Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐

With the exception of the most amazing Peking Duck I’ve ever eaten, I was disappointed to discover that Chinese food in China is a rather dull affair. Roasted locust and the occasional snake-on-a-stick not withstanding, bland soups and mediocore dumplings seem to be the order of the day on the streets of Beijing.

After spending the best part of a week eating possibly the dullest Asian food on earth, we chanced upon a massive subterranean food-court that specialized in regional food from all over China. It was here, in this overcrowded and windowless basement, that we finally discovered some of that allusive “Chinese flavour” in China – we had found Sichuanese food or more specifically, mapo tofu! Little did I know that I stumbled upon what would possible become one of my favourite Chinese dishes of all time.

Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐

Loosely translating to “grandmother’s pockmarked tofu”, this colorfully named dish has all the hallmarks of a true Sichuanese classic. Spicy, stastifiying and, above all, “numbing”, mapo tofu has got it all! Packed full of flavour, it is a great dish to introduce the uninitiated to the unsung delights of tofu. The soft, silky texture of the tofu plays beautifully against the fiery sauce, resulting in a “cooling” contrast to the intensity of the dish.

Easy to make and always tasty, mapo tofu is the epitome of Chinese home-style cooking and makes for fantastic meal on its own with just some rice. Equally, though, mapo tofu makes a great addition to a larger Chinese banquet as it can be made ahead of time and then gently reheated before serving (something of a rarity in Chinese cooking).

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Vietnamese Braised Pork in Coconut Water (Thịt Kho Tàu)

Thịt Kho Tàu (Braised Pork in Coconut Water)This venerable Vietnamese classic is traditionally made to celebrate Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, but is popular all year round. Packed full of flavour, this sweet and tender braise of pork is simmered in coconut water and is a firm favourite throughout Việt Nam, especially in the South.

The first time I encountered this dish was in a restaurant in Hồ Chí Minh City. My uncle, who was working in Việt Nam at the time, took us out for a lavish Vietnamese dinner and this dish was the undisputed star of the meal. After simmering away for hours in its delicious coconut broth, the pork was achingly tender and sweet, but the real revelation was the generous layer of fat. Soft and rich, yet surprisingly light on the tongue – the fat had been transformed into the true master-stroke of the entire dish. This was pork fat in all its gelatinous glory!

Whilst I’ve always made this dish with pork belly, in truth you can actually use any number of cuts of pork, as long as the meat isn’t too lean. Personally, though, I prefer sticking with pork belly for this dish as it doesn’t dry out from the extended cooking time and the fat imparts a wonderful flavour into the broth.

Traditionally eaten with rice and often accompanied with a simple daikon & carrot pickle (Đồ Chua), I also love to pair this dish with some water spinach stir-fried with garlic.

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Pork, Fennel and Butter Bean Stew

Pork, Fennel & Butter Bean StewI have always been a fan of one-pot wonders and this has to be one of my all-time favourites!

Not to be confused with the classic, tomato-based, Spanish stew of Pork, Chorizo & Butter Beans, this wonderful piquant braise is, however, equally delicious! Whilst not strictly Spanish, this humble stew has all the hallmarks of Iberian cuisine; uncomplicated, but packed full of flavour. I must however confess that I don’t usually enjoy dishes that are overtly lemony, but this stew is an exception. The chunks of smoky chorizo adds depth to the zesty broth which, in turn, balances the richness of the pork shoulder. All great meals are about balance, and this stew walks that tightrope brilliantly!

Traditional accompaniments aside, this dish goes very well with just about anything and whilst some fresh tagliatelle or simple mash would be awesome, I personally love it with just some crusty bread. What better way to mop up the delicious sauce? Add a simple rocket/arugula salad, pour yourself a glass of chilled white wine and you have true Mediterranean bliss on a plate. Phenomenal.

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Shogayaki 生姜焼き (Ginger Pork)

This was one of the very first Japanese meals I learnt to make and it is still one of my favourites!

Shogayaki 生姜焼き (Ginger Pork)In fact, I make shogayaki so often it has arguably become my “signature” Japanese dish! I simply love the bite of the ginger, which plays perfectly against the sweet and salty meat. Combined with the crisp contrast of the shredded cabbage and the creamy mayonnaise, this dish will have you hooked with the very first bite!

Along with the obligatory shredded cabbage and mayonnaise, I like to serve shogayaki with rice, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette) and ingen no goma-ae (green beans with sesame sauce). Add some miso soup, throw in a couple of pickles and you’ll have yourself a full blown Japanese feast!

Umami indeed.

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Katsudon カツ丼 (Crumbed Cutlet Donburi)

Forming part of the donburi style of Japanese cooking, katsudon is eaten all over Japan and is one of the classic donburi toppings.

Literally meaning “bowl of rice” in Japanese, donburi (rather unsurprisingly) consists of rice with a topping. Some of the most popular toppings are simmered in a mixture of dashi, mirin and soya sauce (such as katsudon, oyakodon and gyūdon), but this type of topping is by no means the definitive variation. Other toppings include grilled eel (unadon) and others, like tuna, are served raw (negitorodon). It seems there is really only one rule in donburi and that’s: rice, in a bowl.

There is absolutely nothing refined about katsudon, and that’s why I love it! Simmered in a sweet dashi broth and then topped off with egg, this is Japanese comfort food at its best.

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Steamed Pork Ribs with Black Beans 豉汁蒸排骨

An omnipresent dim sum classic, Steamed Pork Ribs with Black Beans is surprisingly easy enough recreate at home. Whether served with other dim sum, or as part of a larger Chinese meal, this dish is always a crowd pleaser!

Sourcing the right kind of pork rib is essential when making this dish, you want to buy ribs that have plenty of meat on the bone and you don’t want them larger than 3cm (the ribs should be small enough so that they’re chopstick-friendly). Cutting through rib bones at home is always a nightmare, so I would ask your butcher to cut them to size for you.

There are a couple of elements in this dish that come down to personal preference. Firstly, the amount of chilli added. Whilst this always comes down to your own personal tolerance, but even if you don’t have a Teflon gullet like me, a subtle hint of chilli is an absolute must for this dish. Secondly, the consistency of the sauce. My recipe calls for the sauce to be thicken with cornflour however, it is not uncommon for this ingredient to be omitted, resulting in a lighter sauce. I prefer a thicker sauce as it binds to the ribs, giving each bite an extra punch of flavour, but it’s entirely up to you.

Whilst this recipe makes enough for two people (eating it as part of a larger meal), it would probably stretch to feed another – if not for the fact that they are simply irresistible! I must confess that I cannot help but scoff down my “chef’s share” before it leaves the kitchen! So if you are weak-willed like me, please consider your own susceptibility to temptation when making this dish. Otherwise, your guests may go home hungry.

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Twice-Cooked Pork 回鍋肉

Twice-Cooked Pork 回鍋肉A true classic, Twice-Cooked Pork is everything you’d expect from Sichuanese cuisine: fragrant, spicy and utterly moreish! Served as part of a banquet or with just some plain rice and a fried egg, this is simple Chinese cooking at its best.

Pre-cooking the pork may initially seem like a bit of a faf, but don’t let this put you off. It’s definitely worth the effort, as the resulting pork is meltingly tender! Once the pork has been cooked and cooled, the dish takes mere minutes to put together – from wok to mouth in a matter of minutes!

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Tonkatsu トンカツ (Crumbed Pork Cutlet)

Tonkatsu トンカツ (Crumbed Pork Cutlet)It may surprise many to learn that not all Japanese food is healthy and Tonkatsu is a case in point. What is effectively a crumbed, deep-fried pork cutlet, tonkatsu is actually one of Japan’s favourite dishes.

A hallmark of youshoku cuisine (Japanese-style Western cuisine), tonkatsu is a very Japanese take on a Western schnitzel. In fact, other than the use of panko breadcrumbs, there is very little difference between the two! However, what really sets tonkatsu apart from its Western counterpart is how it is served. There are 3 traditional ways to enjoy tonkatsu (although there are, of course, other ways too). It can be served with just rice, shredded cabbage, mustard and tonkatsu sauce, it can be added to Japanese Curry Sauce to make katsu-karē or it can be used as a donburi topping called Katsudon. My personal favourite, katsudon is the epitome of Japanese comfort food, but no matter how you choose to eat it, tonkatsu is always delicious!

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Dan-Dan Noodles 担担面

Dan-Dan Noodles 担担面Dan-Dan Noodles are a specialty of Sichuan cuisine and as a result they are not short on spice or flavour. Enjoyed all over China, there are perhaps a thousand versions of these classic noodles but they all have one of thing in common – they’re all ferociously fiery! Lip-numbing and sinus-clearing; these noodles are completely addictive!

Also known as dandanmian, “DanDan” refers to the shoulder-mounted pole that the street vendors would traditionally use to carry their wares; at one end would be the noodles and at the other, the sauce. In the literal sense, the name translates as “noodles carried on a pole”!

Traditionally minced pork is the protein of choice, but if you wanted to, you could always use minced chicken thighs instead. If you wanted to have a completely halal version you could also omit the Shaoxing rice wine.

One of the other main ingredients is chilli oil and whilst you can use one that is store-bought, I would strongly recommend taking the time to make your own – it isn’t at all difficult and it makes a world of difference! Once you’ve tasted the noodles made with your homemade chilli oil you’ll never bother with the store-bought version again. If you would like to make your own Sichuan chilli oil, follow the link.

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Thai Candied Pork (Moo Wan), Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam) & Coconut Rice

There are some dishes that are just meant to be eaten together, their combined flavours amounting to something akin to culinary kismet – this is such a meal. Eaten on its own Moo Wan is almost unpalatably sweet, but when served with som tam (green papaya salad) the results are nothing short of stellar! Add coconut rice to the mix and you simply have heaven-on-a-plate.

imageAs with so many Thai classics, the key to the success of the overall meal is the balance each individual element strikes when combined. The sweet moo wan counters the tang of the salad, the coconut rice envelopes the fierce chilli kick of the som tam, whilst the salad adds texture and bite; every element has its own role to play in creating the perfect balance, resulting in an almost perfect Thai meal.

Whilst the idea of making the three separate dishes for this meal may seem daunting, the truth is that individually they are actually pretty easy. The trick to preparing multiple dishes for any Asian meal is preparation and timing. The moo wan will keep in the fridge for a good few days, so I would make this in advance if possible. You should start cooking the coconut rice at least 40 to 50 minutes before serving, as it will benefit from being allowed to stand for half an hour after cooking. The som tam must be prepared just before serving, so I recommend prepping your ingredients in advance. However, the papaya should only be shredded just before using. To find out how to make som tam (green papaya salad), please click here to find the recipe.

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