As we usher in the New Chinese Year today, let’s eat fish! Not only is fish a fine food to eat on Friday (especially if you’re Catholic) but if you’re speaking Mandarin, fish (鱼 yu) symbolizes prosperity, because yu is a homonym for surplus.
Steaming is a healthy and delicious way to cook fish creating a sumptuous sauce to spoon over rice. Moreover, steam heat is gentle yet fast. Cooking is done in 8-10 minutes. Once your fillets pass the flake-test, you can leave your fish covered in the steamer and it will stay warm while you set the table or finish stir-frying some Chinese greens like bok choy or gai lan.
It was the Insulation Guy who got me started on the Spot Prawns. He’d just removed his gloves to down a glass of water and was looking around my kitchen, sniffing out my latest exploit, staring at rows of hot and boiled jam jars clicking shut in BerNARdin burps.
“You like to cook?” he asked.
“Lucky living here, then! All the blackberries you could eat in a lifetime. I’ve got a secret spot where there’s so many I can fill the back of my pickup truck in an hour.”
Classic. Every foodie forager on Vancouver Island seems to have a fabulous tale like this. Insulation guy had barely taken a breath before he started in with more.
“And the Spot Prawns… well geesh, they do a huge run, right over there,” he said, pointing out my kitchen window. “Near Salt Spring. We haul out hundreds during the season.”
“How?” I asked.
“We drop traps and pull ‘em up!”
He licked his lips and rubbed his hands together, savouring the thought.
“It’s like manna from the heavens.”
I didn’t see Insulation Guy again but kept thinking about those prawns. Yes, I braved thorns as big as nails and picked buckets full of blackberries, but we had neither boat nor trap to pull any semblance of seafood from the ocean.
Then our friend Dan motored into the Ladysmith marina wearing his trademark grin and aviation sunglasses. We were off to spend a night at their cottage on DeCourcy, a nearby gulf island where everyone has a generator and a heart-stopping view of the surrounding mountains.
“The tide is low,” yells Dan over the boat’s motor. “So, we’ll just wave at Annabelle and the kids as we pass by the cottage then park the boat around the back.”
Low and high tides, undercurrents and water depths are the common language of any BC boater and Dan loves every drop. Whenever he’s behind the wheel, he’s smiling ear to ear. No matter if the boat thunks and crashes against oncoming surf or the wind slaps like an ice-cold face cloth, he’s blissed.
“My friend John lives over there,” he shouts, pointing to a rocky outcrop barely larger than a hockey rink.
“And this place? Bill built this. Incredible, isn’t it? And all by himself!”
I can barely see the outline of a structure. We are whipping by another stony outcropping. Rocks. Trees. Water. Land of the adventuresome. Dan is a great guide knowing every nook and cranny, not to mention all the locals and their stories. But it’s lost on me. The boat’s motor is loud, and wind is whistling through my ears, until I catch a fragment.
“You pull what?” I ask.
“We pull our prawns right over there. We’re having them for supper!”
I’d heard tell of Spot Prawns in Toronto, decades back, when trendy chefs first jumped on this wild, BC treasure. Once or twice I’d seen them dancing inside live tanks in Chinatown, looking more like insects than fish. But it was on Dan’s boat where I learned the little critters walked into baited traps plunged at least 200 feet below, the rope’s end marked in the choppy waters by a bright buoy.
One hot summer day we went with Dan’s family for an exciting “pull” as son Hogan tugged the cage trap out of the water, grabbing the rope hand over hand, predicting (or boasting) a good haul of “at least 60”.
Hogan guessed it right but took no interest in the gruesome act that followed: On-site head removal. His nine-year-old sister Naomi was a seasoned pro, twisting them off briskly with each snap of her wrist, tossing dislocated craniums into the sea over her right shoulder as her left hand dropped still squirming, headless prawns into a pail of sea water at her feet.
Dinner was an intoxicating feast of lime and cilantro marinated shell-on prawns, flash-fried for two or three minutes until perfect pink by chef Annabelle in the kitchen her father had designed, every wall another floor-to-ceiling window overlooking DeCourcy’s rocky coast and glistening sea below.
Once Insulation Guy and Dan’s prawn pull had whetted our addiction, David and I began to search for more sources. We went on a road trip to French Creek Seafood Ltd and gasped at the price of their retail prawns, double the easy $20 cash asked by the First Nations fisherman with a freezer chest in the parking lot. Closer to home, we scoured the commercial fishing docks at Cowichan Bay and came upon a boisterous, beer drinking bunch just finishing a day’s work.
They had nothing to sell, yet were full of empty promises, “Tomorrow. Same time!”
(Nada. We were dumb enough to return.)
Prawn-duped time after time, David and I finally met our culinary saviour. Bugs.
I won’t tell you his first or last name or where he pulls them… or how. After four, newbie years on V.I., we have come to learn some of the island’s food codes. We abide faithfully, if we want to stay sated.
Once in a while Bugs’ unidentified wife hands me a parcel the size of a basketball, tightly taped in a sheet of foamy PVC then she winks. These prawns are headless and packed in solid ice, all curly and brown-pink. They take a few hours to thaw in my sink, surrounded by water in a silver bowl.
It’s an easy shelling endeavour when both David and Krystal dig in to help. I suggest leaving tails on but am quickly out voted. The shells are surprisingly prickly, a reminder of their wildness, like blackberries. Each have bright white spots on the first and fifth abdominal segments, according to BCprawns.ca and a translucent red-orange carapace with white stripes on the thorax. And this fun-fact: Every spot prawn starts life as a male and transitions to female in its fourth year- a piece of trivia worth dropping among LGBTQ circles these days.
Spot Prawns have 10 pairs of legs, five for swimming and the rest for walking, all of which come in handy when escaping an octopus, one of their biggest predators. Human predators, whether it be recreational harvesters like Bugs or eager eaters like me can eat prawns raw or cooked. Many prawn aficionados insist on cooking in the shell to enjoy a moist and juicy feast. There are dozens of ways to prepare this delicacy but we all agree on one vital standard: the shorter the cooking time, the better.
Which leads me to stir-fries and the wisdom of Cantonese cuisine when it comes to seafood. Think freshly grated ginger, cooking wine, a little garlic and fermented black beans. These babies have a salty bite and depth of flavour that magically enhances each sweet Spot Prawn mouthful. Luckily, Lee Kum Kee in Hong Kong bottles black bean and garlic sauce and it’s easily sourced in most supermarkets. But user beware. Fermented black beans from a bottled garlic sauce or in dried form can overwhelm. Start small. You can always add more afterwards when tasting for seasoning.
Oh, and another thing — Never ever divulge more than the code name of your Spot Prawn supplier on your blog unless you really want to express deep gratitude to Bugs, in a local Vancouver Island kind of way.
The trick to a great stir-fry is to cook the protein and vegetables separately, combining both at the finale with lots of built-in sauce. BC Spot Prawns or shrimp are juicy and firm when quickly flash-cooked but toughen and dry out with every crucial minute of over-cooking. Serve this over steamed rice or rice noodles. It also works as an Asian baozi filling. Serves 4.
3 sweet bell peppers, green, yellow, red, tri-colour, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 tbsp neutral oil
2 lbs Spot Prawns or shrimp, shelled
3 garlic, finely grated or pressed
1 inch pc fresh ginger, finely grated
2 spring onions, cut into 2-inch chunks
1/4 cup sherry
1 tbsp black bean and garlic sauce OR ¼ cup fermented dried beans
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 cup stock or water
¼ cup chopped fresh coriander
Heat oil in a large wok over high heat, add onions and peppers and stir-fry at high for 3-5 min or until seared and tender. Transfer to a plate and reserve.
Using the same wok over high heat add oil, garlic and ginger. Stir fry for 30-60 seconds, add spot prawns, cooking until just done. Use spatula to create a well in the wok, add sherry, black beans or sauce, soy and stock or water. Stir 30 seconds, incorporate spot prawns and reserved vegetables.
Serve immediately, garnished with chopped coriander.
It was a cold, rainy day at the Duncan Farmers’ Market but luckily, no lineup at Yesteryear Meats. I waited hopefully as the owner riffled through all of his four freezers searching for my request.
“Here it is,” he said, passing me a two pound chunk of Berkshire pork belly. “All that fat is good for you, full of CLAs” he said in his gruff, Aussie accent. “But not everyone appreciates it.”
He kept staring at me, looking long and hard, trying to cess out my pork-belly-loving-nature, before he passed the treasure to my outstretched hands.
“What will you do with it?”
“I’ll cook it real slow, Chinese-style,” I replied. “I’ll braise it so that the fat stays in big fat, snowy chunks.”
I knew by the way he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes he hadn’t tasted this before.
But I had.
In China – pork belly capital of the world – they kowtow to pork fat and praise its culinary worth. They’re simply astounded that so many Western diners carve away fat and push it to the side of their plates. My uncle, Hsiung Shu Shu adored the stuff and was faster with his kuaizi (chopsticks) than myself or Auntie Di. He’d spear the largest, fattiest morsel and wail “Ai yo!” before the pork met his mouth, his eyes rolling in ecstasy.
Standing in the misty rain at the outdoor market, I held my two-pound frozen parcel close to my chest, regretting that I hadn’t spent more time in Auntie Di’s Yong He kitchen decades ago. I could see her smiling and braising her pork belly long and slow in a covered clay pot, nestled inside a bamboo steamer basket. She’d calibrate a braising liquid of soy, stock, ginger, star anise and Shaoxing wine… but how many tablespoons, how many cups, I never bothered to learn the specifics.
My aunt made everything, except bao. All the steamed buns we ate came out of a cart pushed through the Yong He alleyways by an old woman who wailed out “maaaaaaaaaaaaaan tou!” plying her yeasty morsels day and night. Besides, Taipei in the 80s didn’t serve pork belly in a bun, the way David Chang at Momofuku has made famous.
Instead, Auntie Di would bring the clay pot to the table, along with four or five other dishes and politely say to our little family of three, “Mei you cai” which literally means “There’s no food”.
Ironic and understated, that was the cultural norm. Auntie Di spent most of every day cooking and preparing a generous buffet of foods for Hsiung Shu Shu and me to feast on.
Oh, how I wish I’d just stood there in her kitchen, observing and learning by osmosis. I have never mastered the cleaver like she who sliced a myriad different shapes, chopping ceaselessly upon a six-inch thick board, cut from a tree trunk. Why hadn’t I watched her prepare the wok, heat the bamboo steamers, clean the fish or stir up the scallion pancake batter?
Now, almost 40 years later, I must rely on the hundreds of taste memories stored in my palate to retrieve and recreate this braise. I know this belly is 90 per cent fat and needs to be browned at high heat to create a beckoning, caramelized surface. After that, my instinct is to allow the simple passage of time and slow, low-heat cooking. Many classic Chinese braising sauces are too heavy-handed with soy, so I add only enough. I snap a cinnamon bark in half, toss in little stars of anise, pour over the golden elixir that is homemade chicken stock. Instead of a clay pot and steamer, I turn to my enamelled cast iron Cuisinart and a 275 F oven. Just before I cover it, I press down a big sheet of parchment paper over the surface to prevent evaporation. Every single drop of this unctuous braise is precious.
I won’t serve it with rice or bring it to the table and pronounce I have nothing to show. My husband David is already salivating in the kitchen, lurking over the turquoise Cuisinart, offering to pull the belly’s buttery strands apart. While he prepares the meat, I take off the steamer’s lid and a cloud of sweet steam kisses my face. I can’t stop smiling at these fluffy white buns which open up easily without complaint, ready to receive snowy chunks of fat and tender juicy pork.
At the table, we dig in, our lips and cheeks smattered with the salty-sweet hoisin slipped around the meat, slipped around the spongy bun. Chef Chang will be proud of me. I have recreated his pork belly bao all the while remembering the premier Chinese chef in my life: Auntie Di.
The most difficult part about this recipe is sourcing some quality pork – I recommend Berkshire pork raised naturally so that you are dining on healthy, fine fat.
2 tbsp organic canola oil
2 lbs pork belly
4 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Shaoxing wine or cooking Sherry
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 stick cinnamon, broken in half
2 whole star anise
3 garlic cloves, smashed
2 green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths
2 dried red chillies, chopped
1 tsp ground Sichuan peppercorn
Preheat oven to 275 F. Heat oil at medium-high in enamelled cast iron pot and brown pork belly on all sides. Add stock, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, garlic, green onion, chillies and Sichuan peppercorn. Bring to a boil. Cover with parchment paper and lid and place in the middle of the oven. Cook for 2 hours or until meltingly tender.
To serve on steamed bao, place a chunk or shredded mound of pork belly inside, drizzle with hoisin sauce and garnish with freshly chopped coriander and peanuts.
This is a simple dough that’s easy to make. You’ll be thrilled with the sight of these soft and fluffy bao once they are steamed. (T&T or any large Asian supermarket will have plenty in the frozen section if you aren’t up for the task.)
1 tsp instant yeast
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 cup warm water
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
In mixing bowl, combine yeast, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, flour and water and mix with dough hook for 3-4 min. Let dough rest at room temperature in the bowl, covered with plastic wrap, for 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.
Turn dough out on to a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 pieces, shaping each into a ball. Roll a ball into a 6 inch x 2 inch piece, baste lightly with oil, lay a chopstick vertically in the middle and gently lift the top of the dough over the bottom, pulling out the chopstick to leave a small tunnel. Arrange on a parchment paper covered baking sheet and cover with a clean tea towel. Repeat with remaining balls. Let dough rest 30 min to double in size.
Cut the parchment paper around each bun and place into a hot, covered steamer for 12 minutes. (Buns can be frozen once cooled and steamed to defrost).
The first time I tasted cumin in Chinese cooking was in Beijing with Ling. It was the year before the Summer Olympics and we were hard at work, travelling from one meal to the next, arduously food reporting for More magazine, analyzing and recording every delectable mouthful that came our way.
The Cumin Find was at lunch. It was a rustic Xi’an-style place, with small wooden tables, rickety seats and glass panes smudged with layers of steam and dirt. We had spent a hungry, stomach-growling hour crisscrossing alleys and laneways searching for this hideaway. Ling kept our search ignited with enticing tales of hand-pulled, perfectly chewy noodles swimming in vast bowls of rich, heavily spiced lamb broth.
A smiling, pudgy cook-owner wearing a white pillbox cap and apron plonked two steaming bowls down before us while yelling something over his shoulder in Shaanxi dialect. Ling and I shared knowing smiles. This place was the real deal.
We dug in, chopsticks on the right, ceramic soup spoon on the left to catch any remnants that fell from our eager lips. Steam clouded Ling’s glasses and I could have sworn I heard her purr after each mouthful. She tried to ignore me, but my questioning was incessant.
“What you talking about?” she blurted out between gulps.
“I want to know what’s in this. I’ve never tasted this spice in Chinese noodles before.”
“Oh” she said. “Ziran”
I heard ziran and figured she had said “Naturally.”
I let her pause and collect her thoughts. She was used to me asking a lot of questions on this trip, especially mid-bite. I waited. Ling continued to revel in the meal… she’d moved on to her roujiamo or Chinese hamburger. She gripped the clay-oven flatbread bun with both hands, inhaling its charcoal overtones. Stuffed with fat, soft morsels of grilled lamb, this Xi’an wheat flatbread bun is famous for soaking up loads of gravy without falling apart. I watched a dribble of lamb juice trickle down Ling’s chin and detected that purr, again.
“What is it?” I asked again.
“I told you,” she said. “Naturally.”
Despite the prospects of a cold lunch. Despite the look of irritation on Ling’s almost-always angelic face, I pressed on, asking her to write down the two characters that were pronounced zi and ran. Patiently, Ling wrote down the zi character on the palm of her left hand with her right index finger, making sure I was watching every stroke as she forged the invisible ink used by Chinese when pantomiming how to write a Chinese character. She wrote ran stroke by stroke evenslower this time, sensing all the ignorance painted in my blank stare.
She stopped her invisible writing and we both groaned. I hadn’t recognized any of the gibberish she had scrawled.
I knew how to write naturally in Chinese but this ziren– this ziren she’d just written on her palm – spelled out a spice that was unnaturally Chinese: cumin.
The Xi’an chef had tossed crushed, whole cumin seeds into a firey wok glistening with oil and loaded with garlic and dried, hot red peppers, elevating our simple bowl of hand-pulled noodles into a culinary epiphany for me. Cumin had seeped into the juicy lamb chunks, too, washing away any untoward mutton-ness and caressing it with a nutty, deeply Middle-Eastern allure.
I was hooked – even if the Chinese pronounced cumin like its homonym naturally.
Ling’s face was flushed. We had shared a tall bottle of Beijing beer to soothe the zing of all the hot dried red peppers flecked throughout the soup. I looked around. It seemed as if everyone in Beijing had apple-red cheeks during this cold, autumn spell. Just the day before, Ling and I had run outside the Temple of Heaven, trying to escape gusting winds that lashed against our skin like ice daggers. Our week in Beijing was to end tomorrow and Ling put down her chopsticks, wiped her chili-oil smudged lips and made a promise for Toronto.
“More ziren,” she smiled. “You love it!”
Eleven years later, I sit in her refitted and renovated kitchen and watch Ling cook in her wheelchair. She zips from one end to the next, pulling small packages of meat from the freezer, scooping Jasmine rice from a lower bin and standing on her one leg to reach for items above the counter. I have brought her a big bag of raw cumin seeds and she rolls her wheelchair before the stovetop range and turns the front burner on high. In minutes, the beige-green seeds in the dry, hot wok turn chocolate brown and the room fills with a smoky, nutty aroma. Deftly, Ling tips the contents of the hot wok on to a plate. With a wooden spoon, I guide the seeds into a coffee grinder.
Some seeds scatter and we say “Ai Ya!” in unison.
I hold the top of the grinder down firmly as the machine whirls the seeds into powder. When I lift it off, twirls and wisps of cuminy, smoky clouds twist in the air. Ling and I both poke our noses in the cloud and swoon. Naturally.
Last spring, I enjoyed many cooking sessions with Ling and her fine cook, Lina who hails from Hunan Province where they eat as many – if not more – hot chillies than they do in Sichuan. Whenever Ling purchases flank steak, she slices it up into small packages for the freezer. During the prep for a dish, Ling lets the meat defrost slightly until it’s easy to slice up sliver-thin, toss into a bowl and marinate for at least 10 min.
150 g/5.2 oz frozen flank steak
2 tsp corn starch
1 tbsp sherry/Shaoxing wine
1 tbsp light tamari
2 tsp roasted ground cumin
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 oblong shallots, thinly sliced
3 bell peppers (red, yellow and orange) thinly sliced
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp oil
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
3 garlic, chopped
½ tsp Ling’s fresh chili paste (see below)
1-2 tsp chili oil
1 tbsp Shao Xing Wine
Green onions, chopped
Slice defrosted flank steak as thinly as possible. Put in a bowl and marinate with corn starch, wine, tamari and cumin (while you chop the veggies or put on some steamed rice).
Heat wok on high, add oil and stir-fry shallot and bell peppers with a pinch of salt until tender (about 3 min). Transfer to a plate and reserve.
Without cleaning the wok, add another tablespoon oil, put beef into the wok and pat it down flat to the surface to sear for 1 minute without stirring. Once it is white around the edges, stir it until no longer red. Add stir-fried onions and bell peppers, fresh chili paste, chili oil and wine. Splash in some water if you want it saucier. Garnish with finely chopped green onions.
Ling’s Salted Red Chili Peppers
Thinly slice 20 fresh hot red peppers. Place about a third in a small glass bowl or mason jar, sprinkle heavily with salt, layer with another third, salt, and add the final layer, the salt. Add a few drops vodka. Mix with chopsticks and refrigerate. Beware, this is HOT.
My go-to marinade for pork or chicken is Asian-style. That means soy sauce, cooking sherry and lots of shredded ginger and garlic: four essential items I like to have in my kitchen despite ginger’s proclivity to go into hiding. That spicy root likes to sneak behind a box of cereal or get buried in my crisper thus a couple of chopped green onions often must substitute. Add a little sesame oil, sambal oelek and sugar and this marinade transforms into a rich teriyaki sauce that is soaked up by the meat and translates into something caramelized and super-moist on the barbecue.
Chicken thighs are a perfect place to begin. I’m talking bone-in, skin-on to ensure real flavour. Forget those fat and expensive chicken breasts that often taste no better than the Styrofoam they are packaged on. We want dark, flavour-filled meat and you’ll find that with the thighs.
Barbecuing chicken with the skin-on may create flare-ups if cooked on direct heat. But any BBQ-pro knows to use indirect heat, heating the two outer grills on high and leaving the middle grill off. According to my in-house BBQ specialist, you need to pre-heat the outer grills for 5- 10 min (lid closed) then lay on the thighs, skin side up, along the centre grill. Wait a couple of minutes, turn them over, basting with the remaining marinade. A long cooking time, lid closed, with constant turning and basting are the keys to success, says my BBQ king.
Dark juicy meat calls for 30-40 min depending on the size of the thighs and heat of your grill. Be sure to test one thigh before serving, making sure the juices run clear and the meat is well cooked, especially near the bone. You aren’t apt to overcook or dry out an Asian marinated chicken thigh but you might be tempted to say the cooking is over before it is. Give these babies the time they need and know that they can rest covered with aluminum foil for up to 10 minutes before serving, too.
Chances are you’ll be drinking some beer or wine while you cook and perhaps entertaining. Despite all that partying, promise me you’ll keep food safety first and remember that barbecuing is the number one cause of a dreadful affair called cross-contamination.
Remember that dish you carried the raw meat or poultry out to the barbecue in? Send it (and its raw juices/contamination) right back to the kitchen once your marinated meat is cooking. Use a new, clean platter to receive your cooked goods and alas, you will cross over into a land free of food poisoning and full of Asian barbecue flavour.
I like to serve Asian bbqed chicken with hot, steaming Jasmine rice, stir-fried Shanghai bok choy and/or a quick cucumber salad. This meal is quintessential summer food, in my books.
While sambal oelek (or any Asian-style chilli paste such as Lee Kum Kee’s chilli and garlic sauce) is essential to this marinade, it does not produce a spicy chicken thigh. Trust me.
½ cup cooking sherry
¼ cup soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp sambal oelek
1 inch knob ginger, grated
2 garlic cloves, pressed or grated
8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
In a bowl, combine cooking sherry, soy, sesame oil, sugar, sambal oelek, ginger and garlic. Pour over chicken thighs (I like to marinate in a glass casserole with thighs in a single layer). Marinate for at least 30 min and up to overnight, in the fridge.
Barbecue thighs on indirect heat (as described above) for 30-40 minutes or until juices run clear and meat is thoroughly cooked.
Most Asian markets carry this green leaf, green stem bok choy (about 8 inches long).
2 tbsp canola oil
1-inch knob ginger, grated
1 large bunch Shanghai bok choy, stems and leaves separated, washed thoroughly and chopped
½ tsp salt
Heat a wok on high. Add oil and swirl around the sides of the work. Add ginger and stir rapidly for 10 seconds, add bok choy stems, stir 2 minutes. Add leaves, salt and ¼ cup water and cover with lid. Leave to steam/cook until leaves are wilted and stems are tender. Serve.