Tangyuan – a newly found love affair

The last day of Spring Festival is Lantern Festival. To celebrate this festival, everyone eats tāngyuán (汤圆-roughly translated as ‘soup balls’). I distinctly remember being introduced to these sticky balls many years ago in Australia. Our good Chinese friends kindly brought some over for dessert one evening. But, it was not a good memory. I remember the glutinous texture coating the inside of my mouth, making it difficult to swallow. And when I did swallow, I remember trying to hide the fact that it made me want to retch.

A lot has changed since then. I no longer turn my nose up at ‘red bean’ flavoured goods. Strangely-flavoured icypoles no longer gross me out. And tangyuan is now one of my favourite desserts. I’m not kidding.

The most common flavour is black sesame (黑芝麻 hēizhīma). And it’s super good. Not too sweet and you still have the graininess (??) of the sesame seeds.

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However, of course, someone made non-traditional chocolate ones. And man, they are sooooooooooo good. These ones had little chunks of peanuts inside. If you’re looking to try tangyuan for the first time, go for these.

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And of course, would it be a trip to a Chinese supermarket without me buying something silly? I ummed and ahhhed between strawberry and orange. I decided strawberry would probably be so super sickly sweet that I wouldn’t eat them, so orange it was. And the result? Glutinous fanta. That’s the only way to describe it.

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They are so simple to cook too. Just throw them in boiling water for a few minutes until they rise to the surface.

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Our local sichuan restaurant serves these boiled in a little bit of booze, and that’s also delish. I’m not sure what they use, but there’s definitely room for experimentation. And I should probably learn to make these too! Though the supermarket is a very easy option.

I was also told recently that there’s another type called yúanxiāo that are made with a special technique that can’t be replicated by hand. I’ll have to try these out next year… has anyone tried them before?

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A mystery vegetable

One thing I soon learnt after coming to China was that there are a myriad of vegetables in this country that just don’t exist in Australia. There are an incredible amount of chinese vegetables that end in -瓜 (gua), which means melon, and in my mind they don’t represent melons at all!!

As the weather has recently started to warm, I’ve revisited my favourite outdoor fruit and vegetable market behind Gongti. It’s only open from the wee hours until about 10am and is secretly hiding behind a big brick wall. The only way you know it is there is from the steady stream of grandmas and grandpas going in and out!

This market has a great range, and is generally dirt cheap – though I’m pretty sure I still end up paying a few laowai prices. There are also great surprises like asparagus, radish sprouts and thai basil, usually not showing their green faces at standard markets around the city.

As a result, there’s often a random fruit or vegetable that’s just dying to sneak into my shopping bag for some investigative cooking!

This week I discovered 榨菜 (zhàcaì). This bolbous, almost-fluorescent green head of a vegetable is difficult to research. I eventually found out that it is most commonly used as a pickled vegetable bought in a jar loaded with chilli. It’s commonly a bar snack, associated with Sichuan province, to be snacked upon whilst sipping on beer. It sounded like this snack was incredibly salty.

But I decided that it must be used fresh somewhere! So, myself and the girls at work starting searching online in chinese and got a little further. We found a recipe for pickling it, though I wasn’t so interested in that. Further home-based research, stretching my chinese skills to the limits, got me a recipe for ‘Stir-fried zhacai and pork strips’. A simple recipe (phew!) and a good place to start. After a bit of dictionary work, I had a simple recipe.

I was a little scared of this bright green monster as everything online consistently said that it was: a) very salty or, b) had a ‘distinct’ flavour, without specifying further. I sampled a fresh piece – similar to a 冬瓜 (donggua) I thought. I sliced it all up and made my stirfry!

And, I really enjoyed it!! The zhacai has a western cabbage-like flavour, but it’s more solid than cabbage, so it has a nice texture to sink your teeth into. The pork cooked perfectly and wasn’t tough at all. The colour of the dish made me smile – it looked so green and fresh! There were no crazy distinct flavours, and it wasn’t salty. It was a subtle dish, and I think it would be a great dish as a part of a chinese banquet with other strong-flavoured dishes. I put a nice dollop of my favourite chilli and peanut paste on top and wolfed it down.

Stir-fried zhacai and pork strips 榨菜炒肉丝

50g sliced zhacai, 50g sliced leek, 10mL cooking wine, 2g salt (I omitted this), 10mL cooking wine, 5g cornflour

1. Mix the cornflour with some water and add the sliced pork. Sit for a few minutes.

2. Put some oil in a wok and heat it on high until quite hot.

3. Add the pork, stir-frying continously.

4. When the outside looks mostly cooked, add the cooking wine. Keep stirring.

5. Add the zhacai and leek. Keep stirring.

6. When the pork is cooked through, serve!

I would recommend chilli paste if you’re eating this on its own. I imagine that some fresh dill or coriander would also make a great garnish.

**Update** I bought this dish from our local take-away place to do a comparison. They used the pickled variety in their dish. It was good, but I think I prefer fresh. Having a whole plate of something pickled is pretty intense on the stomach. Their pork strips were a little prettier though. The greenery is a little bit of garlic chive.