Thursday, 7 July 2011

Dumplings for dummies

I thought it'd be appropriate to follow up my noodle post with one about dumplings. Not all dumplings are created equal, and there are so many types available it's pretty easy to get them confused. Here's a bit of a guide, and again, some of my favourite places to sample these around town.

Yum cha dumplings
The only place we bother going for yumcha is Sun World Newmarket. Everywhere else I've tried has only been disappointing in comparison. And judging by how many non-Chinese patrons they regularly get nowadays, obviously the secret is out... Plus, free parking in the Rialto carpark for two hours if you buy something at the fruit & vege or tofu shop! Can't really beat that for convenience...

Yum cha or dim sum dumplings are really a whole category of their own, with quite a few different types. Generally they are made with a thin, slightly sticky, slightly translucent (if it's well-made) rice flour wrapper, and steamed. This is not a comprehensive listing, but just some of my favourites or most common ones.

Pork dumplings (siu mai)
This one is an exception to the rice-wrapper rule - pork mince mixed with chunks of pork fat, and encircled with a thin, bright yellow skin made of egg and flour. If poorly made it can be tough and chewy, but with the right amount of pork fat cut into the mince, it's tender and flavoursome. You shouldn't really have yum cha at all if you're adverse to pork fat, as it's an ingredient in the majority of the items sold...
Above was taken in HK, the ones in Sun World actually look & taste even better

Prawn dumplings (har gao)
Along with pork dumplings, prawn dumplings are probably the second most popular yum cha item, and used to be commonly sold together with the 'HAR-GAO-SIU-MAI!' refrain. A good prawn dumpling should only contain prawn and bamboo shoot, but more than a few restaurants cheap out by bulking this out with some pork mince, so remember to watch out for that! I can vouch for the deliciousness of the prawn dumplings at Sun World though, definitely a high-quality version.

Chive dumplings (gou choi gao)
One of my favourite dim sums, the filling is made up of Chinese chives, pork mince and a bit of prawn, which is very flavourful and fragrant, but tends to leave you with a bit of chive-breath (not unlike garlic breath). Totally worth it though!
Chive dumplings from Sun World - photo doesn't do it justice really

Peanut dumplings (chiu jau fun gwor)
Pork mince, bamboo, some other flavourings and a thicker rice flour wrapper makes this a bit different from the other dim sum dumplings. I personally am not a fan due to the strangeness of having the hard peanut amongst the rest of the soft filling, but it's always one we order for my dad and James. Apparently great dipped in chilli oil (though apparently everything is great dipped in chilli oil).

Okay, back to non-yum cha dumplings. The rest of these are typically wrapped in a round wrapper made from wheat flour, with a variety of fillings and serving methods - but usually just plain pork, or pork and chives.

Sichuan-style dumplings
The best version of this we've had of this is from 555 Dominion Rd. Even though the filling is comprised of only pork, it's perfectly seasoned and served with a spicy, tangy sauce that has so much flavour you don't really need to douse the dumpling in vinegar as per usual. Pair this with a bowl of small dandan noodles, and you've got yourself an awesome cheap dinner.
Sichuan-style dumplings from 555 Dom Rd

Dumplings in hot & sour soup
We've had this in a few different places in lieu of the Sichuan-style dumpling, and so far the winner is Happy Time Restaurant, 650 Dominion Rd. The sheen of bright red chilli oil may be a bit offputting at first, but you can easily scoop that aside if you prefer (as I did). Xian Food Bar actually did a pretty shoddy job of this dish, the dumplings were overcooked and falling apart while the soup was frankly quite bland. However, Happy Time delivered on both the soup flavour and dumpling texture/filling aspects, we'll definitely be back just for this dish!
Okay, you can hardly see them, but underneath that chilli oil are some delicious dumplings, from Happy Time Restaurant (not joking, that's what it's really called), 650 Dominion Rd

Shanghai style dumplings
These are a bit classier than your regular, rustic pork and chive dumplings. The filling is still (surprise, surprise) pork, but what makes a Shanghai-style dumpling special is the burst of hot soup that will go all over the table or your plate if you don't pick this up carefully enough not to break the dumpling skin before it gets into your mouth. I've been told the trick to getting the soup instead is to freeze it before wrapping along with the pork mince. Then viola, the soup reverts to liquid form when steamed - ingenious! Any decent Shanghainese restaurant should be able to do a good version of these, but the best we've had in Auckland was probably from Show Restaurant in 16 Kilham Ave, Northcote.

[UPDATE: A great place to go is Yi Ping Xiang in Dominion Rd, very cheap on the lunch menu.]
Shanghai-style dumplings, this was actually from HK Airport believe it or not

We should also give credit to the pre-made frozen dumplings, widely available at nearly all Chinese supermarkets and fruit & vege shops. I recommend the Siu Cheong ones, and I usually get the pork and chives, but really they're all pretty good - even the vegetarian one. I can't remember the exact price but I'm pretty sure you can get a massive tray for under or around $10. It's a great thing to keep in the freezer for a quick snack or meal. Make sure you get some dumpling sauce or just Chinese vinegar to go with it as well, I recommend this one:
Apologies for the crap photo... Tip: if it has that yellow starburst by the left of the image, means it's the spicy version

To cook the dumplings from frozen, simply turn the stove onto high, heat up a little bit of oil in a non-stick frypan, and make sure you have some boiling water handy (I usually just put the jug on). Place the frozen dumplings in the pan however you like but making sure they're not touching, then pour in the boiling water until it comes to maybe a third of the way up the sides of the dumplings. Slap a lid on, and just leave it until pretty much all the water's evaporated, about 5-10 mins. This steams and fries the dumplings at the same time. Once all the moisture's gone though, remove the lid and keep a close eye on it or turn the heat way down, otherwise they'll start to burn pretty quickly! Remove from pan as you prefer, or when the skin that's been on the pan turns a golden-brown. If you want to be a bit healthier you can also just chuck frozen dumplings in some salted boiling water for about 10 mins until cooked through. 

Finally, if you are feeling adventurous and want to make your own at home, here's a recipe I got from my mum, though I suspect something's missing because the last time I tried it, just didn't turn out as well... still, a good start though:

200g pork mince
2 small bunches Chinese chives (available from all fruit & vege shops owned by Chinese people - looks like bunches of grass)
1 packet dumpling pastry (you can find these in the fridges of pretty much all Chinese supermarkets, they come in these dual-round plastic packets)
1 egg
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp ginger powder
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp corn starch
1 tsp Chinese cooking wine
2 tsp oyster sauce

Set aside the pastry. Separate the egg, and set aside the egg white. Mix the yolk and all the other ingredients together until well combined. Put spoonfuls of the pork mixture into the middle of the round dumpling pastry. Brush some egg white (or water) around the inside edges of the pastry so they stick together, then fold in half to stick the sides together to form a crescent-shaped dumpling.

That's pretty much it. If you're not going to cook them right away, chuck them in the freezer to keep it fresh until needed. Make sure you sprinkle some corn starch in between each one so they don't stick to each other. And feel free to experiment with the recipe! I have seen some pretty crazy dumpling recipe books which include ingredients like pineapple or tomato (personally not that keen to try these), but obviously it's easy to swap the meat to beef or lamb, and use some different veges like Shanghai cabbage or even pickled ones, and tweak the seasonings to your own taste. Personally I'd stick to Asian ingredients though, otherwise why not just make pasta?

Overall, given how cheap you can buy dumplings either pre-made at the Chinese supermarket, or even totally prepared and served to you on a plate (typically something like 20 for $8), there's almost no point going to all the effort of making it yourself, except for novelty value. 

I hope that's been a good explanation or braindump (haha) of my dumpling knowledge, I haven't even had the chance to visit and review Barilla Dumpling (another Balmoral eatery) yet, nor have I mentioned Japanese-style 'gyoza', though I tend to find these not as good as actual Chinese dumplings, given they are just a derivative from the original. And let's not even get into the Eastern European 'dumplings' I sampled in Hungary and Czech Republic... no idea what Chinese word would be used to describe those, but they're definitely not anywhere in the same league as the above!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Nothing like a good noodle

When it's cold, there's nothing like a big steaming bowl of tasty noodles to warm you up. Since I love noodles so much, and there are quite a few noodle places featured on my food map, I thought I'd highlight some of my favourites.

Hand pulled braised pork noodles

Hand-pulled noodles with braised pork 
$8 from Xian Food Bar, 945 New North Rd, Mt Albert
Probably the best dish at any Xian Food Bar franchise, these noodles are uniquely 'hand pulled' and resemble long strips of dumpling pastry rather than your usual fare. They're thick, chewy (in a good way) and extremely satisfying. What's even better is when they're covered in this spicy, slowly braised pork sauce. Add a dash of vinegar and you're in carb-and-meat heaven.

Dandan noodles

Dandan noodles 
$5 from 555 Dominion Rd, Balmoral
Probably every inland Chinese cuisine joint will have a variation of this dish, but what makes 555's great is their delicious combination of mince, veges, peanuts and their special soup. You can choose to have it with either rice or wheat noodles, and the best part? A small bowl is only $5! Definitely enough for a light dinner, or you could upsize it for $3, or pair it with some dumplings. Hands down one of the best value meals you can find in Auckland.

Misodare chicken udon

Misodare chicken udon 
$11 from Renkon (Parnell, Ponsonby, Takapuna, Pitt St & Durham St)
When I was working on the shore, I'll always remember how ecstatic I was the day I discovered a Renkon was opening in Takapuna. There's a reason I put all five branches on the food map. I reckon nobody should be eating donburi or udon soup outside of Renkon, really. I've tried many of their dishes but keep going back to the misodare chicken udon. You get tender chicken, flavour-packed soup and a generous heaping of greens. I haven't really come across another udon noodle soup in Auckland that compares, really. It helps that they're so fast and friendly, too. Why pay twice the price to have a smaller bowl of something not even as good elsewhere?

Tonkotsu (pork bone soup) ramen
$9 from Daikoku Ramen, Cnr Britomart Pl & Tyler St, CBD
I've been told a few times that Tanpopo is pretty awesome, but until I manage to make it there, Daikoku Ramen has set the bar for me. The shop is an unassuming little hole in the wall which feels like it could be in Tokyo, and I love how all the staff greet and thank you as you arrive/depart. Service is as speedy as any fast food chain, and the highlight is of course the signature pork bone soup. When it comes to noodles I usually prefer other types like udon, rice or even wheat, but the soup makes it very easy to polish off even a giant bowl of these - and that's the only way they serve them.

Beef noodle soup

Taiwanese beef noodle soup
$10.90 from My Kitchen, 543 Dominion Rd, Balmoral
Before today I would've recommended having this at Neighbour's Cafe in the city, however now that I've been to My Kitchen I'm definitely a convert (plus it's much more conveniently located for me). A good Taiwanese noodle should have 'al dente' (I guess?) noodles, a deep, rich beef soup base with no MSG, and of course, tender and flavourful chunks of beef brisket that's been expertly seasoned and slow cooked to perfection. I'm happy to say that My Kitchen delivered on all of these, plus it came with a cute (and superfluous?) orange wedge. That part is definitely not traditional, but I guess quite a nice touch nonetheless.

Raw beef pho noodle soup 
from Spring Vietnamese, 552 Glenfield Rd
It's been a while since I last came here so I can't recall the price, but I'm sure it didn't exceed $15. Pho is the signature Vietnamese noodle dish, and Spring does a great job with a fragrant broth that doesn't leave you thirsty - a hallmark of MSG-usage, and unfortunately my experience at Hansan (another popular Vietnamese noodle chain). The beef is sliced thinly and served raw on the noodles, but pretty much get cooked through if you leave them in the hot soup long enough. Being the raw food fan I am though, I usually fish these out quickly to retain that delicious beef tataki/carpaccio-esque quality.

Pad see eiw
$12 chicken/pork/beef or $14 prawn/seafood from Zap 4, 10 Commerce St, Auckland
Moving away from the noodle soups, I love these thick, flat rice noodles, and they taste great stir fried with most things, particularly Thai flavours. I inevitably go for seafood or prawn, which makes this probably the most expensive of my noodle picks, however it's definitely worth it. Zap manages to NOT overcook prawns which is a pet peeve of mine. With some extra fish sauce and a squeeze of lime, for me this is the ultimate fried-noodle dish.

Rice cake soup
$10.50 from Yummy Korean, 1 Mokoia Rd, Birkenhead
Okay, not strictly noodles but still a soup dish, I thought this deserved an honourary mention. On the odd occasion I don't feel like dolsot bibimbap (hot stone pot) when having Korean, I'll go for the rice cake noodle soup. They're served as oval slices of chewy, sticky rice cake in a milky egg-drop type soup. It's not the firey, kimchee-red tinged dish that most people think of when it comes to Korean, but it is definitely a very comforting dish, perfect for winter. If you've never had rice cake before and wanted to have a try, this is a great dish to go for.

Fish ball noodle soup

Hong Kong style fish ball noodle soup
Possibly one of my favourite meals of all time, unfortunately I have not found a single place in Auckland that does this justice. It's probably the fish itself - I suspect you can't get the species/breed they usually use in HK fish balls in NZ. There's a special flavour and texture which is always missing from the ones here. Plus they also never bother to serve it with the deep-fried fish slice rectangles either, unlike Hong Kong. I've been let down so many times I pretty much never order this locally anymore... Definitely one that I am hankering for next time I go back.

Finally, if you've been wondering what that picture in the background of this blog is, it's another one of my favourite HK noodle dishes, beef tripe noodle soup. Again, from the places I've tried, nothing's even come close in NZ so far. I blame the cows...

That's it for now - next time I'll feature some non-noodle dishes, but in the meantime, I urge you all to go out and try some of these dishes/places! I promise you'll enjoy it. =)

Saturday, 2 July 2011

An ode to Chef John

Being Chinese, some may think I'd have a raft of traditional Cantonese recipes up my sleeve, passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately, growing up my mum was never that keen on letting me mess up her kitchen, plus Cantonese cooking is more about technique than recipes anyway.

I actually only started properly cooking about three years ago when I got a kitchen of my own to mess up. By then, most of my inspiration came from TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, but it wasn't always easy to follow their recipes or source their ingredients. That's when I discovered Chef John and his video recipes - and I haven't looked back since.

This post is a summary of my favourite Chef John videos, which have become staples of my cooking repertoire (as per the photos below).

No-knead ciabatta - if you've never baked bread before, but always wanted to try it, this is the way to go. Very easy, and you can only go wrong if you use old yeast, so make sure you have some fresh stuff on hand.

Garlic bread - something about using freshly-crushed garlic aioli makes this extra-delicious, much better than your run-of-the-mill stuff. I usually use a baguette from the Pyrenees deli for this one.

Sausage-stuffed cherry pepper poppers - possibly the most popular pre-dinner snacks I've ever made, it may seem a lot of effort but actually it's quite fun to stuff these. I usually find two sausages from the meat counter perfect for one jar of Peppadew peppers, which you can find quite easily even at regular supermarkets.

Roasted prosciutto-wrapped asparagus - a must-try during asparagus season, I can't think of a better combination. Once I made a whole lot of these, topped it off with a poached egg and scoffed it all myself as dinner. Yum.

No-knead pizza dough - people sometimes seem a bit shocked when I talk about making pizza from scratch, but when you have this dough recipe it really is no challenge. After making this, I could never face those hard, dimpled, pre-made bases from the supermarket again.

The 'ultimate' roast chicken - I never roast chicken any other way now. I once tried this 'chicken in milk' Jamie Oliver recipe and found it vastly inferior to this butter-under-the-skin method. You can vary the flavours a lot depending on what you put in the butter, but either way you can't really go wrong here! Best served with some crispy roast veges.

Cooking turkey for chickens - it was only because of this post that I was brave enough to volunteer to cook a turkey for the family Christmas lunch. And guess what? By all accounts it turned out brilliantly! Apparently I have booked myself turkey-duty for the next few years too, which I have no problem with, as long as these videos stay online...

Lamb moussaka burger - given that I love both lamb and eggplant, it was no surprise I loved this burger recipe. What was a surprise was the fact James loved it too, even though he's usually ambivalent towards lamb and hates eggplant. I really need to make this more often...

Angel-hair pasta with broccoli & garlic - if you've ever looked in the fridge and found a broccoli you bought ages ago when it was on special but kept forgetting to use, this is a delicious and slightly different way of dispensing with it. And feels healthy too, even though you're eating pasta.

Cauliflower spaghetti aglio olio - same applies for cauliflower, a delicious way to use one up that's anything but bland. Perfect for a quick dinner.

Truffled potato gratin - possibly my favourite Chef John-inspired recipe of all time, this always goes down a treat every time I make it, but then again how can anything with that much cream plus truffled cheese taste bad? Now, I have to admit that I've actually tweaked the recipe myself by using truffled mascarpone instead of sottocenere (you can usually get truffled mascarpone from Nosh), and also omitting the mushrooms altogether. Amazing. The other great thing about this recipe is it justifies my ownership of a mandolin slicer.

Jinx-proof braised lamb shanks - these turned out so well that I'm very reluctant to cook lamb shanks any other way. There's just something about all the flavours and the long slow cooking time that makes the dish meltingly delicious. If you have some lamb shanks, you can't go wrong with this recipe - it's in the name!

Chili chocolate mousse - a great prepare-ahead dessert, I've only messed this up once due to not letting the chocolate cool completely before folding in the cream, but that's pretty much the only way you can ruin this. And even then, it tasted delicious, just had the wrong texture. Usually it's very light and rich. I also like how you don't have to have gelatin on hand for this one, unlike most other chocolate mousse recipes.

There are so many more I haven't even tried yet, but it's hard not to keep going back to the same ones when I know they'll turn out so well. To anyone who's ever been iffy about cooking, I urge you to watch these videos and give it a shot, because it really makes it simple. Many thanks to Chef John for doing such an amazing job - keep up the awesome work!