Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok



Day three of the lunar new year. Some of our Chuxi guests thought that was the day to eat vegetarian food; others said New Year's Day was the meatless day. My family assumed one simply sprawled immobile eating leftovers all week.


Tardy Chinese New Year greetings, I apologise. Blood sugar levels. Too high. To blog.

Last year at an Asia:NZ lunch, I met one of those white-guy journalists who always comes along to meet the natives. He made an immediate impression by telling me that he liked it best when I blogged about food, and that I should concentrate on that (rather than all that politics stuff I guess, which I should probably forget about if I want to build an audience). Because I didn't know quite what to say to that, I think I stopped talking to him and can't remember his name unfortunately.

Fair point though. Sadly, while 'ethnic food'-blogging is the PA-reader's favourite treat, Yellow Peril will soon be turning into that most ignored of forms, the infrequently updated blog from abroad that isn't quite a travel blog but still has no local relevance, let alone handy recipes or even baby-raising tips, as I'll be gone from the end of March for about a year, living in various places (not necessarily 'Asia' either), not having babies, and not cooking with my family.

But kicking it off will be a stint at the Shanghai International Literary Festival in late March, where I'm speaking the same weekend as novelist Amy Tan, cookbook writer Fuschia Dunlop, and the local pop-star-turned-writer known as the Tibetan Madonna. I'm dumbfounded at the opportunity - the writing of one of these people has become incalculably important to my family's torturous diasporic identity, and meeting her will be an honour.

Come on down ...Fuschia Dunlop!

Fuschia Dunlop is a celebrated chef whose specialty is the Sichuan and Southwest Chinese homestyle cuisine that my mother was raised on at her mother's table (rather than what she chowed through at the street hawker stalls of Burma and Singapore). Sichuan style is prided as China's greatest cuisine (depending on who you ask), and is a style of food which is hard to come by in New Zealand or in most of the Chinese diaspora - so we make it ourselves. People used to Chinese food meaning 'Cantonese food' sometimes find it an acquired taste, or never get used to it at all (like my true-blue-cod Canto dad who finds much of it too sour). Fine by me and mum - more left for us. Bring on the black vinegar. If you're curious, the deli stall at the back entrance of Silver Bell, Dom Rd, has a selection of cold-dressed dishes in the Sichuan ballpark, which aren't at all bad, especially when compared with... nothing. It even has one of my favourite Chengdu street-snacks, shaomai, which looks like a big moneybag and is filled with savoury stewed glutinous rice.

As discussed last year, my family's unusual diaspora Chinese travel route means our food style gets quite eclectic come New Year's Eve banquet time. This year, my mother divided the food seemingly by generational migration geography: a full starting course of Sichuan/Yunnan cold dishes & street-style snacks; a second course Malaysian/Penang curries, sambals and pickles, and a Vietnamese stir-fry; and for dessert the Radio New Zealand Ray McVinnie Berry & Rhubarb Brioche.

My ma has been inspired by Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery to restart the family 'lushui' pot of simmering spices like cassia, cao guo (Chinese cardomom), star anise and Sichuan pepper, which is used to stew meat, reused, recombined and replenished forever, the original spices tracing like DNA down the generations. You can't take it through customs though, so her mother's never made it over.

I already posted some of our favourite Malaysian/S'porean and Burmese recipes last year, so here's a list of this year's Sichuan starters, all guided by the work of Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery upon my mother's memory:

Yibin 'kindling' noodles (yibin ranmian): dry noodles in a sesame, soy and chilli sauce, tossed with pounded walnuts, peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, pickles, coriander, and peashoots.
tiger-skin green peppers (fupi qingjiao): much like the balsamic dressed sweet grilled capsicum you find in Eastern mediterranean cuisine, but with Chinkiang black vinegar - simple and delicious.
fine green beans in ginger sauce (jiang zhi jiang dou) - mmm, gingery.
radish slivers in spicy dressing (liangban luobusi) - great with the Yibin ranmian.
fresh broad beans in simple stock sauce (yanshui hudou) - sauce is made from the lushui stock, so can't be made on its own ...but once made, you can't stop eating it.
'man-and-wife' beef shinsteak slices (fuqi feipian, traditionally made with lung) - sort of like a pot roast, but about a millions times more glamorous - shins are stewed in the lushui pot, served in thin, marbled slices, dressed with an aromatic sauce made from the lu and scattered with sesame seeds and coriander. Also great with the noodles.
spicy cucumber salad (qiang huanggua) - cucumber fried with chilli, sesame oil, and Sichuan pepper... zing!

Recipe requests welcome. However, my prediction is that most people will be confused by this and will want curry. Well too bad. You've had enough curry; it's not healthy. Sichuan food is not a crowd-pleasing coconut-creamy curry nursemaid. It is an angular, vinegary taskmistress with a dry chilli riding crop, but a heart of golden sesame. It drives out the damp and humidity, which is the perfect Traditional Chinese Medicine prescription for life in Auckland.

Gotta get back to the fridge now.


From a source at the Auckland Central Library:

Do you know that your post has just gone up and there are already three holds on the Dunlop cookbook? Mine included.

Heh. Xinan represent!

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