When I cook I reconnect with myself and feel sane again. It lifts my spirits and it is as if I am feeding my soul too. If you are an established cook, you will no doubt understand what I mean, but if you are a beginner I hope you will experience that innate pleasure as you start on your cooking journey. I am under no illusion that we all live such stressful lives, juggling work and family life with little time to cook, so I hope that these recipes will come in handy when you need to keep an eye on the clock and base your food decisions around the time available. But if you find yourself with more time on hand, I have also included some dishes that you can really plough your love and attention into with reckless abandon!
Many of the recipes in this book are inspired by Chinese classics and some have been handed down from my family. I am proud to be able to share many of my late grandmother’s favourites. I took for granted that she would always be here to see me progress through my career and I am sad that she will not see this book published. I am dedicating this book to her and to her timeless recipes - which will carry me through the rest of my life.
She was my teacher and source of inspiration. My earliest childhood food memory is of sitting on her knee while she worked tirelessly and happily wrapping hundreds of parcels of meaty-rice dumplings to share with all her family and friends (nearly a hundred of them) for the Dragon Boat festival in Taiwan. She was an incredible woman: beautiful, strong and vocal (when she didn’t get her way with my grandfather). She was an extremely talented cook who could always whip up something to be on the table in a matter of minutes. But she was also hard to please, with high standards. Whenever I cooked for her, I always expected the criticism, and so the few compliments came as delicious surprises.
Her lessons have been invaluable, from watching her gutting fish and killing live birds, to picking vegetables and rinsing her large wok on the wooden stove ... she groomed me to be a cook without realising. All the visual sights and smells of her traditional Chinese kitchen are always there in my mind when I am cooking and those years were the happiest of my life; of course, I took them for granted because I was a child. She showered us with love through her cooking, through the time she took to prepare all those delicious dishes for us - the labour of her love.
I never knew I would grow up to be a cook and that it would become my career. Many of the memories I have of my life experiences are referenced by food and it always amazes me how dishes, tastes and smells can bring to mind some of the oldest memories lost through time. I will never forget the first time my grandmother came to England. I had the pleasure of cooking for her during her stay and she didn’t say anything throughout the trip, but, when she returned to Taiwan, she called me and said she thought my food was delicious. I was so happy.
At a glance - the inspiration behind the dishes
The recipes in this book are wide-ranging, varied and some of my favourites; many of them are versatile and so you can use your imagination and turn them into your own creations.
Throughout the book I’ve added short cuts and tips to help you save time and I have also included preparation and cooking times and suggested marinating times. For marinades, sometimes I have the forethought to do this overnight, but most often, in a hurry, I will marinate for just 10-20 minutes, depending on how impatient I am to have my meal. So don’t feel you have to slavishly marinate for 12 hours if you are pushed for time. Also, some people cook more quickly than others and therefore the guidance times in this book are designed to help with planning and not act as a pressure cooker! So please relax, enjoy and remember, as always, practice makes perfect.
If you are new to Chinese cooking, I would recommend trying some of my quick home-style dishes such as the Shrimp, crabmeat, dofu and spinach soup, which can be turned into a light meal, or my one-wok Chicken, smoky bacon and bamboo shoot stir-fry. My grandmother used to cook dishes such as the Pork with Chinese cabbage and Sichuan stir-fried pork with cucumbers, served with egg-fried rice, and so whenever I cook these I think of her.
One of my favourite quick home meals has to be Saucy pork and tomato egg stir-fry - the sauce is so delicious you can mop it up with plain jasmine rice; this gets the thumbs up with children too and it’s a great way of getting them to eat some vegetables. The Saucy beef dofu, Spicy
chunky lamb, and Garlic chilli pepper beef and mushroom pak choy are my family favourites and if you are a fan of noodles then I highly recommend the Rice wine pepper beef noodles. If I am cooking a range of dishes to share, I like to serve Sweetcorn, egg and spring onion stir-fry or Garlic spinach from the vegetarian and side dishes chapter, which both make delicious simple accompaniments.
For those of you after something light and healthy, please do check out my Grandfather’s egg, mixed mushroom and celery broth - it may not instantly grab your attention but it is perfect if you are in search of nutrients and something settling on the stomach.
If like me, you are a chilli fanatic, I have included many dishes that will not disappoint and are certainly not for the fainthearted. It is incredibly hard to highlight just a few of those here because I love them all, but Chongqing beef is mind-blowingly delicious and was inspired by a meal I had at a top-class restaurant, ‘Hutongs’, in Hong Kong. The aromas and flavours are explosive. The Roast beef in ‘four-spiced’ chilli oil is one that I created when I had some roast beef left over after Sunday lunch but didn’t have many fresh ingredients left in the fridge, so I improvised with store cupboard spices and ingredients to make this incredible super quick and tasty dish. It’s an impressive dish to serve to important guests because it looks beautifully elegant on the plate (however, do first check that your guests like spicy food!). The Spicy Sichuan pepper prawn-fried rice is my ultimate favourite quick one-wok meal after work; it tastes really good with its large, juicy, fresh tiger prawns. My advice with all these spicy dishes is to make sure you have plenty of water to hand.
If you fancy some of your favourite Chinese takeaway dishes, don’t reach for the phone - it’s quicker, easier and healthier to cook those dishes at home and I’ve included lots of recipes for you to try. My reliable and delicious Chicken and black bean stir-fry can be made in only 15 minutes, and to make this dish even quicker get the rice cooking first! You won’t find my Sweet and sour duck on your local takeaway menu, it’s zesty and full of flavour, while my Juicy chilli chicken and cashew nut is fresher, healthier and tastier that any takeaway dish; just serve this with steamed rice for an addictively tasty midweek supper. When I want something lighter, my curled-up-in-front-of-the-telly Crabmeat sweetcorn soup (with a few shavings of nutty black truffle on top) always hits the spot.
I like to vary my evening meals during the week. In a typical week, I will eat about one vegetarian-themed, two meat and three or four fish or seafood suppers, (because I love fish and seafood). When I was growing up in Southern Taiwan, we lived really close to the port of Kaosiung and I would watch the best fish catches arriving at the local fish markets. In the village where my grandmother lived, old ladies on bicycles would carry small buckets of river fish in water to sell and I can still hear them calling out for customers. The fish and seafood was always fresh and very simply cooked - often steamed, which is one of my favourite ways to cook fish. The fish dish I love the most in this book is the Steamed wine sea bass, but if you like your fish fried I would suggest the Spicy bacon crispy haddock, which is really more-ish and cooks in just 13 minutes. For a more traditional Chinese flavour I recommend the Sweet and smoky ‘hong sao yu’ (red-cooked fish).
Traditionally, when Chinese entertain they would have something cooking in the oven, steamer and rice-cooker, with a few woks also on the go - because the idea is to have all the dishes shared at the table and therefore served at the same time, which can be extremely stressful for the host! The trick is to prepare some dishes in advance - perhaps a few cold meats like Red-cooked pork or Sichuan chilli roast beef, or ‘liang cai’ (cold dishes) that you can serve first. Marinades can be made in advance, as can dumplings, so all you have to do is cook them in the steamer and not have to worry about them.
Living and entertaining in the UK means that I have become more accustomed to the Western style of entertaining and so my meals are simpler and mostly with set courses, rather than with all the dishes served at once as in the Chinese style. However, when I have four or fewer guests, I like ‘going to town’ and I will make a variety of dishes but in smaller portions - more in line with dim sum. For larger groups I tend to make buffet-style dishes so that everyone can help themselves. There is a chapter devoted to recipes for entertaining, but there are plenty of dishes in the other chapters too that would work just as well for entertaining and allow you to cook Chinese but in a Western setting - so you could choose to cook a starter, main and dessert. The dishes I have chosen for the entertaining chapter are popular and easy ones for large crowds, where the ingredients can be doubled or quadrupled in quantity.
When you do have a little more time, there are
dishes such as Sichuan spicy pork and prawn wontons in Sichuan chilli oil, Duck spring rolls, and Pork and water chestnut dumplings, for those who love to make things from scratch. Wontons and dumplings can always be made ahead and frozen until you need them. Dishes such as Yellow bean and honey roast chicken may surprise you. It was inspired by my love of British roast dinners ever since I had my first one (teamed with a large Yorkshire pudding) at school and so I couldn’t resist including it. It’s made with my favourite Chinese spice - Sichuan peppercorns. A special note on the Hainanese chicken rice in this chapter - it may take some time and love but it is delightfully delicious and one of my favourite traditional classic Chinese dishes.
On the subject of classics, I have included some that I cannot live without, such as Century duck eggs with coriander and mushroom sauce - a word of advice: these are only for true Chinese food connoisseurs and take some getting used to, but I love them, pungent and more-ish! I have to mention also my grandmother’s Chicken rice ‘Bi-ge’, a celebration dish that is usually eaten on the Winter Solstice. I love this dish so much that whenever I stayed with my grandmother, I always asked her to make it for me, it is that good. As is my mother’s Taiwanese ginger and sesame chicken noodle soup, which will sort out a cold in no time!
Finally, just a quick mention on desserts. The British palate is not quite accustomed to Chinese desserts and I must admit there are a few that do take some getting used to. However, I also know that tastes are changing so for those who are adventurous and after the more traditional Chinese flavours, I have included one of my favourite classic desserts - Tang yuan. It is a sweetened red bean soup that takes me back to China and my childhood and one that I love when it is served hot after a meal. If traditional Chinese desserts are not your thing, then I have also created some ‘fu-sian’ desserts, such as Lychee and strawberry spring rolls with vanilla ice cream and golden syrup - it can be made in about 18 minutes and is utterly delicious.
No time and money? Chinese food is the answer
One of the most important tips I can offer in cooking is to choose the freshest ingredients possible. The secret to making a dish relies seventy percent on the freshness and quality of the ingredients and thirty percent on your skill. With practice and in time skill can be perfected, but the dish is only as good as the ingredients you start off with.
The best part of making room in your life for cooking Chinese is that it is quick and inexpensive to prepare a delicious healthy meal. The trick to cooking
Chinese at home is to make sure you invest in a good range of Chinese condiments for your store cupboard - essentials such as groundnut oil, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, dried chilli flakes, Shaohsing rice wine (or dry sherry), toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, chilli bean sauce, five-spice powder, Sichuan peppercorns and chilli sauce. Once you’ve bought these essentials it’s just a question of buying fresh meat or fish and vegetables and the all-important Chinese flavourings of garlic, ginger and fresh chillies to create some wonderful flavour combinations such as hot-sour, sweet-sour, spicy-sour, savoury-sweet, smoky-sweet and so on. This means that every shopping trip is relatively inexpensive as the condiments last for ages. If you don’t have access to a Chinese supermarket, do try to find the authentic ingredients - there are lots of stores online, which help make ordering easier - it is worth the effort because you will taste the difference in your dishes.
Cooking on a wok is fast and fun, and the results are fabulous - so, even if you are starting out, you cannot go wrong with cooking a stir-fry in a wok. Be sure to invest in a good wok; it doesn’t need to be expensive and, as long as you look after it, it should last for ages. With my kind of cooking, a good wok and a few utensils are all you need to get going. I’ve included tips on how to buy, look after and use a wok on pages xiii-xvi.
Of course, there are more intermediate and complex Chinese dishes but, in general, if you are short of time and money, cooking Chinese at home is the answer and it will be tastier, cheaper and much better for you than buying readymade meals because you will know exactly what you have put into each dish.
Final advice - make time
My advice for everyone is to take your time and enjoy the process of cooking and sharing food with your loved ones - each dish you create may not last long on the plate (or palate) but happy memories will be created that will last forever. Don’t be a slave to time, it is there for you to cherish and use, in the present.
These recipes are what I like to cook at home and I have become quite reliant on some of them to keep me balanced. So I really hope you will enjoy cooking and eating them as much as I have enjoyed developing them. I would like to keep bringing delicious food to your table. Sometimes we forget what makes us happy - I hope that some of the dishes I have created will make you happy. With happy blessings and wishes,
ESEMPIO DI RICETTA