Food and Drink: How the East gets the most from the least: Keith Botsford in China

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ONE OF the most noticeable aspects of Chinese cooking is its sense of economy: economy with ingredients (by using 'all but the feathers'), cooking time (and therefore fuel) and flavour (by reinforcing the natural flavour of the ingredients). The ideal is to do the minimum cooking required to obtain both flavour and texture. Hence the many techniques involved in achieving ts'ui, which connoisseurs tell me is next to impossible to translate.

In paraphrase, ts'ui means something very fresh, at its best; in terms of texture, it means food that offers a certain immediate resistance but then yields to succulence (the Chinese, it should be noted, are not strong on ripeness; fruit is generally eaten while well short of softness and sweetness; chicken and fish are often underdone in a way that Westerners, though not this one, might find displeasing).

Ts'ui is one of the reasons why stir-frying is so popular. Equally, steaming plays a very important role, while boiling is reserved for grains and the rare stews, such as the delicious Mongolian hotpot. I had two meals (one in Peking and one in Hangzhou) that were entirely steamed: the latter centred on the lake fish that is the local speciality, the former consisting of a complete meal based on dumplings.

The Chinese form of steaming is, in my view, greatly superior to Western methods, largely due to the prevalence of slatted, woven-bamboo steamers rather than metal ones. These are round, come in diameters ranging from tiny (20cm) to dinner-plate size, and have individual lids which sit on a flange, making it possible to stack them and steam several dishes at the same time. Because bamboo is soft, and when wet very pliable, it offers an extremely close seal, and because it also becomes thoroughly soaked, the steam and the heat are distributed evenly. It imparts no flavour to the food, as metal steamers do, and it accumulates no water.

Steamers, which are generally placed inside a wok with boiling water, can and are used for ingredients of all kinds, from meat and fish to vegetables, grains and dumplings. As steaming is a simple cooking technique, the flavour of steamed dishes relies greatly on the ingredients cooked with the main dish (such as the addition of ginger or spring onion to fish), flavours added to the water which does the steaming, or the previous marination or pickling of the main ingredient - especially common with vegetables.

Equally common is the practice of taking a steamed dish and, when it is cooked, stir-frying it in another set of seasonings to provide additional zest. (This latter method is much used in Shanghai and down the coast.)

In Hangzhou - an idyllic spot compared with the other towns I saw - my fish was steamed whole, bedded in long grasses and very lightly flavoured with spring onions; in Canton (now known as Guangzhou), the steamed fish was surrounded by slivers of ginger, with sweetness added by slices of tangerine peel, green onions, a few mushrooms, and chiu (loosely called 'rice wine' but not always made from rice). Soy sauce gave it its darker resonances.

Steaming is generally done at high heat, and for a normal- sized, one-person fish, about six to seven minutes should be sufficient.

Dumplings, save in restaurants, seem these days to be bought ready-made, rather as in Italy one buys fresh pasta. They are, however, easy enough to make, being no more than a mixture of wheat flour (at its best, the red, hard, native wheats, and wholeground) and water, with a pinch of salt.

Boiling water is poured on to the sieved flour and it is quickly mixed to a thick dough, then set aside for 30 minutes. Next it is kneaded for about three minutes until smooth and springy, then rolled into a long sausage and cut into slices. These slices are then filled with a variety of ingredients, both sweet and savoury, and pinched with the fingers to close. And finally, the whole, filled dumplings are steamed.

Here is a recipe for steamed meat dumplings. First prepare the filling, for which any number of meats can be used. This one uses pork that is well minced and not too fat. Take cabbage (preferably pok choy, now widely available), chop fine, and mix with bamboo shoots and chives and add to the minced pork in a bowl.

Add 1tsp each of sugar, salt, light soy sauce, Shao Hsing wine or equivalent (sherry will not do, but at a pinch a slightly dry vermouth will) and sesame oil, 1oz of water and 1tbs of cooked oil. Work into a smooth paste (Chinese cooks slap the paste vigorously into the bowl for about a minute) and chill for half an hour before using. Prepare the dumpling dough. Put a spoonful of paste in each slice of dumpling, a little off-centre; fold the dough round the filling and press against the unpleated side to seal. If you are lucky or skilful, the result will be a crescent-shaped dumpling.

Line the steamers with several blanched cabbage leaves, put in the dumplings with space between, and cook over high heat for 10 minutes. Serve hot with a dip of fresh ginger slivers in (white wine) vinegar.