When I was growing up and first tasted westernised Chinese food, I was hardly impressed. The spring rolls were full of hot oil; if you took a bite the person sitting opposite could get oil in the eye. The noodles were soggy, the cheap vinegar made the sweet more sour, and every dish tasted the same. I was put off for life, it felt at the time.
My perception of Chinese food changed about 14 years ago when I met Chuck and Tina Yang. They had a small family-run restaurant that seated about 40 people called The Yellow River. It had bright lights and the Formica-topped tables were reserved for the local Chinese community. As I walked in I was already in love with all the delicious aromas that filled the room.
The food smelled beautifully earthy and sweet and the sight of chatty, slurping Chinese families made me impatient to scoop a heaped chopstick of sticky, steamed, gleaming white rice straight into my mouth.
The tables were covered with hotpots and dumplings, whole deep-fried fish, and crispy salt and pepper Calamari. I saw some fat, sticky-sweet chilli prawns that I longed to try, and noodles with shredded chilli, ginger, garlic and pork. And then there were tofu, egg, bright green Chinese veggies and sprouts all floating in steaming bowls of chicken broth. And platters of deep-fried soft-shell crab; and succulent chunks of chicken cooked with ginger, heaps of whole dried chillies and fragrant roasted peanuts…you get my point.
I loved how everyone was sharing the meal from different dishes, everything sliced or chopped to bite-size so that it could just be slipped into the mouth with chopsticks, no cutlery required.
I had walked into a world of flavour: hot and spicy, pungent and salty, sweet and sour, cold and tasty, crisp and soft. My hunger to visit and taste China had begun!
I love visiting Suzhou, which is known as the Venice of China. Half of the city is covered by water and quaint little houses line the canals; it is a sight almost too beautiful to behold. Sadly the homes don’t have plumbing, so the authorities are slowly moving people into apartments and some of this old-world living on the water will be lost.
I am happiest and most inspired when I am surrounded by fresh produce, and that is why I love to visit fresh food markets. At the local market in Suzhou, my heart raced at the sight of unusual ingredients just begging to be turned into dinner: mounds of every kind of fresh mushroom imaginable; snake beans thick and long and so fresh they sounded like a bone breaking when snapped in half; heaps of the longest, juiciest, whitest mung bean sprouts I have ever seen in my life; piles of lean pork cuts, pale pink and fleshy, covered with the smoothest skin waiting to be crackled. I had a meal in my head that needed to be cooked.
Chuckey’s Chinese chicken is a recipe I developed for my beautiful friend Chuck.
I have lost a mentor and a beautiful friend who meant so much to me. He taught me so much; he made me laugh; he made me taste things before telling me what they were. My heart is shattered into a trillion pieces. Rest in peace my darling Chuck. I will never forget you and will miss you forever. Make those stir-fries and General Chicken in the sky; the angels will love it.
Chuckey’s Chinese Chicken
This is for my wonderful, loveable friend Chuck Yang, his wife Tina, and his children Jessica and Aaron. It is delicious served on fragrant, sticky egg-fried rice.
Ingredients for the Chicken:
6 chicken breasts sliced into strips across the breast
1 Tbls grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbls soy sauce
A good shake of ground white pepper
A grinding of Sichuan pepper (optional)
1 green chilli, finely chopped
5 Tbls cornflour
2 egg whites, beaten
Oil for deep frying
1 Tbls oil
2 red chillies, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 spring onions with tops, chopped
½ cup roughly chopped fresh coriander
Place the chicken in a bowl with the ginger, garlic, soy sauce, white pepper, Sichuan pepper and chilli. Use your clean hands to mix everything together well, and then stir in the cornflour and egg whites, coating the chicken with it. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes.
Heat the oil in a wok and fry the chicken in small batches till golden and crisp but not cooked through.
To finish the dish, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan, add the chillies, garlic and 2 of the spring onions and fry for 3 minutes, stirring. Add the chicken and spoon in the Chuckey’s Chinese Chicken sauce (see recipe below), bring to the boil, toss the chicken into the sauce and stir to coat. Stir in the remaining spring onions and coriander, and serve with sticky rice and extra soy sauce.
Chuckey’s Chinese Chicken Sauce
The seeds of the star anise have a delicious aniseed flavour. It is a beautiful, woody, star-shaped pod and I always leave it in the food as a garnish.
1 Tbls oil
3 Tbls finely chopped fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 whole star anise pods
½ cup brown sugar
2 Tbls soy sauce
¾ cup water
2 Tbls tomato purée
1 Tbls red wine vinegar
½ tsp English mustard powder
½ cup teriyaki sauce
2 Tbls hoisin sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
Heat the oil gently and cook the ginger, garlic and star anise for 1 minute. Stir in the sugar, soy sauce, water, tomato purée, vinegar, mustard and teriyaki sauce, and cook simmering until the sugar has melted. Add the hoisin sauce and cook for 5 minutes. Add the sesame oil and remove from the heat.