Long gone are the days when Chinese cuisine meant stale prawn crackers and a sad plate of MSG-soaked sweet and sour chicken with manky bits of pineapple swimming in a sickly orange sauce. In recent years there has been a boom in top-notch restaurants, such as London's Hakkasan, China Tang and Yauatcha (see Tracey MacLeod's review of Royal China Club on page 51). But Chinese food is much simpler to replicate at home than you might imagine, too. You do, of course, need to have a selection of specialist Chinese ingredients in your larder, as well as access to some of the more unusual fresh ingredients. But increasing numbers of supermarkets and grocers stock a reasonable amount of Asian ingredients these days – so all you really have to do is use your noodle.
Tea-smoked duck with egg noodles
Now you may think this sounds somewhat odd, but flavouring and smoking with tea is common in China. You can just use plain and simple black tea for this or go for something a bit more specialist such as lapsang souchong or jasmine. You actually don't need a full-blown smoker for this – I just used a frying pan lined with foil with a metal vegetable steamer placed on top.
4 duck breasts, weighing about 150-200g each
1tbsp brown sugar
20 Szechuan peppercorns, crushed
3tbsp black tea
4 servings of egg noodles
6 spring onions
1 red chilli, thinly sliced on the bias
A handful of coriander leaves
For the broth
1 litre chicken stock
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
30g root ginger, scraped and roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1tbsp light soy sauce
The stalks from the coriander
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
First make the broth: bring all of the ingredients to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes then strain it through a fine meshed sieve.
Mix the salt, sugar and Szechuan pepper together. Score the skin of the duck breasts with a sharp knife as closely together as possible and scatter over the salt mixture. Leave for an hour then brush off the excess with your hands.
Take a heavy-based frying pan or roasting tray large enough to hold a cooling rack or metal steamer. Line with tin foil and scatter the tea on the foil. Heat the tray on a medium heat on your stove top, rest the cooling rack over the pan and lay the duck breasts on top with the skin down. Cover with more foil and place a saucepan or another roasting tray upside down over the tray to capture the smoke and heat.
When the tea starts smoking, lower the heat to a minimum and leave the duck to smoke for 10 minutes with the extractor fan on full.
Remove the duck and put to one side and let the tray and embers cool before disposing of the foil and tea.
To serve, heat a frying pan and place the duck skin-side down in the pan and cook on a medium heat for 5-6 minutes, moving the breasts occasionally until the skin crisps up, then turn them over and cook for another couple of minutes. The duck breasts should still be slightly pink. Remove from the pan and leave to rest.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling salted water according to the manufacturer's cooking instructions and drain.
To serve, place the noodles in bowls, bring the stock to the boil with the chilli and spring onions and season. Slice each duck breast into 6 or 7 thin slices and lay on the noodles; then pour over the stock and scatter with the coriander leaves.
Ox cheek and mushroom hot pot
The more unusual cuts that can take slow cooking are great for Chinese hot pots and braises. You can serve them more or less on their own as a sharing dish or even as a starter soup. You can use a selection of mushrooms here, including shiitake, cauliflower fungus, black fungus and fresh Asian mushrooms. A good butcher should be able to provide you with some ox cheek – but you could also use shin, brisket or feather blade. Donald Russell (donaldrussell.com) also sells a great selection of these old-fashioned forgotten cuts, which can be delivered to your door.
700-800g ox cheek or shin, cut into rough 3cm chunks
1tbsp flour for dusting
Vegetable oil for frying
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
40g root ginger, scraped and roughly chopped
2tsp Chinese five spice
1tbsp sesame oil
100ml rice wine
1.5 litres beef stock
100ml light soy sauce
Approx 1tbsp cornflour
Salt and pepper
A selection of fresh or dried Asian mushrooms, soaked in cold water for a few hours if dried
Season and lightly dust the pieces of beef with flour, heat a heavy frying pan with a little vegetable oil and fry on a high heat until nicely coloured on all sides.
Meanwhile, in a heavy based saucepan, fry the onion, garlic, ginger and five spice in the sesame oil for 3-4 minutes until lightly coloured. Add the rice wine, beef stock and soy. Bring to the boil, add the beef, cover and simmer gently for 1-2 hours or until the meat is soft and tender.
Add the mushrooms at different stages of cooking; for example, shiitake can be trimmed and halved or quartered and simmered for about half an hour in the hot pot towards the end of cooking, but if you're using fresh ones they can literally be sautéed in sesame or vegetable oil and scattered on top or just stirred in.
Dilute the cornflour in a little water and stir it into the simmering sauce a little at a time until it's of a good consistency for coating the beef. Simmer for another 10 minutes to cook out the cornflour. Season to taste.
Hot and sour cuttlefish soup
30g black wood ear fungus, soaked for 2-3 hours in warm water
300-400g cuttlefish, cleaned
1.5 litres fish stock
1tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
2tbsp light soy sauce
1-2tbsp Chinese black rice vinegar
1-2tsp freshly ground white pepper
2 eggs, beaten
A few sprigs of coriander, chopped roughly
4-5 spring onions, sliced on the bias
Remove the mushrooms from the water and and strain the water into the stock. Trim any stalks from the mushrooms, shred them and add to the stock with the salt, rice wine, soy and black rice vinegar and bring to the boil. Dilute the cornflour in a little water and stir into the stock and simmer for another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, lay the cuttlefish flat on a board and with a sharp knife score the flesh as closely together as possible, then cut the cuttlefish into rough 2cm squares. Place the cuttlefish in a pan of salted water, bring to the boil and strain in a colander.
Bring the soup to a simmer and add the cuttlefish, pepper, spring onion and coriander, then stir the soup and trickle in the egg, stirring vigorously to form thin shreds and serve immediately.
You can get the soup to the stage before adding the cuttlefish, spring onions, coriander and eggs a few hours – or even the day – before, then just reheat and finish the soup off at the last minute.
Fried chilli prawns with pea shoots
Pea shoots are one of the most flavoursome greens used in Chinese cooking. You can often find them in Asian supermarkets in among the pak choi and choi sum. They don't go a long way so be careful when you're cooking them and leave them in the pan for the minimum amount of time.
With the current press about the environmentally damaging farmed prawns, which are exploiting coastal habitats, you may want to steer clear of them and use the fresh Red Sea prawns that Waitrose stock; they have a much better flavour and you can enjoy your supper with a clear conscience.
20 large fresh prawns
2 red chillies, thinly sliced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
3tbsp sesame oil
1tbsp oyster sauce
8 spring onions, trimmed and sliced thinly on the bias
300g pea shoots
With a sharp knife, cut the prawns through the back and head but not all the way through so that they are butterflied. Lay them on a tray and scatter with the chilli and garlic and season.
You will need two large pans for the prawns or, alternatively, you could use a griddle plate. Heat the pans with half of the sesame oil until it's almost smoking and fry the prawns, flesh-side down, for a minute or so on each side, then add the oyster sauce and a tablespoon of water, stir well, remove and keep warm.
Wipe the pan – or pans – clean and return to a medium heat. Add the rest of the sesame oil and then add the pea shoots and spring onions, season to taste and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often, adding a little water if they seem to be colouring and drying out. Transfer to a serving dish and lay the prawns on top.