizzle with the Sichuan dressing, then sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds and spring onion on top and serve immediately.
Main: Sichuan Fried Spicy Chicken with Green Pepper
Ching says: ‘I love spicy chicken – threads of chicken are coated in an egg white and cornflour mixture (a technique called ‘velveting’ where the meat retains its juiciness when shallow-fried), then stir-fried with aromatics, garlic and ginger, tossed with green pepper and seasoned with spicy, soy, rice wine sauce. The result is rich, savoury and mouth-wateringly good.
Brendan says: This is another case where I question Ching’s portion sizes. The recipe says to use 150g of chicken. I used 1kg of chicken. When serving up the dish, I yet again realised that the portion sizes looked frugal. If you attempt to make this dish you must also realise how long it is going to take to batter 1kg of chicken. Hint: a long time. This is definitely a dish more for dinner parties rather than nights in front of the television, and unless I host any more Chinese themed nights, I will not be making this dish again. Also: am I going to dip thin strips of spring onion into iced water to make curls? No. No I am not.
Serves 2-4 to share
1 egg white
150g chicken thighs, skinned, boned and sliced into long, thin julienne strips
sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
vegetable oil, for shallow-frying
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2.5cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and grated
1 green pepper, de-seeded and cut into long thin matchsticks
2 large fresh cayenne chillies, de-seeded and sliced into long, thin julienne strips
1tsp chilli bean paste
1tsp yellow bean paste (or sweet bean paste or yellow miso)
1tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)
1tsp light soy sauce
For the garnish:
1 spring onion, sliced into long strips, then dipped in iced water and drained, to make curls
Put the egg white into a bowl with the cornflour and mix well. Add the chicken strips and coat well. Season with salt and white pepper.
Fill a wok one-third full with vegetable oil and heat the oil to 180 degrees Celsius, or until a cube of bread turns golden brown in 15 seconds. Carefully lower the chicken pieces into the hot oil and fry for 2 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Pour the chicken into a strainer over a heatproof bowl, then return 1 tablespoon of oil to the wok and reheat. Add the garlic and ginger and toss for a few seconds, then add the green pepper and fresh chillies, with a small splash of water to help create some steam to cook the vegetables, and toss through.
Return the chicken to the wok and season with chilli bean paste, yellow bean paste (or miso), rice wine (or sherry) and soy sauce and toss together well to coat the vegetables and the chicken. Transfer to a serving plate, garnish with spring onion curls and serve immediately.
Dessert: Peach and Lychee Spring Rolls
Ching says: ‘I love spring rolls but find they taste even better with a sweet filling – and nothing beats fresh lychees and ripe peaches. Wrap them in bought spring roll pastry and fry until golden, then serve with ice cream and maple syrup – easy and delicious! Perfect for a summer or Chinese New Year party.’
Brendan says: This was the highlight of the meal for me. Noticing a recurring trend I made 30 spring rolls rather than Ching’s recommended 12. I also used 4 peaches and tinned lychees which made the recipe much more managable. You have to be very gentle with the spring rolls when frying them, as I found out in several splintering trial runs. They will fall apart. In spite of this, they still tasted wonderful and I would definitely make these again.
12 x 15cm square spring roll wrappers
10 fresh lychees, peeled, halved and stoned (or used tinned lychees)
2 large ripe peaches, stoned and thickly sliced (no need to peel)
1 tbsp cornflour, blended with 1 tbsp warm water
groundnut oil, for shallow-frying
vanilla ice cream
Place a spring roll wrapper in front of you, in the shape of a diamond (with points top and bottom).
Put a chopped lychee and a few peach slices across the centre of the pastry, then brush each corner with the blended cornflour. Reserve the leftover lychees and peaches for decorating. Bring the two side corners over the filling to the middle. Bring the bottom corner up over the filling, then brush the remaining corner with a little more blended cornflour and roll up from the bottom to secure the spring roll. Continue in the same way until all the wrappers are filled.
Heat a large non-stick frying pan or wok over medium heat. Add a shallow layer of oil, allow to heat, then fry the spring rolls for 1 minute until golden. Turn the rolls over and cook the other side until golden.
To serve, put 2 or 3 spring rolls in each small serving dish, top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and decorate with the leftover pieces of fruit. Drizzle with golden syrup and serve immediately.
Exploring China by Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang is available now from Ebury priced £25
Words: Brendan Durkin