International Chinese Food – It’s Complicated

 Pizza: A crispy crust made with 2 cups regular flour, 1 cup cake flour, 1 Tb sugar, 1.5 tsp salt, 1/2 Tb yeast, 2 Tb vegetable oil and enough water to make a dough. Then caramelize finely chopped onions, add tomato puree and cook to thicken, then add hoisin sauce to taste. On top of this was sauteed mushrooms, baked sweet potato slices, and the cheapest mozzarella cheese around (because it was there to hold everything in place, not for its flavor - here the goal was in fact tasteless cheese). 

Pizza: A crispy crust made with 2 cups regular flour, 1 cup cake flour, 1 Tb sugar, 1.5 tsp salt, 1/2 Tb yeast, 2 Tb vegetable oil and enough water to make a dough. Then caramelize finely chopped onions, add tomato puree and cook to thicken, then add hoisin sauce to taste. On top of this was sauteed mushrooms, baked sweet potato slices, and the cheapest mozzarella cheese around (because it was there to hold everything in place, not for its flavor – here the goal was in fact tasteless cheese). 

Last week was definitely the most difficult menu to find recipes for. For one thing, other countries’ interpretation of Chinese food takes a bit of searching (I ended up looking for well known Chinatowns and then specialties in those places) but even when I had dish names, recipes proved elusive. Or, in the case of Lumpia (Philippines) the recipes were available by the dozen, different from each other, and none of them being a great match for cold takeout to reheat, and how am I to know which direction to go in? (The answer is I made it up, and I apologize to the Philippines – but the final dish tasted great). 

I started down this International Chinese food path after hearing several stories on the topic. As you can imagine, Chinese food in regions outside of China is tied up not only in interesting culinary decisions, but also a great deal of history and social change. If you have to choose to spend your time reading the rest of this post for recipes or learning about the history of International Chinese food, I recommend the latter. 

Here are the programs that I began with:

Also, as another interesting thing to think about, in The Tastemakers David Sax asks the question why every town in American has a Chinese restaurant but not an Indian restaurant (people in Montpelier are asking that question very loudly).  

If this were a class on flavor we’d all pause now to look up the many variations on Chow Mein and start there to see how different countries interpret the same starting concept. This week I chose Caribbean and Canadian. The basic chow mein concept is noodles, vegetables, and meat with a sauce made from soy sauce and oyster sauce (or, for vegetarian, cheating with soy sauce, hoisin and vinegar. . . which I considered close enough). Here is a basic recipe as a starting point.

For a Caribbean version, use a jerk seasoning in the marinade. I used this recipe to mix my own, but you could also buy a pre-made mix.

Wikipedia claims that in some areas of Canada they use mung bean sprouts as the chow mein noodles. I found no recipes to back that claim up with details, but I chose to trust the source. I have always, and happily, used up ends of mung bean sprout packages (the long white kind) by cooking the heck out of the sprouts, along with thinly sliced onions, in a large saucepan and adding generous amounts of soy sauce as the sprouts begin to get soft. That mixture tastes great in all sorts of applications (I usually throw it in an omelet) and the chow mein is another one. In the picture below I have both the thick white sprouts and the other style of sprouted mung beans, which I got from Peace of Earth Farm. The local sprouts added a nice texture to the dish. 

Another popular item on the menu this week was Manchurian Chicken, from the vast Indian Chinese food repertoire. You will never see this item again because it takes forever to make. However, if you aren’t mincing 10 pounds of chicken, it probably feels less like drudgery. And you probably should make the recipe because it does taste best fresh from the pan. It’s crispy little chicken nuggets with a hot and sour sauce served over egg fried rice. Because I’d never had this dish before, and couldn’t really guess what it tasted like, I followed a recipe closely and I used this recipe for the chicken. I don’t know where I read that it should be served over egg fried rice (a cookbook somewhere) but I did read it, and so I made a batch of that as well, even though this recipe doesn’t call for it. I guess that doesn’t count as “following a recipe closely” but I tried.

Speaking of following recipes or not, let’s discuss the lumpia situation. I refer you to Wikipedia to see the number of different lumpia out there. A lot. In summary it’s a filling that may be of almost all meat, or shrimp, or meat and vegetables, or vegetables with a little sprinkling of flaked meat, and the vegetables may be anything from coconuts to lettuce, and they are made into rolls that are deep fried cigar rolls, or that are filled crepes, or spring rolls, or not rolls at all if it’s lumpiyang hubad. I decided I wanted them on the menu after reading articles on food walking tours of Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown, which is in Manila.  

There was no way that I could deep fry the rolls, and the crepe version seemed like it wouldn’t hold up as a cold takeout item, and naked seemed too boring, so I went with steamed dumplings as the vehicle instead because those are always popular. As ever, I used the cooking method found in this leek bun recipe. 

I looked at the fresh lumpia recipes – because fresh seemed healthy – and hit on this dipping sauce. It was not the standard sweet & sour sauce I saw referenced for the fried versions, but it seemed like it would taste the best with what I chose for the filling. The filling was based, again, on an amalgamation of what I saw listed as acceptable fresh lumpia fillings. Plus tofu standing in for meat because I was low on vegetarian menu items. 

For the filling, I used 2 parts mashed sweet potato to 2 parts firm tofu cut into bitsy cubes and panfried until well browned to 1 part a mixture of the mung bean sprouts and onions that I described as “good in anything” in the Canadian chow mein paragraph. These got combined in one bowl. I also tossed finely chopped cabbage with a generous pinch of salt and left it to drain in a sieve over a large bowl for an hour – adding cabbage was the dumpling version of wrapping the filling in fresh lettuce before rolling it in a crepe (which one version called for). 

When assembling the dumplings – again, following this recipe – I put a generous scoop of the sweet potato mixture in the middle and then sprinkled the cabbage on top before sealing.

Now, if you’d like to do these a proper way, and in particular the Lumpia Shanghai way in keeping with the inspired-by-China theme, I refer you to this post on the blog Rasa Malaysia

I’m afraid that beyond these dishes I went too far astray from recipes and measurements to be of much help in recounting them. One exception – Mango-Coconut Tapioca Pudding. I used the Smitten Kitchen version. It was straightforward and I didn’t wander off script until the last batch, at which point I got a little wild with evaporated milk and coconut cream and flaked coconut and stopped myself before adding rum but now I regret my restraint. Don’t worry about that last batch, just follow this very simple recipe

Bean Paste Cookies: My bean paste is cooked adzuki beans pureed with maple syrup, cloves, and cinnamon, then cooked a second time to reach the “paste” consistency. Here the paste is wrapped in pie dough and waiting to be baked. 

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