Friday, 25 June 2010

Chinese Fruits – The Kiwi Fruit

I hadn't realised that Kiwi Fruits originally came from China! It was once known as the Chinese Gooseberry and is native to the Yangtze River valley of northern China and Zhejiang Province on the coast of eastern China. The Chinese name, Yang Tao, means "strawberry peach", and was declared as the "National Fruit" of the People's Republic of China.
It was cultivated on a small scale in China at least 300 years ago, but still today most of the 1,000-ton crop is derived from wild vines and the plants may be seen climbing tall trees or sprawling over low scrub or rocks.

Specimens of the plant were collected by the agent for the Royal Horticultural Society, London, in 1847 and described from his dried material, In 1900, seeds gathered in Hupeh were sent to England by E.H. Wilson. The resulting plants flourished and bloomed in 1909. When both male and female vines were planted together, fruits were produced but usually only solitary vines were grown as ornamentals.

Seeds from China were introduced by missionaries into New Zealand in 1906 and some vines bore fruits in 1910.
Early nurserymen in New Zealand recognized the potential of the fruit and it soon became a popular backyard vine. It acquired the name Kiwi Fruit from the Kiwi — a brown flightless bird and New Zealand's national symbol, and also a colloquial name for the New Zealand people.

By 1940 there were many plantings, especially on the eastern coast of the North Island. The fruits were being marketed and were very popular with American servicemen stationed in New Zealand during World War II, Commercial exporting was launched in 1953, the fruits going mainly to Japan, North America and Europe, with small quantities to Australia, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia.
In addition to New Zealand and California, Kiwi Fruit is also grown commercially in such areas as Italy, South Africa and Chile. Dordogne, Rhone and Loire rivers–totalling about 123 acres (50 ha). The fruit is also grown in California, Italy, South Africa and Chile.

It is even grown in France where interest in the Kiwi Fruit has been stimulated by the low returns from apple-growing. By 1971, there were small plantings scattered around south western and south eastern areas of the country–valleys of the Garonne, Dordogne, Rhone and Loire rivers.

If you haven't had one before Kiwi fruit consists of a hairy, brown peel containing green flesh, with white pulp in the centre, surrounded by black, edible seeds. The fruit has a sweet taste, similar to a mixture of banana, pineapple and strawberry.

It is also used to make wine – in China it was used as early as the Han Dynasty. There are also Kiwi Fruit Liqueurs and sparkling wines now on the market. Kiwi Fruit is also a natural meat tenderizer and cooks have therefore utilised it in savoury as well as sweet recipes.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Chinese fruits – Loquats

The Loquat is a member of the same family as apples, pears, and quinces and it's homeland is southern China, where it's called pipa, after the lute, whose shape it resembles. Loquats grow in clusters and are oval or pear shaped with a yellowy orange skin similar in colour to an apricot. The juicy, crisp flesh has a delicate, sweetly tart cherry and pear like flavour. They contain up to 3 seeds that must not be eaten, as similar to apple pips, they contain cyanide.

Also like apples they have a high pectin content and are great for making jam, jelly and chutney. More often Loquats are eaten as a fresh fruit and are sometimes used to make wine. The Loquat's fragile freshness only lasts about ten hours which is the reason why it is a difficult fruit to distribute in the marketplace and why Loquats are rarely available in supermarkets.

Loquats have an alluring perfume and in traditional Chinese lore, the fruit and its blossoms are linked with courtesans. In the 1950's, the flowers attracted the interest of the perfume industry in France and Spain and some experimental work was done in extraction of the essential oil from the flowers or leaves. The product was appealing but the yield was very small. Loquat syrup is used in Chinese medicine for soothing a sore throat. The leaves, combined with other ingredients, it acts as a demulcent and an expectorant, as well as to soothe the digestive and respiratory systems.

The Loquat is steeped in ancient Chinese mythology. For many years only the Chinese royalty was allowed to eat the fruit and it was thought that Loquat fruit falling into the rivers gave the koi, or carp, the strength to swim against currents and up waterfalls and be turned into mythical dragons.

The Western world first learned of Loquats from the botanist Kaempfer in 1690. It was planted in the National Gardens, Paris, in 1784 and plants were taken from Canton, China, to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England, in 1787. Soon, the tree was grown on the Riviera and in Malta and French North Africa (Algeria) and the Near East and fruits were appearing on local markets. In 1818, excellent fruits were being produced in hothouses in England. The tree can be grown outdoors in the warmest locations of southern England.

In the New World, it is cultivated from northern South America, Central America and Mexico to California: also, since 1867, in southern Florida and northward to the Carolinas, though it does not fruit north of Jacksonville. It was quite common as a small-fruited ornamental in California gardens in the late 1870's. They are sometimes known in the States as the Japanese or Chinese Plum.

There is a super recipe for Turkish Loquat Kebab at the Sarasota Soundings Blog by Holly and Skip – both are accomplished authors. Skip Lombardi is a professional jazz musician and cookery author: La Cucina dei Poveri, Recipes from My Sicilian Grandparents. He also writes about contemporary Italian and American cooking and food-related issues. Holly Chase writes and lectures on the arts and cuisines of the Muslim world and has worked in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, and Europe. She organizes yacht charters and specialized tours of Turkey at Holly Chase Middle Eastern Travel. Their blog sites are well worth discovering and have some wonderful recipes.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Chinese Fruits – Lychee

I love the fragrance of lychees but I must admit that I find their texture a little strange, which is odd as it's a bit similar to the inside of a grape and I love grapes! Lychees are a member of the Soapberry family and are native to low elevations of the provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien in southern China, where they flourish along rivers and near the sea coast. Earliest records of Lychees in Chinese literature date from 1059 AD.

The Chinese consider the Lychee a symbol of romance and love. Legend has it that Lychees were the favourite fruit of the Emperor Li Longji's favourite concubine so he ordered a pony express to send the fruit Guangdong to the capital for her. Wild Lychee trees still grow in rainforest in Guangdong province to this day.

Late in the 17th Century, Lychees were carried to Burma and, 100 years later, to India. They arrived in the West Indies in 1775, was being planted in greenhouses in England and France early in the 19th Century, and Europeans took Lychees to the East Indies.

They are the most popular fruit in China and other Asian countries where they are typically eaten for dessert and used in a variety of snacks. Lychees can be used to top meats like ham to add flavour and sweetness. Lychee juice can be frozen to make sherbet and whole lychees can be spooned over ice cream. They bake well and can be incorporated into cakes, breads, and puddings. Lychees can also be dried naturally by the sun or in an oven. The fruit dries down to look and taste like a raisin or date. Dried lychees are often used in China to sweeten tea or as an after-dinner sweet. Lychees may also be pickled, added to a stir-fry or fermented to make Lychee wine.

In China Lychee wine is a full bodied dessert wine which has a golden colour and rich, sweet taste. It is usually served ice cold, either straight up or on the rocks with food. Lychee wine is believed to pair better with shellfish and Asian cuisine than with heavier meat dishes.

I read a while back that a couple in Florida are using wine made at Schnebly Redland’s Winery (www.schneblywinery.com) are embracing Florida's agricultural strengths by making wine from fruits such as carambola and lychee that won't grow in cooler climates. The Schneblys started selling their wine in 2005 to cut the waste from their tropical fruit orchards. They now farm about 100 acres in the Redland area west of Homestead. Their Lychee wine is not a dessert one but is comparable to a Riesling. They gave quite a few interesting wines on offer – including one made from Avocado!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Chinese Fruits – Kumquats and Corfu

Oddly enough if you ever visit the island of Corfu in Greece you will see oddly shaped gleaming bottles of liqueur made from an exotic fruit that hails from China. The liqueur is made from Kumquats which found their way from China into Europe some time in the late 18th century. It has been mostly cultivated in Corfu since 1924 in the valley of Nymfes, near Platonas village, to the north part of Corfu. The fertile soil, abundant water and mild climate are factors that have favored its growth and there are now about 6,000 trees on the whole island.

Kumquats belong to the Fortunella family of plants and look like a small oval orange about the size of an olive. They are native to China and the earliest historical reference appears in Chinese literature in the 12th century.

The genus is named in honor of Robert Fortune (1812-1880) - a Scotsman sent by the British Horticultural Society to collect an assortment of curiosities in China. He became proficient in the Mandarin language and managed to disguise himself as peasant so well that he was able to travel to forbidden places unchallenged. Fortune made four trips to China and one to Japan and smuggled China's highly coveted tea cultivars and growing techniques to the Indian Himalayas, thereby diminishing China's lucrative monopoly. He kept careful journals of his collections and observations and is credited with introducing the art of bonsai to the Western world. He introduced the Kumquat, to England in 1846.

Kumquats are much hardier than oranges and can withstand frost down to about −10°C without injury. They grow in the tea hills of Hunan, China, where the climate is too cold for other citrus fruits. Kumquats are often eaten raw. As the rind is sweet and the juicy centre is sour and salty, the raw fruit is usually consumed either whole—to savour the contrast—or only the rind is eaten.

Culinary uses include candying and kumquat preserves, marmalade, and jelly. Kumquats can also be sliced and added to salads. In recent years Kumquats have gained popularity as a garnish for cocktail beverages, including the martini as a replacement for the more familiar olive. The Cantonese often preserve kumquats in salt or sugar. A batch of the fruit is buried in dry salt inside a glass jar. Over time, all the juice from the fruit is diffused into the salt. The fruit in the jar becomes shrunken, wrinkled, and dark brown in colour, and the salt combines with the juice to become a dark brown brine. A few salted kumquats with a few teaspoons of the brine/juice may be mixed with hot water to make a remedy for sore throats.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Chinese Fruits and Cape Gooseberries

I was reading Susan's Blog Schnitzel and The Trout about their travels through Alsace and the Auvergne and spotted a superb dessert that they had encountered - Ile Flottante (Floating Isle). It contained orange slices, orange sorbet and it was topped with a chocolate cup filled with Grand Marnier. It was also decorated with little orange fruits in the paper thin shells and it reminded me that I have had them occasionally as a garnish with pigeon breasts in restaurants in the UK. They are called Cape Gooseberries (other names for them are Goldenberry, Peruvian Ground Cherry and Poha Berry).

Nick found them in dried form in Hong Kong where they are used in cooking and to make a fruit tea. I was also surprised when I started to read about them as I actually had a rogue plant in our kitchen garden one year! I had no idea what it was but the flowers were so pretty I kept it, however it provided no fruit and died in the winter.

It's Latin name is Physalis peruviana and it grows in Heilongjiang province,North Eastern China. The golden fruits are about the size of a marble and have lots of small yellow seeds inside. Its most notable feature is the single papery pod that covers each berry which makes them look like Chinese Lanterns.

Cape Gooseberries are a member of the plant family Solanaceae and are related to the tomatillo and also the tomato, aubergine, and potato. They have a sweet, tart flavour which is a cross between a ripe gooseberry, strawberry, green grape and pineapple. They have been used by the Chinese for centuries in concoctions for the treatment of a number of ailments, including sore throats, colds, coughing, high fevers, abscesses and eczema.

Having said all this they are not actually native to China at all. They come from high altitude tropical Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru. These plants grow all over the Andes and were fruit of the Incas. In the 18th century, the fruits were perfumed and worn for adornment by native women in Peru. It was being grown in England in 1774 and was cultivated by early settlers at the Cape of Good Hope before 1807 (which is where it gets its name from).

Cape Gooseberries are mainly used in desserts or salads here in the West but they can be included as ingredients in savoury meat dishes like curries. I haven't found a recipe that uses them in a curry yet but I think it is a really good idea – has anyone got any suggestions?

They are also used in liqueurs – although the nearest I could find to this in the UK was Whitley Neill's Gin which focuses on African botanicals ie the fruit of the African Baobab Tree and Cape Gooseberries!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Chinese Dishes – Pigs Cheeks, Rose Liqueur and Char Siu

Whilst in Foshan in China Nick encountered a fantastic meal which had pigs cheeks on the menu. The last I time I cooked with pigs cheeks was to make brawn so I was interested to see what the Chinese do with them. Apparently old English dishes of pig's trotters, ox and pig cheek are making a comeback here in the UK with upmarket stores and restaurants are selling huge quantities of cheaper traditional cuts in a new twist on 'recession chic'.

Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver have led shoppers to think again about using cuts of meat and recipes which were popular in more austere times. While the savings are significant, advocates of the revival of this 1950s approach also argue the food tastes better. Marks & Spencer launched a new range of 'forgotten cuts' last autumn and Waitrose has seen sales of trotters soar since it began offering them over a year ago.

Pig cheeks are are rich in flavour and has a marbling of fat that keeps it moist and makes it fall apart when cooked low and slow. They are often used in sausages in the UK but in Italy pig cheeks are cured like bacon to make Guanciale. They are rubbed with salt, ground black or red pepper and cured for three weeks. Its flavour is stronger than other pork products, such as pancetta, and its texture is more delicate. Guanciale is traditionally used in dishes like pasta all'amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara and is a delicacy of central Italy, particularly Umbria and Lazio.

I have found a Char Siu recipe using pigs cheeks that can be used on a BBQ, which seems a good idea for this time of year. One of the ingredients used is Chinese Rose Wine which is very fragrant and gives the dish a special flavour, although I am not sure “wine” is the correct name for it as it is 54%!

Apparently the Chinese were the first to use the rose in cooking by making preserved rosebuds. Chinese were cooking with flowers thousands of years ago and flowers are important ingredients in the cuisine. However, flower cuisine didn't become popular until the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). It first became popular among the nobility, especially women who used flowers to improve their complexion. It is said that Wu Zetian, the only female Emperor in Chinese history, ordered servants to collect hundreds of flowers, mix them with mashed rice and make them into bai hua gao (hundred-flower cake).

Various flower cuisines were invented, including cakes, soups and dishes. Cookbooks such as "Shan Jia Qing Gong" by Lin Hong in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) gives 15 flower recipes. Apart from adding scent and flavour, some flowers are rich in nutrition, including vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients. Other popular medicinal flowers include osmanthus, chrysanthemum, plum blossom, lotus, hibiscus, lily, jasmine, magnolia, peony, Chinese redbud, evening primrose and Chinese cymbidium (orchid). They can be lightly fried, deep fried, steamed, dressed with sauce and made into soups, congees and snacks.

The Chinese Rose Wine is called Mei Kuei Lu Chiew and is predominantly a cooking wine. It's made from sorghum wine and distilled with rose petals, sugar and salt. It's clear coloured, slightly salty and has a very subtle rose fragrance. There is no way I am going to be able to source it over here but there is an alternative that I could use which is Liqueur de Rose.

Liqueur de Rose is made by Maison Briottet, a family business, founded in 1836. Originally, the family were primarily negociants of Burgundy wine, involved with ageing, blending, bottling and selling the wines. Following the development of the blanc cassis aperitif (white wine with Crème de Cassis), the company focused its activities on producing fruit crèmes, liqueurs, brandies and marcs de Bourgogne.

Pig Cheek Char Siu

1 lb sliced pig cheeks
3 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
2tbsp sesame seed oil

Sauce

2 tbsp maltose
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Chinese Rose Wine
pinch white pepper
3 drops red colouring (optional)
½ tsp five spice
1 tsp sesame seed oil

Add all ingredients in the char siu sauce in a pan, heat and stir until the sauce thickens. Remove from pan and cool.

Marinate the pig cheeks with 2/3rds of the sauce and the chopped garlic overnight. Add 2 tablespoons of sesame seed oil to the remaining char siu sauce. Keep in the fridge.

The next day, heat the oven to 375ºF and roast the char siu for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and thread the char siu pieces on metal skewers and grill them over the barbecue. Baste with the remaining sauce until the char siu are perfectly charred. Slice the char siu into bite-size pieces, drizzle the remaining char siu sauce over and serve immediately with steamed white rice.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Chinese Dishes – Roast Suckling Pig

Whilst Nick was at Vinexpo in Hong Kong one of the dishes that he really enjoyed was Roast Suckling Pig at the East Ocean Seafood Restaurant. Roast Suckling Pig brings up visions of medieval banquets here in the UK and likewise in China it is a speciality for weddings and parties.
It has been a famous dish in China for at least 2,500 years and the pig was one of the first animals domesticated by human beings. Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were domesticated in the Middle East and Mediterranean region between 7000 and 5000 years ago. The old Chinese ideogram for the word ‘home’ is a combination of the ideograms for ‘pig’ and ‘roof’ indicates how far back and how important the roots of Chinese domestication of pigs.

As part of Chinese wedding custom, sucking pig is considered to represent the bride’s purity and the red crackling symbolises good fortune. The suckling pig is 2 - 6 weeks of age and has only fed on its mother's milk. They are roasted on a spit at high temperature in charcoal ovens with a generous rub of five spice powder, red and white vinegar, Chinese rice wine, garlic and maltose (malt sugar).

I thought I would have a go at this at home and have adapted the recipe to use Belly Pork rather than a piglet! Szechuan peppercorns are used in this recipe and if you are unable to source this from a supermarket you could try an Oriental supplier. If you are really stuck then you can use ground black pepper, or chillies, as an alternative but it is difficult to re-create the 'hot and numbing' flavour of this special ingredient.

Despite the name Szechuan peppers are not related to black pepper or to chili peppers. It is a native spice to the province of Szechuan, China and is widely used in the local cuisine where it is known by the name of huajiao, meaning 'flower pepper'. The spice is made from the dried outer casings of the berries of the Chinese Prickly Ash. This pepper is quite aromatic but not very hot. Before Asian cultures were introduced to chilli peppers, Szechuan pepper was used along with ginger to give heat to many dishes.

The local farmers harvest the berries to be sold at the markets at the foot of the mountains. A berry consists of a black seed enclosed by a red casing. To prepare the actual spice used in cooking, the berries are dried; the black seeds, which have a bitter flavour, are removed. The red casings are then heated over a medium heat until smoking but not burnt. This process brings out the tantalisingly spicy flavour of the peppercorns. While these are still hot, they are ground into powder.

Szechuan pepper has slight lemony overtones and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth and it is one of the ingredients in Chinese Five Spice powder. In China spiciness is believed to rid the body of internal dampness and overcome the cold according to the traditional Chinese doctrine. Therefore, with the climate of the Szechuan province being wet and damp overall, while it can be cold where it rises into the surrounding mountain ranges, the peppercorn forms an essential part of Szechuan cuisine.

Chinese Roast Pork

1.5kg belly pork
I tbp Szechuan peppercorns
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tbps sea salt
2 tsp five spice powder
2 tsp caster sugar

Spike the skin all over with a fine skewer, piercing the fat but not going so deep as to pierce the meat. Then pour about 1-2 pints of boiling water over the skin and then dry well.

Heat a heavy-based frying pan over a high heat & add the szechuan and black peppercorns and dry fry until you can smell the aromatics. Tip them into a pestle and mortar and paste until you get a fine powder. Then add to a bowl with the sea salt, five spice powder and sugar.

Turn the pork flesh side up and rub all the flesh with the spice mixture. Set aside somewhere cool for at least 8hrs or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas mark 6. Turn the pork skin side up and place on a rack, resting on top of a roasting tin of water. Roast the pork for 15 mins and then lower the oven temp to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4 and roast for a further 2 hrs, topping up the water in the roasting tin when it starts to get low.

After the 2hrs of roasting increase the oven temp once more to 230ºC/450ºF/gas mark 8 and continue to roast the pork for a further 15 mins, then remove from the oven and serve.