lundi, mai 30, 2011

Mapo Tofu Revisited 麻婆豆腐

Mapo Tofu

Chef Wang taught us how to make Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐 in our last cooking class and I have decided to try out his method before I forget. I have been making my own version of the dish for a while now, but his method is even easier with fantastic results which is much appreciated in this household.

He demonstrated how to remove tofu cleanly from its plastic box - to many oohs and ahs from the audience. It basically involved a bit of tapping and shaking.

Then we were told that in good restaurants like his, they cook their tofu before using it. This helps to remove any smell or taste from the soy beans, and cooking the bean curd beforehand also means that it would be less likely to break later.

Mapo Tofu :

2 packets of firm silky tofu
2 garlic cloves (minced)
1 slice fresh ginger (minced)
150g minced pork
2 tbsp chilli bean sauce 辣豆瓣醬
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
chicken stock or water
cornstarch solution
1-2 tbsp chilli oil
1 tbsp szechuan peppercorns (crushed)
1 tbsp spring onions (chopped)

Marinate the pork with a bit of salt, pepper, cooking wine and light soy sauce. Set aside for at least an hour.

Slice the tofu into small cubes. Bring a wok of water to the boil and gently slide the sliced tofu into it. Simmer for about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat some vegetable oil in a wok or frying pan and fry the ginger and garlic till fragrant. Add the meat and stir fry till it's cooked. Add the chilli bean sauce and mix well. Chef Wang uses mainly Lee Kum Kee sauces but I have decided to go for the cheaper Lao Gan Ma 老干妈 brand. And instead of touban paste I've opted for fragrant chilli paste. The former however will give one a brighter, lighter red coloured sauce.

Add in the stock, dark soy sauce and sugar. Stir to mix well and simmer for a few minutes.

Gently slide in the cooked tofu after having ladled up half of the minced meat. Return the meat on top of the tofu. Do not stir.

Simmer the tofu for a few minutes to allow it to absorb the sauce. When ready to serve drizzle over the cornstarch solution to thicken the sauce, making sure that the solution is not too thick. Do not stir, just shake the pan a few times.

Gently scoop out the tofu and the sauce (I had too much of it - but liked it that way) onto a serving dish. Drizzle the chilli oil and sprinkle the crushed szechuan peppercorns and spring onions over the dish. Serve hot with steamed rice. The szechuan peppercorns give the dish its distinctive numbing hot taste and according to the chef is best added only before serving the dish.

Family Sunday

The lunch spread

As you know Hub travels a lot for his work and come weekends usually does not want to move any more. He likes to swim a few laps at the pool, play golf with the kids, cycle to our spa for an oil massage, play plant vs zombie on his iPad or just lie on the sofa watching movies.

When his company organised their annual Family Day on Sunday, his first reaction was to say that he didn't want to attend. I had to remind him that it wasn't meant for him - it was for the family; that as GM of his entity it wasn't really up to him not to go - on the contrary he had to be there to say a few encouraging words to those who work for him, praise their kids, thank their spouses...And of course I was curious to meet his colleagues.

It was a really hot day and the park was a little far out - in the north of Pudong near some waterway. It was called Binjiang Forest Park and is the largest park in Shanghai.

Binjiang Forest Park

Park's lovely and is well taken care of. There are different zones with sculpted plants, play areas, paddle boats, restaurants etc. About 160 staff and their families turned up and a company has been hired to entertain everyone by organising games, talent shows, group exercise etc.

Gathering everyone before the stage (CEO in dark blue about to make speech)

Each family was given 2-3 backpacks with water, picnic mat and caps. I just realised that the children didn't receive any presents like I was told they would. Probably because we left earlier than everyone else - Hub couldn't wait to go.

The MCs


Chinese kids and their families were quite game from the look of things, they took part in almost everything unlike us who just sat around complaining of the heat. A few kids went up to sing, play violin, recite poetry...they took part in quizzes and participated in father and child football matches. Hub joined in at the end because Baby Boy insisted (boy's quite good at football actually), but it was really only at the end.

Babies took part in drop the kerchief game (sort of)

Father and child football match

At one end of the park you have a view of a body of water that looks like the sea - but probably is just part of a canal or river. Hub picked out the lucky draw prizes (we didn't win anything) and then we ate lunch in a restaurant that served local dishes. There was a lot of food - only Hub made the mistake of peeping into the kitchen on his way in and lost his appetite. The children only ate peanuts (literally) while I was the only one who ate like a pig. There were so many dishes it was impossible not to find something to eat. But the table next to us had mainly Italians, for example, and their food looked untouched. Could imagine them going home and cooking pasta. Hub came home and made ham and cheese toasts.

Colleague said that was Chongmin island but driver said not possible

We were arguing about whether I should make dinner (I was very full and didn't feel like cooking - but of course he was still hungry) when our Chinese neighbour turned up to invite us to his BBQ. Now, let me explain that it wasn't your usual family BBQ. The food was catered from some hotel on the Bund, the oysters were flown in from Brittany the day before (and they came with a few French guys to open them), the wines and champagne were French (e.g. Chateau Lynch Bages) and there was even a clown to entertain the children.

You almost never see any of the Chinese neighbours in our compound. They are usually very very rich and have an army of ayis and drivers - the only people you will usually meet in the day. But our neighbour has French friends and thought that it would be nice for us to meet them.

Found out that he owns an advertising agency as well as an art gallery among other businesses. A cool and interesting guy, simple and yet not so simple. He chimney smokes and loves good wine (e.g. he mentioned having Chateau Petrus in his cellar last evening), told us that our compound is owned by the Communist Party and not the Chinese State (apparently there is a difference between the 2), and wanted to invite us over for dinner every 2 weeks, and why not on weekends too.

He married a very young local girl 2 years ago and they have a little girl. Wife seems very nice and innocent - not at all like the sophisticated socialites you would think a man like him should have. I think I can probably get along quite well with her - only I feel so old and corrupt next to the girl.

It is unlike us not to return an invitation, but I feel a little nervous offering home-cooked fare and our now-cheap-in-comparison wines. Sigh...

samedi, mai 28, 2011

Cooking with Chef Wang

Chef Wang at work

They started this series of cookery lessons with Chef Wang the week before I moved in. I have therefore missed the fried fish with sweet and sour sauce - a tragedy. Have no idea how to slice fish to make it look like the fish they serve in good restaurants.

Fried Fish Cutlets

But I haven't missed any of the remaining 11 lessons since. Even through my unpacking I would make time to attend the class. In fact, my movers arrived on a Thursday morning - the day we usually have our cooking class. The service centre sent one of their staff to my house (to keep an eye on the movers) so that I could attend lessons that morning. Hub was pissed off with me for that...

Crab Roe Tofu

Chef Wang works for the "model" Chinese restaurant in our hotel. He has learnt from famous Chinese masters and has served many very important Chinese politicians in his career. But learning is 2-way as we know, after 12 lessons with us he finally learnt not to add msg and/or too much oil in his cooking demonstrations.

Curry Crabs

If you had seen the amount of oil and/or msg being used in Chinese restaurant cooking you probably would stop eating out. My most memorable was the fried vegetarian goose that Chef Wang made - literally steeped in oil and more oil even before it was fried. Of course it tasted heavenly - but think of the oil and I lose some of my blood pressure.

Making the egg dumpling wrapper in a ladle!

Most of the recipes he shared with us were meant to familiarise us with basic Chinese cooking techniques so that we would be able to cook most simple dishes at home. Marinating meat, chopping, slicing, boiling tofu before cooking with it, how to decorate a plate etc. Measures were always approximative as taste is personal and his favourite word during his classes probably was "gu ji" or estimate.

Meat-filled Egg Dumplings

I haven't taken many pictures of the dishes as half of the classes fell during my unpacking period and I barely had time to rush to and back from the lessons forget remembering to bring along the camera. We have done dishes as varied as cantonese oyster sauce beef, fried vegetarian goose, shanghainese shaomai, hot and sour soup, seafood soup, black pepper beef, mapo tofu, cold noodles with peanut sauce, yuxiang egg plant, curry crabs, fried fish cutlets, sanbei chicken, salt and pepper prawns, egg dumplings, gongbao chicken...

Prawn & Egg Dumpling Soup

Most of the other tenants who turned up were Chinese or of Chinese origins e.g. from USA, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia...We actually have quite a fun group and have taken to doing things together outside the cookery classes.

Mapo Tofu

Chef Wang said that he would probably start another series of cookery lessons at the end of summer when we return for the new school year. In the meantime I better try cooking some of the dishes myself before I forget everything.

Wholesale Plant Market in Pudong

Harvest from plant shopping

It's spring and I can only think of plants, flowers, soil, fertilisers and flower pots...It has become quite an obsession. I could have gone to the nearest plant market to stock up - only I want variety and I want it cheap(er), and thanks to one of my neighbours I have discovered a wholesale plant market in Pudong. That was where I've spent my morning yesterday.

A wholesale plant market in Pudong

I haven't suddenly discovered that I have a green thumb. It is because I don't that I need to make sure that I do not spend a fortune on plants that I'll have to buy again in no time. Actually many of the sellers have no clue either how to look after the plants or make them grow again (or they'd rather not tell) - they just know how to collect money from you.

Never go to the plant market on a hot day. It would be too horrible as you would need to walk around quite a bit - as I've discovered on my first trip there. The weather was cool yesterday so it was perfect for shopping in the wholesale market. Though one still risked being knocked down by a van or having one's foot spit on as usual.

You may find outdoor plants, decorative stone sculptures, wooden material, indoor plants, orchids (they mostly come from Taiwan), bonsai, flower pots, soil/fertilisers, roses, cacti, fruit etc. Some of the sellers come from other parts of China like Guangzhou and Chaozhou, in fact I gave some of them a shock when I let known that I could understand what they were saying to each other when they were speaking Teochew. But still they wouldn't reduce the price as it was normally meant for people who buy in bulk.

Bought this plant in 3 colours : white, purple and cross-bred. Like father, mother and baby :-)

Afternoon spent repotting the plants

I only bought a few plants and pots as it took a lot of time looking through each shop and sifting through the rubbish that some of them contained. Then of course I was as usual indecisive. I do not need a garden since we have a common one in the compound that is looked after by an army of gardeners, but I feel that I still need a few plants of my own to look after myself.

My new green flower pot

Does the salon need more plants?

I have no idea what most of the plants are called, but I am pretty pleased with them and can only hope that they will live for a while. I found this green flower pot yesterday that was quite lovely which made me want to buy more plants so that I could hunt for more pots for them. I think I'm going to give another smaller and nearer plant market a go next week to see what I can find in it. And I'll need to hunt for a low table to carry my flower pot - so it'll be back to a spot of furniture hunting.

jeudi, mai 26, 2011

The Bund 外滩

The Bund, Shanghai

The Bund 外滩 holds a certain fascination for both Asians and Westerners alike - though probably for different reasons. Personally, just its mention is enough to send the famous Cantonese song 上海灘 from the 1980 HK TV series repeating itself again and again in my head...But for the French, British, Russians, Italians, Germans and Americans, for example, it must remind them of those days a long time ago when their countries owned concessions (and therefore buildings, banks, shops, hotels, embassies etc) on the embankment.

Peace Hotel (former Sassoon House)

Bund 18 - Chartered Bank Bldg

The Bund is found on the Puxi side of the Huangpu river and more or less stretches from a part of Zhongshan Lu (named after Sun Yat Sen) to Huangpu Park. It contains beautiful buildings of styles as varied as Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco. Since China started opening up again in the 1980s many banks and luxury brands have "returned" to the buildings and tourists once again flock to this part of Shanghai - especially to admire the view of Liujiazui (financial district) on the opposite bank.

Statue of Chen Yi - Shanghai's first Communist Mayor

The promenade on the bank is filled with mobile photo booths and ambulant drink sellers. Whether in winter or spring, I always find the whole area covered in some kind of haze - but it is nonetheless a magnificent place with a historical past that you couldn't fail to appreciate when you are standing in its midst.

The Promenade in winter

The Promenade in spring

I will need more time to learn more about each building (I believe there are more than 50 of them) and to tell them apart. At the moment I only know Bund 18 which is where Mr and Mrs Bund, not to forget Cartier and Zegna are. It is known as the Chartered Bank Building. On its left is what used to be the North China Daily News Building (now AIA Insurance) and on its right you have the famous Sassoon House (today Peace and Swatch Art Peace Hotels).

Liujiazui and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower

View of 2 banks

I hope to visit the Swatch Art Peace Hotel (or more precisely the Shook restaurant in it) soon. And the next time I have enough people, I'll try to arrange a tour of the Peace Hotel (still known for its jazz nights) as well. I think the Shanghai Foreign Exchange is also just a few doors away and will try to walk past the HSBC Building for its famous ceiling mosaics.

The Bund at night

Problem is that the weather in this city is really freakish. It's either too hot or too cold, not easy to find the right moment to attempt a good walk though traffic and pollution. Or I'm really just plain lazy...

mercredi, mai 25, 2011

Xintiandi, Shanghai 新天地

Shikumen @ Xintiandi

Hub and I have a date tomorrow for lunch - at Mr and Mrs Bund again where else. That set me thinking that I haven't shown you my 2 hours spent walking in Xintiandi - the morning I last had lunch at MM Bund with Hub.

Xintiandi 新天地 means "new heavenly world". It covers this area in Puxi, a few blocks away from the famous shopping street of Huaihai Lu, that used to house thousands of Shanghainese in what were known as Shikumen 石库门 (or stone gate) houses. I read somewhere that 3600 families were relocated when they redeveloped the area to make it into the cultural, entertainment and shopping hub that it is today.

What I found interesting was the story about foreigners building those stone gate houses for Shanghainese seeking refuge in the foreign concession areas during the Taiping Uprisings in the 19th century. The compounds were built in small narrow alleys and were usually fronted by a stone gate that opened into a small enclosed courtyard - aiming to give its residents a sense of security.

During the redevelopment they selected a few of the old houses to be reconstructed based on old design drawings, and I wonder if this museum I walked past was actually one of them (reserving the visit for when family is here). The rest now houses bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, art galleries...

Old and new together

Sign says tea house but do not recall seeing one

A stall selling souvenirs

The other half of Xintiandi is made up of a few shiny new buildings that offered shopping, entertainment, leisure and luxurious living in service apartments.

The road between the 2 sections

One of the narrow alleys

And in between the old and the new sections of Xintiandi you find a street filled with beautifully restored shikumen houses - and the Museum of the First National Congress (July 1921) of the CPC. Priority to soldiers, please take note.

Museum of the 1st National Congress of the CPC

Since we do not live in Puxi it is unlikely that I'd get to enjoy Xintiandi's vibrant night scene, in any case I am too old for that. I found it a little too "new" actually, and hope to explore Tian Zi Fang which I heard is a little more "authentic". On my way to the Bund from Xintiandi, I also saw a few streets filled with dirty stalls selling all kinds of old and new stuff - and that really got me all excited. Will have to find my way back there one of these days.